At the Crossroads Again or The Tale of Two Bills and the Gospel According to St. John

By Donna Morrison-Reed

St. Lawrence District Annual Meeting Theme Speech
Saturday April 14, 2000

I am here this morning to recall a bit of St. Lawrence District history, to shed some light on our present crossroad, to talk about the nature of covenant, and to accept your thanks on behalf of the congregation I serve.   For, it is due to the underhanded politicking carried out forty years ago by the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto that this district even exists.

It all began with the first Bill, Bill Jenkins, Toronto’s most fiery minister, who served from 1943 until 1959, four years before our district came into being.  During Bill’s tenure the Toronto congregation grew from 123 members to over 800.   The church school grew from 22 children to 330.   We moved from the red light district to the upper-class neighbourhood of Forest Hill.   And we regularly found the doings and sayings of our minister trumpeted across the front pages of the Toronto newspapers.   Bill was a force to be reckoned with.   When the congregation didn’t want to move, he submitted his resignation, castigating the congregation with these words:

If you are determined to take advantage of the great opportunity for the Unitarian faith in Toronto, then I shall remain to work with you.   But to drift and retrench mean congregational atrophy and suicide, and I will have no part of it.

The congregation buckled under and packed their bags.

Bill was a force to be reckoned with.   He was also an autocrat.   And when the congregation finally took him on, reinstating the Religious Education director Bill had summarily dismissed, Bill again submitted his resignation.   This time the congregation accepted.   And Bill moved to a new ministry across the lake in Rochester NY.

Meanwhile the brand new Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA, headquartered in Boston, was forming its districts.   The commission appointed by the UUA to study this matter recommended Canada be divided among a number of international districts.    The Canadians in Ontario and Quebec suggested their new district headquarters be located in Toronto at the newly formed Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) offices in order to share costs and resources.   When this suggestion proved totally unacceptable to Upper New York State, the Canadians began lobbying for the CUC to itself assume district functions for Ontario and Quebec.   The lobbyists were so successful that when the CUC held its first annual meeting in May 1962, Charles Eddis, Chair of the Board, was able to report:

I have yet to hear a single person in Canada speak against the present proposals … or anyone in the United States for that matter.   It appears that we have reached what Friends call the ‘sense of the meeting’ and can proceed accordingly.

The meeting did proceed accordingly by amending the by-laws to provide for the proposed new district functions.   One of the provisions was for a halftime executive secretary.

Reenter Bill Jenkins.   Bill’s style had not gone over well in Rochester, and he was again looking for a congregation.   Meanwhile Hamilton saw the CUC situation as an opportunity to have their own halftime minister.   In September 1962 Jenkins was called to Hamilton.   And negotiations began immediately to work out the details of his simultaneous appointment as Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council.

Toronto was not thrilled.   They did not want Bill back, in any way, shape or form.   Minister in Hamilton was bad enough.   Executive Director of their district was impossible.   Instead of dealing openly and aboveboard, however, furious under-the-table negotiations began.   And in February 1963 a memorandum from the “Unitarian Council of Metropolitan Toronto” appeared, strongly criticizing the new CUC structure and championing the original idea of an international district including Ontario and Quebec with upper New York State.   The whole process of the previous year now went into reverse, and in November 1963, the St. Lawrence District was formed, its district office in Syracuse, New York, where the Universalists had led the fight against the merging of the two denominations.   Mary Lu MacDonald, first woman President of the CUC, said the Canadians were needed in the St. Lawrence District in those days to referee between the NY Unitarians and the NY Universalists.   Five months after Jenkins lost his bid to become the first Canadian District Executive, he accepted a call from the congregation in Winnipeg.   And that’s the tale of the first Bill, Bill Jenkins.

What can I say?   We meet today on the very spot where, forty years ago, the scheme for separating our district in two was almost implemented.   I come to you from the congregation that saved our international district, thereby, most likely preventing the Unitarians and Universalists of upper New York State from destroying each other.

The second crossroad for our district came in 1969 when Canadians began complaining that they were being ignored by the UUA.   Were any of you around at the end of the sixties?   Was anyone at either of the UUA General Assemblies in Cleveland in 1968 or Boston in 1969?   Were the Canadians being ignored by the UUA?   In a year which included major donors withdrawing support in response to the UUA’s stance against the Vietnam War; in a year in which a denomination-wide boycott of the Annual Program Fund was instigated by the Los Angeles congregation in response to the UUA’s hesitation over the demand that the Black Affairs Council be funded to the tune of a million dollars with no strings attached as reparation against past crimes to Black Americans; in a year in which over a third of the GA delegates walked out when their motion to change the order of the business agenda was defeated by a vote of 692 to 687; in a year in which over three-quarters of a million dollars, a third of the UUA budget, had to be cut due to financial crisis; of course they were ignoring Canada.   Their hands were full with Black Empowerment, the Vietnam War and financial disaster.

