Tomorrow’s Unitarian Universalism Today

By The Reverend Jeffrey Brown

A sermon delivered at The Unitarian Congregation of South Peel
February 4, 2001

As I understand it, Wiarton Willy popped his head out of his burrow on Friday and did not see his shadow. (Being good Ontarians, we won’t discuss what those other rodents, Puxatonny Phil and Shubenacadie “what’s-his-name” saw.) I raise Wiarton Willy this morning because, in many ways, the future of Canadian Unitarian Universalism is about as distinct as our groundhog’s shadow.

It’s not that we’re facing financial devastation like the Anglican Church or perhaps the United Church. As a movement we are probably in as healthy fiscal condition as we have ever been.

Neither is it that our membership has plummeted like many Catholic communions over the past generation. In fact, our numbers have remained remarkably stable over several decades. As I survey our national movement I see many congregations – like our own – that are showing health. As our nation has grown more multifaith, we have become increasingly viewed as one of the major bridges, especially between eastern and western faith  traditions.   So why do I start this morning by mentioning the distinctly blurry future for Canadian Unitarian Universalism? In some ways the answer is quite simple. We, Canadian Unitarian Universalists, are on the verge of growing up.

Three comments before exploring what I mean by we’re on the verge of “growing up.” First, it seems appropriate to be talking about what’s happening in our Canadian Unitarian Universalist movement today. “Sharing Our Faith Sunday” came into being five years ago as one way to share with local congregations some of the exciting happenings in our wider Canadian movement, as an opportunity to hear about the almost fifty other congregations spread from sea to sea to sea and about the Canadian Unitarian Council which links us.

Second, I will try my darnedest not to plod us down in the details of a new agreement that is in the offing between the Canadian Unitarian Council and the Unitarian Universalist Association, the “CUC” and the “UUA.” The CUC is an association of some 45 Canadian congregations; the UUA is the association of more than 1,050 congregations in North America. When you do the math, you see that there are 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States and about 50 in Canada. The UUA, while officially continental in scope, has always had difficulty staying more than national in its focus. There are larger issues around this possible new agreement, and I hope that my comments and our discussion this morning and in the months ahead will keep that focus.

Third and finally, I think it important to admit my take on this issue upfront. I favour the devolution of Canadian Unitarian Universalist congregations into our own national body. If done properly, I believe that it will be healthy shift for both us and for congregations in the States. And fourth (I know, I can’t even count), I apologize to any of you who may be visiting this morning that you have happened in on an “in-house” conversation. I hope that you nonetheless find something of value in this morning’s service, and you will have an opportunity to see one of our instrumental values, the democratic process, in action.

This morning we’re focusing on the progress of establishment of an autonomous Canadian body of Unitarian Universalists. Discussions about the status of Canadian Unitarian Universalist congregations in the UUA most recently began about six years ago when the UUA decided that our Canadian congregations were receiving a disproportionate share of resources for our size. Many of you will remember that this discussion came forward publicly almost two years ago when the CUC held its annual meeting here in Mississauga. Last year, when we met in Calgary, delegates from Canadian congregations voted overwhelmingly to begin the evolution into a nationally based movement.

Representatives from the CUC and the UUA returned to negotiations after this clear mandate, in Regina in September and then in Toronto in January. Essentially the UUA suggested that the evolutionary approach approved at the Calgary CUC meeting was unworkable. Instead they proposed a full shift of services to the CUC as of July 2002. The exceptions to this shift of services were ministerial settlement and youth and young adult programs which would remain continental.

Most of the services we receive come through the St. Lawrence District, which includes congregations in Ontario and upstate New York. If we ultimately agree to the proposal, the District would need to be reformed. This fits in with the UUA’s planning, as they are looking at consolidating regions. It raises questions for us though, as our congregations are spread across the country. Brian Kiely, who many of you know as the minister of the Edmonton congregation, is chairing the committee that will suggest how the services now delivered by the UUA will be transferred to the CUC.

According to the proposal, affiliated Unitarian Universalist organizations – groups like the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), Unitarian Universalists for a Justice Economic Community, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, the Women’s Federation, the Buddhist Fellowship, or the Peace Fellowship – would continue to function continentally. Our Unitarian Universalist camps, like Unicamp, Eliot, and Unirondack, would continue to welcome both Canadians and Americans.

Clearly, however, religious education, social justice and concerns, publications, and communications would move northward from their current Boston or Buffalo locations.

