Debates to Dialogue

As a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism, most of my prior religious experience as an adult was with the Stone-Campbell Movement. This is the tradition from which arose the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ, among others. From its beginnings in the early 1800s, this movement was founded on debate. This was not really unusual, given the religious foment of that era. In the time before mass entertainment, debate was a common means for getting ideas out into the public square. Unitarians and Universalists also participated widely in debates, often against one another before the two churches united in the mid-20th century. In the present contention within Unitarian Universalism over inclusion and against white supremacy we are seeing the clash between this old mode of dispute with the new model of dialog that seeks reconciliation.

The Christian Chronicler exemplifies the fondness for debate I'm talking about here.
"There is not much interest in debates today. Most think that debates result in tension and further controversy. High schools and colleges teach debate but it receives little attention. Even "so-called" debates during political campaigns receive little attention.During the nineteenth century, debates and debaters offered interesting diversion. Debating helped men find truth and offered entertainment. J.J. Haley in Debates that Made History says Alexander Campbell's debates had three results:

'These debates commanded the attention of the leaders of their day both in the religious and political spheres. They strengthened the love of the truth and fired the passion to place Church and State on foundations in which no flaws could be found.... 
They also hastened rather than retarded Christian union. After they were over men understood Christianity better than before and realized that with all their seeming differences they were closer together than had been supposed.

These learned arguments quickened interest in religion in general. They kindled a new zeal for spiritual things. Tidal waves of evangelism rose again and again, and swept many thousands into the Kingdom of God.'
Campbell never intended to get into debating. Thomas Campbell felt debate clouded the movement's spirit and that it was no proper means to "contend for the faith." Alexander Campbell said that "he had a natural aversion to controversy." In spite of this, Campbell became one of the day's premier debaters. His debates increased his stature in Christian circles and went far to make the plea palatable. As a result, Haley's assessment rings true. Thousands did come to Christ as a result."
Despite the glowing description of debate as a great unifier, the reality is that its focus on winners and losers resulted in more division. Yes, some groups grew as a result, and in some cases others atrophied and died. Overall the proliferation of sects only continued, and the fruit can still be seen among the a cappella Churches of Christ, among which there remain divisions over whether to offer Sunday School, support charity and missions with church funds, and use multiple cups or a single cup in communion. I've even heard of some tiny groups that divided over whether one loaf should be used in the Lord's Supper, and further whether it should be broken up before distribution or pinched off by each member as it passes. There is an ethos of debate and division that lives on to this day, and it is one I found deeply tiresome in my time among those churches.

The debate format is deeply rooted in European history, and so can be related to 'whiteness.' People of color have engaged in formal debates, though by doing so they are participating in an aspect of 'white culture.' That makes it neither good nor bad, except in as much as it goes unrecognized as such. With Unitarian Universalism sharing this long history, it stands to reason that any different approach is going to be either viewed with suspicion, or simply not understood at all. 

Although I've only been to two General Assemblies of the Unitarian Universalist Association, personal experience and the comments of others have led me to believe that the business sessions are always contentious. Last year, my first time at GA, I was confused and then amused at the way discussion played out. In particular I enjoyed the 'rules lawyers,' as I think of them, who repeatedly went to the procedural mic before anything really got underway to make certain that they and everyone else understood the ground rules. They picked apart the rules, calling procedures into question and asking for clarifications. When finally the actual agenda items were discussed, these procedure geeks stepped up whenever the moderators strayed, or else supported the moderators when others questioned the proceedings. My initial annoyance with them was replaced with appreciation for their role in the GA business meeting ecosystem. 

This year, 2019, I found myself caught off guard not by the legalities and technicalities, but by those attendees who couldn't seem to even hear explanations contrary to their expectations for how events were to proceed. Robert's Rules of Order was invoked repeatedly, despite the fact that the GA publishes its own rules to be followed, which are not identical to what Robert's Rules propose. This was communicated over and over again, in response to each complaint, with a GA representative stating clearly at one point that the General Assembly follows its own rules, and not Robert's Rules. And so it was virtually breathtaking to me when, almost immediately after that statement, a woman at the procedural mic literally read from Robert's Rules, as though it were authoritative. In order to quell the micro-rebellion and keep things moving, a co-moderator led a vote on whether to suspend GA rules in favor of Robert's Rules. The overwhelming majority of delegates voted to proceed with the established GA rules. 

Watching this unfold, it slowly dawned on me that the people objecting to variance from Robert's Rules of Orders were older white people. The format that they considered tried-and-true, handed down through the generations since 1876, was no longer in the ascendancy. They argue that Robert's Rules are time-tested, good, and fair. What I see are people discovering that the ground they relied upon is no longer solid. Traditions can become a prison.

When I was a missionary in Brazil I often commented to our nucleus of believers that no matter what we did, the practices we established would eventually become hidebound traditions. That being the case, we needed to do everything possible to maintain some level of flexibility, but especially take care not to create rules or procedures for ourselves that could eventually become unsustainable or divisive. The best we could do was take measures to mitigate the risk, since human nature requires well-formed habits. Despite Unitarian Universalism being a 'progressive' faith, progress itself can become code for the status quo, demanding a thoughtful and yet also urgent reconsideration of what we are attempting to be and to do.