The situation looked a bit different north of the border.   Elinor Smith of Fort McMurray Alberta spoke for Unitarians across the country when she complained in the Church of the Larger Fellowship newsletter of ‘a constant diet of USA.’ And to add insult to injury part of the UUA’s three-quarters of a million dollars in cuts included a $1000 reduction in the grant to the CUC from $5000 to $4000.   The headline of the Spring 1969 Canadian Unitarian read “Signs of Unitarian Separatism in Canada.”   At that year’s CUC Annual Meeting, the motion “that the CUC be constituted as an independent organization, funded by Canadian societies, with affiliation to the UUA” was brought forward by the Unitarians in Toronto.   What can I say?   Yes, you will have noticed, we completely shifted over to the other side.   Six years earlier we torpedoed the only plan that might have averted the situation we were now reacting against.   Fortunately the motion calling for complete separation between the UUA and the CUC was amended and finally defeated.   A new motion was passed, however, “that the CUC Board present a full report to the UUA Board of Canadian dissatisfaction…”

The UUA, attacked from almost every side, agreed to meet with the Canadian contingent.   Out of those meetings came the first UUA-CUC Accord, the set of agreements that have governed CUC-UUA relations ever since.

We now come to the tale of the second Bill. Do any of you history buffs or denominational junkies want to guess who the second Bill is? Bill Schulz was elected President of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1984.   His slogan was “Catch the Spirit.”   Bill’s spirit was growth, a bigger and brighter UUA.   In fact, Bill’s vision was a world association of Unitarian Universalists with headquarters in Boston and himself as supreme ruler.   In 1987 David Usher proposed a World Council of Unitarians and Universalists at the British General Assembly.   It was discussed at the IARF (International Association for Religious Freedom) Congress, where Phillip Hewett delivered a keynote address on our history of international cooperation.   Finally the proposal was brought to the 1990 UUA General Assembly for discussion.   When Bill and Natalie Gulbrandsen, Moderator of the UUA, heard what was going on they said (and this quote comes from a reliable source), ‘No no no no no no no no no.   Never, never, never.   Our vision is that everyone will join the UUA.’

In early 1991 Bill organized and convened his own international event in Hungary.   He modestly called it “The World Summit of Unitarian Leaders.”   In organizing his World Summit, Bill forgot to mention his plan to the UUA Board of Trustees.   He forgot to invite either David Usher or Phillip Hewett, the key envisioners of earlier efforts.   He took it upon himself to define the purpose of the summit.   He chose the agenda for the summit, designed the timetable for the summit and hand-picked all the participants that would attend the summit.   In other words, Bill chose Hungary’s delegates, Romania’s delegates, Canada’s delegates for them.   No need to inconvenience other countries with that pesky little detail.   Bill took care of everything, including sending UUA bureaucrats to run every single workshop and program.

As you might imagine, Canada was part of Bill’s wonderful vision.   Of course, Canada was not too keen on the Boston-as-centre-of-the-universe theme, but Bill was keen on them.   It would have all been just wonderful except for one unfortunate reality of life.   Great visions require great amounts of money and by 1986 Bill was running out.   Suddenly dissatisfied with the amount of money Canadians were contributing to the UUA, Bill called for a renegotiation of the Accord, and over the next four years, from 1987 to 1991, the CUC-UUA Accord was furiously renegotiated.   In the middle of this exercise, in 1989, the CUC approached the Veatch Foundation for a grant.   I want you to appreciate that Veatch is not part of the UUA.   None-the-less, Bill pushed the Canadians out of line, informing them that no one was allowed to approach Veatch without going through him and unfortunately, he had too many other priorities at the moment.

No longer were Canadians being ignored by the UUA.   Bill was giving them lots of attention.   But do you think the Canadians were satisfied?   No.   They were still whining and complaining about almost everything.   And if I know Toronto, they were leading the pack.   And that’s the tale of the second Bill.

We now come to the Gospel According to St. John.   In case you’re wondering, we’re not talking the Christian New Testament here.   We’re talking about the New Testament according to the Unitarian Universalist Association.   For those of you who have not yet read it, St. John is our own illustrious UUA President, John Buehrens.   John had a new gospel, a different vision than the second Bill.

Now, before we go any further, I need to alert you to the apocryphal nature of gospels.   Of course, no one except St. John really knows what is going on inside his own head.   None the less, I will be interpreting events and random statements made by St. John, and extrapolating from these, certain perspectives.   I’ve tried my best for accuracy, but frankly it is no easy job recording another person’s gospel for posterity.

After ascending to the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I suspect St. John began to notice a problem with the second Bill’s world vision. At the UUA General Assembly in 1993, the year St. John was elected, one business resolution and three social responsibility resolutions were passed. The business resolution was entitled “Honoring our Historic Names.” See if you can catch the problem.

