The UUA Bylaws: A Study in Ambivalence

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Bylaws (adopted in 1961 and amended since) are a basic document of our community of autonomous churches. Like the founding charter of any community, this document reflects the original vision of the community. It also reflects in the history of its amendments the previously unclarified and unresolved issues that the community has sought to resolve. Many provisions of Articles II and III of the UUA Bylaws bear upon our understanding of congregational polity. The Bylaws reveal a deeply ambivalent attitude toward our congregational heritage. This section reviews the UUA Bylaws as they relate to our understanding of congregational polity to clarify how we can evolve toward a "more perfect union"-one in which the Association energizes its member congregations and the congregations in turn energize the Association.

As a principle of governance, congregational polity figures significantly in the first articles of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Bylaws define the purposes of the Association and the ways in which its constituent member groups-primarily its congregations-relate to the UUA. We often speak of "unity in diversity" in terms of how individual members relate to their church or fellowship. But we also view unity in diversity as the ideal relationship between the UUA and a congregation. A close reading of the UUA Bylaws reveals the extent to which the two sides of this equation-unity and diversity-are in tension with each other. Sometimes we accent our shared commitments as Unitarian Universalists-our unity-and sometimes we accent our independence or our freedom from the larger body-our diversity. As a result we have a deep ambivalence in our attitudes toward congregational polity, even a love-hate relationship. This ambivalence is reflected in several provisions of the fundamental charter of the Association, the UUA Bylaws.

Articles II and III of the Unitarian Universalist Association Bylaws (sections C-2.1 through C-3.3) bear directly or implicitly on the subject of congregational polity. Examining these provisions also points to certain tensions and unresolved questions in the provisions themselves.

"We covenant . . . "

Section C-2.1 [Article 2, Section 1], Principles, begins and ends with the assertion that the UUA is constituted by a "covenant" into which "we, the member congregations" enter. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 reflected the biblical concept of a covenant between God and "the people of God," under "the Lordship of Christ." These ideas were central in the theology of the New England Puritans, from which American Unitarianism derives. Their congregations, a significant number of which became Unitarian in the early nineteenth century, expressed their "bond of unity"-their common faith and purpose-in the form of covenants. These covenants remained in use among these churches long after the ancient Christian creeds had fallen into disuse.

Today, the term "covenant" is often used to explain how a "non-creedal" church can assert its unity of purpose (if not necessarily its unity of belief). To our knowledge, "covenant" had not been used in any official document until the adoption of the UUA Principles statement in 1985, indicating a stronger bond among congregations in the Unitarian Universalist movement than before.

The Principles statement is also covenantal in form. It states seven commitments to shared values and-implicitly, if not explicitly-beliefs; these commitments form the core of the covenant itself. Although the language of these seven statements is open to interpretation, the commitments are stated as moral and spiritual standards that are presumably binding on all member congregations. To this extent, the independence of our congregations is sharply qualified.

In some cases it is unclear whether the seven Principles are addressed to congregations or to individuals. For example, "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" could be directed to either. This ambiguity is characteristic of contemporary Unitarian Universalism and raises a question: Is our Association congregationally or individually constituted?

Shared Values and Beliefs

Notably, these Principles are stated as moral ideals, reflecting our very cautious approach to theological affirmations, at least in terms of "we-language." One exception may be the seventh Principle, which can be understood as a vision of ultimate reality: "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." The seventh principle has assumed prominence in recent years, probably because it reflects ecological ideals and resonates spiritually with our times. Although there is no uniform or authoritative interpretation of the Principles, the seventh Principle is sometimes given a quasi-creedal aura. We see this when it is used as a statement of shared beliefs and values, or recited in church services, or used to justify resolutions of social issues, or used to ground religious education curricula.

