Comparative Congregationalisms

Unitarian Universalists are not unique; other religious bodies have also found congregational polity to be consonant with their values. Nor are all Unitarians and Universalists congregational. This section describes three non-Unitarian Universalist congregational groups and two non-congregational Unitarian and Universalist groups to provide insight into the relationship between our faith and its form.

Congregationalisms abound. In addition to Congregationalists themselves (the United Church of Christ), all variety of Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, Mennonites, Quakers, and Jews are congregational. Interviews with Presbyterian and Episcopal clergy indicate that an informal congregationalism exists even in these denominations.

First, we will examine two non-Unitarian Universalist denominations that are close to our experience: the United Church of Christ (to which we are related historically) and the American Baptist Convention. Then we will consider the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, with whom we share very little in tradition or premise.

We then consider two examples of non-congregational Unitarianism and Universalism: the Unitarian Church in Transylvania, which has bishops and elders, and the Universalist Church of the Philippines, which has a unique meta-congregationalism. Contemplating alternative forms of our common faith may reveal new possibilities for congregational life.

The United Church of Christ

Until the creation of the American Unitarian Association, we shared a common history with the Congregationalists. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is the constitutional document of congregationalism, both Trinitarian and Unitarian:

The Platform interpreted the church catholic as all those who are elected and called to salvation. A "militant visible church on earth" was understood to exist in particular congregations as "a company of saints by calling, united into one body, by a holy covenant for the public worship of God and the mutual edification of one another." Christ was the head of the church; the congregation, independent of outside interference, had the right to choose its own officials. The office of the civil magistrate was subject to recognition by the church. Churches were to preserve communion with one another in mutual covenant with Christ. [1]

During the early nineteenth century, Congregational churches were moved by controversy with the liberals (now Unitarians) to create a new college to ensure sound doctrinal education. This school, Andover-Newton Theological, was their first shared endeavor. In 1812, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was formed to spread the faith. Not until 1952 was there a national organization of Congregational churches. Until then, the focus of coordinated efforts had been missions and education. Little inter-congregational activity seems to have taken place.

The present-day United Church of Christ (UCC) is the result of a merger among the Congregational churches, the Evangelical and Reformed Church (German Reformed), the Christian Church (which helped establish Meadville Seminary with the Unitarians), and the Disciples of Christ. Each of these groups was congregational in polity before joining the UCC. Today's UCC includes the Board of Homeland Ministries, which was established by the Congregationalists before merger and has responsibility for domestic missions and education. The UCC also includes the Board of World Ministries, which is the descendent of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions mentioned above.

The structure of the UCC consists of local churches organized into area bodies, called Associations, which coordinate programs and services. Associations also administer church and clergy standing, which determine whether a congregation or clergyperson is recognized by other churches and clergy. For example, a church must convene an Ecclesiastical Council when ordaining a minister. Composed of clergy and laity from churches in the local association, this council examines the candidate for the pastorate. To be in good standing, the candidate must submit to this examination, approval of which is necessary for a recognized ordination. The congregation may choose not to follow these rules, but doing so means the minister would not be recognized as having standing among other UCC churches.

The General Synod, the representative body of the UCC, is composed of church members elected by the Associations. The Synod meets biennially and elects general officers and most of the Executive Council, which functions as a board of trustees.

Each congregation is guaranteed local autonomy. In contrast to the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ associations and groups of associations, called conferences, have much more influence over local church life because they are the agencies of church and clergy standing.

American Baptist Convention

The Baptist tradition in the United States began with Roger Williams's removal from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and developed with the rise of local associations of Baptist churches, especially the Philadelphia Association of 1707. This group, known as Particular Baptists, is the parent of current Baptist organizations in the United States.

The Philadelphia Association shared the opinion of the first English Baptists (c. 1650) that "Though we be distinct in respect of our particular bodies . . . yet are all one in communion, holding Jesus Christ to be our head and Lord." Elsewhere it was said that "There is the same relationshipe betwixt particular churches towards each other, as there is betwixt particular members of one church." [2] Thus the Association would, like a congregation, have the power to include or exclude a church, as a church may choose to accept or deny someone membership. Because the Baptists placed a high theological premium on being in association, owing to the belief that the church universal was larger than any single church, the power of the association was considerable.

In addition to maintaining spiritual discipline, the Association was charged with edifying the membership, creating new churches, providing and ensuring suitable clergy, and settling disputes between churches. As membership grew, additional associations began to perform these local functions. These associations, in turn, sought to maintain fellowship with each other, so strong was the conviction that piety required community.