Whereas the consolidation of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association took place over thirty years ago; and

Whereas the use of both names honors the rich heritage from each of our parent bodies; and Whereas there remains confusion in the wider community about our religious identification;

Therefore be it resolved that the 1993 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association urges all of the Association’s congregations, associate and affiliate organizations, and itself, to honor and to identify both of our historic traditions by publicly indicating in appropriate ways their affiliation with the UUA.

Did you notice the problem?   The First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto was founded by recent immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland.   Our leading founder was of Irish Remonstrate Synod non-subscribing Presbyterian stock.   Our first settled minister was from England, and fewer than half our ministers even came from the United States.   Like most congregations in Canada, our rich heritage is not encompassed by the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association.   Is there confusion in the wider community?   I wonder why?   That resolution is great as a national resolution.   But as an international resolution it smacks of imperialism at its worst.   Are congregations in the Philippines supposed to honour their rich heritage from the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association?   Of course there is confusion in the wider community, for there is confusion within the very heart of the UUA over its own identification as a national or an international body.

Of the three social responsibility resolutions passed that same year St. John was elected, one was entitled “Federal Legislation for Choice” and had nothing to do with Canada.   The second, entitled “Justice for Indigenous Peoples”, included three “be it resolveds” that called Canadians as well as the United States to action and one “be it resolved” only for the US, calling for amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.   And the third resolution, “Violence Against Women”, applied to everyone.

The UUA is an international association of congregations and St. John had just inherited the second Bill’s world vision.   What John observed, I believe, was that Unitarian Universalists in the United States have no national head office. Canadians have the CUC to give voice to their unique concerns.   They have the CUC to deal with tricky Canadian tax issues.   They have the CUC to lobby their various levels of government.   And at CUC Annual Meetings, Canadians are fully and freely empowered to respond to the national justice issues of their day.   But the UUA is not a national association.   It’s an international one.   Isn’t it?   Isn’t the UUA an international association of congregations?

Very soon after his election, John established a new position at the UUA, Special Assistant for Interfaith and International Activities.   And throughout John’s presidency this Special Assistant, Ken McLean, has attended CUC functions, as a foreign representative from the UUA.   Likewise, John refused to hold a second World Summit.   Instead he participated as an equal partner in the forming of the ICUU, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

Very soon after his election, St. John clarified for himself that the UUA’s relationship with Toronto is different from its relationship with Toledo.   But just because John understood, doesn’t mean anyone else did.   And among those who dealt with John over the next few years, a sense of his increasing frustration with the UUAs ambivalence on this matter began to emerge.

In 1997, John attended the CUC Annual Meeting and is reputed to have grumbled about the Canadians in various venues.   A couple of individuals even claim they heard him say he would give the Canadians a million dollars just to go away.   Later that year, the same year the St. Lawrence District asked Canadian congregations to pay their dues in American funds, John Hopewell, President of the CUC Board, wrote John Buehrens, saying

The Board recognizes your concern that in the long run the Accord as it currently exists cannot continue. … We spent a considerable amount of time discussing options to address your concerns.

Early in 1998 a joint meeting took place between representatives of the UUA and the CUC.   The draft minutes of that meeting record

The UUA proposed the Accord be terminated. …   John Hopewell said the CUC team had no mandate to accept that.   Subsequently the UUA said they would unilaterally cancel the Accord.   CUC suggested it would be more appropriate for the CUC team to take the proposal to the CUC Board next week and see if there could be mutual agreement.

The Accord was cancelled, and I strongly suspect one of the fundamental reasons is because the gospel according to St. John is different from the gospel according to the second Bill.   For St. John believes Unitarian Universalists in the United States need a national head office to give voice to their collective concerns.   He believes American Unitarian Universalists need a forum in which they can strongly and unequivocally speak out from within their own national cultural context.   St. John is convinced it weakens Unitarian Universalism’s voice when Bill Clinton and Jean Chretien are lumped together and it enfeebles Unitarian Universalism when US issues must always be couched in language that addresses the conditions in two countries that at times have very different concerns.   Let us be clear.   Canadians are often confused, annoyed and, quite frankly, hurt when they are ignored or forgotten by the UUA.   It is Unitarian Universalism in the United States, however, that really suffers from the lack of a strong national organization through which their collective voice may be heard.

Here we stand, today.   The Accord has been cancelled.   The two-year moratorium freezing the old Accord, giving Canadians time to work out alternative arrangements, was due to end next month but has been extended for one additional year.   Next month, at the CUC Annual Meeting, Canadians will be voting on a resolution which will shift a number of significant district services to the CUC, making it highly questionable whether Ontario and Quebec will even be part of the St. Lawrence District in the very near future.   And the theme for this year’s St. Lawrence District Annual Meeting is “Our Covenant: The Promises Made between Churches and the District.”   We are here to look at ways in which the District and its congregations can reaffirm their commitment to one another, even as Canadians get ready to vote on issues that may very well pull us apart.   Here we stand, at the crossroads again.

