Success and Failures of Contemporary Unitarian-Universalism

This is an address about our the current situation of our shared and chosen faith, the way it is organised, how it conducts itself, and its future prospects. It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic in its approach, nor does it seek to besmirch or to eulogise. The address will look at some contemporary examples of successes and failures within Unitarian-Universalism, and tie these into motivational and especially organisational reasons for these effects. The scope of applications include the Unitarian-Universalist churches of the North America and Australia-New Zealand, the Unitarian and Free Christian churches of the United Kingdom and Australia-New Zealand, and indeed all those organisations that come under the umbrella group of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. In this sense, it is a very broad picture - but one which will also look at some local examples.

If there is a motivation, it is based on what should be a fairly obvious reality-based claim that improvement can only come from change. It is impossible for it occur in any other way. Improvement requires the identification of internal strengths and weaknesses, of acting with prescience on external opportunities and threats. These identifications and actions require change; organisational change, ideological change, financial change, and the most disruptive of all, technological change. Quality organisations - and this is meant as a strict definition provided by the International Organisation for Standardisation - engage in a process of continuous improvement and continuous change from unambiguous statements of their principles and procedures. Such organisations revisit these with regularity to ensure that they are aligned with strategic goals and focussed on their membership (or customers or clients, as the case may be), that they reflect actual practise, that they are efficient, and that they are not contradictory. That is how the best organisations survive, grow, and improve in the contemporary environment.

Of course, the possibility of change always does worry and even upset those who are comfortable with a current situation. Perhaps rather like the fantasy of the Garden of Eden, they wish for a world where there was no change, or even more fantastic, the possibility that one can improve and enhance an organisation without change. There is no good news in the future for those who hold such delusions. Even a highly exclusionary and separative religions that cut themselves off from the outside world, such as the Amish Mennonites, do encounter and have reacted to the changes previously mentioned. They've had to respond to ideological changes such as the introduction of universal education and child labour laws and contrary to popular belief, they do use contemporary technologies like electricity and telephones, but restrict their use. A particular encounter with reality that they are facing is a high level of genetic disorders.

The reason the example of the Amish is raised is because they are one of only two denominations in the United States that are growing; the other is the Unitarian-Universalists, although it must be quickly added that both a very small, with the Amish outnumbered the UUs by around 270,000 to 165,000, and there is debate about the growth, with the UUA reporting much more conservative figures than the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which has reported a 15.8% growth from 2000 to 2010. Regardless, just a few weeks ago, CBS News produced a very interesting short program on "Religion and Spirituality in a Changing World" (, which derived information from a survey from the Pew Research Centre. The issues raised were indicative of all advanced post-industrial countries. We are in a social world where real cultural and religious diversity is increasingly the norm. The idea of religious identity and nationality being nicely compartmentalised into a neat geographical regions is increasingly an archaic viewpoint. With this social admixture religions and cultural identities are encountering each other up-front and personal. They are coming into conflict with a diversity of knowledge, of ideology, of morals and norms. In such an environment, the Unitarian-Universalists in North America have taken a principled stand of universal rights and taken the fight up with conservative religious organisations. They have not surrendered the public space of what it means to be a religious person; they have fought for marriage equality, for reproductive rights, for dying with dignity. These are very existential questions which concern the immediate lives of people here and now. As a result, they are growing and improving.

From these encounters of a new diversity there are two possible pathways for religious organisations. One is to become more open, to engage and accept differences in a manner that combines the best features of that which it encounters; a deliberately syncretic religious liberalism that embraces and transcends. The other path is to become more more closed; ideologically, organisationally, and even technologically. It is worth noting that these clear strategic choices are the pathways to growth in current circumstances, as they represent two response orientations to the new diversity; acceptance or rejection. But only the former of the two is really sustainable. Change and accelerated change, will come, whether we like it or not. Diversity, and increasing diversity, will come, whether we like it or not. To use the language of functional sociology, in the 21st century and beyond, adaptability will become more important than stability.

In terms of ideology it is fair to say that this religious tradition has a good history in learning to adapt. The combination of unitarian rationalism, the emphasis of salvation through love by the universalists, the liberalism of the free Christians; all contributed significantly to an adaptable religion, even to the point of giving up a creedal association with Christianity well before it was fashionable to do so. As a local example the Melbourne church in 1871 had a constitution that claimed "this Society be designation 'The Melbourne Unitarian Christian Church' recognising the fundamental principles that the Father alone is God; that the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of the world, and that the Scriptures contain a Divine Revelation." Compare that to the current constitution which states that the organisation's objective is: "The cultivation of the religious life in an atmosphere of freedom, no obligation or adherence to any written or stated creed being required of any member... To promote the object of the Church which shall be to seek the truth and serve humanity in an atmosphere of religious freedom." The Principles and Purposes of the North American-based Unitarian Universalist Association is another good source to see how a non-creedal and reality-based statement can be made. It too has changed from the original document in 1960 with the seventh principle and the sixth source added in 1984 and 1995 respectively. The Preamble to the Constitution of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists is another; affirming liberty, justice, democracy, and responsibility.