Following the independence of the United States, the local associations were overcome by the rise of state conventions (state-level associations) and independent groups that served special interests. In addition, the stresses of national growth and controversy enhanced the sense of independence of local Baptist churches. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Baptist churches were known for their rugged individualism. Associational life became all but a memory.

On the question of polity the American Baptist Convention (ABC) continues to be vigilant about protecting local autonomy. Like the UUA, the ABC has a proliferation of societies and other independent agencies to promote education, mission, and other causes. The presence of state conventions resembles Universalist practices before merger.

Like the United Church of Christ, the ABC considers its General Board to be a representative body composed of members elected by districts, similar to associations. These districts have between 40 and 60 churches within them, and may contain regional, state, or city groupings (sometimes called RSCs) that existed before the organization of the ABC.

While governance is by election district, services are rendered through regional, state, and city groupings. As in the UCC, executive ministers serve both denominational and congregational needs (somewhat like Unitarian Universalist field staff).

As in the UCC, the ABC's practice of ordination entails much greater area involvement than in the UUA. Local congregations must license candidates for the ministry through committees set up for that purpose. Like the UCC, an ecclesiastical council (called a Council of Ordination) is required, but it may be identical to the local Department of Ministry for the region, state, or city. Ordinations that take place without approval of the council are considered unilateral and without standing.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise came to the United States in 1846, in part to create a reform movement in Judaism. Efforts to accomplish this goal in Europe had not succeeded, at least in part because of the resistance of the Orthodox and the suspicions of national authorities. In 1873 Wise united 34 congregations into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). The principles behind this organization were general: to encourage and organize Jewish congregations, to promote education and enrich Jewish life, and to foster activities that perpetuate and advance Judaism.

In 1873, Hebrew Union College opened to train indigenous rabbis for the new reform movement. Later the Union would expand its role to include maintaining the Hebrew Union College, strengthening the solidarity of Jewish people, fostering development of liberal Judaism, and strengthening the state of Israel. Wise subsequently organized the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1889 as the clerical arm of Reform Judaism.

Congregational life and purpose differ between Jewish and Christian religions. For example, the constitution of the UAHC, in describing its membership, says, "Any Jewish congregation . . . upon approval of the Board of Trustees may become a member of the Union by subscribing to its constitution and bylaws." [3] Although the Union encourages and supports the growth of new congregations, they originate without such help. In contrast, Unitarian Universalist congregations cannot exist without the initial involvement of the UUA. Ten people of Jewish faith can form a congregation and legitimately call themselves a synagogue. Forming a Unitarian Universalist congregation is much more complicated.

The Union preserves congregational autonomy in its constitution, as does the UUA. A General Assembly and board of trustees play the same general role as in the UUA, but the powers and relations between them are quite different. Here are some examples:

  • Membership is financial and failure to contribute is grounds for removal. Dues are levied as a percentage of operating expenses. Congregations are expected to file a detailed report of their annual income and expenses. A mechanism for adjusting the amount is reserved only for special cases by request.
  • The board of trustees numbers more than 220 members, with 50 percent elected from regional associations, called councils, much like UUA districts. However, each council has more than one trustee; the exact number depends on the size of the council. Each council delegation selects its own president. The rest of the board is made up of officers of the Union, officers of the CCAR, presidents of national affiliates, two officers of the Hebrew Union College, and a number of at-large trustees elected by the General Assembly.
  • The chair of the board is the Chief Executive Officer of the Union, and is elected by the board, not the General Assembly. The president is appointed by the board and serves at its pleasure.
  • The board alone has the authority to create affiliates, which when recognized have a seat on the board. However, the chair and the president of the Union must be members of the affiliate's executive committee.

It is clear that the UAHC sees its board as a governing body. And by reserving election of officers to the board itself, it also asserts a corporate model of power. By having more trustees, member congregations have greater access to their board than do Unitarian Universalist congregations, even though the board retains discretionary authority. Like the UUA, the power of the purse resides in the board.

It is also clear that associational life is congregational life writ large. For example, Jewish congregations entrust to their board full authority, including the power to hire and fire rabbis. Likewise, the board of the UAHC names the president. There seems to be a higher value placed on ensuring effective power than on preventing abuses of power. Likewise, exacting dues from member congregations resembles the practice of assessing dues of individual synagogue members.

