Kairos/Conversation One: Reply by George Kimmich Beach to Nancy McDonald Ladd

Reply by author George Kimmich Beach to Rev. Dr. Nancy McDonald Ladd’s commentary “By Their Groups You Still Know Them.”

Nancy Ladd’s searching commentary on James Luther Adams and his “prophetic theology” brings the discussion into the practical arena of the church as a dedicated community and the ways it is changing under the pressures or preferences of contemporary society.  Herself a parish minister in an active congregation, Ladd reminds us of the centrality of the church and its ministry to Adams’s theology.  He served as parish minister of two congregations early in his career, and late into his retirement years, he volunteered as Minister of Adult Education at Arlington Street Church in Boston.  Adams was a communicator and loved the church as, in his phrase, “a community of communication.”

Among the three foci identified in my essay as central to Adams’s prophetic theology, Ladd brings to the fore his advocacy of “radical laicism”—a concept he also expressed as “the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”  The little word “all” suggests that the priestly and prophetic roles are inherent to religious commitment of the members.  We may also recall that Adams, a firm believer in the separation of church and state, nevertheless drew close parallels between church and state.  Thus, in a democracy “freedom of association” is guaranteed by right and encouraged in practice; equally in the liberal church voluntary associations—often lay led—are constitutive of the religious community as a whole. Or should be!  

Thus the “believer” in the religious realm is not unlike the “citizen” in the secular realm.  No wonder Adams’s theology crosses over into sociology, and links faith to commitment, an emphasis strongly abetted by the work of his mentor, Ernst Troeltsch.  What scorn Adams would heap on political “eunuchs” and spiritual seekers who “don’t believe in organized religion”!  

Ladd’s essay similarly draws on sociological studies to illuminate religious institutions today.  She addresses concerns around changing roles of professional clergy (and paid staff generally) and of lay volunteers in the churches, and relates these changes to declining volunteer participation in contemporary society generally.  These trends are worrisome for theological as well as for practical reasons, and apparently run contrary to everything Adams advocates under the rubric “radical laicism.”  Before commenting specifically on Ladd’s concerns, I want to highlight some relevant features of Adams’s understanding of church and ministry, as rooted in his personal experience and religious commitment.                                                  

Adams’s religious journey began with his childhood experience of the radical (in fact, absolute) laicism of the Plymouth Brethren, under the tutelage of deeply committed parents.  This experience left a lasting mark on his conceptions of church and ministry long after he had rejected the world-shunning fundamentalism of the Brethren.   (The German for a process of transformation in which what is negated on one level is affirmed on a higher level, Augefhoben, can be seen here: separation from “the world” on one level and becomes profoundly critical engagement with “the world” on another.)  Adams became, then, an erudite, professorial intellectual and social critic, while also pursuing an entirely voluntary ministry to students and colleagues.  My wife Barbara and I were recipients of this ministry through weekly, late-evening conversations with Unitarian students at his and Margaret’s home in Cambridge.  His enjoyment of “holding forth” on any topic of interest or concern was on full display on these occasions, as also in numerous academic and ministerial study groups over the years.    

Professor Adams never took refuge in the academic ivory tower.  In the 1930s, when Unitarian churches were grappling with stagnation and renewal, he took a leading role in the newly appointed Commission of Appraisal—an institution that effectively charted new directions for the denomination, especially in religious education and international service.  The idea proved to have staying-power.  When the Unitarian Universalist Association was founded in 1960, an ongoing, elected Commission on Appraisal was created.  A few years ago denominational officials sought to gut it.  (They asked, “Why do we need outside ‘appraisal’ when we have our ‘Carver Governance ends statements’?”)  The laity, joined by some brave clergy, spoke up and sustained the Commission.  

