Standing On The Side Of Love In Statesboro, Georgia

Congregational Polity:

How Unitarian Universalists Govern Themselves

April 28, 2002

Sidney Mead has on occasion remarked that the only things Unitarian Universalists can agree on are congregational polity and Robert’s Rules of Order.

At the conclusion of the service today we will be witnesses to congregational polity in action. Once a year, we gather as a congregation to govern ourselves.


  • We will determine what we will do with our money.
  • We will determine who will be the leaders of our church.
  • We will determine whether or not we will authorize one of our members to perform marriages and services of union.
  • And, in the past we’ve also determined such important matters as whether or not we will allow food and drink in this room.

We will not await a message from the Pope or an order from an ecclesiastical council.

Although we have joined with others in association, we do so because we wish to work in cooperation with other UU churches to meet broader goals.

Today and yesterday, there exists some tension related to how much centralization is important for Unitarian Universalists. And there is some “rethinking” going on about the balance we need to have. It is doubtful, however, that we will ever give up that which has become the foundational doctrine of our church, and that is congregational polity. I grew up as a Southern Baptist. Now there were many things about Southern Baptists that bothered me as a young person. But I was always proud of the fact that each church was a self-governing body. And we also were told that Southern Baptists were strong supporters of the concept of the “priesthood of the believer.” Of course that was back in the 50’s and 60’s. Since then, the Southern Baptists were taken over by the extreme right and various policies came into place that, for all practical purposes, diminished the autonomy of the individual churches and members. Now they still are congregational in their polity, but if they want to be members of their various local associations, then there are certain things they can not do. And if their members want to become foreign missionaries or attend seminary or teach in a sponsored university or school, etc. then they must sign statements with very narrow interpretations. One of the reasons that I felt so comfortable in the UU denomination is because of the strong emphasis on congregational polity as well as freedom of the pulpit and the pew. My readings as a ministerial student have made me rethink some of my views on the extreme nature of this autonomy in some cases and how it may prohibit the growth and development of our movement. Yet, I do not wish to see us make the same mistakes as the Southern Baptists in our efforts to rethink this concept. I do not foresee that happening, however, because of the nature of those doing the rethinking!

Today I’m going to share some ideas about congregational polity and a bit of UU history related to it.

I’m using information primarily from three sources that I purchased to use in my on-line class on congregational polity.

The first is a book of essays by Conrad Wright entitled: Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches.

The second is a 1997 Report by the Unitarian Universalist Commission on Appraisal entitled: Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity.

The third is a book of readings which include essays and articles on congregational polity collected by my instructor, Mark Harris.

First the History!

How did we get here?

American Unitarianism evolved from the congregational churches established by the Massachusetts Bay Puritans.

The document that specifies congregational polity and the authority for it was known as theCambridge Platform. This is the document cited by many as the beginning of the history of our governance. However, the seeds were probably planted in the reformation. A quote from Kierkegaard reinforces this.

Oh Luther, Luther: your responsibility is great indeed, for the closer I look the more clearly do I see that you overthre the Pope-and set the public on the throne.”

So what was the Cambridge Platform?

This 1648 document was a result of a meeting of church officials in the area to settle differences between local congregations on matters of church discipline and to explain themselves to the Church of England.

The Platform reinforced the idea that congregationalism was the best form and the most biblically accurate form of church governance. So, indeed, the scripture was the authority. The document states:

“The partes of Church-Government are all of them exactly described in the word of God.”

And it was because the Puritans could not find in the Book of Acts or any of Paul’s letters justification for popes, cardinals, bishops and such that they rejected these offices. This was just one of the ways that they declared their independence from the Anglican church.

Some church scholars draw parallels between the different forms of church governance and the governing of nations or political entities at the time for that church’s formation. Mead provides a comparison: It is frequently observed that the form of church order and the type of civil government in any given region and period influence each other and tend to fall into similar patterns. Thus the papacy by the sixth century had taken on something of the form of the Roman Empire which it survived; the priestly hierarchy of the Middle Ages had its secular counterpart in the feudal system; and following the Reformation the generally accepted policycuius regio eius religio – the religion of the ruler is the religion of the state – inevitably resulted in similarity of structure and method between the secular government and the established order of the church.

