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Our Polity is Anti-Authoritarian!
Governance: A Historical Perspective

Governance is a solid word (derived from Middle English) suggesting that a congregation will seek a way of running itself that is appropriate, reliable, fair, and understandable to all involved. The congregation will hold excesses in check; just process will be honored. Another word used frequently by Unitarian Universalists to describe a selected way of applying authority is polity. That word comes from the Greek word for "citizen government," and Unitarian Universalists often pair it with congregational, as in congregational polity. These words are used together because it was once unique for a religious group to have authority over itself. Congregational polity became a phrase to denote a free church—one without ecclesial hierarchy and, consequentially, one on its own, responsible for its own survival. If Unitarian Universalists had to choose the most accurate word to describe our governance or polity, we would have to choose congregational.

Congregational Polity

The two faith traditions that merged in 1961—the Unitarian and Universalist traditions— each had its own history, yet shared in the tradition of congregational polity. The Unitarians and Universalists each arose from Protestant lineage, specifically the Protestant Radical Reformation wing. When Protestantism was emerging, most followers went from one hierarchical church polity (Catholicism) to another hierarchy, be it Lutheran or Anglican. These churches were organized much as the Catholic Church was, with regional bishops and fairly centralized church authority.

Later, other thoughts on organization emerged when specific churches declared themselves self-ruled. The members of these churches feared being led astray in their desire to lead a holy life and preferred to be accountable only to God and one another. These piety-seeking Protestants were seen as radicals by Protestants and Catholics alike. As one might anticipate, in their isolation, they were often unique in their religious practices, and their fortunes varied according to how threatening they were to political and other church authority.

Puritans

When a group of piety seekers struggled with the "papishness" (similarity to Catholicism) of the Church of England, they feared for their eternal souls lest they remain in church hierarchy. Although membership in (or at least attendance at) the church was expected of all citizens, these scripture-focused Christians found the Church of England ritual too rich for decent sensibility and its visual art the equal of graven (immoral) images. They were called Puritans for their belief that religion must rightfully seek simplicity in doctrine and worship. Seeking a place of freedom to live out those Radical Reformation principles, they sought a royal charter forming a corporation for colonial development. The area of their grant was Massachusetts Bay. Hoping to leave hierarchy behind them forever, they sailed off and began to select their own governance.

Puritan choice of governance was based upon their shared theology and their admiration of the early Christian community. They formed a polity in which the adult male laity of their common church administered the king’s charter. Each had a vote and a share in the corporation (our first impulse to democracy) that the king had granted. Political life and church life were one. They were a theocracy, run by theological principle. They were used to theocracies, as their native land of Britain was one. Governance, education, and taxes were overseen through the parish. In effect, the parish was the local governmental unit. This alliance of civic governance with church governance came to be known as the Standing Order and was to be challenged later by both the Universalists and, later still, the Unitarians.

The Free Church Tradition

Even as they empowered their congregations, these citizens feared church hierarchy. They wanted to retain for themselves the local authority over worship and doctrine. They took care in forming their churches, spending a long time in conversation about how they understood their own authority. In her wonderful Minns Lectures, The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant, the Reverend Alice Blair Wesley describes how the church of Dedham, Massachusetts, met weekly from the winter of 1637 until November 1638, each meeting examining a question on which everyone reflected and that the participants described as “very peaceable, loving, & tender, much to edification.” From this care to establish a common basis by which they could "walk together," they voluntarily joined themselves, forming themselves as a "free church" with no authority other than their free election to be gathered together.

This vision of the free church was accountable to no other body. Basing themselves in their understanding of the New Testament, they wrote in 1648 of the primacy of the congregation in their primary document,The Cambridge Platform: (edited by Henry Wilder Foote, The Cambridge Platform of 1648, Tercentenary Commemoration at Governance for Unitarian Universalist Congregations 6 Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 27, 1948 Boston: Beacon Press and Pilgrim Press, 1949).

