Sunday, November 28, 2010

All the Other Ministers

I read several pieces about Theodore Parker recently. (This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.) One item noted about his life is that he was shunned by nearly all the other Unitarian ministers in Boston. The stories about Parker mostly note this in passing as a sign of the strength of his independence of thought and action.

But what about all those other Unitarian ministers?  We are told that almost no minister in Boston would share a pulpit with him, and no Unitarian publishing house would publish his sermons. And it wasn't as if the population of Boston was out in the streets protesting Parker's heretical views. On the contrary, he had to get a larger hall to accommodate the thousands that showed up to hear him preach each Sunday.

The 1840s weren't the Middle Ages. Parker may have been one of the first but cannot have been the only clergyman to have read any of the Biblical "higher criticism" coming out of Germany. And these ministers were already on the Christian fringe - they were Unitarians - non-believers in the Trinity, catalyzed two decades earlier by William Ellery Channing's heretical non-Trinitarianism. And they had Emerson's Transcendentalists in their midst. So it wasn't as if none of them had encountered or held any unorthodox thoughts about Christianity.

No, it makes me wonder if the other ministers were simply acting in solidarity. Even those that might have had some intellectual agreement with Parker found it more important (or less scary) to maintain solidarity and status with their peers.

Parker's particular heresy might seem quaint or irrelevant in the Unitarian world of here and now, but the tale of all the other ministers remains cautionary. We like to claim descent from Channing, Emerson, Parker, and others dissenters. But on what issues or modern orthodoxies do ministers (or the rest of us) maintain solidarity even when not really in agreement, just because breaking ranks would be scary?

Selected Readings
Parker's Transient and Permanent sermon:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: “1215: The Year of Magna Carta” (Danziger and Gillingham, 2003)

The Magna Carta shows the start of issues still echoing in our own time.

In 1215 the nobles of England were in civil war with King John. The rebellions was a result of many factors – increased taxes, unsuccessful military campaigns to protect John's lands in France, takings of lands as royal "forests", holding the relatives of various aristocracy as hostages, and more.

The nobles drew up the Magna Carta as a unifying document for their various grievances. In 1215 at the meadow of Runnymede the barons and their armies forced John to sign the Magna Carta. Almost immediately he reneged on a document he was forced to sign under duress, and the civil war continued, until John died within the next year. The regents of his son then agreed to the Magna Carta to regain authority and end the civil war.

The Magna Carta combines an eclectic set of broad proscriptions on the king's power with very narrow remedies to specific issues in King John's reign. Each chapter in the book takes one or more clauses of the Magna Carta as a springboard for discussion of the context of the underlying issues. The discussion covers the history, mores, politics, religion, and technology of the time, sometimes ranging a century or so before or after the Magna Carta.

Here are excerpts from selected clauses, showing the range of the general and specific:

In both clauses 1 and 63, the first and last: We wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free.
17:    Common pleas shall not follow the court but be held in some fixed place.
31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take other men's timber…
33. All fish weirs shall be removed from the Thames and Medway and throughout all England except on the sea coast.
35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale and one of corn…
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
45. We will not make justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land…
58. We will restore the once the son of Lleywlyn and all of the hostages from Wales…

The sweeping statement that the "English church shall be free" reflects conflicts where the King was inserting himself into church life: the selection of bishops, heads of monasteries, and taxation or organization of church lands. Clause 17, 40, and 45, and others like them established a regular judiciary – formerly, plaintiffs had to chase the King's court around the country as he moved from castle to castle and judicial positions were for sale. Clause 31, 33, and others roll back "takings" (in modern parlance.) And clause 58 example some of the overreach of John – he had taken various members of aristocracy as hostages to force behavior. The last clause of the charter echoes the first – the church shall be free. Apparently this was a hot button topic.

Reading "1215" gave me a new historical perspective on the American Revolution and founding documents of the United States – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Like the Magna Carta, The Declaration lays out particular grievances of the colonist. In contrast to the Magna Carta, which establishes new constraints on the King, the Declaration chooses to break the bond and says "these colonies are… free and independent states." The Magna Carta's constraints on the King's government structure are reflected in the definition of the branches in the Constitution. From the perspective of colonists used to the rights that started with the Magna Carta, it is clear that the Constitution is an incomplete document – it needs the explicit enumeration of rights and restrictions on the government contained in the Bill of Rights. Almost all of these are generalizations of the broad clauses of the Magna Carta. Like the Charter, the Bill starts out with freedom of religion.

