Anniversary events on tap for UUA General Assembly

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong will deliver this year's Ware Lecture.

A fiftieth anniversary celebration, an experiment in off-site voting, and a keynote address by author Karen Armstrong will all be part of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly 2011, which takes place June 22-26 in Charlotte, N.C.

The opening worship event of the annual gathering of congregational leaders will celebrate the consolidation in 1961 of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. The opening will include the premiere of the hymn “Together,” written for the anniversary by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Mikelson, with music by Thomas Benjamin. Participating in the opening ceremony will be four UUA presidents: the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz; the Rev. John A. Buehrens; the Rev. William G. Sinkford; and the current president, the Rev. Peter Morales.

“It’s a service of reflection, remembrance, recovenanting, and renewal,” said Beth McGregor, a member of the opening celebration planning team. Immediately following the opening ceremony there will be a birthday party, including cake for thousands, in the exhibit hall. An estimated 4,000 people are expected to attend this GA. General Assembly was last held in Charlotte in 1993.

Karen Armstrong, author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and other books about religion, will present the Ware Lecture on Saturday, June 25, speaking on “The Challenge of Compassion.” Armstrong, who has been promoting an interfaith “Charter for Compassion” for the past few years, is encouraging GA goers to read the book in advance of her presentation.

Among other high profile speakers, the Rev. Dr. Michael Schuler, senior minister of one of the UUA’s largest congregations, First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisc., will preach at the Service of the Living Tradition Thursday night, June 23. The co-ministers of First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y., the Rev. Kaaren Anderson and the Rev. Scott Tayler, will preach at the Sunday, June 26, worship service.

The Rev. Mark Kiyimba of the UU Church of Kampala, Uganda, who is leading efforts in his country to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from violence, will appear at several as-yet-undetermined events at GA.

Among the musical events scheduled is a hymn sing spanning 50 years of UU music. The group emma’s revolution will participate in the Saturday morning worship service on June 25. UU singer-songwriter Nick Page will present his “New Epiphany Revival Show” on Friday, June 24. The music coordinator for this GA is Kellie Walker, minister of music at Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Ariz.

In an effort to broaden GA participation to those who cannot come to GA, a process has been created that will permit some congregational delegates to vote on GA business without attending GA.

About 40 people, approved as delegates by their congregations, will follow GA from their home communities through internet connections. They will vote on issues and participate in discussions in real time during plenary sessions. The exercise, approved by delegates at GA 2010 in Minneapolis, is a trial run. The plan is to expand off-site participation next year at GA 2012.

Mark Steinwinter, the UUA’s director of Information Technology Services, said, “We’re excited about this because it directly addresses issues that have been GA concerns for a long time. People who have accessibility issues, who can’t travel because of lack of time or money, will now have an opportunity to be part of GA. We think this will lead the way to a more democratic GA. This is all part of being a 21st century denomination.”

The option of off-site participation also responds to UUs who have expressed reluctance about traveling to Phoenix, Ariz., for the 2012 GA, given that state’s anti-illegal immigration policies and practices, which the UUA has condemned.

Steinwinter noted that while the votes of off-site delegates will be recorded this year, they will not be part of official vote totals because procedures to register those votes are still experimental. In 2012 off-site votes will be counted in the official totals.

Most of the GA events held in the main convention hall this year, including business sessions and worship events, can be viewed live online. Within a few hours, and often in much less time, the video will be posted for on-demand viewing later, said Margy Levine Young, manager of the UUA’s web team at GA.

However, she recommended against congregations planning to broadcast the Sunday morning GA worship service as their own worship service on June 26. “It occurs from 9 to 10:15 a.m. eastern time, but there could be as much as an hour delay before we post it for later viewing. If there should be problems with our procedures or with a congregation’s ability to receive it, that could create timing problems.”

She added, “If a congregation plans to use it, it should have a backup plan,” including showing a worship service from earlier in GA. Another option for congregations would be to present the GA Sunday worship a week later, on July 3.

This year there is also a “mobile event guide,” which lets GA participants view GA information on their smartphones, tablet devices, and computers.

Also new this year is that every GA registrant will have free audio access to every recorded workshop and other events through the GA Live Learning Center, which will be available as digital audio MP3 files. DVD and CD copies of GA events will still be available for a charge.

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