Foote indicates that there should be no surprise that congregational polity in New England churches should develop a spirit of independence. New England was home for democratic town meetings. And the same men that were in these meetings were the men in the churches. In fact, the meeting places were often the same. So it was natural that the practices would be similar. What is surprising to me is that other denominations held on to the practices of their European counterparts, which mirrored secular governments of former ages. Once a strong power system is in place, especially with top down authority and control, it’s very difficult for changes to be made. This is especially true when the central figures are provided with a reverence that is almost worshipful in nature.

So the Cambridge Platform held up the idea that each church was to be autonomous. Yet, the Platform also states:

This government of the church is a mixed government. . . . In respect to Christ, the head and king of the church, it is a monarchy: In respect of the body, or Brotherhood of the church. . . it resembles a democracy. In respect of the Presbyetry [sic] and power committed to them, it is an Aristocracy.

The Congregationalists and later the Unitarians (liberal churches who “split” from the congregationalists during what was known as the Unitarian Controversy) were not the only ones to adopt a congregational type of governance. Our “other half” – the Universalists also developed a form of congregational polity. Others include the United Church of Christ (formally known as Congregationalists and to which we are related historically), all variety of Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, Mennonites, Quakers, and Jews.

How has Congregational Polity Remained Unchanged?

Congregational Polity then and now sees no power that extends beyond those who elected them, that is a congregation. Then and now, a congregation has the right and responsibility to choose and ordain its own clergy, elect its own officers, direct them in the course of their duties, and replace them when necessary. Then and now there are no synods, bishops, or other persons empowered elsewhere with authority over a congregation.

However some aspects did change:

We have not only abandoned the principle of the Lordship before Christ, we have also abandoned its earthly form, hierarchy, so that church officers are no longer understood to be models of Christ but delegates of the people.

So the officers we elect today don’t have to pretend to be all that perfect. Hallelujah!

We have also left behind the stringent requirements for membership. So does that mean we will take ANYONE? Well, if they do those simple little things that Pauline shared with you – like reading the by-laws, etc., then they can sign the book.

But that doesn’t mean that EVERYONE will feel comfortable in our gathering here. For example, I would imagine that those who held certain views – (and I’ll let you decide what those might be for our community) would feel very uncomfortable in our congregation.

The Merger

When the Unitarians and the Universalists merged in 1961, the Unitarian model was selected as the governance model.

As I previously indicated, however, the Universalists had also had a form of congregational polity although their denominational structure was different.

After the merger a series of study commissions were organized to consider congregational polity as well as other issues.

The final 1963 report spelled out four explicit rights reserved to the local church:


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

Now this sounds all wonderful and free. But you can see how problems might arise with all of this autonomy.

For example, the right of the local church to admit members in accordance with its own definition of membership was challenged immediately.

At the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago, a constitutional amendment was proposed to require maintenance ofopen membership by churches and fellowships as a qualification for voting rights in the General Assembly, a move to ensure that Blacks would not be discriminated against.

After an emotional debate, the proposal was defeated.

Those opposing the amendment, although firmly opposed to discrimination, argued that the method for achieving open membership was unworkable and represented an infringement on congregational polity.

And we continue to have some tensions between the Association and the local congregations.

So why do we bother to associate – especially considering (as Al Raulerson pointed out in the letter you received this week) that the fixed costs of associating with the Unitarian Universalist Association and with the Thomas Jefferson district use such a large portion of our budget. ??

Section C-2.2 of the UUA’s Bylaws states the purposes of the UUA itself. First, “religious, educational and humanitarian purposes” are named. 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.”

In reality, our fellowship does not take advantage as we should of the many opportunities available to us through these associations, and therefore, we may not fully understand the benefits. The Commission states:

The benefits of congregational polity for a single church cannot be fully enjoyed in isolation, for true congregational polity can thrive only as a part of the community of autonomous congregations.

However, frustrations do exist. Wright speaks the following words regarding our ambivalence or frustration.