The second part of the Principles statement begins: "The living tradition which we share draws from many sources." Religious as distinct from secular covenants are grounded in spiritual realities that were understood traditionally as divine gifts; for these gifts the people entering the covenant acknowledged gratitude. James Luther Adams has emphasized that an authentic covenant is rooted in love, not law. Rules and regulations are secondary to the originating motive of the covenant. The sources section of the UUA Principles statement fulfills this motivating function by saying, in effect: We are grateful for being heirs to a "living tradition" that has taken these diverse forms. The psychic impact of this understanding is immense. To the extent that consciousness of a cherished common heritage is strong among us, our sense of unity is also strong.

Legitimating Diversity

Presumably, we draw significant meaning from all six sources, whatever our personal beliefs or our congregation's theological stance. However, the sources section also legitimates Unitarian Universalist diversity by implying that the following traditions all contribute to a common living tradition: mystical, prophetic, universal, Jewish/Christian, Humanist, and earth-centered. The legitimation of theological diversity is made explicit: "Grateful for the religious pluralism. . . ." Thus the inclusive principle is also a protective principle, as if to say, "You can't read any one group out of the fold."

The sources section of the Principles acknowledges theological subgroups as distinct from complete individualism (the idea that each of us decides for ourselves what to believe). This seems to be another new sign of our willingness to use "we-language" in theology. In fact, several subgroups with specific theological identities have emerged among us and have gained prominence in recent years, for example, Pagans, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Humanists!

This diversity may seem a positive gain (both in terms of our inclusiveness and willingness to make substantive theological or spiritual affirmations). But it also has a cost; because some of the six sources are identified with particular subgroups of Unitarian Universalism itself, the sources remind us of our lack of theological unity.

The sources section also raises the question: What about other subgroups? Whom have we left out or excluded? Indeed, is any group excluded, and if so, on what basis? Are other subgroups subsumed under existing categories (as those primarily concerned with unity argue), or do they require explicit mention (as those primarily concerned with diversity argue)? If so, will we begin to add any number of new subgroups, suggesting further fracturing of Unitarian Universalist unity? Are we a religion with no unifying core, or do we hold that all of these sources are derived from a common spiritual reality-that our diversity represents different refractions of the same light?

An Association or a Movement?

Unitarian Universalism, or the Unitarian Universalist movement, is more than the UUA, even though the UUA functions as an umbrella under which the congregations and other institutions and organizations are gathered. The Principles section of the UUA Bylaws directly precedes the Purposes, presumably because principles are more basic than the institutional purposes of the organization; indeed, one of the several Purposes of the UUA is "to implement its principles." There is, then, a curious symmetry in the Principles section: On the one hand, the UUA is an institution wholly constituted by its member congregations, each with its own commitments; on the other hand, the congregations that enter into covenant with each other are bound by a set of common commitments. Each depends on the other-in "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

These questions hinge on a host of different attitudes and understandings and yield no simple answers. Their deep relevance to congregational polity is to heighten our awareness of the question, To what extent is it possible for us to affirm and live by a strong sense of community among our autonomous congregations?

Other provisions of UUA Bylaws are also pertinent to the theme of congregational polity. Commentary follows.

Briefer comments on other provisions of the UUA Bylaws follow. Although those sections do not attract as much attention as does the Principles section, they are pertinent to the theme of congregational polity.

Why Congregations Need the UUA

Section C-2.2 of the Bylaws, Purposes, states the purposes of the UUA itself. First, "religious, educational and humanitarian purposes" are named. This broad statement allows the Association wide latitude to act in ways that may or may not be relevant to its member congregations; notably, from the perspective of congregational polity, it empowers the UUA to be much more than merely the creature of its constituent groups. Although the UUA is ultimately governed by the congregations, the mechanism of the Board of Trustees enables the Association to own and raise funds (from foundations, individuals, endowments, fees, etc.) independent of its member congregations.

Second, the UUA's "primary purpose" is described, namely "to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles." This statement quickly gathers up a host of functions. The first purpose, serving the needs of existing congregations, ties the UUA directly to its constituent bodies and implies a responsive relationship to their needs.

