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Being part of a religious community is a personal commitment that reflects a theological vision-namely, a sense of the fundamentally interdependent, or covenantal, nature of existence. Being in community, then, is not incidental to being a Unitarian Universalist, but intrinsic and inescapable. The religious community is the vital matrix of the formation of its members' diverse personal ministries. In turn its members reshape the community. This section examines the theological implications of congregational polity in terms of a new understanding of our central mission: the shared ministry of the religious community in service to the world.
Talking with newcomers about the Unitarian Universalist faith, we often emphasize that ours is not a single, centralized church, but an association of churches and fellowships. In other words, our denominational structure, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), is a voluntary association of independent, self-governing congregations.
Usually we call these religious communities churches, but sometimes we call them fellowships, societies, or congregations. Sometimes we simply call ourselves "Unitarian Universalists," suggesting that no adequate term for the group exists, or perhaps that here we are individuals, first and foremost. And sometimes we use the term "parish" to refer to a local congregation, although parish properly refers to the geographical area covered by a congregation. The lack of common terminology, in part rooted in our dissenting tradition, tends to confuse discussions of the basic meaning of being a religious community. A congregation may serve many purely social needs, but first and foremost it must serve our need for a spiritual community, a community of mutual commitment, caring, and support.
We need not adopt any one term for our religious communities, but we do need to understand that commitment to a local, face-to-face religious community-a congregation-is intrinsic to our faith. We may share an understanding of sociological, historical, and organizational perspectives on the religious community. But because we are often radical individualists for whom religion is a private or an inward feeling, a theological perspective on the church (the religious community) seems incomprehensible to us.
The Commission believes, however, that a renewed theological understanding of the religious community-an awareness of why "being in community" or "covenanting" or a lively sense that "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" is central to our faith-is key to reaching a fresh and liberating understanding of congregational polity itself.
Our denominational name-Unitarian Universalist Association-itself reflects the centrality of congregationalism to our self-understanding. When we accent the word "Association," we invoke the concept of congregational polity. We are proud of the tradition of local independence that congregational polity represents, and we often suggest that this form of governance is more in keeping with our beliefs and values than any other form; it is more democratic, free, and respectful of local autonomy. We have tended to think and say that the right of a congregation to do whatever it chooses is the hallmark of true (or pure) congregationalism and that to stray from that principle is to violate something sacred that makes us what we are.
On the other hand, we are restive with this self-understanding; stated in this strict form of self-autonomy, congregational polity does not adequately reflect our sense of who we truly are. In some of our practices, we have largely abandoned this ideal in favor of identification with "Unitarian Universalism" or some other trans-congregational term. A notable example is the practice of ordination to the ministry, where the ordaining congregation is the ordinand's "home" church or "internship" church, rather than a church that is also calling the ordinand to be its minister. The practice reflects our sense of being part of a religious community rooted in, but not limited to, a particular time and place, to which we are called in ministry.
Few of us would hold that "the church"-in the sense of the religious community to which we are devoted-exists only on a local level, in the congregation. In fact, in the Universalist tradition, ordination was not enacted by local congregations, but by state conventions. And in the Unitarian tradition, although ordination was originally enacted only by the local congregation that was calling the ordinand to its ministry, all Unitarian congregations recognized the validity of each others' ordinations.
The idea of absolute or total independence, congregation by congregation, is impossible insofar as the principle of congregational polity must itself be agreed on by a collectivity of congregations. In some sense this collectivity is "the religious community" and is, or at any rate represents, the church as a spiritual body, something that transcends the local, gathered church community. The Puritans who wrote and subscribed to the Cambridge Platform of 1648 did not themselves hold such a purely congregational notion of the church, however wary they were of hierarchical or clerical control; they held that the church was, "in matter," the elect of God, and "in form," the covenant of believers in Christ.
If, then, "the church" is more than the local congregation, what is this more? How do we name it? Theology has become attenuated among contemporary Unitarian Universalists, especially in terms of a common faith. Thus it is extremely difficult for us to reach a theological consensus or even to agree upon a common language of faith. We need a new or renewed doctrine of the church-a conception of religious community that is integral, not incidental, to our total theological understanding.
A completely "de-theologized" notion of congregational polity-one that speaks of the church in purely sociological or historical terms-makes nonsense of the idea itself. Thus if the idea cannot be theologically renewed among us, we will finally jettison it as an encumbrance or absurdity. The reductio ad absurdum of this way of thought is to say: The church is a club for our kind of people, and it matters little whether you think of it as a debating club, a social club, or a political club.
Unless we can put congregational polity in theological perspective, we will not be able to resolve the questions of practice that arise around it. (Part 2: "Pressure Points: Issues and Concerns Related to Congregational Polity," addresses these major questions of practice.) A serious discussion of congregational polity leads us-perhaps surprisingly, but inevitably-into renewed theological discussion touching many broader issues of faith.
The following six propositions trace the major lines of theological reflection on the nature of religious community.
As we increasingly accent the ideas of interdependence, relationship, and covenant in our self-interpretations, we will continue to build the theological groundwork for a fresh understanding of congregational polity-with emphasis on the community of self-governing congregations. As we move away from the ideal of rugged individualism on the personal level, we will also move away from it at the congregational level. This shift will have profound consequences for the ways in which we understand ministry, the meaning of membership, denominational and ecumenical relationships, the fundamental purpose and organizational form (covenant) of the congregation, and the vision of a universal spiritual community.
For critical review and suggestions regarding this section we are indebted to: Mark Belletini, minister of the Starr King Unitarian Church, Hayward, California; J. Ronald Engel, professor of social ethics, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago, Illinois; Earl Holt, minister of the First Unitarian Church, St. Louis, Missouri; Daniel Hotchkiss, UUA director for ministerial settlement, Boston, Massachusetts; Barbara Kiellor, president, Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network, San Diego, California; Bruce Southworth, minister of the Community Church of New York, New York; and Conrad Wright, emeritus professor, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Adams, James Luther, "Radical Laicism" and "The Enduring Validity of Congregational Polity," in The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 93ff. and 127ff.
Barth, Joseph, Toward a Doctrine of the Liberal Church (Boston: The Minns Lectureship Committee, 1956).
Beach, George Kimmich, "The Dedicated Community," in If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question? (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995), pp. 131-150.
The Free Church in a Changing World, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1963.
Foote, Henry Wilder, ed., The Cambridge Platform of 1648, Tercentenary Commemoration at Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 27, 1948 (Boston: Beacon Press and Pilgrim Press, 1949).
Wright, Conrad, "A Doctrine of the Church for Liberals," in Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1989), pp. 1-24.
Wright, Conrad, "Congregational Polity and the Covenant," in The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion, edited by Dan O'Neal, Alice Blair Wesley, and James Ishmael Ford (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995), pp. 29-36.
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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.
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