by John Lomperis
One of the most striking contrasts for me to observe between mainline-denominationally-affiliated theological liberals in “safer” environments like Harvard Divinity School (where I earned my MDiv) vs. in more activist environments like the UMC General Conference is the much greater degree of defensiveness in the latter over words used in describing theologically liberal Protestantism. At Harvard Divinity School (HDS), I noticed that it was perfectly socially acceptable for professors to give lectures or assign readings describing their fellow liberal mainline Protestants as “secularized” or “more secular,” or speaking of certain theologies as more “orthodox” than others in a similar way to how I would use that term. At United Methodist General Conferences, of course, equally liberal delegates would loudly protest such wording.
But in such “safer” environments, theological liberals with a United Methodist or other mainline denominational affiliation, including ordination candidates, sometimes very openly share their great enthusiasm for the institution and beliefs of Unitarian Universalism. The Unitarian Universalist Association is basically an organized religion based on taking theological liberalism to its post-Christian, religiously relativistic, and lefty-politics-centralizing extremes. Sound familiar?
As a side note, I realize that some Unitarian Universalists, who call themselves UUs, may protest that there are NO set beliefs to which all UUs are required to adhere, as their central value is openness to all religions. But when you look closer, UUs will admit that there are quite a number of beliefs that are clearly out of bounds in their faith communities, such as orthodox Christian doctrine, right-of-center political opinions, or belief in any sort final Judgment that involves sorting people towards different eternal fates.
Of course, it is hardly uncommon to tailor one’s message for different contexts. Theological liberals in cocoons like a liberal theological school, within the wider cocoon of the Boston metro area, understandably feel unthreatened in “letting their hair down” about what they really believe. Meanwhile, even the most theologically radical elected delegates at General Conference can generally be savvy enough to realize that “let’s vote for this proposal so that we can become more like the Unitarians” is not a winning argument.
One notable exception was the Common Witness Coalition (of theologically liberal caucus groups) deciding to devote a page of one of its “Neighbor News” daily General Conference newsletters to a statement from a lesbian woman who left Christianity summarizing her spiritual journey and urging United Methodist delegates to adopt values in line with what she now espouses “[a]s a Unitarian Universalist minister.” While this may not have been a politically smart move, this was an honest reflection of the Common Witness Coalition’s values.
The fact of the matter is that the leadership of groups like the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) or the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) would be extremely hard-pressed to articulate how their faith – or the guiding theological principles they seek to have our denomination effectively adopt in place of the United Methodist doctrinal standards– differs in any significant way from Unitarian Universalism. After all, in the name of “freedom” they have categorically decried any attempt to expect clergy leaders to actually keep their promises to teach in line with historic Christian orthodoxy. In fact, MFSA recently chose as its new leader a former Executive Director of a Unitarian congregation (who has also served as a regional official of America’s largest abortion provider). One RMN leader couples his rejection of Christian orthodoxy with embrace of Wicca and “Earth-based spirituality,” and I have personally heard another, Karen Oliveto, directly rebuke Christ’s own teaching about separating sheep and goats. During a discussion on “inclusive language” for God, one of the more outspokenly liberal delegates doubtless spoke for many of her fellow Common Witness Coalition activists in denouncing churches using the words “Father” or “King” in reference to God, as she pridefully declared, “I don’t have a king!”
The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) – which, let’s be honest, effectively operates as an apportionment-funded chapter of MFSA – commissioned Debra Haffner, an ordained UU sexologist (rather than anyone from within United Methodism or even Christianity) to write a couple articles about “Sex and the Church.” The UU writer used her UMC-provided platform to, among other things, promote the adoption of a new framework for sexual ethics, which she herself has proudly developed “based on my more than 30 years as a sexuality educator,” as a substitute for revealed, biblical teaching, with its allegedly outdated proscriptions against extra-marital sex. In the wake of the 2012 General Conference, she organized a manifesto of a couple dozen lefty religious figures, not one of whom was identified as United Methodist, decrying our denomination’s affirmation of biblical teaching on sexual self-control.
Given the values and beliefs of the theologically radical caucuses of United Methodists, I suppose it makes sense, at one level, that they would look increasingly to UU theological resources and UU leaders for support.
I understand that many may have family histories within United Methodism, and some folk may get energized by the militant rationale offered by GBCS staffer Katey Zeh’s April 29 tweet that “Because I don’t like institutionalized heterosexism, I stay in the #UMC in order to fight it.” But all of the above, coupled with the fact that the liberal caucuses are fighting a losing battle within the UMC, raises the question of why they would choose to stay in a religious community whose core, historic doctrine they passionately reject, rather than move on to that religious community they sometimes openly name as the one whose beliefs, values, and trajectory actually align with their own.