In consequence of his continuing promotion of theological, organizational, and liturgical renewal, Adams was lionized by some and scorned by others.  He enjoyed telling how, upon entering a denominational assembly with an entourage, a prominent Humanist was heard to mutter, “Here comes Adams and the Twelve!”  As Ladd notes, he cited Dean Dan Fenn’s admonition to the divinity students: “Jesus was not a parson”—not a cleric but a layman—“a man of the people.”                                                                                                                                 

Laypersons as much as clergy, in Adams’s view, should be leaders in the church.  Yet in the tradition of congregational polity (a commitment rooted in Unitarian history), there is a tension between “ministry” as the calling of a member to leadership in the congregation, and the election (and hiring) of a professionally trained clergyperson.  The ambiguity reflects the difference between the sectarian tradition of the “radical” Reformation (e. g. Brethren and Quaker) and churchly tradition of the “magisterial” Reformation (e. g. Calvinist and Lutheran).  Another fruit of the original Commission of Appraisal was the formation of lay-led Fellowships in many locales where no Unitarian or Universalist church existed.  The aim was primarily denominational growth, but a consequence was exactly the kind of “radical laicism” that Adams saw as central to “the church” writ large.

Turning more specifically to the essay by Ladd, I’ll begin where she ends: “I can think of no work more sacred than this—to follow the prophetic imperative of James Luther Adams’s theology toward renewed commitment to the laity and . . . the progressive tradition. . . .”  Renewal is needed because the trend within the churches, abetted by vastly larger societal trends, is running in the opposite direction.  “For my career [in parish ministry]” Ladd comments, “strategies to rebuild the efficacy, engagement and cultural relevance of the liberal church began around the turn of the 21st century with a sharp move toward primarily staff-led ministry teams. . . .”   The many volunteers on whom the churches depended in earlier years “began to age out of active service” for a variety of socio-economic reasons.  I would add to her list of social changes the influx of women into the (paid) workforce, and the falling birth-rate especially in the upper-middle class, bringing diminished Sunday schools.  Ladd goes on to cite the evidence for a major generational shift in attitude toward social institutions in general and churches in particular: they are an optional luxury, not a source of valued identity.   

My impression is that ethnically identified religious institutions, Christian or other, tend to escape this trend.  But in my own parish ministry experience, I’ve seen—and abetted!—the same desire to substitute paid staff for volunteers (an advantage of larger and wealthier institutions, as Ladd notes.)  Employees tend to read the job description and get the job done; volunteers are usually self-motivated, often creative, and difficult to direct.   Would Ladd extend her observations on this dynamic to the point of noting that the whole tenor of congregational life shifts with the gradual shift from volunteers to paid staff?  Perhaps.  At the denominational level in recent years we see lay leaders in ancillary organizations being supplanted by ordained ministers.  They may bring a more professional “skill-set” but they are also beholden to policy directives from headquarters.  Efficiency may be gained but under bureaucratic direction “salt loses its savor,” as Jesus might say.  The trend, remarked by Ladd, may reflect (or bring with it) shrinking membership and finances, but as young, inexperienced ministers used to say of tiny, ancient congregations, “It’s hard to kill a church.”  

These are only a few of the thoughts that Nancy Ladd’s reflections on my outline of Adams’s prophetic theology stimulated in my heart and mind.  Among other concerns that she raises, and seem to me particularly important, is a deeper understanding of the roles and the relationship of the professional and lay ministry.  The former, I suggest, should be especially charged with nurturing the latter—for example, an explicit commitment to lay ministry with children and youth.  Bringing the rising generation into the sacred and cherished traditions of the dedicated community is, after all, a central raison d’etre of the church.  

Where did I first hear James Luther Adams, and fall under his spell?  At the annual conference of Liberal Religious Youth—a youth-governed organization.  (Truth in advertising: we were not financially self-sufficient, and our vaunted self-government generated serious conflict with an Executive Director of our own choosing!)  How proud we were that we brought together the Unitarian and Universalist youth organizations in North America well before our “parent” bodies managed their merger, practicing a kind of “radical laicism” of age 16-25 youth.  I can even remember what Professor Adams talked about: the culture-bending novel by J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye—a book that could well be censored today for the uninhibited teenage  swearing.  Adams had come to our gathering, he said, because “I just wanted to know what the youth were thinking.”      

Ladd concludes with the judgment that “a well-orchestrated worship service and the delivery of high-quality professionally-led programming is not a sacred enough motivation to carry . . . today’s progressive church.”  What might be “sacred enough”?  She refers, then, to “the prophetic imperative of James Luther Adams’s theology,” marked by “renewed commitment among the laity.”  Adams famously spoke of “taking time seriously.”  We might conclude, with Nancy Ladd, that doing so within the dedicated community will necessarily mean taking radical laicism seriously.  

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