Friday, January 21, 2011
What is sacred to us?
When I asked this question on the UU Salon, I was wondering about Unitarian Universalist specific symbols and practices, and their appropriate use by non-UUs. I acknowledge that for each Unitarian Universalist there may be a different list of ‘sacred things.’ Many of us regard the web of nature to be sacred, others elevate human life to be most sacred. What I really wanted to think about, though was what was sacred in our faith tradition.
Because I like to go back to root meanings, I looked up a couple words – sacred and sacrament, which led me to the origin of those words. Here’s what I found:
Sacred: “…entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; pertaining to or connected with religion [e.g., sacred music, sacred books]… regarded with reverence…”
“…something regarded as possessing a sacred character or mysterious significance; a sign, token, or symbol…” Word Origin: From the same entry for sacred, the origin is noted to be an obsolete verb ‘sacren,’ which means to make holy, related to the Latin ‘sacrare,’ which means to make sacred or consecrate. It’s also noted that some (but not all) scholars connect this to another root word, ‘saq,’ to bind or protect (e.g., sacred oaths).
From all of that, I get that the sacred is something real or symbolic, worthy of reverence or respect, which connects us to our faith tradition. This is congruent with what I’ve considered sacred to me as a Unitarian Universalist. I’ve often thought of lighting the chalice or the flower communion as sacramental or sacred acts of our faith.
In lighting the chalice, we remember our history - the flames in which Michael Servetus and others died for their beliefs, the communion cup the Hussites desired for all people, and the unquenchable fire of the human spirit. We mark the beginning of our worship, our time of shaping things of worth, by lighting the chalice – and mark its end by extinguishing the flame. By these acts, we mark the time as sacred.
A more direct connection to sacrament is the flower communion, created by Norbert Čapek for a Unitarian congregation comprised of former Catholics. I see this also as a sacred act – because we make it so, not because it has any salvific effect. Instead, this again is a sacrament to me because of how it connects us today with our history and our purpose. Every congregation I’ve been involved with that celebrates flower communion has made a point of ensuring there are enough flowers for all – this is an open and welcoming communion!
What I see behind all the rituals, though, is what I consider to be the sacred core of our faith.
Covenant. More than mere “rules,” our covenants are the bedrock of Unitarian Universalism. When a congregation joins the Unitarian Universalist Association, it enters a covenant with all other congregations. We covenant to ‘affirm and promote’ the principles stated in the UUA Bylaws. When an individual joins one of our congregations, they enter into a covenant (whether they know it or not). You see, usually there are rights and responsibilities of members stated in the local bylaws. By signing the membership book, the member is agreeing to affirm the local bylaws. And I believe members should take their rights and responsibilities seriously, covenantally staying in relationship with one another even in times of disagreement.
There are other covenants in Unitarian Universalism: the covenants between ministers and their congregations, the covenants ministers abide by to respect their colleagues’ relationships with congregations, and some congregations have special covenants around behavior or other issues. It is our covenants which define and shape our congregations, which hold us to accountability, which remind us of our highest aspirations in our lowest times. And, again – these covenants connect us to our history, and are made sacred by our actions.
I think it is right and good to remember that when one joins a Unitarian Universalist congregation, one is entering into a sacred covenant with the other members. It is also good to remember that our congregations are in covenant with each other, by virtue of being members of the same Association. The covenants that exist aren’t imposed from on high. They are created by human beings and entered into freely, for the benefit of mutual support. And that is a source of joy for me.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Has Unitarian Universalism outgrown congregational polity?
Since my blogging partner has asked for a definition: I understand congregational polity to mean that a local congregation (fellowship, society, church) holds the power of self-determination. This is why congregations vote on by-laws, on calling religious leaders, etc. Further, such bodies that choose to affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), are also choosing to enter into a covenant with all other congregations so affiliated and with the UUA. The essential element of these covenants are to ‘walk together’ with others on the same path – to offer advice, counsel, and assistance. Such covenants bind us to considering carefully the best practices and/or rules when making local decisions. (I’m hoping I haven’t forgotten something essential, here. I promise you, I did pass polity class in seminary!)
From where I’ve been sitting for the past decade (and more), congregational polity has been misunderstood in much the same way Unitarian Universalism has. You know how some people are fond of saying being a UU means you can believe whatever you want? It’s been my experience that too many people believe that congregational polity means you can do whatever you want, and the heck with the Unitarian Universalist Association, rules, best practices, etc. Tweaking what I heard recently (on a related topic), many of us are “Unitarian – valuing the individual experience, opinion, and path” while fewer of us are “Universalist – recognizing the value of being members of, and accountable to, a faith community with common values and goals.”
In my experience there is widespread misunderstanding of the covenants which bind us, as members of a congregation to each other, as congregations to each other, and as member congregations of an association of congregations.
The whole point is that we are members of a group – not just a collection of individuals; our congregations are members of an association – not just a loose collection of separate churches/fellowships/societies. Too often I hear someone say something along the lines of “Well, I can believe/act however I want, and so can everyone else in this church.” We need to remember that, as individuals our faith communities exist to help us discern what beliefs are appropriate, given our shared values, and to determine what actions are grounded in our values.
As congregations, our faith communities have an obligation to each other and the larger association. I have seen sound and caring advice from people who are paid to apprise congregations of best practices ignored too often. Here again, I hear questions from congregants like “Who is the UUA (or the District) to tell us what to do?” Folks, the UUA is your association, with board members from every district – and members at large – elected by delegates to your General Assembly. Look beyond the walls of your local congregation and get involved!
Note: Slight correction: only the "at large" UUA Board Trustees are elected at GA. I don't know about other Districts, but our UUA Board Trustee is elected at our District Assembly.
I confess that my gut reaction to this month’s question was going to be “yes, mostly.” Then I read what my colleague, the Rev. Renee Zimelis Ruchotzke, has to say on the topic at her CERG Staff Blog. Now, I have to say "Maybe not."
I have to thank my colleague for reminding me of the beauty of our polity, as it’s easy to get bogged down in the petty stuff. I agree with her as far as the excellent grounding of our polity (as defined in the Cambridge Platform), and in how congregations have been re-invigorated by getting back to some of these basics. Go there and read what she wrote – it’s inspiring.
And I’m wondering how we manage this act of transformation as leaders. I’d like to see more congregations invigorated by a clearer understanding of our covenants, and the spirit of cooperation, rather than remain mired in the “we can do what we want” attitudes with which I’m too familiar.
That’s what I’ve got for now. Your mileage may vary, as always…