Nor can it with reason be thought but that every church appointed and ordained by Christ, had a ministry appointed and ordained for the same, and yet plain it is that there were no ordinary officers appointed by Christ for any other than congregational churches; elders being appointed to feed not all flocks, but the particular flock of God, over which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers, and that flock they must attend, even the whole flock; and one congregation being as much as any ordinary elders can attend, therefore there is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place.

Over time, these Puritans came to be known by their polity and were called Congregationalists. From that rootstock, liberal Congregationalists later came to be known as Unitarians.

Universalist Polity

Our Universalist forebears did not seek uniformity in polity. In the earliest days, the 1770s and 1780s, they were often from congregationally oriented Baptist traditions. Governance generally originated in the congregation according to needs. A fast-paced pattern of Universalist growth lead to the formation of churches governed in various ways, so no one style of governance emerged.

The Universalists stood outside the mainstream of the Standing Order, a system they challenged. Using legal means, they were successful in challenging the established Congregational Church. This was a great advance in religious liberty. Once vindicated in that challenge, the New England Universalists set about gathering as a "convention" to unify and promote their faith. Although they were largely advisory, conventions later would confer fellowship and ordination. Further organization led to the formation of state conventions after 1825. Universalist historian Russell E. Miller, in The Larger Hope (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979), wrote of the organizing forces at work in Universalism:

Almost every step in the erratic evolution of a coherent and identifiable organization came quite pragmatically. Very little advance planning was evident, particularly in the early years; solutions to problems of organization and cooperation were arrived at on an ad hoc basis, forced by specific exigencies.

Unitarian Universalist Polity

When the two traditions, Unitarian and Universalist, merged in 1961, a commission formed to study governance. The commission searched the respective histories and found three commonalities:

  • Final authority lies with the individual.
  • The essential autonomy of the local church is a given.
  • Autonomous churches must come together in free association.

These values remain common among us today. Membership is voluntary. It does not happen by birth or geography. Members join a voluntary association in which the ultimate authority for their religious decisions rests with the individual. When we welcome new members to our congregations, we seek to include, but never to coerce, them. The act of choosing one's religious home remains essential in a free church. Individuals who join us thereby embrace the mission and fellowship, committing themselves to our common community.

Because the congregation is essentially autonomous, it is guided by egalitarian and democratic values. No one person is above the others. All members are a part of the governing process. The congregation as a body is the highest authority in its own governance structure, with powers and accountability delegated to the board for greater agility of action. The autonomy of our congregational polity frees us not to avoid authority but to create it ethically within our community. We are free to discern for ourselves the best common means to exercise our religious freedom. Through careful listening, thoughtful evaluation, and respectful relation, we seek high purpose and the deep commitment necessary to transform ourselves, our community, and our world. If we confuse our freedom from external authority with freedom from accountability, we fool ourselves and damage our relations to the larger Unitarian Universalist community.

The relationships among autonomous Unitarian Universalist communities are also voluntary associations. From the earliest times, congregations would meet to confer and advise on matters of importance. They would gather in synods, conferences on matters deemed essential to their common interest. They would gather on market days to reflect upon the sermons they heard and, no doubt, to compare the preaching of their respective ministers. Because we share our heritage, Unitarian Universalist identity, congregational polity, and the challenge of being religiously liberal, we are related one to another. Ours is a common religious proposition, and each congregation is inevitably related to a larger whole. Our free association, particularly our district and Unitarian Universalist Association, is simply a formal recognition of that reality. Therefore, care in those relations is essential to the health of each single congregation.

Even the smallest of congregations can, with a few keystrokes, learn more, do more, and be more in our movement. Indeed, participation in the larger Unitarian Universalist community offers many resources and benefits for those struggling with the limited resources and nascent strengths of smaller congregations. Having a mentor congregation, of slightly larger size and embodying healthy congregational practice, is one of the best methods for enhancing congregational learning.

Our longstanding ideal of freely gathered congregations that are autonomous yet fondly related gives hope for realizing the potential of our liberal religion. Ours should be a powerful transformative faith in the lives of individual Unitarian Universalists and in the larger world. The governance of each congregation should honor and work to make that hope visible in the world.

From the 2005 publication Governance for Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

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For more information contact conglife@uua.org.