UCC visit recap

“One. . . . two . . . . Hmm . . . Five,” said Hubby. “There are five different typefaces on the cover of this order of service.” He conceded that some were nice. And that the church we visited Sunday was beautiful.

This was his first visit, my fourth I think. We had been looking for a church to attend together — I’ll be writing more about this later — and we’ve lowered our standards. We have two grades for churches: horrible and non-horrible. We’ve not seen much else. Our demands are modest: Christian, accepts us as a couple (rather than “friends”), easy to get to, and on the liturgical side. Or we thought they were modest.

The nearby Reformed/E&R-heritage UCC church was not-horrible, and we’ll be going back. I was touched by their almost insistent hospitality, which came across as more natural and willing than in my last visit. The somewhat difficult to follow service was the liturgy printed in the front of their (old red) hymnal, which were liberally borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer. For those who know the jargon, it was Morning Prayer with Communion. Except that there was a doxological hymn — to some, the doxological hymn, “All People That On Earth Do Dwell” — before the benediction at the end: a good touch, and more true to the response of a redeemed people than the anticlimax I’ve seen at the end of, say, an Episcopalian celebration of the Eucharist. Oh, and we were “debtors.” (Hubby and I prefer to trespass.)

The lessons were neither from the hymnal’s lectionary nor the Revised Common Lectionary, but fit the pastor’s rather touching and appropriately self-disclosing sermon. (The theme was loneliness.) It wasn’t gleeming with polish and glitz, but that’s OK since it is often a fellow-traveller with Preciousness, a sin which lands churches into the horrible category.

It was a communion Sunday, and the distribution was in classes, as found in much of the Reformed family. A group of communicants comes forward, welcomed in a formula beginning “take and eat . . .” and the elements were distributed in both kinds. The bread, I swear, was a brioche. The “grape” was served in small cups in trays, with a choice of juice or wine. The “class” is then dismissed as a group, and the action is repeated until all communicate.

After the service, coffee and cookies and chat. Fun to look at old church pictures. Nice people. Better than not-horrible I think.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Scott – I’m glad you both enjoyed it! I also look forward to reading more about your search for a church the two of you can attend. I’m curious about the five type faces now … no chance of a scan and upload, eh? I still think you Gen X will get the better of you, as far as “church” attendance is concerned … but I am an instigator! :)

  2. Looking at the five fonts are almost an example of typographic archeology. Some seem to be photoreproduced from a professionally made order of service some decades ago. One looks like 70s era transfer lettering. The rest were from a word processor. Despite the melange, it was not shabby.

    I did mean to note that communion in classes is how the Transylvanian bishop had communion distributed at the UUCF Revival in Washington, for those of my readers who were present.

    Shawn: what do you mean by that last sentence?

  3. Scott, I think you are a “trail-blazer,” or “maverick,” for lack of a better or more original term. Your strike me as a church planter; an apostle Paul sort of fellow. This characterization, mind you, is based solely off of my reading of your writing. There is so much more to be learned interpersonally via a face to face meeting, as you undoubtedly realize. You seem to be seriously uncomfortable with status-quo, especially if the status-quo is not working as good as it could be. I think this sort of personality is really, really prevalent in Gen X’ers. I think this is the issue being raise over at UU Enforcer re: the recent flurry of ministerial placements/settlements.

    That being said, I’m pretty familiar with UCC styles of worship. I do attend a UCC seminary, after all. I’m guessing – it’s just a guess mind you – it’ll work for you for a while, but the trail-blazing Scott will emerge sooner or later. :)

    Oh, and yes, this is a good thing!

    An Aside: The new UCC “Ejector” add is seriously unpopular with more than a few UCC professors here at Lancaster. I just talked with a theology prof. who is constantly jetting back and forth to Cleveland for emergency consultations on the national level, and he said they were actually embarrassing. The point was also made that buying ads on liberal political blogs is unwise and based almost entirely on the assumption that liberal political pundits are actually interested in attending church on Sundays.

    There is an interesting UCC conversation going on here at Lancaster that I really wished more Unitarian Universalists could listen in on.

  4. Shawn, you’ve got my attention:
    There is an interesting UCC conversation going on here at Lancaster that I really wished more Unitarian Universalists could listen in on.

