Sunday, January 11, 2015

Boring Stuff

This is an essay where I'm going to vent.  It won't be about politics, or popular culture, or anything that will mean anything to anyone who isn't local, so feel free to skip this one.  It's pure selfishness on my part, buttressed by a need to get some things out of my system.

As I have mentioned several times previously, I am a member of the local Unitarian Church.  Yes, despite being an atheist, I've kept membership in a church for the past 30-plus years.  Back when I joined my first Unitarian congregation, the Unitarian-Universalist church was very different from what it is now.  The one I joined, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, Unitarian-Universalist, in Charlottesville, Virginia, was primarily a congregation of atheists, agnostics and humanists.  As were many, many other Unitarian congregations.  We had a complement of pagans and Wiccans and some other folks who would normally be considered a fringe element in any other church, but Unitarians have always been a pretty welcoming bunch.  I used to liken them to Hindus in that there was always an element of "there are many, many paths to Truth and yours might be one of them, too."

The one thing you used to hear over and over again from people new to the church and to Unitarianism was that, when they first arrived, they felt like they had "come home."  There are (or used to be) entire Sunday services based on the theme of "Coming Home."  I frankly felt that way myself.  On my first visit I heard a sermon by retired-chemist-turned-minister Rev. Charles Howe that knocked my socks off.  It was all about how doing good work was more important than which version of the Bible you believed was "The Truth."  I got involved and soon thereafter signed the membership book, and I have considered myself a Unitarian ever since.

Unitarians are the butts of a lot of jokes (thanks, Garrison Keillor!) but the targets of those jokes, the Unitarians who decide everything by committee; who, when threatened by the KKK, have a Question Mark burned on their lawns instead of a cross; who are terrible at singing hymns because they are too preoccupied with reading ahead to see if they agree with the next get the idea.  Those Unitarians are pretty much extinct these days.  The church has, over the past couple of decades, returned more and more to its Protestant roots.  There is a lot more mention of God and Jesus these days, despite a fair number of diehard humanists and atheists still in attendance.  I think we all go mostly out of habit, and because the alternatives remain far worse.

I have no patience for God or Jesus in my Sunday mornings.  I can barely tolerate euphemisms for prayer ("meditation") and some sort of Almighty ("the Spirit of Life.")  I strongly believe that belief in any deity is misguided and is the source of the majority of the world's troubles, and I hate to see my church pay even the smallest lip service to the concept of a Higher Power.  As far as I am concerned, there isn't one.  As I have said many times, I can fully appreciate the beauty of the Universe as it is without feeling any need whatsoever to attribute its lovely structure to An Architect.

Again, if you've stuck with me this far, you've probably read previous words about my own church's acquisition of an old brick cathedral in one of the worst neighborhoods in my city.  You may also recall that I was one of those who disagreed with the acquisition of this property and voted against it in no uncertain terms.  Despite a divided congregation (the vote on whether or not to buy the building was something like 52% in favor and 48% against) the church went ahead with the acquisition.  The purchase ultimately irrevocably divided the church, cost us our minister, and caused the departure of a big percentage of our membership.  We went from being a rising star in the Unitarian universe to barely getting by with maybe 80 people in attendance on any given Sunday.  And that's on a good week.  The main problem is with the neighborhood and with its lack of convenient parking.  As to the neighborhood, there have been two murders on our property since we acquired the building, and many, many more in the immediate neighborhood.  It's mostly drug dealers killing other drug dealers.  So far nobody from our congregation has been involved in any violence bigger than having their hubcaps stolen.  At choir practice we are periodically reminded that when we are finished we should head directly to our cars and NOT congregate out front chatting, because it's not safe.  This is irksome, but a necessary practicality.  It bothers me, though, because the choir is pretty much the vast majority of my social circle.

Which finally gets me to the point of this tirade.  The church leadership has been trying to increase its appeal to the neighborhood by making its message more Christian-friendly.  We have Bible stories for the kids, frequent mentions of (and appeals to!) God from the pulpit, and generally a more theist slant to the message.  I have been told by those in authority that in order to appeal to the locals we have to couch our message in terms that they can identify with, or at least understand.

I find this at best to be disingenuous.  To be completely truthful, I find it dishonest as hell.  (A place I also do not believe in.)  We're behaving in a way that seems self-destructive to my mind.  You can't misrepresent your message in order to "get people through the doors" and then try to slip the actual message to them once they're in.  It's not right, and it's behavior that will kill your soul.  It's certainly killing mine.

We currently have a temporary minister, an "interim minister" assigned to us by the Unitarian Universalist Association whose job is to shepherd us  over a two year period to a place where we are ready to find a full-time, permanent minister of our own.  When some staff resignations freed up money in the budget, the interim minister took advantage of the way our charter is written to hire a second minister for the downtown church.  This is all perfectly legal and above-board, and when we do get a full-time minister, he or she will find themselves with a permanent Assistant Minister who is already in place.

Unfortunately, I have not connected with the new Assistant Minister at all.

She seems to subscribe fully to the idea that we have to be more "conventional" in our services in order to appeal to and draw in the locals.  She is the one who started the Bible story nonsense in the Children's Message.  Her services so far, at least for me, have been sloppy and ill-planned, since she often seems to work "without a net" so to speak -- no visible notes or script for a sermon, just talking off the top of her head.  For the life of me I could not tell you the theme or message of a single sermon she has delivered.  Services start late and run overtime, largely because of too many hymns and old-fashioned nonsense like an opening processional.  I have never been to a Unitarian service that felt so...Episcopalian.

So I find myself on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, if I left the church I would have precious little social life left.  When the church essentially divided (we are technically one congregation with two locations, but there is very little crossover between the two) the vast majority of the people I love decided to stick with the downtown location.  Since for me, the most important aspect of any church is its community, I followed that community and sing downtown with my friends.  On the other hand, I get absolutely nothing from my time there on Sunday mornings.

Let me repeat that:  I get absolutely nothing out of the time I spend in church on Sunday mornings.

This was never the case until the past couple of years.  I could always find some nugget, some idea, some form of mental or even, dare I say it, spiritual fulfillment from my Sunday morning.  Now, though, if the choir isn't singing, I just stay home.

I still believe that my church has great potential.  I think that it experienced its near-meteoric growth a decade ago for two reasons:  a great minister, and great music.  I truly think that lightning could strike twice.  We still have, if I do say it myself, a kick-ass choir.  People do come for the music.  And I hope that we are well on our way to hiring a new minister who can pick up the pieces and put us back on track.  We were one of the great Unitarian church congregations once, and we could be again.  But not if we continue to water down our message in a misguided attempt to make it more palatable.  No good can come from misrepresentation or dishonesty, no matter how subtle or well-intentioned.

So, I'm not sure what the best way is to proceed.  I guess I could talk to the Interim Minister about my feelings, since he hired the new person.  Or I could wait until the new full-timer is hired.  Or I could hang in there, but withhold my financial support, telling the Powers That Be why I am no longer giving money to the church.  (That would certainly get somebody's attention; my family is one of the top donors.  Not bragging, just sadly commenting on how much financial support has eroded since the second building was acquired....)  I just don't know what to do.  I really don't want to give up my friends, but I also don't want to spend my Sunday morning resenting the fact that I have to be there and counting the minutes until I can safely leave the neighborhood.

I hope either I, or the church, finds our way, and soon.