Accidential clericalism

There’s a curious Unitarian Universalist practice where a good number of ministers use the writings of other Unitarian Universalist ministers “as a reading” for the pulpit, elevating to the defacto level of scripture. Much of what follows also applies to the endless references to popular writers and poets I heard used in Unitarian Universalist sermons.

I know the intent is to bring fresh ideas to the pulpit. I can appreciate that, if not adopt the practice. It seems to drastically compress the process by which ideas are tested as being normative for a group. Next, it allows preachers to cherry-pick agreeable ideas, leading to insularity. Last — and perhaps most pressing — it establishes the insider’s view and rewards prestige and power.

A funny conundrum, that. I’ll stick to the Bible.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I hear what you’re saying and understand where you’re coming from. I guess my question would be “What about those UU’s for whom the Bible isn’t (or doesn’t seem) relevant)?”

    What counts as “scripture”?

  2. Thanks for your reply Mr. Riddell. I am very purposefully not answering your “what’s scripture” question because I’m not a stakeholder in a community that uses contemporary material this way. I offer my critique as a cautionary tale, especially to those who take a smug — or at least unexamined — satisfaction in being up to date.

  3. -There is an extra layer to this puzzle. For Christians, the Bible gives us a common reference and story, for our ga-zillion interpretations of what Christianity means. In other words a common root for a diversiyt of branches. Simmilar sacred text dynamics arise for Jews and the Torah; Muslims and the Koran; Taoists and the Tao te Ching; and for Bahais and the Book of Certitude.

    Now many UU communities, on the premise of having a radically open scriptural canon, claim no single sacred text. So there is often no agreed upon common reference for our ga-zillion interpretations. Which in turn often means no shared story (except perhaps the shared denominational story).

    I have found a growing need to avoid use of sacred texts from outside the Judeo-Christian canon. For this Universalist Christian to preach from the Koran would smack of religious imperialism, and conquering the text for non-Islamic religious purposes. Which is intolerance disguised as a desire to learn. But I puzzle over what to do with more secular texts. Many Humanists would argue that secular poetry, the writings of UU ministers, excerpts of novels, etc. are fair game. We are merely exegeting the human condition as communicated by authors and poets. But as a preacher I now see that this gives me tremendous power to dictate the common story for any UU church I might serve.

    That said, I might argue that preaching from time tested Unitarian or Universalist writings should be OK. These things are presumably already in our common story because of shared denominational history. For example, preaching from the writings of Emerson, Theodore Parker, Hosea Ballou, etc. should at least be acceptable. But what about preaching from non-UU’s? Preaching from Robert Frost? Or Maya Angelou? Or Carl Sagan? Which “story” or world-view do I selectively impose on my congregation when I preach? And how did we as a community come to agree that any of these figures should be included? How would we agree that any particular author should not be included?

    This is a tremendous puzzle, and marks out a terrible 3-way intersection between tradition (or lack there-of), the identity of a UU congregation, and the power of a minister.

  4. Ellen Spero, Unitarian Universalist minister in Chelsmford, Mass., has a nice practice of doing two readings, one “ancient reading,” and one “modern reading.” I don’t know how Ellen uses it (I can’t go hear her preach because I work on Sunday mornings), but it sounds almost rabbinic: first the scripture, then a more recent commentary on the scripture, and then preaching your own interpretation of the scripture. I keep meaning to try it….

  5. Hey There!

    Excellent observation Scott! It is very timely, too as the interest in Christian scripture briefly rises amongst UUs during the Advent season…

    At Eliot Church I use two Bible readings every week (one OT and one NT) and a responsive psalm or other scriptural responsive reading about every other week. I preach off these. However, I also include some other text, not as scripture so much but as a way to get folks thinking. I like to think of these readings being in some way in conversation with the primary texts. Some of these readings make sense and others are a bit outrageous.

    I do, at times worry that people give all of these equal wieght but I like to think that at an explicitly Christian church (albeit a very liberal one), people will understand the respective roles of the readings. I have also preached on this subject in the past and will probably link to your post here. I trt to be careful not to “preach from” those other sources. Sometimes they just sit there and other times I reference them as background.

    Once again I find myself agreeing with Derek. The only thing that would would add is that, with a foot firmly placed in the Christian conversation, we also use readings from the broader Christian community. This weeks Readings:Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 (responsively), Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-11 and part of a sermon by Peter Gomes

  6. Do the Gnostic gospels get favored text placement here?

    This post seems a bit fundamentalist to me. I was at the Xmas show at the local mega church. They said this in their faith statement,

    We believe that Scripture in its entirety originated with God, and that it was given through the instrumentality of chosen men. Scripture thus, at one and the same time, speaks with the authority of God and reflects the backgrounds, styles, and vocabularies of the human authors.

    I thought that’s true, but just about everything else originates with God (at least the good things; maybe the evil too) so why close yourself off to the rest of Gods Creation. I’d argue God speaks through Shakespeare for example, so I’d give King Lear favored text treatment too.

  7. No favored placed for the Gnostic texts, unless presumably one is writing here from within a Gnostic church. And I’m not. Which is why Derek makes a reasonable point about elder Unitarian and Universalists narratives, but those are problematic too, unless overt sectarianism is the goal.

    And it isn’t about fundamentalism — it is about what is normative for a community, and the boundaries they presume. These are problems Unitarian Universalists all too often pretend don’t exist.

  8. Bill – The broad Protestant tradition does not always define scripture as originating from God. Scripture is more precisely the canon of sacred texts which a religious comminity accepts as authoritative. many Buddhist traditions have their scripture, but there is no sense that this comes from God. It is scripture because of its understood linkage to authoritative dharma teachers. Additionally, some Protestants (I will include myself on this one) differentiate scripture from the Christian concept of Word of God. I am not alone in understanding that the Christian scripture carries the Word of God, but the Word is not always the same as the literal Word on the page, and God did not write the Bible. Jesus, after all, was the Word made flesh. Fuzzy and mystical, but such is the qualitative reality of the religious quest for meaning and significance.

    Scott – I will ditto Scott about the Gnostic texts (unless one is in a Gnostic church). I avoid using them, except as an occasional sermon foot-note. The traditional Christian canon of scripture is necessary (at the very least) for us to have a common reference point with other Christian traditions. In other words, we need a common text to have a shared conversation.

    All – So what do we do with readings that are from the Apocryhpa? And what about Adam’s suggestion of using the writings of contemporary Christian authors as an out growth and conversation companion of Biblical readings?

  9. Huh. You make a good point. And I confess, I am guilty of this! I don’t know about the necessity of using ancient scriptures (whatever “scripture” might mean for UUs), but you make a good point about cherry-picking and insularity. Now I’ll really have to think twice. *sigh* Okay, thank you.

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