The Cross in the Window

View from indoors through four windows arranged such that the post and beam dividing them form a cross.  Outside is mostly clear sky with some trees and power lines.

A few years ago the church of which I am a member did a major renovation of our primary building. It was built back in the 1980s, replacing the historic and unaffordable-to-heat brick building belonging to the local Universalist church (one of our parent congregations. The denominations merged in 1961 but the congregations did not merge here until a generation later, in the early 1990s.) One of the features of the small brown church they built was that, in deference to the might of New England winter, the new sanctuary had no windows.

When I came into the congregation the year before the renovations, the church was in the middle of a challenging ministerial transition. Plans to build a new building had been set aside in favor of renovating the existing structures – volunteer labor from within the congregation did most of the work on the adjacent building that now houses administrative offices – and one thing people very definitely wanted was windows in the sanctuary. So we made that happen.

Strange things happen to a place when you start to let the light in.

Not long after it was all done and we’d resumed worshipping in our newly improved and expanded space, one of my fellow instigators (the delightful soul who taught me how to mud drywall and frequently invited me to “come to church and get plastered”) came up to me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Have you seen the new windows?”

Well, yes, of course I had. I was in the sanctuary every week, usually twice…?

“You know, this is the only church in this town that could install a window with an enormous cross in the middle of it, and not notice until after the thing was in.”

I stared at my friend for a minute, then had to go look. Surely enough, the great window in the eastern wall is divided into four panes — by a load-bearing post and beam, I later learned. When the contractors had got the paneling off the wall to put the windows in, they found architecture that wasn’t going anywhere, and so the windows went in around it.

Not being above recycling a good joke, I repeated the story a few days later to our DRE who gave me the same quizzical expression I must have given to my friend, excused herself, and came back looking thoughtful. “You know, you’re right.” I promptly gave credit where credit was due, noting that it’s kind of impossible to un-see the architectural cross once you know it’s there.

In the course of talking about UUism I’ve come to describe this tradition as being sort of the Schroedinger’s Cat of Christianity: you can’t really be sure about a particular individual (or congregation, for that matter) until you open the box and look, and in some ways the answer is both yes and no. It’s a fractally complex boundary and we are, as a denomination, positioned right on it, with all the paisley whorls and vortices of thought that position entails. There are UUs that self-identify as Christian, there are at least as many who vehemently identify otherwise; congregations take on a character that varies from church to church and region to region. And the truth of it depends on what exactly you think “Christian” means and who’s doing the asking.

What is unquestionably true is that there’s an often-times uncomfortable tension in UU congregations between the vortices of thought that form what I’ve occasionally (and with tongue firmly in cheek) called the Unholy Trinity of UUism: Secular Humanism / Atheism; Liberal Christianity; and non-Christian spirituality. These tensions are the failure mode of our denomination’s theological pluralism and people smarter than I am have suggested that the Humanism / Christianity divide goes back at least to the denominational merger, the Unitarians having historically tended more toward Humanism and the Universalists more toward Christianity, and that some sense of “those people are taking over our church” still lingers in places. Adding the third wave, post-merger, of “everyone else” does not seem to have stabilized or eliminated the older tensions.  Three-body problems are infinitely complex.

What PeaceBang described quite accurately (in a post last January) as an “allergy to Christianity” persists even in the comparatively healthy and eclectic congregation of which I am a member, and for my own part I will admit to some residual twitching. But PB is correct in that the UU church is a Protestant denomination, whether we want to admit this or not: the heritage of our Liberal Christian predecessors is a fundamental, structural part of the organization we now have as surely as that cross in the window holds up the roof of the sanctuary where I worship on Sundays.

It’s there. It’s not hurting anything. It’s part of who we are.

We may as well get used to it.

I have a bunch more stuff to write around this set of ideas, but I also have to write an agenda for my committee meeting tomorrow night.

Edited to add: Further thoughts at Radioactive Jesus?

This entry was posted in Reflections and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.