This is not a joke: Ever-edgy Unitarian Universalists just elected their first woman president

Anyone who knows me knows that I love jokes about religion. We are not talking about cruel or nasty humor. I'm talking about the kinds of jokes that offer insights into what makes certain religious groups tick, the characteristics that define them as who they are.

Like what? Catholic jokes? Too many to mention. Jewish humor? That's a truckload of books, including the vast world of Jewish mother humor.

You could do an entire book on jokes about religious believers at the gates of hell. Like this one, which I heard from an Episcopalian who briefly considered doing a book on Episcopal Church humor.

So three women arrive at the gates of hell -- a Southern Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian. Satan asks each: What did you do to get sent here? The Baptist says: "I got drunk." Satan sends her into hell. The Catholic says: "I had an affair with my priests." In she goes. The Episcopalian says: "I ate all my dinner with my salad fork." Satan rings her up.

Light bulb jokes? That's another book. Let's start with my own flock. How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Light bulb? What is this LIGHT BULB? Alternative joke: Change? What is this CHANGE?

Then there is the unique niche for Unitarian Universalist humor. You know, like: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Mormon? Answer: Someone who goes door to door for no particular reason. Leadership magazine once ran a cartoon (pre-WWW era, alas) with the caption, "Unitarian charismatics." It showed people with their hands in the air shouting, "Now I rrreeeeeeeallly don't know!" Garrison Keillor once quipped that early Unitarian missionaries tried to spread their faith among Native Americans by using liturgical dance.

So why, you ask, am I bringing this up?

Religion News Service ran a short story the other day that, at first glance, left your GetReligionistas shaking our heads in wonder. My first reaction was laughter, because it seemed so ironic that it might have been a joke. I couldn't believe that it was true.

The headline: "Unitarian Universalists elect first woman president."

Say what?!? In 2017? Was this satire?

You mean the Unitarians didn't shatter that glass church ceiling years and years ago? I mean, this is a flock that had its first openly LGBTQ ministers in the '70s, long before liberal, mainline religious bodies were combining the letters L-G-B-T-Q.

But my second reaction was more journalistic. You just know that there has to be an interesting story behind that headline. Here is hoping that RNS dedicates so additional time and digital space to this important story. Clearly, this was a case when a news organization could not afford to send a reporter to cover an event in person.

Here is the opening, which hints at issues looming in the background:

(RNS) An Arizona pastor and immigrant advocate has been elected as the first woman president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The election of the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray on Saturday (June 24) follows the resignation of the Rev. Peter Morales, who left office in April three months short of the end of his second term amid controversy about diversity in the UUA.
The Rev. Sofía Betancourt was appointed as one of three co-presidents to complete Morales’ term.
“I am honored to follow her!” said Frederick-Gray, 41,  after her election, according to UU World, the association’s magazine.
All three of the candidates for president were women; Betancourt was not on the ballot.
Morales, the first Latino president of the liberal and mostly white association, said someone else needed to address the religious movement’s diversity problems after criticism mounted over hiring practices.

The story then moves on to topics that are hot in the progressive world, such as immigration, Donald Trump, etc.

Frankly, I wanted to know about the new president and what she thought about the diversity issues -- in a church that salutes liberal causes whenever possible -- that lurked behind the decades in which women didn't climb to this slot on the leadership ladder.

I mean, Unitarians in America formally recognized a woman as a valid clergy person in 1878.

Yes, 1878. That was a long time ago.

This story also fascinated me because I wondered if it might be linked to another important trend among Unitarian Universalists in recent decades, one that I wrote about in 1997. The headline on that column: "A Unitarian Generation Gap." It focused on a popular UU leader -- the late Rev. Forrest Church -- who had begun using the word "God" in some prayers. In some UU settings, this inspired people to boo.

But things were changing, he said. Part of this was due to an influx of ordained women, many of whom had been inspired by feminist, and even neopagan, forms of theology. They were starting to rethink language about the Divine, God, gods and goddesses. Here is a key passage:

"The Unitarians of the '50s and '60s were people who turned to us as a way of escaping other churches," said Church. "It was like they were deep-sea divers trying to swim up out of the depths of traditional religion. The Unitarian Church was like a decompression chamber where they could stop -- half way to the surface -- to keep from getting the bends."
Asked to describe their beliefs, these Unitarians defiantly testify about the doctrines they no longer believe. Thus, this entrenched older generation tends to shun rites, symbols and most religious language. In a strange twist of fate, these older Unitarians have become -- relatively speaking -- the conservatives who fidget with sweaty palms as a new generation of seekers enters the pews and pulpits, eager to explore new spiritual frontiers. ...
The newcomers often bring with them religious trends from mass media and the mall. Many want to experience the presence of God, the goddess or some other god to be named later. Meanwhile, the old guard distrusts talk-TV mystics almost as much as Christian televangelists. It's hard for iconoclasts who fled the supernatural worldview of evangelicalism or Catholicism to say "amen" when youngsters launch into sermons about the supernatural powers of Mother Earth.

So what is the status of this trend? To what degree have women -- secular, deists and theists of various kinds -- found a home in Unitarian Universalism? How are they shaping this unique group of believers and skeptics?

Oh, and why did it take so long to have a women elected as UU president? #REALLY

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