In the UUA, by contrast, congregations elect the president separately from the board, and habitually invest the office in a clergyperson, much as a congregation chooses a board but reserves the power to name its clergy. Power is more divided, perhaps because it is more suspect. Finances are considered voluntary and setting dues is anathema. At most, a congregation can set minimums and suggest higher levels.

Another marked difference is the role of the clergy. Reform rabbis are trained and ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbinic authority resides in the school, not in the congregation, but the UAHC controls the board of the school.

Rabbis have a different role in the congregation than in UU or other Christian congregational associations. They have voting rights on the board of their congregation, and they have representation as a body as well as individually on the Union board. Compared with UU tradition and practice, there is more conscious equality between clergy and laity in Reform Judaism, which can be both liberating and troublesome. Friction between board and rabbi is almost a clich and congregational challenges to the board are commonplace.

Common Aspects Across Congregationalisms

All three denominations-the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Convention, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations-formed strong associations to further their purposes. For the UCC, missionary work was the initial reason for association. The biblical mandate to share the gospel drove independent congregations into league with one another. Among the Baptists, missionary work was again the impetus to association. But like the UUA, resistance to control and inwardness have limited associational unity. In the UAHC, the need for a community of liberal Jews and for a sympathetic rabbinate have encouraged interdependence.

For the UUA the question is whether we have a vision that makes associating worth the effort and cost. This question is pertinent to the Association, but also inhabits the local congregation.

The Unitarian Church of Transylvania

The oldest Unitarian organization in existence is also the most complex. In the region bounded by Catholic Hungary to the west, Protestant portions of Bohemia and Poland to the north, Ottoman Muslims on the east and Orthodox Greeks and Slavs to the northeast and south, Transylvania gave rise to a Unitarian polity more akin to Lutheranism and Presbyterianism than congregationalism.

The most influential force, though, has been the state. Throughout most of its 500-year history, Transylvanian Unitarianism has been either controlled or suppressed by the government. Before and after the Ceausescu regime, the government was biased toward an Eastern Orthodox model of the church and its relation to the state. Unitarianism was thus both in a theological and an ecclesiastical minority. Under various regimes, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Communism, Unitarianism was enjoined to follow strict rules that prevented changes, owing to a law that dates to the sixteenth century. Today, church buildings and contents are owned by the state. All changes must still be approved by the Department of Cults. Radical change has long been dangerous.

Authority in the Unitarian Church of Transylvania is vested in the Consistory, which is made up of lay-people and clergy from church districts in Transylvania. The lay president of the consistory is also lay president of the Unitarian Church at large. Local churches elect lay members of Consistory.

A bishop is elected by the Consistory, which meets quarterly. The bishop, who has always been male and a clergyman previously served a life term. Under new bylaws, the bishop is elected to a six-year term. The bishop is very powerful both as the executive power of the Consistory and, by serving for many years, as the most senior and experienced member of the Consistory itself. An annual General Assembly of elected laypeople meets in December. An Executive Committee also works with the bishop.

The bishop's responsibilities include appointing clergy to smaller churches and consulting with larger churches searching for clergy; administering the church at large, controlling denominational funds, and managing church property. Before World War I, the bishop had absolute control of church property and its use. The bishop controls parochial high schools and colleges (including the seminary), and supervises all church personnel, including the deans, who are executive ministers of the five districts. These deans are elected by local clergy but work with and for the bishop. The dean has pastoral oversight of local clergy, and runs district meetings.

Church membership is determined at birth by parentage (boys are assigned to the father's faith, girls to the mother's) and changing churches is rare. Before 1989, the Communist culture discouraged attachment either to a religion or a local church, but the new regime offers less hostility to religion and thus sparks more interest.

Local churches have a lay board, elected annually, with a lay president and lay treasurer. In smaller towns the bell ringer is also an office of significance, as the church bell is also the town clock. The minister relates to the board as the bishop to the Consistory. In reality and symbolically, the pastor is the most powerful person in the church. In smaller parishes, the pastor also functions informally as the village mayor and elder.

An episcopal form of polity governs the Unitarian Church in Transylvania. True to episcopacy, the bishop has power over the appointment of clergy, the disposition of certain property, and the supervision of regional executives. A Presbyterian form of polity is also at work, as the bishop is elected by a Consistory, not elevated by other bishops, and the deans are elected by the clergy. Congregational power is limited by the power of the bishop and the dean, but especially by the state. None of the customary measures of congregationalism applies: Members do not own their property, select their members, control their finances, select their clergy, or determine whether to be in association. The only power the lay government seems to have is the election of local officers, and their authority seems very limited.

