Every year, GA is preceded by Ministry Days, an event put on by the UU Ministers Association. Ministry Days concludes with the annual Berry Street Essay, a lecture series that goes back to William Ellery Channing’s “How Far is Reason to be Used in Explaining Revelation?” in 1820.
I’m not a UUMA member or even a minister, but no one was checking badges at the door, so I slipped in to hear Paul Rasor present this year’s essay. Meaning no disrespect to Paul, who is one of our best theologians and spoke well about our UU struggle to be more multi-racial and multi-cultural, the quote that stuck in my mind is from the response by Rosemary Bray McNatt. (Traditionally, another minister “responds” to the lecture. The response isn’t adversarial, but is more of a commentary on the ideas the speaker has presented.)
After humorously noting a few of the quirky (and often negative) tastes widely shared by UUs (rejecting all mass media other than PBS and NPR, refusing to be caught dead shopping in WalMart, distaste for rap music, and so on) she said:
Race and ethnicity have stood in during our conversations for something more ineffable, more complex and edgy than we have been willing to discuss. We have been talking about culture, a Unitiarian Universalist culture that many of us have refused to acknowledge. We have been unable to address these issues because we have been confused about the conversation that we have been having, and we cannot escape the boxes to which we are likely to be assigned if we start talking about it. …
For people who are as blessed as we are by this gift of relgious community, we are also cursed with a nasty little Calvinist streak that we would do well to examine. We would rather be angry and judgmental with ourselves and with each other than be tender and merciful in simple recognition of how hard it is to do what we must do in our congregations.
We must admit that we have a specific, often alienating culture, and we must change it. And we must grieve the loss of the familiar, and gain some measure of courage to embrace the new.
The full list of Berry Street essays, with links to the text and sometimes audio, is a great online resource for anyone who wants to know the history of Unitarian (and eventually UU) thinking.
Thanks for this, Doug. As it was last year, this will be the first place I look to begin and end the days of GA. It’s a bitter sweet gift for those of us who cannot be there in person.
Mary Edes, Tamworth NH
If I understand the context correctly for the comment you quoted, it recalls my mother telling me to never be critical of others. Only as I finally emerged, painfully, from my Oedipus Complex, did I come to understand how mistaken a universal prohibition against criticism is. There remains the alternative that critical capacities manifest and demonstrate mature experience.
To illustrate, let me assume for the moment that McNatt’s comment is the kind usually described as “defensive.” To be sure, clergy are especially vulnerable to wanton hostility. Some come to our societies as if they were at a concert or an art exhibit to which they bring no greater critical capacities than liking or not liking the minister. We need congregations who recognize the destructive immaturity of such attitudes.
Yet clergy also must recognize that patting each other on the back, under all circumstances, may not be a sign of mutual support but of collective decay. So long as we cannot or do not articulate the meaning of “competence in ministry,” we remain liable to mindless critiques. If it is such critiques McNatt warns against, we need to listen. When it is a learned criticism of ministerial incompetence, we need such to be given visibility.
Thanks for the wonderful link. I’m adding it to my blog roll as something to come back to over and over. It would be a great tool for an RE class.
McNatt was talking about our usual discussion of diversity, in which it is easy to find yourself in an oppositional or even angry position. Those are the “boxes” she’s talking about.
Her point is that we are likely to do better if we treat each other with compassion than if we flagellate ourselves and each other about our racism.
Doug, thanks for the clarification. I agree that our societies have very low levels of tolerance for nastiness and anger.
I assumed that as her comments were delivered in the context of the ministerial GA time, when she said, “We would rather be angry and judgmental with ourselves and with each other…” she was referring to relations among ministers. If and when our leadership is stereotyped and denounced thoughtlessly, we all lose. I was not aware that wrangling was a wide-spread problem.