    I’d be happy to spend lots of time overhearing conversations happening at almost any seminary!

    Roger Butts
    Davenport, Iowa

  5. I often walk away from certain organizational conversations with the impression that some folk assume that the Unitarian Universalist Association could learn a great deal from the UCC as concerns “how to actually do religious liberalism.” It just ‘aint so. I’m not degrading the UCC, or anything remotely similar to the act. I’m also not at all implying that we can not learn from the UCC. We can, of course. I’m simply suggesting that the UUA may be in a slightly better position than we often like to imagine, especially when a compare/contrast conversation regarding the UCC and UUA is raised.

    The UCC professors with whom I have shared intimate conversation with are quite disgusted with the condition of the UCC. Now, mind you, a few of these individuals are professors with serious ties to UCC national meetings/consultations in Cleveland. They are “on the organizational front lines,” so to speak. The denomination is often referred to as “hemorrhaging.” One professor even said, “Cleveland has no idea what it is even doing anymore,” when asked about the most recent “Ejector” advertisement. In fact, the prediction has been made that the “Ejector” ad will do more damage than good, at least when the number of new members it produces is contrasted with the ecumenical damage it is creating. More than a few UCC professors have even told me they would rather be in another church, and even named them in private conversations. What kind of churches were named? Let’s just say they would rather be in churches that have a much more stable theological and liturgical foundation. These individuals are not flakes. They are serious, mature professionals. They are simply very dissatisfied with the state of things.

    The rate of decline in the UCC is expected to drop even further than the most recently released numbers indicate. The 2.38% drop reported by the 2006 Yearbook of Churches is expected to go even deeper, at least by folk ’round here. I was offered this information this morning. UCC’ers here have strong opinions why this drop is occurring, and they aren’t flattering.

    The UCC also seems to be struggling as far as class boundness and race is concerned, at least if the experience and discourse here at LTS is an authentic indication. There is a huge struggle concerning the assimilation of ethnic minorities into the fold. What exactly is the struggle? Theology. Simply put, the invitation to minorities and the lower classes may be extended, but it can only be accepted by minorities and the lower classes if they agree to “become like us” religiously and theologically. It doesn’t work. We Unitarian Universalists know it doesn’t work from first hand experience. We know that if we are going to succeed as a denomination this must change. The UCC is facing the same exact issue.

    Polity is another serious sticking point. It is supposed to be congregational, yet the national office is acting like it is … something else. Cleveland, according the conversations here at Lancaster, seems to think it can make any decision to which all the UUC congregations must bow, whether they like it or not. This seemingly forced “bow” is being accredited more to social/liberal politics than to an authentic quest for religious/theological diversity. The UCC homosexual issue is an example of policy at the national level being dictated to a large local level. This is not working out to well, given the UCC’s congregational polity. The total effects of the latest events coming out of Cleveland are still being processed and the outlook is not a bright one.

    To summarize my point: We all have a lot of work to do. The UUC and the UUA both have a lot of work to do. The UCC is no organizational promised land. Religious liberals simply have a lot of work to do. I am hearing the same conversation and call from both organizations. Representative from the UCC are not happy with the state of the church.

    Also, it is no small secret around here (Lancaster) that the migration of UUA students to the UCC usually has more to do with a student and his/her successful fulfillment of the UUA ministry requirements/process than it does with denominational preference. We have had our share of denominational switching, and the seminary is starting to wise up to the fact that serious questions should be asked of those students doing the switching. Most of the time – NOT ALL – the switch was a result of a snag in the students original process and its requirements.

    The conversation is an incredible one, and is acted out most respectfully and maturely. It is a conversation wherein honest answers are being sought after. It is a a conversation to which you would have to be presently engaged to fully appreciate. My textual recount does it no justice.

    (Sorry for the ridiculous length of this comment)

  6. I just saw the Ejector ad on TV, just before a Geico “insulted caveman” ad. Hallmark Channel. M*A*S*H* is on.

    Shawn’s comment — and I’m not done reading it but the ad distracted me — made me consider something new. After all these years of brooding, I’m surprized I hadn’t thought of it. If it all-too-common for UU Christian ministers to hop to the UCC — and I’m thinking of a full transfer here, not dual standing as Adam commented on his blog — then how much easier it is for UCC ministers to jump to other denominations with which they share concordants. The Discples of Christ have an open door. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Reformed Church in America each have “orderly exchange of ministers of word and sacrament.” See this.