The second purpose, organizing new congregations, is a function that congregations seldom undertake by themselves, even though they often work with the Association in this task. Congregational polity in its narrow sense does not serve the needs of the Unitarian Universalist movement in the forming of new congregations, which is also a source of tension among existing congregations. For instance, a new congregation may be started in a location that an existing congregation considers its turf. However, the UUA recognizes no exclusive territorial rights.

The third purpose, strengthening other Unitarian Universalist institutions, such as theological schools, international associations, and various other groups, is also something that congregations do not typically do effectively. This function is important to the identification of individuals with the Unitarian Universalist movement beyond the local congregation.

The fourth purpose, "implementing its principles"-presumably an explicit reference to the Principles of the UUA-is another important extra-congregational function. For instance, if asked why we pass General Resolutions at General Assemblies, we might reply, "To implement our principles." Taking this purpose seriously would raise many questions about our practice of congregational polity. For instance, do the governance structure and General Assembly of the UUA truly reflect our commitment to the democratic process? Would a more robust practice of congregational polity serve to renew democratic governance in the UUA, for example, by having delegates who hold leadership positions in their congregations transact significant business of the Association?

Individualism or Common Commitment?

Section C-2.3, Non-discrimination, commits the UUA and its member congregations to both a negative principle of non-discrimination and a positive principle of "full participation" in "the full range of human endeavor." Race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, national origin, and religious belief are specifically listed. One of the most hotly contested issues of congregational polity was the addition of this section to the Constitution at the 1963 General Assembly; objections that this provision interfered with the autonomy of the congregations were overcome at a subsequent General Assembly, when this amendment was added. The section speaks of this provision as our "special responsibility," apparently to accent that non-discrimination and social inclusiveness go to the heart of Unitarian Universalist principles.

Section C-2.4, Freedom of Belief, reads: "Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purposes, covenant, bond of union used by any society unless such is used as a creedal test." This sentence is loaded with strongly stated principles, some of which are in tension (and potentially in conflict) with other constitutional provisions.

Notably, individualism is here enshrined in the idea of "individual freedom of belief"; a wag might say that this is the one dogma of our non-dogmatic faith. The ethos of individualism deeply affects the ways in which we view both our congregations and the UUA; this is probably the major element of Unitarian Universalism today that makes corporate commitment difficult to achieve. Such a radically anti-institutional principle as this "liberty clause" implies that whatever else is said in the Bylaws, the individual member has priority over the whole body.

This statement also implies that congregations-at least in formal affirmations-are independent of the constitutional authority of the UUA; no congregation is required to adopt the UUA Principles even though they have covenanted to "affirm and support" them. One exception to this assertion of congregational autonomy is stipulated, namely, the use of a congregational statement as a creedal test; in other words, the individual is a higher authority than the congregation.

What we see here is a system that involves several mutual limitations placed on the individual, the congregation, and the Association. Although the system seems to be full of inner contradictions, in practice, apparently, it works.

Section 3-1.1, Member Societies, is a formal definition of the UUA: "a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships." This definition briefly and precisely establishes the principle of congregational polity as the primary, defining form of religious community. By implication, the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist movement are secondary, dependent on the congregations, even though other constitutional provisions imply that the UUA is also autonomous, with a life of its own.

Congregational Polity: Rights or Shibboleth?

Section 3-1.2, Congregational Polity, deserves to be cited in its entirety:

Nothing in these Bylaws shall be construed as infringing upon the congregational polity or internal self-government of member societies, including the exclusive right of each such society to call and ordain its own minister or ministers, and to control its own property and funds. Any action by a member society called for by these Bylaws shall be deemed to have been taken if certified by an authorized officer of the society as having been duly and regularly taken in accordance with its own procedures and the laws which govern it.

The last sentence ensures that the UUA will honor the duly appointed officers of any member society. The first sentence is notable as another liberty clause, treating congregational polity purely as a negative or protective principle, like the colonial New Hampshire motto, "Don't Tread on Me." It says nothing about honoring the positive value of the congregation as a vital center of spiritual, moral, and social life in communities of mutual concern and interpersonal relationships. No wonder that we think of congregational polity as a bastion of independence rather than as an agency of interdependence.