How the polity of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church operates in fact is much harder to say. Knowledgeable sources affirm the power of the bishop and the extended power of the clergy. The influence that the laity has over their clergy, and the Consistory and General Assembly over the bishop, may be subtle but real. But our information suggests that this model is far from the congregational polity of the UUA.

The Universalist Church of the Philippines

In 1991, the UUA admitted the Universalist Church of the Philippines into membership amid much controversy. Its founder, the Reverend Jorge Quimada, was murdered in 1992 in a political assassination. The church dates from an April 1955 meeting organized and led by the Reverend Quimada. The UUA had never before admitted a congregation of non-North American origin and culture. These and other issues are all invoked by that action, among them the collision of polities.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines is a collection of 17 congregations, mostly lay-led fellowship-style groups. They choose leaders, establish rules, collect money, and spend it. Some have erected buildings from their own funds; others rent or borrow meeting places. Each congregation determines the rules for membership.

A convention of delegates from each of the 17 congregations meets annually. Before UUA affiliation there was one executive minister in a lifetime position, the Reverend Quimada, and none since his death. Other ministers work for the congregations. It is not clear whether they are itinerant or settled, but all were licensed by the Reverend Quimada.

This bare outline will be amplified when a complete account is written by Rebecca Sienes, the Reverend Quimada's daughter and the source for this material, but sufficient information exists to establish that the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines is not congregational by North American standards. While local groups are largely self-governing, professional leadership is almost independent of the lay portion of the polity. The Reverend Quimada made his position very powerful, especially in the licensing of ministers. What is unknown is how the local congregations related to the executive minister, individually and collectively. Other questions remain unanswered. What is the role of the Convention? How are congregations formed? Are clergy paid and by whom? For whom do they work?


Culture is a strong influence on the form of polity that a denomination takes. The Transylvanian Unitarian Church is clearly a product of its history, being trapped by circumstances in a form that has not been allowed to change for more than 500 years. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, spread throughout an archipelago, may have established a meta-congregation largely to overcome geographical isolation. Where interconnection and collaboration are inherently difficult because of physical and cultural conditions, a central clergyperson may provide needed unity and stability.

Likewise, the great variety of congregationalisms in the United States and Canada, covering all manner of denominations may also be a product of North American culture. The extensive research on voluntary associations by James Luther Adams, to say nothing of the insights of de Toqueville and William James, suggest that it is hard to be non-congregational in the United States. Functional congregationalism pervades Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism and even aspects of the Roman Catholic Church. Only other-worldly sects, those that reject the culture, seem to have escaped the tendency toward congregationalism. Unitarian Universalists are congregational for more than ideological or Unitarian Universalist reasons. See Section 5, "The Spiritual and Culural Ethos of Unitarian Universalism," for an exploration of how our polity reflects aspects of our cultural identity.

These comparisons raise a number of questions: Are there choices in the wide assortment of congregationalisms that may be more useful in accomplishing our goals? Should we form associations like the UCC and vest each with Fellowship Committee powers? Should we require ecclesiastical councils to involve several congregations in calling and ordaining ministers? Should we focus the Association itself on more external goals (education and mission) and less on institutional maintenance? These goals have served the Baptists and Jews very well. Shall we link our governing boards as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations does, or make seminaries (with associational influence) the guardians of clerical qualifications?

The Unitarian Church of Transylvania and the Universalist Church of the Philippines provide two models of the ability to be a faithful Unitarian or Universalist in non-congregational ways. This serves notice that there is no one vessel adequate to a particular theology, even ours. To see that other models exist and work passably well is a lesson in humility for our culture. And while each model has its own drawbacks, we have ours as well.


Material for this section was gathered from interviews with the following people: E. Nils Blatz, rector of Grace Church Episcopal, Brooklyn, New York; Leslie Dobbs-Alsopp, associate pastor, First Presbyterian, Brooklyn, New York; May Mass, regional administrator, New York Federation of Reform Synagogues; Richard Beal, Unitarian Universalist minister, Louisville, Kentucky; Kenneth Torquil MacLean, Unitarian Universalist Association International Liaison; Rebecca Sienes, student at Meadville Theological School, member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, and daughter of the late Reverend Quimada; and Helen Backhouse, Canadian Unitarian Council member and former member of the Commission on Appraisal.


  1. History and Program, United Church of Christ (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1986, 1991), p. 15.
  2. A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice, p. 150.
  3. Constitution and Bylaws of the UAHC, as amended October 1993 (New York: UAHC Press), p. 5.

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