Taking an even longer view, we see multiple steps in the evolving theory of rights. The Magna Carta is mostly concerned with the relation of the king to the barons and knights of England (the rights of armed power holders.) By the time of the American Revolution, rights were extended to non-slave, non-Native American adult male landowners. Property ownership was slowly removed as a requirement (it remained in North Carolina until 1856.)

The U.S. went through another shift with the post civil war amendments to the Constitution – all adult males (possibly excepting Native Americans) could vote, and all persons born here were citizens. In the 20th century voting was extended to women, and the latter part of the century saw battles to actually claim the rights for non-whites that had ostensibly been granted in the Civil War amendments. This puts the Magna Carta as first in a lineage of American rights, and makes it clear that civil liberties are a very long-term evolving, enlarging concept; and that the Constitution and its amendments should be seen in this perspective.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Appreciative Inquiry

This is a posting on a trend that I find distressing within Unitarian Universalism at the national level.  I originally posted it as a shorter response on Linda Laskowki's blog (where she graciously included these critical comments); but I repeat it here to keep it in the stream of essay-form things that I write.
 In the "UUA View from Berkeley", ( Linda Laskowski writes:

... Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a powerful methodology that is based on some interesting assumptions:
  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry forward parts of the past, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.
 I will respond to this on two levels: first, appreciative inquiry itself; and second, the focus of the UUA board.
When I read this description of Appreciative Inquiry, my bogon shields went up immediately. These are something other than "interesting" assumptions.
  • "In every society, organization, or group, something works." Why should that be true? Some organizations are quite dysfunctional. Or the things that work might not be important.
  • The statements about "reality" are some combination of post-modernist and New Age mumbo jumbo. "What we focus on becomes our reality." No, that's just not true. Reality is out there. What you focus on is in your head. At best, what we focus on might be our model of reality. And it could easily be an incorrect model. I realize what is meant here by "reality" must mean "someone's model of the world", but to then use "reality" to mean that is rhetorical misdirection.
  • Items four through seven ("asking questions influences the group", going into the future, valuing differences) are far from deep insights. In the flow of this, they are a sales job trying to "get me to yes", and might just as well have come from a Successories poster.
This all reads like marketing hype for another management theory. Oh, wait! It is a management theory. A quick check at Wikipedia for Appreciative Inquiry has big warnings about weasel words and sales brochure. The same is true of the page for the Taos Institute, created by the practitioners of AI. This suggests that even in the credulous world of the internet, these words raise red flags.

Which brings me to the larger issue: what is it with the UUA trustees and management theories? First we had Policy Governance. Now we have AI. And conveniently enough a person to tell us all about it. There is a case study at the Harvard Business School about using Appreciative Inquiry at a coffee retail chain. The net effect was that they reduced costs by 25 cents per cup of coffee. If you're a coffee chain, that could be big money. But at the end of the day, you're still selling coffee. Is the UUA equivalent of 25 cents per cup the change we are waiting for? It's not my idea of transformative change - it's just better management.

Policy governance, appreciative inquiry, changing the composition of the UUA board, election rules at GA, redistricting - these are all management and process issues. None of them is leadership. Vision is not going to come out of deep listening. From a post on Peter Bowden's blog, quoting Paul Nixon, "Churches that are paralyzed will gain nothing by self-study. They will just use the self-study as a stalling tactic." What do we possibly think would come out of such deep conversations that we don't already know?

All that can happen from these efforts is better management. We can have organized sub-groups rearranging those deck chairs and monitoring the exact distance to that iceberg instead of someone turning the ship around. We need to get back to what is permanent instead of the transience of organization change.

Peter Bowden, "Where does a Church Vision come from?",

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Clergy

I have been thinking recently about the role and status of ministers.  This is what I came up with.  Treat it as an on-line sermon.  For those who are not particularly drawn to Christian writings - take the readings for their inherent truth and power, not for their source.

Philippians 4:8
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things that are of good report; if there be any excellence, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Romans 12:3-8
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Matthew 5:13
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
Joshu's Koan
A monk once asked master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Master Joshu replied "mu."

The Essay
At 8 AM in the morning, in the first minute of the first hour of class in my first year of college, the professor in world literature came into the room and wrote the word "arête" on the blackboard. We were about to start reading the Iliad and we needed to understand this concept that was central to ancient Greek culture. Arête is translated to English in several ways: virtue, excellence, or goodness. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, the word "excellence" is the Greek arête. Recall that both Jesus and Paul were speaking in a culture that had been immersed in Greek thought for 300 years. In this essay I want to talk about arête and the clergy.