Aware of this tendency, the UUA bylaws were written to require review of the Purposes & Principles every 15 years. Included in this category are the well-known 7 Principles and 6 Sources of Unitarian Universalism. In 2009 a draft revision was proposed that made light changes to the Principles, and a complete replacement of the latter. The proposed sources statement would have been a drastic and less inclusive change from what we have in the 6 Sources, one that upheld the historic connection to Christianity and marginalized earth-centered spirituality and Humanism, along with everything else. 

Here's the draft:
Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages. Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences. The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one. The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds. 

Unitarian Universalism is not contained in any single book or creed. Its religious authority lies in the individual, nurtured and tested in the congregation and the wider world. As an evolving religion, it draws from the teachings, practices, and wisdom of the world’s religions. Humanism, earth-centered spiritual traditions, and Eastern religions have served as vital sources. Unitarian Universalism has been influenced by mysticism, theism, skepticism, naturalism, and process thought as well as feminist and liberation theologies. It is informed by direct experiences of mystery and wonder, beauty and joy. It is enriched by the creative power of the arts, the guidance of reason, and the lessons of the sciences. 

Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misuse of cultural and religious practices while seeking ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.
As noted in a mini-assembly at GA 2009 by Roger Brewin, "What bothers me most is what’s missing—the poetry." Of course, much more than that bothered him and many others. The overt and twice-repeated use of a patriarchal and monotheistic term for a deity establishes what kind of statement this is, and who is in favor within the UUA. At the same time, mentioning other viewpoints in passing is tantamount to dismissing their role in and contributions to contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Doing so does no harm to those perspectives, but it is most certainly harmful and exclusionary towards those that hold them.

The idea of reviewing the Purposes & Principles is a good one. If we are to continue calling ourselves a non-creedal religious tradition, we have to avoid allowing anything to take the role of a fixed creed. The various Christian denominations have volumes of such documents, many of which are wholly ignored by the mainline churches that espouse them, and which are thus irrelevant. The Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism is dynamic, responsive, and adaptable, and should always remain so. The challenge is embracing change without excluding anyone who is willing to continue on the journey.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is attempting to do something rare within religious circles. Within this one body we are attempting to hold together independent congregations and people of diverse beliefs and walks of life. This is no contractual matter or mere marriage of convenience among progressives. Our ideal is to form our relationships within covenants. The Purposes & Principles of the UUA are the heart of the covenant between congregations, and within congregations, ministries, youth groups and more we also establish covenants. By this means we seek to recognize the worth and dignity of each other, upholding one another while also creating accountability. If I behave towards a fellow UU in a manner outside of our covenant, then the work becomes dialog and reconciliation.

A saying I heard many years ago says it best: it's a mighty thin board that only has one side. There are clear-cut cases of people being in the wrong and others in the right. Most of life, though, seems to be very muddled. The old ethical dilemma of the man stealing bread to feed his family comes to mind, but it's usually far less dramatic. Think of the sort of arguments couples have. Familiarity breeds contempt, and so as in marriage, so also in congregational life. Petty disputes can escalate quickly, and through triangulation pull a lot of other people into the fray. Holding a public debate is not going to be the best way to solve the problem.

And yet, there appears to be no shortage of predominantly older white people who not only need a debate to settle matters, with well-defined winners and losers, but who also feel threatened when approached for dialog to restore the covenantal relationship. Even in instances where they bring along friends for moral support, as in a recent episode at the General Assembly in Spokane, they feel ganged up on and refuse to carry the conversation forward. They are expecting a debate, and if not that then censure, and so that is what they experience despite the intentions of the Right Relationship team. The story that then circulates through rumor, buoyed by what I call the Bogeyman Syndrome, is one of censorship and exclusion.

The departure from Robert's Rules of Order, together with the embrace of dialogue over debate and covenant over unfettered autonomy is deeply unsettling to some white people. While this makes the work of reconciliation and ongoing progress more challenging, it should only motivate us to redouble our efforts to live into the new reality we want for ourselves and future generations of Unitarian Universalists. We must continue to welcome all who welcome all, and sadly wish the best to those who do not feel the need to do so as they find or form communities more in line with their vision. The goal, however, is for that latter extreme to be avoided through helping one another to engage in empathetic, respectful, and productive dialogue. We only 'lose' if Unitarian Universalists fail to uphold people of color and lgbtq+ folx in the collective struggle for liberation.


Restoration Movement

Campbell's Great Debates

Article II: Moving Forward: Assembly on the Proposed Covenant For the Uua Bylaws

Second Draft Of New Uua Principles and Purposes
Commission Appraisal -

General Assembly Narrowly Rejects New 'principles and Purposes'
Christopher Walton -

Your Co-worker, The Bogeyman