The notion that it is the right of every congregation to determine its own qualifications for membership is basic to congregational polity. Hand-in-hand with this notion is the understanding of our faith communities captured by the phrase "we unite" rather than "we believe." Our gathered communities are defined by a visible covenant, not by allegiance to a creed. From the beginning, our spiritual and historical ancestors have wrestled with this question: "without without creeds or confessions, what are the standards of acceptance to membership?" Though this question is settled ultimately by each individual congregation, our tradition'sno congregations in our tradition do not stands in isolation. They are associated both formally and informally with one another, and so questions of membership — who constitutes the congregation — are a shared concern.
The Cambridge Platform of 1648 (see Activity 2) clearly articulated that gathered churches were to be constituted of "Saints by Calling." For the Puritans, this term meant those who were predestined, or elected, for salvation. Though it was impossible to be sure exactly who those would be, the criteria, or "marks," that the community sought in individuals were:
1. knowledge of the principles of the Gospel;
2. repentance from sin, and an attempt to lead a blameless life; and
3. experience of having been visited by the Holy Spirit.
In 1662, a synod of churches responded to a dwindling number of people who testified to a conversation experience, adopted a "Half-Way Covenant" permitting the baptism of the children of the children of the Saints, with the hope that they would, one day, receive personal conversion. Later in the 17th century, individual churches began to change their practices, opening up baptism and communion to all.
In the mid-18th century, former notions of membership were challenged by the waves of the Great Awakening that swept across the northeastern Northeastern states. On the one hand, the heightened emotionalism of the religious revival led to conversions, and thus growth in numbers for congregations eager for new, enthusiastic members. On the other hand, many clergy and lay leaders alike distrusted highly emotional conversion experiences, and argued for additional criteria for membership beyond a conversion experience.
The late18th century brought more sectarianism to the young Republic. People began to affiliate with a faith community based on theological outlook or other personal factors. The legal structure which ended governmental support for certain established churches also changed the nature of membership. When the churches were no longer supported by publicly collected taxes, congregational operations had to be funded from the voluntary contributions of their members. By the mid-nineteenth 19th century, the answer to the question "Who constitutes the church?" was at least partly answered by the method by which the church would be supported— voluntary subscription, or pews that would be rented, sold, or taxed. James Freeman Clarke of Boston's Church of the Disciples (gathered in 1841), disagreed with defining membership in part by financial support of the institution. He believed that the church was made up of "all who expressed a desire to unite for religious purposes," regardless of ability to help finance the church's operation.
As the 19th century brought more associational activity to both Unitarians and Universalists, there was a clear concern as to how larger organizational efforts would affect local churches and their members. Both Unitarians and Universalists denominational bodies debated what beliefs they held in common and whether congregations ought be held to particular broad statements of faith. The Universalists adopted the 1803 Winchester profession, which had a "liberty clause" so that churches could develop their own statements of faith.
In 1900, the newly elected president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), Samuel Eliot, established a committee to collect information on church practices regarding criteria for membership. Many churches reported they had adopted a formal covenant, but none had included in their convenant a creedal restriction on membership. Soon afterward, the AUA published its Handbook for Unitarian Congregational Churches. The Handbook reaffirmed that there must be no theological test or confession of faith required for membership, yet continued, "it may wisely be provided that a proper committee first assure itself of the moral probity and serious intention of all persons applying for membership before they are received into full enrollment." The Handbook did not articulate, however, what exactly what would constitute "moral probity and serious intention," nor how or by whom exactly it was to be detected.
Before the consolidation of the AUA and the Universalist Church of America (UCA) as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), several committees researched and published recommendations for the anticipated association. A commission on The Church and Its Leadership articulated the rights to be reserved for the local church ; the first of which these was the right of the each church to admit members in accordance with its own definition of qualifications. When the new UUA came to adopt a Constitution constitution and bylaws, this understanding of congregational polity was affirmed in Article II, Section 3, as "the independence and autonomy of local churches, fellowships and associate members;" and further assured "nothing in this Constitution or Bylaws of the Association shall be deemed to infringe upon the congregational polity of churches and fellowships."
Though the new bylaws were a clear statement of the UUA's intentions, and were deeply rooted in historical congregational polity, an event early in the Association's young life presented a challenge to the notion that each congregation defines its own criteria for membership. At the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago, a constitutional amendment was debated that would require congregations to demonstrate that they had a policy of "open membership" in order to qualify for voting rights in the UUA General Assembly. Historian Conrad Wright describes what happened:
The proposal was introduced in 1962 by a number of ministers from churches in the South, who felt that an explicit avowal of nondiscrimination inserted in the Constitution of the continental association would support them in their efforts to eliminate (racial) segregation locally. It provided that a church would be entitled to be represented by delegates only if in the preceding fiscal year it had "maintained a policy of admitting persons to membership without discrimination on account of race, color, or national origin."
The proposal came up for decision in 1963 at the meeting in Chicago. Meanwhile, a considerable number of ministers and laypersons, who were wholly in sympathy with the intent of the amendment, questioned whether this particular proposal was the best way to achieve the intended goal. The Association had never been given the right to set doctrinal standards for member churches, and neither the Board of Trustees nor the General Assembly had been given the power to discipline or expel churches for doctrinal irregularity, or to intrude on the internal self-government of autonomous churches. The question was central to an understanding of the congregational way of the churches.
Although the proposal won the majority of votes, it did not receive the necessary two-thirds of delegates to become a Constitutional constitutional amendment. In 1967, another amendment was proposed and passed. The successful amendment declared the responsibility of both Association and churches "to promote the full participation of persons, without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin," but did not attach this responsibility to an individual congregation's right to vote at General Assembly.
In congregational polity, the right to establish criteria for membership rests firmly with the local congregation. Yet our history raises two intriguing questions to consider: What is — or should be — the criteria for membership in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? And, should the UUA consider legislative proposals that would require congregations to demonstrate certain commitments?