There were wrong paths too along the way of course, some even quite terrible. In John McKivigan's book, 'The War Against Proslavery Religion', he notes how the Unitarian aloofness to public affairs and its concentration on individual conscience hampered the development of the abolitionist movement. The development of nationalism from the roots of Protestantism merged with the socialistic community orientation in Germany with a pantheistic neo-pagan faith; German Unitarians were thus plagued with alleged associations with Nazism in their post-WWII formation, all the way to 1989 when the nationalistic group left, forming their own "German Unitarian Religious Community of the European Spirit". Such warnings illustrate the dangers in the transition from absolute systems to the relativistic, when the application of the universal rational principles of truth and justice are abandoned. Not so long ago a senior member of our Australia-New Zealand community claimed that "We don't give a stuff about the Trinity", and even from this very pulpit a reading claims that Unitarians "are even free to believe in the Trinity".

It is worth recalling what the trinity is. The Trinitarian doctrine, as espoused in the Athanasian Creed, is that God exists as three persons, but is one being with each person co-equal, co-eternal, of one essence, nature, power, action and will. It is an argument that a omniscient, omnipotent deity walked on earth in flesh and blood. It is one thing to believe that metaphysically such a deity exists, because of course it is unprovable. It is one thing to argue that there was a historical human called Jesus, which seems to be a matter of record. But to argue that Unitarians should give up the very meaning of their name in favour of some sort of extreme epistemological relativism? That is not the path that will attract and hold thinking people to the religion or to the church. This is not how young people in particular will be attracted to such a religion; in the aforementioned Pew student, the number of people with no religious affiliation in the United States in now almost 20% in the past five years, and almost a third of young people. Accepting diversity is not the same thing as approving such radical epistemological relativism, not if the body wants to remain an organisation that claims to be a rational religion.

About ten years ago I presented an address here entitled "The Unitarian Rationalist Tradition: What We Can and Cannot Know"; indeed it was but the second address that I gave to this congregation. At the conclusion, in response to a question from Rick Barker, I remarked that Unitarianism cannot survive as a Protestant sect. Indeed, it cannot survive as any form of metaphysical sect. Regardless of whatever metaphysical speculations we may individually entertain, this is a post-theological world. In such circumstances there is only one rational position on such matters that can be genuinely taken: None of us, in virtue of being in this universe, can genuinely claim knowledge of what exists except within the confines of the space-time continuum; this is a universal experience of a cosmological unity. It is possible of course to verify the facticty of statements through external correspondence, to verify moral and ethical claims through intersubjective consensus, and even aesthetic claims from subjective sincerity. But that really is about the extent of what we can and cannot know.

It is not enough however, merely to adopt a rational religious perspective to succeed. As emphasised earlier in this presentation effective organisational structures to support and promote such ideas are also necessary. Certainly these must include democratic structures which are inclusive and proportional to the distribution of ideas among a congregation. Alignment of a congregation to a narrow political ideology, whether by imposition from above, or even a majoritarian process form below, is the surest means to ensure that a religion cannot succeed. The strength of democracy is not the absolute rule of a majority, but rather the opportunity it provides for the admixture and evolution of ideas - and that means a distribution of power. But even assuming that this is place the capacity for strategic decision making is still somewhat limited in the Unitarian-Universalist framework. Today, the modest growth experienced in North America is more than matched by the independent growth of a number of congregations in the developing world, especially in Africa and Asia, where people of sincere religious convictions are somewhat tired of religious and political authoritarianism. The wall that this growth will run into, and this is possibly why Unitarian-Universalism has become "stuck" in its potential numbers and influence, is due to the congregational polity.

The opportunity to compare this with some of the ideas of the Uniting Church in Australia is tempting. Their ecumenical orientation is certainly similar to that of the Unitarian-Universalists, although their insistence on being a Christian religion has already proven limiting and they too are in decline in terms of membership for years. More interesting however from an organisational perspective is their polity. How, one may reasonably ask, could Congregationalists and Presbyterians unite when they are opposite ends of organisational expression, with Methodist connexionalism in the middle? Well, the answer comes down to choosing the most appropriate structure for the area of work that is being engaged. In other words, engaging in continuous improvement, engaging changes, and seeking the most adaptable organisational structure. For for those issues which command the enthusiasm of the congregation, there is local organisation. For those decisions which require a more strategic orientation there is the regional Presbyteries and state-wide Synods, with the highest level being the General Assembly. Of note is that properties are owned, not on the congregational level, but by the Church as a whole. This both protects the organisation and allows for strategic orientation. Tactically radical, strategically conservative, it has both the democratic spirit and financial discipline.

It is entertaining to think that perhaps the Uniting Church could expand its existing ecumenical orientation to be more inclusive and more orientated towards a rational religious orientation. It is equally entertaining to think that perhaps the many Unitarian-Universalist congregations could take a lesson in organisational systems and discover that the strategic benefits of federalism can be achieved with minimal disruption to congregational independence, along with hardening-up their level of critical rationalism. Perhaps they could take a reading from the Nobel Prize winner, Herbert Simon, the forgotten Unitarian-Universalist polymath who emphasised bounded rationality in decision making and the use of organisations for strategic decisions. Realistically of course neither of these changes will occur in the foreseeable future, as only a minority of both organisations recognise the need for change or understand even the beginnings of possible solutions. Due to ideological limitations, it can be predicted that the Uniting Church started at its peak and will decline from there. Conversely, the Unitarian-Universalist congregations will be limited by structure; as the number of people of "no particular religion" increases, they will be poorly suited to take advantage of this growth and will miss the opportunity. Whilst it is true that at the beginning of this talk, I argued that it would be neither be an optimistic or pessimistic presentation, sometimes the realist answer can be considered a pessimistic one. For Unitarian-Universalism any future successes that are due to having a rational religious perspective will in turn be limited by failures in organisational structure.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, Sunday, May 5, 2013