Historically we have two different kinds of clergy. One kind is a priest. A priest performs religious rites and is an intermediary between God and people. The ancient Jews had priests who made offerings and sacrifices in the Temple. Other religions also have priests with similar special status, including the special status of Catholic priests to perform the Mass. Post-Reformation, we have clergy who are titled minister or pastor.

Protestant clergy are not priests – they do not have a special role with respect to God. In Jewish tradition, there was and continues to be another role besides the priest – the rabbi. The rabbi can be an interpreter of Jewish law; or an active teacher. Jesus was referred to as rabbi.

All occupations have expectations of what the person in the role provides. In The Republic Plato asks what is the virtue or excellence – the Greek arête – of a tool, artifact, or occupation. A shovel is supposed to be able to dig; and if it has too short a handle, or a dull blade, we judge it to be a poor shovel. A good attorney uses their analytical powers and special knowledge to benefit their client. A physician heals the sick. A farmer is expected to provide food that is nourishing and pleasing, and a plumber is supposed to keep the water in the pipes and not on my floor.

To the degree that we view the role of each occupation to be more important to us personally or to society in general, and the degree of self-sacrifice, we accord a higher social respect (if not necessarily money – "they have their reward") to that occupation.

Clergy, whether ministers, priests, or rabbis, occupy a special cultural position. It is not just a profession; they are accorded respect and deference because we expect that they have taken on special responsibilities. They are not the only profession with a special position of social respect. For example, firemen are respected because they have taken on the responsibility to risk their life to save us from a horrible fate.

But the clergy have a very high respect level (even up to the point that our government gives them special recognition in the tax code and other law.) So we as society must associate them the some very special arête.

So we ask, "What is the special arête of the clergy?" There are two responses.

1. Demand the Clergy be Exemplars
Given that society grants a special role to clergy, then what is the arête of the clergy? Is it that they are learned? That cannot be it, for there are many learned professions, and while we grant them some respect, it is not like that of the clergy. Is it that we may speak to them in confidence and receive counsel? We can speak in confidence to an attorney or a therapist, but they are not accorded the position of the clergy.

Paul lists various spiritual gifts, and it is these we expect in the clergy: prophecy, teaching, exhortation, discernment, or pastoral care. These gifts vary between people. We would not expect a minister to have a full measure of all of these. But we do expect them to have a spiritual call and capacity for one or several.

I assert that the arête of the clergy is to be focused and connected to the divine – righteousness, justice, mercy, eternal truths about the human condition, and awareness of the arc of the universe. And it is not just knowledge of these things. If I have knowledge of being a fireman, but don't fight fires, I am not a fireman. If I merely study righteousness, but act the same as everyone else, then I am not acting in the role to which we have given the social respect.

This is a high standard. If a member of the clergy does not have this arête, then we have two choices. Like the shovel with a short handle, we can try to fix it, or we can give up and throw it away. But it is not useful as a shovel, and we should not try to keep using it as such.

2. Reject the Special Status of the Clergy
Picture Paul as a first-century church consultant.

Paul uses the parable of the body in both the letter to the church in Rome and in Corinth. He would not have included the same analogy and warning in letters to two separate churches unless the issue had come up multiple times. What is the issue? It does not take much reading between the lines to understand that some members of the church consider themselves special and separate because of their gift, and that it happened in more than one place.

Luther denounced the doctrine of sacerdotalism – the special status of one who can make offerings to God – arguing for the "priesthood of all believers." So most Protestant denominations have ministers who are not "priests", but still hold a special position and are styled "reverend." But several strains of Christianity before and after Luther went even farther. In England, a century before Luther, the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe rejected the office of priest or minister entirely. A century and a half after Luther the Quakers came to the same conclusion; and in the early nineteenth century, the Plymouth Brethren also.

This leads me to a new understanding of the Quaker use of "thou" and the usage of "brother" and "sister" in some other churches. It emphasizes that all members are equal members of the same body. With this understanding, we would abolish the status of minister as a leftover relic of the priesthood. We would recognize the different gifts of our members, but not raise any member to a higher status because of their particular gift. The answer to the question "what is the special arête of the clergy" is "mu" -- every person has their own special arête.

Gifts of the spirit and parable of the body: I Corinthians 12.

The Republic: - search for physician

Plymouth Brethren: Conservative Christian Evangelical church, started in Dublin c. 1827, first English assembly was in Plymouth. No ministers, officially no name for the church.

Quakers: Reject sola scriptura, believe in continuing revelation, had a Universalist split in N. America 1827, the two sides rejoined in 1955.

A Christian view on gifts: