While in my secret superhero identity, I sometimes have to teach lawyers and law students how to build websites. This used to be a complex task, starting off with HTML and Netscape Composer; and the websites created were inevitably fairly ugly and (more dangerously) very inflexible.

For my own personal/professional site I used Dreamweaver, which has a powerful templating system, but Dreamweaver is expensive and increasingly complex to learn.

I have also been responsible for helping a few small community organisations in getting websites up and running, and have been looking for years for a better way for the millions of small community groups to build websites. I’ve tried out Zope (too complex) and Plone (too inflexible) etc on small community legal centres, amateur choral societies, etc.

If I had to advise a small community group with limited technical and monetary resources (and this includes most non-mega-churches) on how to build a website for their group today, I would follow Scott Well’s advice on Boy in the Bands and build something on WordPress.

WordPress can be used to create both a blogish “News Page” and also static pages (with, importantly, static URLs. See my “About Me” page at the right). It has built in a templating system with a number of nice looking templates, and a built in Users facility so that the group can give editing passwords to a number of people (and take them away again if necessary).

The downside to WordPress for small groups is that, although very easy to use, there is still technical skill required in setting up the host computer with the required MySQL, PHP and WordPress itself (I share Scott’s fetish for flat file databases 🙂 but alas that is not the way of the world). There are, however, some fairly cheap hosting services which will set up a WordPress hosting site for you. A small group could also start off on a free WordPress.com site like this one, and move to something bigger and better if necessary.

(Tip to organisations which are essentially umbrella organisations for small community groups – why not provide free hosting and subdomain for member groups?)

Me too

July 27, 2006

Just because it’s good, here’s something dug up by Stephen Lingwood:

The follower of Jesus is to discover and then promote the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has two tenses: it is already here, in each one of us; and it is still to come, when God’s goodness becomes a universal norm. We are to live now ‘as if’ the Kingdom of God were already fulfilled.

Sydney Bailey, 1993
Quaker Faith and Practice, 24.57

Much of the most interesting work on universalism is coming from the more conservative side of Christianity, not from liberals and Unitarian Universalists. Case in point is this new book, which is supposedly written by a well known evangelical writer under a pseudonym “Gregory McDonald”: The Evangelical Universalist.

[Edited to add: Hmm, seems as if that link has broken. Try Amazon]

Can an orthodox Christian, committed to the historic faith of the Church and the authority of the Bible, be a universalist?
– Is it possible to believe that salvation is found only by grace, through faith in Christ, and yet to maintain that in the end all people will be saved?
– Can one believe passionately in mission if one does not think that anyone will be lost forever?
– Could universalism be consistent with the teachings of the Bible?

Gregory MacDonald argues that the answer is yes to all of these questions. Weaving together philosophical, theological, and biblical considerations, MacDonald seeks to show that being a committed universalist is consistent with the central teachings of the biblical texts and of historic Christian theology.

All this has caused quite a stir, with a post about it on Jason Clarke’s blog running to over 100 comments (including comments by the author).

Where is the comparable stir amoung liberals? We who solved the problem of hell by not refering to it, or to anything which reminds us of it, and thus threw out heaven as well?

[Edited to add: The author explains in the blog comments where his pseudonym comes from: “Gregory (as in ‘of Nyssa’) MacDonald (as in ‘George’)” Cute!]

Scratching an Itch

July 24, 2006

One of my favourite cartoons from Cartoon Church:


StevenR in the comments for the previous post “Why did the Universalist Church of America fail?” suggests some key reasons why the Universalist General Convention is no more, and why its successor the Unitarian Universalist Association seems to have so little of the old Universalist thought alive in it.

Steven points out what look to me to be two separate thoughts – that very early on the Universalists adopted a very low (unitarian) Christology, and that their final decline corresponded with the failure of Victorian optimism in the chaos of the first half of the 20C.

I want to think about another aspect.

As far as I can see, the very earliest Universalists, such as John Murray, were essentially universalist calvinists. That is (in modern terms), they believed in the inherent brokenness of humanity, our inability to perfect ourselves, and that God (through Jesus) has chosen to save us (heal, perfect, bring us to him in Heaven) against our own desire to remain in our evil ways. They probably wouldn’t have expressed it that way, but I don’t think I’m doing too much damage to their system. You could explain John Murray and James Relly’s beliefs to a Calvinist of the time by saying “The Elect is Everyone”.

Now I don’t yet have a firm grasp on how much of this was changed by Hosea Ballou. Dan Harper from Yet Another Unitarian Universalist is putting Hosea’s masterwork Treatise on Atonement online, but it’s not there yet. But I don’t get the impression that Hosea intended to change the basic outline.

Somewhere, however, in the decades following, the message that we were incapable of saving ourselves got lost. (Interestingly, the one thing we cannot conceivably do is give ourselves life after death; which is the one topic which increasingly seems to be shied away from).

So “God has, in his grace, saved me, a worthless sinner” became, “God has saved me because he thinks me worthy of being saved” became, “God has saved me because I am inherently worthy of being saved” became a stand alone belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Is this progression inherent in unitarian beliefs? If so, why? It is not immediately obvious why it should be so; certainly I don’t see that that was the intent.

If not, then why the progression?

One thing to consider is that the progression parallels the historical fate of the calvinist/presbyterian idea of sola gracia, grace alone. Key aspects of this idea were that we are incapable of saving ourselves, we don’t deserve to be saved, but that God will graciously choose to save us despite ourselves.

The early Calvinists went to great pains to emphasise that we were not capable of saving ourselves, employing the strongest language they could find – the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, declares that we “are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil”.

Today there are more TULIP Calvinists around than Universalists, but nevertheless the vast, vast majority of Christians are functionally if not theoretically Arminian/Pelagian/Wesleyan etc. From the Roman Catholic Church to Jack Chick, there is an almost universally held belief that we must choose God to be saved by him; and that God values our own choice and free will so much that he will not (or can not) interfere with it.

The earliest Universalists held to this Calvinist doctrine of election in one of its most extreme forms – everyone is saved, whether they want it or not; if the much larger and mainstream Calvinist denominations, the Presbyterian Churches of America, Canada, Scotland and England could not hold on to this doctrine then what chance did the Universalists have?

Is it an inherently difficult doctrine to hold on to? Especially in the face of the overwhelming modern belief in own own powers of choice, and the 19C Victorian belief in the limitless power of our minds and intellects to build a glorious future?

Can we conceive of a true universalism without it?

OK, this is a little provocative, maybe.

The protestant Christian denomination later known as the Universalist Church of America was founded, according to Wikipedia, in the 1790s as the Universalist General Convention, a coming together of universalist congregations.

(btw, someone with knowledge in this area really should rewrite that Wikipedia article – it’s pretty useless)

As far as I can see, the early Universalists were undeniably Christian, with unitarian ideas floating around but not the focus. They appear to have grown especially in areas where the competing local religious bodies were not afraid to preach that some would be damned to hell. I have no real idea how big they got at their maximum, there are too many competing numbers out there on the web, many of which seem suspiciously large.

I have found this post which lists a number of creeds that were written over the decades (some of these are Unitarian). These people liked creeds – but seem to have deliberately written them to be short and inclusive. Compare and contrast with the Westminster Confession, for example.

There are a number of changes in these creeds – it looks to me as if the influences of Unitarianism were gradually seeping into the UCA. (Aside: the early Unitarian creeds are laughable today; from 1865: “The continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever”? That sort of naive modernism was beaten up fairly badly in the 20C).

By 1935 the Universalists seem to me to be clearly in trouble – they believe “In the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.” This is the Unitarian ‘salvation by our own efforts and good character’ not the earlier universalist ‘salvation by the grace of God’. If we have to save ourselves, it becomes less and less credible to say that we will all succeed in that task. This 1935 creed is also the last with the word “Jesus” in it – and the last with the word ‘love’.

So what went wrong?

Hello UConvo

July 15, 2006

Several people have been reading my blog from the Yahoo Group UConvo · Universalist Convocation, which describes itself as:

This is the mailing list of the Universalist Convocation –
while sanctioned,this is not an offical list for messages from the Universalist Convocation, but a “chat” list for folks with Universalist Convocation concerns and topics.

Hello and welcome! Who are you? What do you do?