  7. I must say that Shawn and his friends seem to be right on. The grass isn’t really greener on either institutional lawn. Both the UUA and the UCC have problems. I dare say most institutions do. Now that I am part of both discussions I must admit that the amount of work that needs doing is remarkable. Good luck in your conversation!

    One thing interested me in particular in this conversation (Shawn’s conversation, that is). This has to do with the folks who are encountering snags in the fellowshipping (or In-Care) process and transferring. I am curious as to what people see that seems so insurmountable. I can say from my own experience that, while the UU fellowshipping process was challenging, it was in no way insurmountable (and, yes, they knew of my Christianity when I was interviewed). I can also say that from my observation of the UCC process it does not seem to be any easier. I am not talking about my Dual Standing here. Dual-Standing is relatively simple because the UCC is basically accepting the UUA’s assesment of my skills, sanity, etc. and the fact of my serving a (at least partly) UCC congregation. I am thinking instead of family. My mother is a UCC minister and I remember her many requirements almost as well as I remember my own!

    One final note: That new add drives my very liberal Mom crazy!

  8. Adam Tierney-Eliot writes, “This has to do with the folks who are encountering snags in the fellowshipping (or In-Care) process and transferring. I am curious as to what people see that seems so insurmountable.”

    The cases I have witnessed have to do with the psychological examination/career assessment requirement. It (the final report) doesn’t get released to the UUA and the student switches boats.

  9. About that psych exam/ career assessment — here in New England, I did mine with UCC seminarians — I thought we did the same one? So how can you switch boats? (There was a little problem with the career assessment center here, in that one of their psychologists found *every* woman seminarian seriously lacking — hmmm….)

    About Scott’s visit — Scott, I’m really interested in your criteria for finding a church. Back in the day, I attended Quaker meeting (unprogrammed) for three years, so I know which way I’d leap if I felt I had to leave UUism — but your criterion of being able to walk to church is very compelling too — I walk to church now and it is a powerful part of the worship experience somehow.

    Your two categories of “horrible and not-horrible” are hilarious — but also sadly true. And we wonder why liberal churches are dying….

    I also know that I *have* to belong to a church that has an essentially universalist (small “u”) theology — imagine you would too — so what about the new church?!

  10. Dan – One would think so. There are other centers which are approved by the UCC but aren’t approved by the UUA. There is one in Lancaster, for example. I had to go the whole way to Princeton to do mine for the UUA. There are also centers that are less demanding, for lack of a better word. My test took two days. The test in Lancaster takes an afternoon. Also, once you have taken it once, and received a report, I imagine the second time around tends to be a bit easier. The only point I am trying to make is this: if a student switches there may be legitimate reasons behind the switch, but there also may be other reasons. Often these other reasons aren’t expressed and the UUA as an organization gets to take the blame. I say dig a bit deeper, for the sake of the organization being blamed.

    Scott – sorry for the aside discussion. I’m done! :)

  11. Dan — It has gotten to the point that as long as the congregation is not actively anti-universalist, I can live with it. Part of that not-horrible thing. In practice, music and preaching styles are more important.

    Shawn — feel free to continue. We’uns (for the lack of a large-sweep first person plural personal pronoun) don’t talk about these matters, and our shadowy relationships with the UCC.

  12. It is also my sense (and Shawn could probably verify or correct it) that the UCC system varies widely by conference and area association. I know that in Maine, certain associations require CPE and others do not (or that used to be the case…) Also, when I was granted Dual Standing, it was done by the Central Association of the Mass. Conference. This is just different from the UU’s national fellowhip committee…

  13. Adam, yes, you are correct. Some UCC’ers here are only doing the psychological examination/career assessment because it was recommended. In other words, it looks good to have taken it. Other UCC students here aren’t taking it all, because it is not required. There’s the loop-hole. I don;t mind people using the loop-hole, but I think it is unfortunate that another tradition/denomination gets treated unnecessarily in the process. That’s my only point. I think such an act does a disservice to both the UCC and the UUA, who obviously would be much better off working together.

    This is just part of the larger conversation all of us – religious liberals – are participating in … it’s good.

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