For us there exists, as there did not exist for our ancestors, a regularly constituted agency for common action. We call it the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Sometimes, perhaps when we are tired and exasperated, we think of it as a distant bureaucracy, and we berate it as though it were something alien that has somehow been saddled on us.

Sometimes, in a more reasonable mood, we recognize that it is there to serve us, not merely with things like hymn books and religious materials, but also with established and responsible agencies for the very same consultation among the churches that the Cambridge Platform insisted was a necessary aspect of the fellowship of the churches.

But the UUA is something more than an agency to serve us; in some respects it is actually ourselves, and it provides an organ through which we may state from time to time the consensus that prevails among us, that the waywardness of particular churches may, if necessary, be rebuked, though not coerced, by the opinion of the whole.

This is one of the things that the fellowship of the churches means: that the local church, while it is free to make its own decisions, is bound to make its decisions responsibly, with a decent respect for the considered judgment of the whole.


One way that the association is working to ameliorate some of the concerns related to a national bureaucracy is by decentralizing much of its work.

For example, I became a candidate for ministry by successfully passing a review by a regional committee. I will, of course, eventually have to go before a national committee. By having a regional group be the review for candidacy, however, the review can be done sooner and recommendations made within the context of the region.

Similarly, districts such as the Thomas Jefferson District, can better assist us in meeting our needs. Of course, we are fortunate in that we all know the president, Leon Spencer, because he is a member of this congregation.

But decentralization is also important when planning activities like the small church growth conference. I can call folks at that office on the phone and ask questions and theyknow me. It would be hard to do that from totally a national perspective.

I know that there are efforts to reorganize and make the national office more effective and efficient. So it’s not that we have found the perfect way to do things.

Congregational Polity has never been and will never be a fool proof way of governing. Wright addressed this in an ordination sermon delivered in 1965.

Congregational polity is ours by inheritance, but also by conviction. It commends itself to us as congruent with democratic principles we cherish. But with its values and virtues, we have to accept its characteristic problems and pitfalls.

We might, of course, avoid some of the problems of extreme congregational particularism by adopting a more connectional form of church government. We could give the denomination some of the hierarchical authority that exists in other denominations. We could become Presbyterian, if not in name, at least in practical operation. But surely we realize that in this imperfect world there is no perfect form of church government. If we want the special strengths of Presbyterianism, we will have to reckon with its peculiar weaknesses.

We struggle constantly with the typical problems and pitfalls of our form of church government. But take a look a the typical problems and pitfalls that go along with the advantages and strengths of other forms of polity. If you do, perhaps you will agree with the student of mine who considered changing denominations, only to decide that he would rather live with our particular problems and frustrations than with those of anyone else.

Where are we headed?

The Commission on appraisal proposes that we continue to rethink various aspects of congregational authority and that we expand our concept of governance and enlarge the vision of the congregation.

A new vision of congregational polity will view the congregation as the primary nexus of our spiritual life and ministry. When we understand the central mission of the congregation to be its corporate ministry (service) to the world, then the function of the UUA and other denominational organizations and institutions also becomes clear: to enable the congregations to carry out their ministries more effectively, both to their own constituencies and to the world.

Can we “Walk Together” as Walker’s Title Implies?

The Title for his book, Walking Together, comes from the third chapter of Amos: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” It’s a verse that was frequently cited by the opponents of our liberal ancestors at the time of the Unitarian controversy (1805-25). The liberals responded: Yes-it is possible to walk in Christian fellowship despite theological differences.

However, Wright challenges this answer. He states that if any community is to survive, and to accomplish anything, its members must have some common goals, some common purposes, a value system generally accepted, a consensus widely shared.

Wright submits that the orthodox did indeed have the right answer to Amos’s question: Can two walk together except they be agreed? “No, they cannot-unless they are agree on at least afew things of overriding importance. It is when they can agree on some basics…, that they are freed to tolerate much diversity in other matters.”

Today the members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro will meet and hopefully agree on some basics. And this agreement will provide the mechanism for the joy we possess in our freedom to celebrate our differences.

© 2002 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.

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