Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 1: What is Polity?

Definitions from Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).


Polity (from Greek, politeia, and Latin, politia, "administration of a commonwealth), a form of church government adopted by an ecclesiastical body.

Congregational a form of church government in which governing authority is with the local congregation, which is autonomous and independent.

Ecclesiastical (from Greek, ekklesia "assembly called out," "church"), relating to the clergy, church organizations, administration, or governance. Contrasted with "secular."


Ask a group of Unitarian Universalists what "polity" is and you are likely to get a wide range of responses. Perhaps someone may offer a definition, such as "a form of church governance." There might also be quizzical looks, or even a diatribe about bureaucracies. Those who know little about what polity is may understand more about how polity is expressed in our congregational and denominational life. Perhaps the more salient questions about polity are "When do we use it?" (answer: constantly) and "What does it do?" (answer: define who we are). In the words of the Commission on Appraisal, "... every time we call a new minister, or vote on a resolution of ethical witness, or give money to denominational bodies, or receive financial or expert assistance from a denominational body, or deliberate our ministry to the larger community, or question standards and practices that are commonly honored, we touch on issues of congregational polity."

"Polity" is a general term for the form of church organization adopted by a religious tradition. Unitarian Universalists operate under a particular form of polity called "congregational polity," defined as "the rights and responsibilities of each properly organized congregation to make its own decisions about its own affairs without recourse to any higher human authority." Congregational polity is encoded in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Section 3-1.2:

Nothing in these Bylaws shall be construed as infringing upon the congregational polity or internal self-government of member societies, including the exclusive right to each society to call and ordain its own minister or ministers, and to control its own property and funds...

Put more simply, polity can be understood as the way we are, as Unitarian Universalists, and why we are that way. Or, in the words of Paul Harrison, "polity is faith put into practice."

Our current framework of polity is a descendent of a rich and robust heritage, starting with the Cambridge Platform of 1648, and evolving through the lived experiences of all who, in covenantal gathering and association, have called themselves Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist. The origins of congregational polity lie in the Reformation, with the first intimations that the power for creating ordered communities of faith lay with the people, not with a hierarchy of clerics. These first stirrings are reflected in the earliest gathered communities of Massachusetts, such as the Dedham church (see Activity 2) and the First Universalist Church of Gloucester (see Activity 4). So foundational is congregational polity to our faith tradition that the Commission on Appraisal has called it "our unwritten constitution."

Soon after the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961, the new Unitarian Universalist Association published a Commission report, "The Free Church in a Changing World." The authors articulated the key principles of our distinctively democratic form of church government which are foundational for congregational polity:

  • The right of the church to admit members in accordance with its own definition of qualifications;
  • The right of the church to select its own leadership;
  • The right of the church to control its own property; and
  • The right of the church to enter freely and voluntarily into association with other churches.

From the beginning, and throughout our denominations' histories, our commitment to congregational polity has brought with it inherent tensions. We come by this naturally from what Earl Holt refers to as a polity that values "reason and persuasion over authoritarianism and legalism." How much freedom, and how much discipline? What about rights versus rules? When does the democratic process serve, and when does it hinder? Who has authority? What about power? Autonomous congregations, or a community of congregations?

Peter Raible wrote these words in his introduction to a course of study of Unitarian Universalist polity:

Polity is not theology, but belief issues affect church organization. Polity is not history, but how we govern our churches grows out of an historical context. Polity is not "how to do ministry," but clerics cannot work effectively without understanding the strictures of governance under which they labor.

Polity—it's everywhere.