Wednesday, June 24, 2009

UUA GA in SLC, I: Arrival and Kickoff

Just got back to my room at the University of Utah - another UU, though it's mostly abbreviated here just as The U - a 30-minute tram ride from the Salt Palace Convention Center, followed by a ten-minute walk up a hill. I'm kind of in decompression right now but wanted to do a few jottings on the so-far.

I flew in yesterday afternoon via the DFW hub airport. My seatmate was a 20-year-old Mormon missionary on his way home from his two-year mission in Guatemala. Once he got past the nearly rote missionizing, which I let him do, we had a rather nice conversation - yes, mostly on religious issues. He was surprised I knew as much as I do about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) - which only means I'm not totally ignorant on their history, myths, scriptures, hymnody, beliefs, and practices, which, unfortunately, most of the people they meet are.

Yesterday evening I took the tour of the Mormon Tabernacle, home of the famous choir, and visited the genealogy center in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The Tabernacle is well known for its accoustics, which were demonstrated by someone on the podium dropping three straight pins, the impact of each being very audible through the entire Tabernacle. Though the ceiling and roof are quite unusual construction, the building walls below the curve of the ceiling remined me very much of the camp church of the Victorian era Methodist summer encampment at Bay View MI. At Bay view the sides were open while the Tabernacle in SLC has wide expanses of small-pane windows, mostly original glass. Still the open feel at the sides put me in mind of Bay View.

At the geneaolgy center I fiddled around a little looking up my maternal grandfather's maternal grandfather just to see what they had. Evidently none of his descendants are Mormons who have been baptized for him because the LDS have no information on him. They do have links avaliable for free use to all the pay genealogy websites out there, where ol' John Biggers is in evidence.

This morning, events not yet underway at GA, I went first thing to take the tour of the LDS Conference Center. As with all the Mormon bulidings that are open to the public, the tour was free. As I arrived by myself right after they unlocked the doors, I had a guide all to myself. My guide was a dignified and gracious gentleman from California who retired to SLC and is doing this as a post-retirement mission, as quite a few Mormon retirees do. Though I was a group of one, he expanded the tour from the average 45 minutes to an hour and 40 minutes. He was unmistakeable in the seriousness with which he approached his faith, but whether because of his age and experience or what, he made it clear that he thought that LDS and UU were, on a basic level, "in the same business." And he said that through the years he had had occasion to attend worship in several different kinds on non-LDS churches and never felt out of place or under threat there. And the Conference Center is a true engeneering marvel that was intersting in its own right.

From there, I went to the Temple Square North Visitor's Center to see the collection of LDS Biblical art. The collection of art based on the stories in the Book of Mormon is on display in the Conference Center. But regardless of its location, the vast majority of Mormon religious art based on scripture is of a clearly Sunday-School-literature aesthetic, which is to say, there's a whole lot of sentimentality and kitsch to wade through on the way to the better pieces. But you can say the same of most religious art the world over. It's interesting, though, that it doesn't take very much exposure or training to recognize an LDS representation of Jesus from a non-LDS one. And representations of God the Father are of a uniform style and quite frequent, while most of Christendom only rarely tried to represent the parental unit of the Godhead.

Next I visited the beautiful Assembly Hall. While the Tabernacle was built for the people to gather to hear the words of their prophet, and the Temple was built for the performance only of certain rites and solemnization of personal covenants with God, the Assembly Hall was built as the first permanent edifice in Salt Lake City built for weekly worship. It is a charming Victorian gothic.

Then at noon I attended the organ recital in the Tabernacle. Each day at noon and again at 2:00 PM there is a 30-minute organ recital in the Tabernacle. The organist today was Bonnie L. Goodliffe and the music was:

  • "Now Thank We All Our God"
  • JS Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"
  • "Coronation" (better known to Evangelicals as "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name)
  • "Eventide" (better known to Evangelicals as "Abide with Me")
  • "Come, Come, Ye Saints" (the defining hymn of the early Mormon pioneers in Utah), and
  • Boellann's Toccata from Suite Gothique"

Follow that with a visit to the Museum of Church History and Art. The museum exhibits were mostly well done. But I had had my fill of kitschy Sunday-School art by then, so I didn't spend much time on it.

Segue to GA.

I took a first gander at the various booths in the exhibition hall but not much more than a gander so far. I've got plenty of time in the next few days to go back to the things that were more interesting.

At the plenary session UUA President Sinkford's address was moving and interesting, a review or the eight years of his presidency and his last address to the assembly as president. But there will be commentary and summaries of it all over the web, so I'll not duplicate the effort.

And the day ended with worship. President Sinkford offered a the Ute Indians of Utah the UUA's formal apology for the Unitarians' role in subjugating that tribe wen the US government turned the "civilization" of the Indians over to the various American denominations. A tribal leader did not speak as the voice of his people but as an individual accepted the apology. An elder of the tribe sang a traditional prayer. Unitarian leaders from Africa participated briefly. A candidate for ministerial fellowship delivered a beautiful and beautifully delivered homily. Musically, though there were several choral, quartet, and solo pieces presented, the thing that had an emotional impact on me was "Spirit of Life." It was sung first in Spanish in a call-response pattern led by the person who has put together the first Spanish-language UU hymnal; this was followed by a Transylvanian Unitarian minister singing it in Hungarian; then an Indian Unitarian minister sang it in his language from India; we ended by singing it all together in English. It was so moving in that setting - the huge conference hall with thousands of UUs following the international renditions. I choked up and had to stop singing for a second to keep from crying audibly.

The thing I didn't like about GA so far was the clapping during worship. Not as rhythm for a song being sung, which did happen and which was fine, but as approval of a song sung by the choir, e.g. The congregation of the assembly even clapped after the Ute elder's prayer! I'm sorry. Well, no I'm not: I very much dislike the casual treatment of worship services as somehow just another performance or conference happening. It seems to me to disrespect the worship setting. But clearly UUs don't necessarily agree with me.

What I loved though about this first day was the several occasions when, on meeting someone, I would be asked which congregation I was from, and when I explained it was an emerging congregation, I was always asked a lot of questions - but mostly questions about what we do for services and programs and what we do for a building. The answer to the latter certainly surprised people - what new church has a suitable building free and clear?! But the biggest discussions were about worship - volunteers, styles, visiting speakers, our Interfaith focus, our Winterfaith series of services... It was wonderful that people were interested and even more gratifying that they were both intrigued and approving!

Well, I'm off to see the sand man...

1 comment:

Shannon said...

Thanks for the update! I enjoyed hearing about this.

I imagine that spirit of life rendition was very moving, and am sure that I too would have been brought to tears.

hope to hear more soon. have a great time!