The UUA General Assembly in Rochester, N.Y. was special for a number of reasons. One, we had eight members attending the General Assembly including two high school youth delegates. This is the most we have had attend a General Assembly since the one in New Haven a number of years ago. Secondly, the GA in Rochester was the largest Unitarian Universalist gathering in history--4,006 attendees, breaking the previous record set in 1989, also in New Haven, by more than 400. It was kind of exciting to rub elbows with that many UUs in one place. When we sang a hymn together the auditorium really resonated.
I did something at this year's GA that I have not ever done at a previous General Assembly. I sang in the UU Minister's Association and GA Choir for the Celebration of Ministry Service and the Service of the Living Tradition. It was great fun making harmony with 60 to 70 ministerial colleagues and fellow Unitarian Universalists. I now know why those who sing in our church choir enjoy the experience so much. If you've been thinking about doing it, do it, you won't regret it. You'll have a great time and meet some interesting people who will become good friends. And you'll be making a contribution which will bring inspiration and pleasure to others.
I want to mention three things that I found particularly meaningful at this year's General Assembly in Rochester. One was the emphasis on women in ministry in the UUA. Helen Cohen, minister of the First Parish in Lexington, gave a powerful and moving overview of how far we have come in the past hundred years and especially in the past 25 years. In terms of percentage and perhaps even in numbers we have more women ministers serving churches and attending theological school than any other denomination.
At a special UUMA gathering we were invited to share what changes and transformations had occurred in our lives and ministries due to the presence women ministers. I mentioned my experience as part of the Greenfield Ministers Study Group that used to be primarily an old boys network when I joined the group in the early 1970s. One year we took on the challenge of reading and critiquing feminist theology when there were only men in the group. I noted that would never happen today. Women are a strong and meaningful presence in our ministry and they have changed forever the way we think and act and relate to one another. It is certainly true in our ministers association gatherings and it is equally true in the experience of the members of First Parish in Norwell.
We have played a vital role in helping to train and educate some very fine women ministers who have made a lasting impact on the lives and memories of many of our members. When I came here in 1969 I recall that a number of parishioners confided to me that they would never be comfortable with a woman minister in the pulpit and could never conceive of a woman minister serving the parish. All of those who told me this were themselves women. I don't think there would be a man or woman in the parish today who would still feel that way. There are now more UU women in theological school than men. And in a few years there will no doubt be more women serving UU churches than men. I am proud that we have played a role in helping to bring this change about.
The second thing that touched me at GA this year was kind of bitter sweet. Dick Scobie, the Executive Director of the UU Service Committee was retiring after 26 years on the job. He was stepping down because of lymphoma related cancer. He had lost his hair because of the chemo-therapy treatments, but his spirits were great, and he was apparently responding well to the treatment. Only time would tell. This was his last GA and his last performance at the highly popular UUSC Human Rights Cabaret. I first met Dick Scobie out at Star Island more than 20 years ago. He would go out on the rocks in the evening during sunset and put the sun to bed while playing the bagpipes. There is nothing quite so pleasing as hearing "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes while watching a gorgeous sunset on Star Island. Later that night Dick and others would gather in the Island chapel with guitars and banjos for a folk-song fest.
Dick Scobie has helped envision and enact a program of social justice and human rights for the UU Service Committee for the past quarter of a century with programs in Central America, Africa, India, the Philippines, and with the Promise the Children's program here in the U.S. Dick says of himself, "I'd like to be able to say that I have always stood for the idea that it is possible to make a better, more just world. And I believe that the process of doing so should be joyful, with singing, dancing and celebration." Which is exactly what he did at the UUSC Human Rights Cabaret at this year's GA. He marched in with the rest of the staff playing his bagpipes and joined in with others in singing and celebration. I loved being there and hope and pray that the treatment will succeed and buy Dick and his lovely wife some good years to enjoy their retirement together.
Lastly, I would make mention of a zinger of a lecture given by Dr. Robert Bellah on "Unitarian Universalism In Societal Perspective." Dr. Bellah is a Sociologist of Religion and a Trinitarian Episcopalian. Dr. Bellah did his homework and critiqued the latest survey of UUs and studied our history past and present in preparation for his talk. He noted that our presumed greatest strength and prized values, the inherent worth of the individual, and our emphasis on the search for truth and freedom of conscience, were also our greatest weakness in that we lack a strong sense of communal connection in worship and society.
Our over emphasis on individualism, which is characteristic of American culture as a whole, makes us forget our derivative social origins and the importance of institutional structures--familial, religious and political--which help shape and form our character and personality, special and unique though they may be. We only become individuals in and through society. In theological terms this is to say that "we love because God first loved us", or to say it another way, we are enabled to love and to become autonomous relational beings only because we were first nurtured and loved and taught by parents and teachers and schools and churches and political and social institutions.
If we believe in "a free and responsible search for truth," said Dr. Bellah, then "the truth is that our nature is social" and that our prized individualism is derived from that social nature. I will have more to say about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in relation to church and society in a future sermon. Suffice it to say that there was much "grist for the mill" for thought and reflection and action offered by Robert Bellah and many other fine presenters and speakers at this year's UUA General Assembly. They remind us that we are part of a larger movement, not only national, but global, and that our UU liberal religious association is part of the Church Universal that transcends all sects and denominations and creeds.
Bless us, O Spirit of Creation, and help us to realize that the gift of our being and becoming comes to us from sources of truth and love beyond ourselves not of our own making, a heritage of knowledge and values and aspiration, passed onto to us from generations of seekers and worshippers, who gathered in community for enduring purposes of spiritual and social betterment. We are part of them, they are part of us, and together we are part of the divine mystery of being that has made us all. Amen.