Two important rights are asserted as inherent in congregational polity. One is the right of each congregation "to call and ordain its own ministers" (reiterated in Article XI, Ministry). This right is well established in the UUA. A narrow understanding of congregational polity would imply that only called and settled ministers are truly ministers; then installation would be tantamount to ordination. But in fact, we have never carried the congregational idea this far; rather, we follow the ancient tradition of clerical ordination, in which ordination is recognized by the entire community of congregations as once and for all (an "indelible sacrament" in Catholic theology). As a result, the UUA function of Fellowshipping people considered qualified for ministry in any of our congregations has become more important than ordination. The ordination ceremony has tended to become a mere ceremony. This is one of the most striking ways in which we do not keep with congregational polity. Although a congregation is free to call and ordain its own clergy, only clergy in Fellowship may be ministerial delegates to the General Assembly. Congregations without Fellowshipped clergy therefore have less representation in the Association.

The other right reserved to the congregations is "to control its own property and funds." Indeed, the congregations are normally expected to be wholly self-supporting, although they may sometimes receive subsidies for specific purposes such as paying an extension minister or a low-interest building loan.

A special situation is the disbursal of the property and funds of a congregation that dissolves. The law requires that remaining assets be transferred to another non-profit organization to avoid giving benefits to individuals. The UUA requires that congregations seeking admission have a provision in their bylaws specifying that the UUA will receive any remaining assets on dissolution. However, many congregations joined before this policy was created, and nothing prevents a congregation from changing its bylaws once it is admitted.

Missing: A Positive Vision

Section 3.3, Admission to Membership, provides that "a church or fellowship may become a member society" when the UUA Board of Trustees accepts its application; it also specifies that the applicant group must state that it "subscribes to the principles of and pledges to support the Association." It is not apparent whether "the principles" referred to are the Principles in Article C-2.1. Nevertheless, this provision represents a strong basis for unity among our "community of autonomous congregations." The requirement of financial support has not been pressed until recently. We view this requirement as salutary; in the past the Association, fearing the loss of member congregations, has been reluctant to require financial support, thus weakening itself in the eyes of its members.

Section C-3.5 sets three minimal standards for certification of "a member society." A church or fellowship must have "(1) conducted regular religious services; (2) held at least one business meeting of its members, elected its own officers and maintained adequate records of membership; and (3) made a financial contribution to the Association." Beyond this there is no requirement that member societies be bound by the policies or decisions of official committees (such as the Board of Review or the Ministerial Fellowship Committee).

The provisions of this section are as far as we have gone in limiting the autonomy of the local congregation; apart from the Principles section, which ring with Unitarian Universalist idealism and commitment, the UUA Bylaws are predominantly a legal document, delimiting the authority of the central body and setting only minimal standards for participation. What seems missing is a positive vision of the congregation and the web of interrelationships, including but not limited to the UUA, on which its vitality and, indeed, its authenticity, depend.


A review of these constitutional provisions reminds us that the nature and well-being of congregations are never addressed in the fundamental document of the Unitarian Universalist Association. No doubt this is because the Bylaws apply to the UUA and refer to the congregations only in their relation to that institution. The Bylaws do not reflect the idea that constituent congregations of the UUA have corporate ministries, relating them to a continental or universal religious body. Nevertheless, especially in the Principles section, the Bylaws make assertions about Unitarian Universalism as a moral and spiritual commitment of individual persons and of the Association's constituent congregations. We would have a stronger sense of the community of autonomous congregations if we more fully stated the purposes for which the congregations exist.


Unitarian Universalist leaders should generate a proposed amendment to the UUA Bylaws that describes the constituent members of the UUA-the congregations-in a way that gives positive meaning to the principle of congregational polity. Such an amendment would say that congregational polity is not only a principle to protect local autonomy; it also affirms the interdependence of the congregations as essential to their spiritual vitality and authenticity.

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