Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister Molly Housh Gordon interviews three UU leaders (The Rev. Eugene Pickett, The Rev. Dr. David C. Pohl and The Rev. Janet Hartzell Bowering) who were active at the time of the consolidation of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association.
MOLLY HOUSH GORDON: I'm Molly Housh Gordon, newly ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing three leaders of our tradition who were active at the time of the consolidation of the Universalist Church of American and the American Unitarian Association.
EUGENE PICKETT: I was in Richmond, Virginia, when the merger discussion was going on. I don't remember being too involved in it, because I was too involved in other things, civil rights and whatnot. So merger wasn't really high on my agenda.
But I do remember that I preached against it. And I chuckle now, because the congregation voted for it. So that was how much influence the minister had. Learned that early in the game. I'm not certain why I was opposed to it, but in thinking about it, I think I was influenced by A. Powell Davies, for one thing.
DAVID C. POHL: And I went to one of these&mbdashstumbled into one of these meetings. And there were like 50 people packed into this—I won't say smoke-filled room. But, you know, it was a caucus room.
And Powell Davies, this person whose books I had and whom I admired so—and I actually had heard him preach once. Amazing man. But he was leading an effort to oppose merger. And so that was very disappointing to me and disillusioning.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: Well, it was during my last years in seminary. In fact, I was already engaged to be married. My husband-to-be and I went to a conference in Andover in the summer of '53. And we heard that this was coming. And we thought it was a great idea, we as individuals.
EUGENE PICKETT: My own feeling at the time was that there was a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement on the expansion of Unitarianism, especially in the South, but really throughout the country. But it was the height of the fellowship movement. And people were really excited about this. And I felt that this would divert our attention from growing.
DAVID C. POHL: Somehow Unitarians would be held back by that kind of emphasis and resources being put into merger at that particular time. On the Universalist side, I think there was a fear that they might be swallowed up.
I always had this very positive feeling about merger. It was like a non-issue for me. And I wasn't surprised when the two plebiscites in the late '50s were pretty overwhelmingly positive. The final one I think was about 90% of congregations voting, both Unitarians and Universalists, for consolidation.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: You can put it either way. It's something that should have been done a long time ago. And now we're ready to do this. And we want to join with the Unitarians.
Or we are poor. And we are losing ground. And we jolly well better join with somebody who's a little bit more successful or we're going to be in real trouble.
EUGENE PICKETT: But it was also a very exciting time. There was a great deal of enthusiasm. And hopes were high for the future of the movement.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: It was kind of, we're almost ready to hug each other, even though we've never felt Unitarians were very huggable. But it was kind of what we've been waiting for and kind of urging onward has finally happened.
EUGENE PICKETT: The highlight of the meetings in Boston where the two groups were consolidated was the service at Symphony Hall, where they had the pulpit from Channing and Josiah Ballou.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: We were very, very excited. Some of our parishioners, former parishioners from the South, had come up, because it was a big event for them too.
EUGENE PICKETT: Immediately after the merger and Dana Greeley had been elected president—
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: It was understood that as one of the aspects of merger Phillip and his counterpart in the Unitarians Dana McLean Greeley, would each step down gracefully, graciously, whatever. And a new person would be chosen to head the new organization. And when the time came, Phil stepped down, but Dana McLean Greeley kept right there.
DAVID C. POHL: There were those, I think, who feel in retrospect that the Universalists got the short end of it. And sheer numbers helped determine that, perhaps.
EUGENE PICKETT: But then in the '60s, developed a number of controversies within the movement. The black power movement, for instance, the Vietnam War. This tended to fracture parts of the Association. And so the whole thing sort of slowed down. That we didn't realize the growth that we had hoped for, and that we became consumed with these various issues within the movement.
DAVID C. POHL: And I wish, for example, that we had been much more aggressive in recruiting people of color much sooner. Our first openly gay ministers were placed in 1980. Our first lesbian ministers in 1984.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: They didn't ever seem to pay a lot of attention to women in the ministry and what kind of a unique contribution they could make. Women were entering the ministry all the time in those days.
EUGENE PICKETT: Now it's a much more democratic polity that has emerged over the years.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: We're finding that word Universalist is a very useful one. Unitarian simply says we aren't trinitarians, if you're looking at the basic part of it. And Universalist could mean a very broad-minded kind of all-inclusive group. But it also could mean a group that includes everybody.
And I wish that could be used a bit more. Sometimes people discover that word for the first time when they're in their '30s or '40s. And they say, this has great possibilities.
EUGENE PICKETT: I think significant changes have taken place during these 50 years. And I think it is partly because of the combining of the two traditions, over the long run, that it has proved to be a very beneficial thing that resulted from the merger. I would like to see the movement become more inclusive, more diverse.
JANET HARTZELL BOWERING: I would like to think that there can be people of various religious—and at the moment, of course, the controversial one would be Muslim—people with different religious backgrounds could worship together with persons who perhaps have found acceptance already, but would welcome those because they remember what it's like when you're not accepted.
EUGENE PICKETT: So I would like to see us grow in numbers. And I would like to see us grow in influence in the larger society and work toward a more just and compassionate society.
DAVID C. POHL: And one of my favorite authors was John Cheever. And this to me is as good a mission statement as any for our future, and that is to—he was speaking of the mission of being a writer, but I see it as our mission as well, to build small shelters of hope and to illuminate life's darkened ways.
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Last updated on Tuesday, March 20, 2012.
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