One important question that arose at the CUC’s Board meeting at the end of January concerned continuing membership of Canadian congregations in the UUA. The Board felt pressure that Canadian congregations continue to be able to remain members of the UUA even if services no longer came from the UUA. Kim Turner, President of the CUC Board, sent a letter to the UUA stating that “a continuation of UUA membership will serve to ease some of the anxiousness that is being felt over the potential for lost relationships. . .”      I can’t help but think of some of the statements that have arisen over Canadian Unitarian Universalist autonomy. I’ll read only four:

1) I am struck by a curious psychological attitude toward our movement. . . . As a consequence, I began to realize that unless our Canadian promotional work could be conducted under the auspices of a board drawn exclusively from the Canadian population, this attitude [of points of view imported from the United States] would continue to prevent all possibility of making an effective appeal to the general public.

2) . . . the existence of Canada as a political entity, a nation, is a fact of significance for the religious liberals who live here . . . we have responsibilities toward the national life that are of collective concern to all Unitarians living in Canada. . . . On a different level, improved communication can contribute to the growth and welfare of each church and fellowship, through the medium of shared experience.

3) We are growing up, and no longer fit the family. This is about growing from adolescence to adulthood. We don’t know exactly where we are going. But the status quo is out the window and this is our attempt to have a say in our future.

4) Canadian Unitarians took a significant step today. The vote is not for separation from our U.S. denomination, but it is the first step down a different road, one where we determine more of our own future within Canada.

The last was CUC’s President Kim Turner speaking on CBC radio after the vote last year in Calgary. The third, the “we are growing up,” was Brian Kiely, minister in Edmonton, speaking on the floor at Calgary. The first and second statements though come from 1912 and 1956 respectively. Or how about, “May we not hope soon to hear of the establishment of ‘The Canadian Unitarian Association’ corresponding with the British and American?” The question appeared as a letter in a Scottish Unitarian periodical in 1828.

Developing an authentically Canadian Unitarian Universalist voice has been with us for a long time. Our first minister Don Stout was an active proponent of autonomy back in the 1950s when he brought together the ministers from Ontario and Quebec to help shape a Canadian look to our movement. Our minister of the 1980s Mark DeWolfe sparked the question back to life in 1985 when he spoke of his dream that  we may appreciate the unique things Canada, her geography, her history and her peoples have to tell us. We might even, if we listen closely enough, learn to speak the special language of this place a little more clearly.

Though the process that is currently on the table is more abrupt than we had expected when we met as delegates to the CUC annual meeting last year, I do not expect that the disconnecting will be as rapid. Whether we continue as a member congregation of the UUA, we will continue to maintain connections south of the border as long as they are significant. We share important elements together – our “Purposes and Principles” and our hymnals are the most obvious – and we are likely to jointly hold those for some time to come.

Moreover, the International Council of Unitarian Universalists is developing as international organization that is bringing Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist denominations from around the globe together in fellowship. We are increasingly in communion with, not just Unitarian Universalists from the U.S. and Unitarians from Britain, but also with fellow travelers from the Phillippines to Hungary, from New Zealand to India. As with so many other aspects of our lives, our religious world, too, is growing closer.

There is a story about a modern master up in Caledon who described how the Buddha had encouraged his monks by stating that those who practised diligently would surely be enlightened in seven days, or if not in seven days, then in seven months or, if not seven months, then in seven years. A young Canadian disciple heard this and asked if it were still true. The master promised that if the young monk was continuously mindful without break for only seven days, he would be enlightened.

The excited, young monk started his seven days, only to be lost in forgetfulness ten minutes later. Coming back to himself, he again started his seven days, only to become lost once again in mindless thought – perhaps about what he would do after his enlightenment. Again and again he began his seven days, and again and again he lost his continuity of mindfulness. A week later – seven days – he was not enlightened, but he had become very much aware of his habitual fantasies and wandering mind. It was a most instructive way to begin his practice on the path to real awakening.

As I look at the long and continuing history of Unitarian Universalism’s attempts to develop its uniquely Canadian voice, I am reminded of the many distractions and anxieties over the past 175 years that have pulled us off this path. They have not disappeared: fearfulness that we are too small to sustain ourselves and grow, despair that we don’t have the money, pain at the loss of important relationships. We’ve been at it for the “seven days” now, perhaps this time we are aware of what has caused our minds to “wander.” Maybe this time we are on a path to “awakening.”