Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The View From the Channing Pulpit

Yesterday I led the chapel service at UUA headquarters in Boston. I think the text of my talk, "Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class," is going to show up on the UU World web site soon, so I'll post the link later rather than the whole thing now. Today I thought I'd just describe the experience, which is an odd and fascinating combination of Big Deal and No Big Deal.

On the No Big Deal side, they do this every Tuesday just before lunch in a room on the second floor. It's just half an hour, which includes a couple of hymns, a period for sharing joys and concerns, and opening/closing words. So that leaves maybe 15 minutes for a reading and sermon, rather than the 20-minute sermon plus maybe 5-minute reading you get in a typical hour-long Sunday service. Maybe thirty people show up -- they keep filtering in during the prelude, when I'm gearing up to talk and have stopped counting, so I can't say for sure. Afterwards they tell me that's about the usual number of people -- way less than the 150-or-so I spoke to at my home congregation in January.

I had mentioned to my minister (John Gibbons of First Parish in Bedford) that I was doing this. And he, recognizing that I was nervous, emphasized the no-big-deal side of it. He keeps not getting around to scheduling one, which I'll bet is a common attitude among Boston-area ministers, who already have commitments for 20-25 sermons a year.

The Big Deal side of it starts with 25 Beacon Street itself. If you've never been there, the UUA headquarters sits across from Boston Common and next to the State Capitol. And I don't mean "next to" like across-the-highway and over-the-barbed-wire-fence. When you look out the window from the Eliot Chapel room, it's like your neighbor has a really big house with a gold dome on it. If 25 Beacon didn't already exist, they couldn't build it there today. The whole place is an odd combination of working office and museum. People busily go back and forth down narrow hallways, under the watchful eyes of portraits of long-dead folks who are legendary figures if you know Unitarian history and complete non-entities otherwise.

The Eliot Chapel (I examined a plaque trying to figure out if this was the same Eliot who was president of Harvard, the one who lifted the ban on Emerson and hired William James) is set up to be wide but not deep. The State Capitol is behind the speaker, and the far wall has tall mirrors carefully positioned so that the speaker can't see himself. (I was grateful for that. I try to make eye contact with the audience when I speak, but I think eye contact with myself would be unnerving.)

I stand behind a weathered piece of dark wood with a small plaque on it. This is the Channing Pulpit. It used to be in the Federal Street Church back in the days when Massachusetts still hadn't separated church and state. So delegates spoke from this lectern to debate ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. John Adams, almost certainly at one time or another. It's called the Channing Pulpit after the minister of that church, William Ellery Channing. Unitarianism doesn't have a Joseph Smith or Martin Luther type founder, but if we had to name one it would be Channing. You can see a life-sized statue of him on the Boston Common.

So naturally I'm thinking: I'm here why, exactly?

The last time I'd been at headquarters was in February, to talk to my editor at Skinner Press. (I'm writing an intro-to-UU book that we still haven't titled or set a release date for). I had forgotten the significance of Tuesdays, so I just missed the chapel service, led by William Schultz, ex-president of the UUA and ex-executive-director of Amnesty International.

I'm here why?

And then there's who the thirty people are: the executive VP of the UUA, the director of electronic communications (who invited me), a full slate of UU World editors (one of whom is playing the piano), a couple of Skinner Press people whose good will my book is going to need if it's going to come out looking anything like what I picture. And the people I don't recognize: Maybe I should. If I were really plugged in and knew what's what.

Finally, there's my philosophy of preaching, which insists that I say something challenging. If you come out of one of my sermons feeling warm and fuzzy about yourself, I've screwed up.

"It's intimidating," I had told my minister, "to think about going to the UUA and challenging the top people in the denomination. But if I'm not going to do that, why am I there?"

I try not to be harsh or needlessly confrontational. But the writing process always starts with the question: "What do these people need to hear?" not "What do they want to hear?" UUism is possibly the most educated denomination in the country, and our congregations are full of professionals with masters and doctorates. What's up with that? So I start with my father, a factory worker: Why don't we appeal to someone like him? Is it his fault or ours?

It gets easier once I start talking. I always preach from a complete script in 16-point type, formatted like poetry so that each line is a complete phrase and each sheet ends with a pause appropriate for turning the page. At that point it's just performance; I make myself trust completely in the infinite wisdom of the person I was when I wrote this stuff. The message is what is; it's too late to change it now.

And it works. I can tell because they keep watching me; their eyes don't drift over to the gold dome. Afterwards some of the people I didn't recognize come up and talk to me. One works with a prison ministry. Another remembers her father, who worked in an elastic factory. They've also been thinking about class issues. Tom Stites, the retiring editor of UU World, tells me I've stolen the sermon he wanted to do at the end of the year, just before he leaves.

The reaction is gratifying. But as the room empties, just before I gather up my notes to leave, I touch the Channing Pulpit one last time.

It's not impressed. It's heard better.


kim said...

When my partner and I toured 25 Beacon St. when we were in Boston a few years ago, we admired all the portraits, and the complete set of UU World/Christian Register, etc. But when we got to the top of the building and I started to read that plaque aloud to her, with my elbows on the Channing Pulpit, i found tears streaming down my face as I read. I tell people about it, and cry again as I tell it. Your story made me cry too.
i cry for the beauty of the dream of our founders, and our part in it.
Can't we get back to that dream of a country run by and for the People instead of by and for money? the dream of justice and equality before the law, of a decent life for everyone.

Kim said...

Doug -- Are you aware of "UU Carnival"? Have you seen this month's discussion question?
I want to know what you think of it. It struck me as being anti-intellectual, but I'd like to hear what cooler heads make of it.

Doug Muder said...

I hadn't noticed UU Carnival before. The question didn't strike me as anti-intellectual, because it was more focused on what you like than what you don't like. I read it as pro-pop culture rather than anti-intellectual.

Nothing is more stifling than to be in a group where you don't feel like you can admit what you really like. My pop-culture weakness is for countdowns. If I channel-scan through a show that is "The 20 Greatest ____ of All Time", I have a hard time moving on, even if it's a stupid subject.

kim said...

Thanks for that perspective.