THE PNWD OF THE UUA
Mistaking the part for the whole may create a useful metaphor, but it is also the source of dangerously misleading life decisions. Like me thinking that the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association was really a “thing” and that the whole denomination was like them.
Here was a whole gathering of men who met the ideal of what my father was trying to be. They were educated, intellectual, powerful and successful — besides being good looking. It wasn’t until much later that I realized they were also entitled white men, aging quickly because of overindulgence in whiskey and nicotine. Their marriages were invisible. My father had actually admired Dr. Steiner, an outstanding early minister at First Unitarian in Portland. But he didn’t try to make contact. Nor did I ever find any UU lit around the house.
It’s startling to realize that I’m talking about fifty years ago and that many of these men are dead now, replaced by women who are snappy dressers and talk pop therapy. They are quite unlike the men who were “institutionalists” who believed in the denomination and in keeping congregations healthy in an idealistic way. These women are more like marketing advertisers. As soon as I was part of them, I saw I had helped change it into something I didn’t fit.
It’s grandiose to say so, since the whole culture was changing. The PNWD was soon broken up by natural events like a reorganization of the UUA responding to a political schism between nations. One of the strengths of the PNWD had been its inclusion of both the NW American states and BC, even a bit of Alberta. This had blocked the tendency of the UUA to become an arm of the American Democratic party which turned out to be another source of polarization. The UUA had intended to promote peace, but as the Far Right claimed prosperity mega-churches as key to their empire of righteousness, peace was for suckers.
The sexual revolution also hit the district hard. The intimacy of what might be called spirituality translated into physical permission which the revolution no longer kept secret. We all became aware of which ministers “slept around”, sometimes as a euphemism and sometimes quite literally needing the reassurance but being too old for teddy bears. Women who worked for the church, even as volunteers, saw it as a sort of marriage, a commitment to help and guard.
I didn’t really “get” this until later when a banished lover entered my far away congregation. She felt entitled to join my life, reorganize my office, tell me what to do. The minister who had banished her found reasons to come visit and his greater prestige threw the already tenuous balance of my work into doubt. It destroyed my belief in his worthiness.
A couple of male parishioners, not ideal types, approached me to ask for sex. Once I got over my amazement and angry rejection of what I considered outrageous, I discovered that there was indeed another female minister who was obliging. I confronted her. She said one of the men in question had helped her buy a car which she needed. Another force for sexual commoditization of the church. Not just liberals. Consult Pope Francis.
My tendency to define an institution in terms of its representing individuals is simply human and tends to cluster around any cultural force. No one ever discussed the schisms between religious institutions until I was on a panel organized by nurses and mental health workers in Hartford, Conn. It was meant to help them sort out the differences in people they were trying to help. The Russian Orthodox priest who spoke ahead of me said that these helpers must realize the importance for people near death to repent from beating their wives so they could go to heaven. Religion is cultural and that’s the way it was in the “old country.”
Secular government keeps the competition from religious institutions under control through the power of taxation. If mega-churches were taxed, their prosperity would be badly dented. But luckily for them the cultural institutions of Mormons and Catholics stand as a bulwark against taxation and make their accumulated assets almost as vast and hidden as transnational crime money laundering. Their defense is that what they do is for the good of the country, but mostly what they do is stay out of the reality of poverty, stigma, and injustice, claiming it would cost them too much to meddle.
The PNWD ministers liked being with each other, back in the day, and organized a study group they called Humptulips, a name they liked because it sounded naughty, but was actually an indigenous word for a gray and rainy place, a town where they met. They enjoyed challenging each other by assigning study topics and since this was a time of rising feminism, they assigned to me a justification of feminist ideas like saying God was a woman.
What they didn’t understand was that I’m not a feminist. I wasn’t challenging their maleness or privilege — I wanted to participate in it. But thinking for that paper I wrote was the kernel for something important. I went back to the saints for their accounts of epiphany and somehow that led me to the premise that men dwelt in religious beliefs that were like telephone booths of the time: cold, transparent, confining, and keeping communication at a distance. A place for supermen to transform. But I proposed that women’s understanding of religious belief was like hot tubs: warm, comforting, naked, and soapy — opportunities for intimacy. I should go find that paper and read it again.
Because my principles say everything is in process, I recognize that I can’t expect the PNWD district to stay the same. And it is another principle that life is always in tension between individual and environment/community, so I can’t expect to change myself at least partly in response to what I contact.
So what should I do now, to what should I aspire? Is there an equivalent group somewhere? Should I start one? My opinion always comes down to preferring solitude. I should follow the thread, not the people nor the institutions.