Written by Daniel Hazard
'Looking through the lens of UCC history'
"A heady, exasperating mix." Perhaps no other descriptive phrase in the UCC's 50-year history has been used as often, or as accurately, to describe us.
It comes from a widely-read, widely-celebrated article written by the late Rev. Oliver G. Powell in the September 1975 issue of A.D. Magazine, a predecessor publication of United Church News.
Powell, who then served as the Boston area minister of the Massachusetts Conference, wrote that piece just as I was starting fourth grade at East Heights Elementary in Henderson, Ky., where I could barely spell "heady" and couldn't even pronounce "exasperating." And I knew nothing of this "United Church" that would later become such an important part of my life.
But, at the time when Powell was busy synthesizing the characteristics of our church, this green denomination — then just 18 years old — was at the height of its eager, awkward, pimply teen-aged years. No longer able to rest on the hype of its ecumenical birth in 1957, the UCC was now living the adventurous life of a risk-taking college freshman.
Organizational theorists might have well advised this still-new church to stay close to home and mind its own fledgling institutional concerns, but the UCC's "heady, exasperating" membership — and leadership — would have none of that. They had more important issues with which to contend than mere ecclesiastical order.
They were busy being the church in the world: joining protests, resisting militarism, confronting racism, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, standing alongside migrant farm workers — and talking about sex long before other Christians knew it existed.
"There is something about the essential spirit of the United Church that resists and resents being pinned down in cold, logical prose," Powell wrote then. "Actually, poetry and singing serve it better, for at its heart, there is something wild and unpredictable, even reckless."
For the vocabulary-challenged, "heady" actually means "clever" or "shrewd," even "wildly impetuous." It's a right-on descriptor for a church that's been plotting social change ever since the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact of 1620. Likewise, "exasperating" is characterized by "impatience" and "intensity" — both common traits among most justice activists I know. For anyone who has ever witnessed the stimulating debates and debaters that comprise a UCC General Synod, you must agree that "heady" and "exasperating" work quite well.
But upon re-reading Powell's original article, I couldn't help but notice that his original descriptors of the UCC had fallen victim, in recent years, to an unknown editor's red pen. Many people of late, unfortunately, have shortened Powell's sentiments, leaving our "exasperating headiness" intact, but leaving out the beauty and optimism of which he also wrote.
Here's what Powell actually authored in 1975: "What a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!" (The word "beautiful" even made it into the article's headline.)
In describing us, Powell not only detailed our headier traits, but brought life to our fun-loving ones as well. Not surprisingly, he lifted up images of sauerbraten and potatoes, long draughts of dark beer, romantic poetry and Bach chorales. He talked of New England boiled dinners and baked beans, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and skylight filtering through clear, freshly-washed, church-window panes.
In the mid-70s, when the 'malaise' index was soaring alongside out-of-control gas prices, Powell stopped to note the UCC's more-faithful hue. A people of "risky adventure," he called us.
Perhaps, at 50, like never before in our history has there been a greater need for the UCC to rediscover its beauty, its hopefulness. In so doing, I doubt we will ever jeopardize the exasperating headiness we also cherish. But it could temper it a bit — perhaps calling us to be a little more forgiving and a lot less suspicious of one another.
"Come to the party!" is how the invitation to the UCC's 50th anniversary was first issued one year ago. Now, the RSVPs have been counted, and the largest UCC contingent ever to assemble will gather this month in New England to celebrate the occasion.
Together in Hartford and via the internet, maybe this is our best moment to declare: "The UCC: What a beautiful, hopeful mix!"