A Briefest History of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn


(Nearly, okay, okay, all information, cast of language (at least the good parts) and every interesting detail in what follows was stolen by Frater James Ishmael Ford from Frater Charles Howe’s privately printed The Latter-Day Fraters: A History of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn 1971-2007)

The Fraters of the Wayside Inn is a clergy study group, the oldest within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The inaugural gathering of the Fraters took place in 1903 at the First Parish in Malden, MA. The minister of that parish James Albion and Vincent Tomlinson who served in Worcester invited a number of Universalist clergy for a pre-Lenten retreat. The following year the retreat moved to the Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, which before long would give the retreat it’s name. The retreats have continued since that time breaking at that location only briefly when the Inn was closed following a fire. The retreat continued even during those dark days convening at the Congregational Conference Center in Framingham, recalled as the “Babylonish Captivity” by older members.

As Frater Howe writes the fraters were at their inception “a group of male ministers, operating somewhat like a college fraternity, with admission confined to those having the unanimous consent of the membership. The Retreats continued to have a three-fold purpose – spiritual growth through worship, intellectual stimulation through presentations and discussion, and interpersonal bonding through fellowship.” They would hold a signal place in Universalist history, including a significant overlapping membership with the Universalist reform movement the Humiliati.

The leadership uses exalted titles all uttered with tongue firmly in cheek. The Prior is an office of unlimited authority but lasting for a single year, passing through the membership by seniority. The primary meeting of the Fraters is in the Old Kitchen, although the Tuesday evening banquet is held by tradition in the Ford Room.

Following the 1961 consolidation of the Universalist Church in America with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association membership expanded to include people ordained in the former Unitarian Association as well as those ordained in the new denomination. From 1989 with the admission of Frater Janet Bowering, women were also elected into membership. Although the some might say quaint habit of designating members “fraters” (brothers to those who have no Latin) did not extend to adding the term “sorer” (sister). At the time some of the men were concerned that sorer be added, but the movement died for lack of support among the women. So, all members of whatever gender remain fraters.

Membership in the Fraters is for life and is limited to the number of people who can be accommodated at the Inn, somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty. The 2008 retreat hosted twenty-four members and guests, one-third women.

While it is alleged by some that the two functions of the fraters is to complain about their health and to observe the general decline in the state of the Association since their day, the fraters do gather to reflect on their lives and the life of the denomination in both structured and unstructured ways. The members all witness to the continuing nourishment of this gathering as a precious part of their ministerial lives.

As Frater Howe writes of the formal structure, “A typical Retreat would start Sunday evening with an after-dinner check-in, followed by worship, led by the Retreat’ Chaplain. Monday morning would be devoted to the presentation and discussion of assigned papers fitting into the theme of the retreat or reminiscences of past gatherings. There’d be free time after lunch, followed by papers before and after dinner, then worship and ‘the Flowing Bowl’. The annual business meeting would take place on Tuesday morning with the Prior presiding, and only active Fraters attending. After the minutes of the previous Retreat were read by the Scribe, corrected as necessary, and accepted, volunteers would be found to write absent Fraters. There would follow reports by the Keeper of the Purse and the Keeper of the Books, the alter including the levying of fines for those with outdated data or photographs. Then would come the challenging task of preparing a prioritized guest list of those to be invite to the next Retreat – this with the understanding that those invited and attending for two consecutive years world presumably be voted into membership… Then another paper would be presented, followed by lunch, a group photo in front of the Inn’s entrance and more free time for napping, talking, and/or walking up to the Wayside Store on Route 20. After a banquet, complete with master of ceremony… and special entertainment, the evening would end with worship – and, for some, a final poker game. The annual communion service would take place after breakfast. Wednesday morning, followed by declarations of “Best Retreat Ever!” hugs, and farewells.

In the near future I will address customs among the fraters.


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