St. John has articulated the need for a strong, unified national voice within the United States.   Canadian Unitarians and Universalists are voting next month on shifting a significant number of district services to our own national organization.   The St. Lawrence District, the most evenly balanced international district in the UUA, wants us to make a pledge, a promise, a covenant to stick together.

Folks, we’ve got a problem.   What are we going to do?

St. Lawrence District Board member, Chris Lilly, has suggested convincing Quebec to separate from Canada so we can become the only tri-national district of the UUA.   Of course there’s the old UU standby, we could fight City Hall so to speak, unfurl our banners in protest against both the UUA and the CUC.  I was wondering, instead of protesting whether we might just separate from both the UUA and the CUC.   The St. Lawrence District could become an independent organization.   Of course, we could stick our heads in the sand and pretend it just ain’t so.   Or try the old underhanded, indirect Toronto method of manipulation.

As you know if you live in Canada, or can perhaps imagine if you live in the US, there has been a lot of anxiety in Ontario and Quebec over the last two years.   As the crossroad has drawn ever closer, people have been worrying about what will happen.   For we are friends in the St. Lawrence District.   I spent almost ten years as a minister in Rochester before moving to Toronto.   In this district we share a rich history that has modeled international cooperation and understanding.   We’ve built Eagles together.   Unicamp and Unirondack are places where Canadians and Americans form friendships across national borders.   Our youth go to conferences in Ithaca and in Ottawa.   Our RE directors and our ministers meet together in yearly retreats at Cazzenovia NY.   As the crossroad has grown ever closer, Unitarians and Universalists in Ontario and Quebec have been worrying a lot.

And it is out of that worry that I think I’ve begun to see an answer.   My answer is related to the idea of covenant.   A covenant is not a contract.   The theme of this year’s Annual Meeting is not about preserving our contract with the St. Lawrence District to whom we pay dues and from whom we receive certain services.   It is our contract with the St. Lawrence District that may be changing.   A covenant, however, is different.   A covenant prescribes the process by which we have agreed to live together.   It is the shared understanding, agreement and commitment we make with one another.   The foundation of our Free Church tradition, is our covenant of “right relation”, the covenant we make to live together in loving and supportive relationship.

As those north of the border have been watching this drama unfold, some of us have been moving beyond anxiety to a growing realization that perhaps even as the contract changes, we might make a pledge to preserve the covenant.   As we move away from cross-border governance and service delivery, as we move toward national independence, perhaps the notion of interdependence encapsulated in our Unitarian Universalist Principles might point the way.   Not independence and isolation; not a form of codependence that leaves the United States schizophrenic and Canadians perpetually whining: perhaps we might grow in interdependence through strong associational ties.   Perhaps we could have both: strong national organizations which speak out clearly from within their respective national contexts, a service delivery model which offers good-quality local service in each national context – we’ve already split Wendy’s job along national lines – and a strong bond of loving, mutually supportive friendship which includes a covenant to continue sharing and working together on the projects we’ve built together.   This will be a different covenant than perhaps we imagined.   It will be a covenant forged between two equal national partners, a covenant to remain good friends, to work together on shared projects and to model mutual respect and cooperation for the rest of the Unitarian Universalist world.

You know it was not simply facetiousness that inspired me to call John Buehrens St. John.   Certainly the Gospel According to St. John rolls easily off the tongue and I thought it would be sort of cute comparing the dictates of the UUA to the New Testament.   But, in truth, as I’ve gnashed my teeth over the unceremonious, abrupt canceling of the Accord, my own perspective has shifted.   Of course I’m from Toronto so what else would you expect?   But I have come to see that John, while perhaps not a saint, is at least a prophet, an uncomfortable prophet, like many.   And I, for one, have come to agree with him. Unitarian Universalists in the United States do need a strong national voice. Internationalism is wonderfully inclusive, but it is confusing and it has crippled us.   Likewise, I’ve come to believe that Canadians need to get out from under the wing of the United States.   We whine too much.   And we are too inclined toward backroom politics and under-the-table negotiations.   It’s time we grew up.   And that’s not going to happen until we move out on our own.

But separation need not mean isolation or estrangement.   The kids grow up and leave home.   But it’s not a betrayal.   The larger extended family still gathers at Christmas and Thanksgiving.   As the most evenly balanced international district in the Unitarian Universalist Association, it is our task, our challenge, to model for the rest of the continent, a covenant of right relation, a covenant of friendship and mutually supportive cooperation as two nations, each with head offices of our own.