The Joy of Association
Reverend Doctor Gaye Williams Ortiz
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
June 9, 2013
"Authorities arrested 151 people in the rotunda between the legislative chambers during the latest “Moral Monday” protest – the largest mass arrest since the N.C. NAACP began organizing the weekly civil disobedience events in late April.
The number is nearly the equivalent to the arrests at the four prior protests combined and brings the total above 300 this session.
The crowd of spectators also exploded, with hundreds rallying on the mall outside the legislative building, listening to speakers condemn Republican legislative leaders. “That’s extreme,” shouted the Rev. William Barber, the N.C. NAACP president, into a loud speaker as he listed legislation Republicans have approved this year. “That’s immoral, and we must stand up and wake up right here, right now.”
Police estimated the crowd at 1,000 – about five times more than the last protest – but organizers counted 1,600."
One of our Unitarian Universalist ministers, the Rev Robin Tanner, was arrested at a protest last month on the one-month anniversary of her wedding…and her life partner, the Reverend Ann Marie Alderman, was arrested this week. Today in solidarity I’m wearing the stole they sent me for my ordination, which they bought for me on their honeymoon in Guatemala. Maybe this news has passed you by…but it is an important illustration of the ‘joy of association.’
The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams is known for his writings on voluntary associations. And he says that the freedom of the individual American citizen defines the voluntary principle – our freedom of speech and freedom of belief come under what he calls ‘voluntaryism.’ But chief among the freedoms, he argues, is the freedom to associate. And in the early 1970s, while writing “The Voluntary Principle in the Forming of American Religion,” he was concerned with the paradox he saw since the end of World War II, namely instances of the US government of infringing on the rights of Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to demonstrate nonviolently, which he believed were at odds with the image of America as the ‘land of the free.’
However, Adams says that these freedoms of speech and belief fall short of the defining distinction of voluntaryism, which is the institutional aspect: that we have the freedom to form voluntary associations, and that this “distinguishes the democratic society from any other” (James Luther Adams, Voluntary Associations, 1986, p.172).
Why is this particular freedom not free from attack in our society? Adams says it is because “freedom of association…represents a dynamic force for social change or for resistance to it” (173). It is a way in which individuals can join together and exercise power through organizations, and can participate “in the process of making social decisions” (173).
The creation of the voluntary church, in our historical context, came about when the primitive Christian church rejected the civic religion of Caesar and the institutional gods, who had to be worshipped by citizens who had to belong to that imperial religion. It called for individuals to make voluntary choices to join the Christian movement, and it used new forms of communication and organization – a covenant and a community serving the ethos of voluntaryism.
Then Christendom was created on the backs of these primitive Christians! And so the call for separation of church and state, Adams writes, was also a call for a self-sustaining freedom of choice. The collection plate – which we really don’t like to talk about except at the annual stewardship drive – actually became the most important symbol of a free faith! According to Adams, “the collection plate symbolizes – indeed it in part also actualizes and institutionalizes – the view that the church as a corporate body is a self-determinative group and that in giving financial support to the church members affirm responsibility to participate in the shaping of the policies of the church” (177).
Do you feel the weight of that responsibility right now? Let me give you a few examples from Unitarian Universalist history that we mark just in the week to come, that show us how beholden we are to liberal religious heroes of voluntaryism.
Tomorrow, the 10th of June, is the day in 1565 when Socinianism was formed. Socinianism is also called the Minor Reformed Church of Poland, and it is named after Faustus Socinus who spread anti-trinitarian ideas. The movement spread from Poland to have a great influence on English and Transylvanian Unitarianism. Socinians wanted to go back to the ways of primitive Christianity, and in particular were pacifists.
In 1569 Hermann van Flekyk was burned in Bruges (now in Belgium) for denying the Trinity and deity of Jesus Christ in a public debate with a Franciscan monk.
In 1645 Paul Best was denounced before the British House of Commons for his blasphemies, which were to deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the Holy Ghost. He was ordered to be hanged but thanks to Oliver Cromwell, who intervened, he lived to write more about Unitarianism.
Still on the 10th of June, in 1841, an American, Minot Judson Savage, was born; he was a Congregational minister who converted and as a Unitarian minister was a popular preacher whose sermons were circulated by the thousands. He played a major role in 1894 in ending a controversy between the Unitarian National Conference and the Western Conference.
Okay, I’ll spare you the rest of this week in UU history …oh well, maybe one more name: Lewis McGee, who was installed on June 13 1948 as an African-American minister of a new interracial Unitarian church in Chicago, called the Free Religious Fellowship (Unitarian).
McGee did not find it easy to find a position in either Unitarian or Universalist congregations, and at one point he was told “If you want to be a Unitarian you’d better build your own church.” (Frank Schulman, This Day in Unitarian Universalism, p. 111)
Without these people, we would not have the free faith that we have now. As the Rev. Paul Rasor writes, “liberal theology is not for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination. It refuses to make our commitments for us, but holds us accountable to the commitments we make” (Patricia Prevert, ed., Welcome: a Unitarian Universalist Primer, 2009, p. 61)
Right after this service today all of the members of this church will be held to accountability – as voluntary members – in decision-making. The polity, or form, of every Unitarian Universalist congregation is based upon its autonomous democratic exercise of commitment that we call an annual congregational meeting. The meeting needs a quorum, a certain number of members, in order to have a vote and make members’ decisions valid and binding – as Adams described it, this congregation is a self-determinative group.
That is why we should be so happy to welcome new members today: they join other members in determining the future of this church – and, in effect, the future of Phoebe Mae’s church, until she is old enough to become a member and join in herself in preserving this free liberal faith of ours. If you have previously seen the annual meeting as a bit if a drag, if you have entertained the thought that you might slip out before the business is finished, think again. Look at that child, think of our children in the Annex: I can’t believe that anyone here can honestly say that the future of our children’s faith is not important!
Of course, the decisions you make today in this meeting are not earth-shattering; we will not create world peace or solve world hunger in the next hour or two. But what we will do is honor those Unitarians and Universalists – and Unitarian Universalists – who protest injustice today as well as those who have gone before us, ready and willing to radically volunteer to the point of scorn, of public humiliation, of punishment, even of death, in order to give us – today, in this sanctuary – a free faith. A faith that is, in the words of Lewis McGee, “a religion that stresses the dignity and worth of the person as a supreme value and goodwill as the creative force in human relations” (Frevert, p. 58).
Called together as one, May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed Be, Amen.