I don’t know how I can adequately thank this congregation for celebrating with me the anniversary of my ordination to the Unitarian Universalist ministry of the Community Church of Boston 25 years ago! We had a bit of a party with wonderful cake, kind words, and this beautiful stole. I am humbled and grateful.
Community Church of Boston had been born of the social struggle following World War I. Rev. Clarence R. Skinner, professor at the Universalist school of theology at Tufts University, organized the new congregation around the ideas that the center of religious community must not be some distant and abstract ideas, but the very people who assembled themselves. The congregation held their lives, their interests and all their conscience unleashed. Skinner was joined by Gertrude Winslow, a founder of what would become the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. To their “free pulpit in action,” they would invite Rev. John Haynes Holmes of New York, who has led his Church of the Messiah (Unitarian) to become the Community Church of New York. Holmes preached in Boston on the first Sunday of the month for several years and then for the opening service of each season for many years.
Professor Skinner would eventually become the Dean of the seminary at Tufts. From this position, he would mentor about half of the new Universalist ministers. He was a practical theologian, capturing his thinking less in academic articles and more by his in person encouragement of leaders at conferences and denominational gatherings. He was the principal author of “A Declaration of Social Principles,” the statement adopted in 1917 by the Universalist Church of America that connected our faith to other Protestant communities that were preaching what was known as the Social Gospel. Toward the end of the Second World War, he published the closest thing his generation had of a comprehensive theology in a tiny book called A Religion for Greatness. In it, he shares a kind of manifesto:
Insight comes to human beings, whether primitive or modern, whether naive or sophisticated. Beneath all curious customs and beliefs, deeper than ecclesiastical creeds, more vital and basic than priestly rites, stands out one impressive fact—namely, humanity touches infinity. Our home is in immensity. We live, move and have our being in an eternity.
This magnificent assertion is our greatest affirmation. Nothing else surpasses it in sweep of imagination or depth of understanding. It is a truth proclaimed by all that we know of modern science. It stands the test of experience as the enduring reality.
The insightful religion of the unities and the universals is a radical cure. It digs into the soil of humanity’s selfishness, superstitions and distortions. It destroys the vicious partialisms which would lock us up into the divisive cells of race, of gender, of class, denying us our common rights of humanity. This enemy—partialism—must be routed on every front—economic, social, biological and cultural.
The only way to rout it is to supplant the fears and errors of partialism by a vigorous, realistic religion of universalism. We must think, feel and act in universal terms, and thus see how petty and sinful are the partialisms of our lesser selves. We must expand our spiritual powers that we vastly increase the range of our understanding and sympathy. There is no other way. It is greatness—universalism—or perish.