One of the deepest convictions that unites us as Unitarian Universalists is a belief in the possibility of a beloved community among people, whether members of a family or the most diverse representatives of humanity. We affirm that such communities are in part a natural outgrowth of human life, but that they must also be deliberately formed and reformed, nurtured and renewed.
This is a spiritual vision that eludes precise definition. It is no wonder, then, that we speak of this vision with differing accents. We speak of unity in diversity, of the community of love and justice, of the kingdom (realm) of God. Our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Principles speak of the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. James Luther Adams spoke of the covenant of being. These terms express a vision of the individual person and the community of persons in harmony with each other, the world around us, and the spirit of life itself.
Unitarian Universalism seeks to embody this spiritual vision and to advance its fuller realization. We seek a way of being in the present that leads toward the future. A primary way that we try to embody our spiritual vision is through the congregation, the face-to-face community of people who seek to walk together faithfully, courageously, and joyfully. We want our religious community and the network of relationships that extends beyond itself to be a living model for the good of human relationships throughout life.
However, our institutional ideals and practices have lagged far behind our spiritual vision. In particular, "congregational polity" has been used as a shibboleth against the fuller recognition of our interrelationships. It is the central thesis of this report that the idea of congregational polity needs to be revised and, indeed, re-visioned among us.
We are calling, then, for a new way of thinking about who we Unitarian Universalists are and what we seek to become. As we do so, we will reshape our shared vision and our practices to reflect this vision. We will alter the ways in which we relate to one another, make institutional decisions, and seek to implement policies; we will alter the content of our teachings and the spirit of our celebrations.
The Commission believes that we should honor the congregational heritage of the Cambridge Platform of 1648, recognizing that it upheld a vision not simply of congregational autonomy but, as Conrad Wright emphasizes, of "the community of autonomous congregations."
There is inherent tension between the concepts of community and autonomy, similar to the often-expressed tension between responsibility and freedom. However, community and autonomy do not exclude one another but enhance one another, for the essential function of the congregation is to link the individual to a religious community. It is to mediate between the individual and the "church universal." It is to link the local congregation with other congregations and indeed with peoples of faith universally.
This report examines congregational polity as the principle of organization to which the Unitarian Universalist movement has been committed, and the ways in which our understanding of this principle influences our practices. The report highlights the major tensions between congregational polity, as it is commonly understood among us, and current institutional practices and developments that do not fit well with our polity.
We take our commitment to congregational polity as an established principle. We recognize that this principle is deeply rooted in our sense of the local congregation as the center and spring of our vitality as a religious movement. But we also note that, because of our strong emphasis on individual freedom and local autonomy, the associational dimension of our congregationalism has tended to be ignored. Seldom do we preach about congregational polity or even teach it, except to accent local autonomy. But 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.
We often feel a tension between the association of congregations and the autonomy of the local congregation. Sometimes that tension is unavoidable, but often it results from a failure to consider fully the integrity and vitality of both.
Beginning a Conversation
The Commission believes that we need to modify our understanding of both the theory and the practice of congregational polity. The spiritual vision of our faith and its institutional agencies require it. In short, in our thinking about institutional life and relationships, we are calling for a paradigm shift from individualism to interdependence, from the autonomy of the congregations to the community of autonomous congregations.
In our understanding, the term "congregational polity" signifies a network of independent congregations, working for both their individual best interests and the best interests of the Association as a whole. An important part of such a network is stronger lateral relationships among congregations, helping to overcome the temptations of both isolationism and centralism.
We are not proposing something new, but are seeking to revive awareness of what was central to congregational polity from its origins among our denomination's New England forebears. For the Cambridge Platform did not view the local congregation as going it alone, but accented the community of autonomous churches. The Platform spoke of six ways in which congregational churches exercise their responsibility to and for one another: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and relief.
Today these six ways remain valid as guides for creating a community of autonomous congregations. In fact, "care," "consultation," and "participation" are often richly acted on today, except among those who need it most-alienated or isolated congregations. "Recommendation," "relief," and "admonition" are infrequently acted on, perhaps because of an exaggerated belief that such actions would infringe on the rightful independence of another congregation. The UUA itself approaches these matters with great caution, for the same reason. And yet there are many instances in which the internal difficulties of a congregation-for instance, financial need, conflict over a minister, or exclusionary practices-could be immensely aided if local congregations saw themselves as mutually responsible to and for one another. The Commission believes that the future integrity and vitality of the Unitarian Universalist movement depends most directly on deepening our sense of mutual accountability.
Forms of organization and governance go to the heart of our identity as Unitarian Universalists. They express and influence the tasks we take seriously, support, and celebrate. Our polity is the institutional means through which we express our Principles and Purposes. Clarifying and renewing our understanding of congregational polity are therefore vital if we are to realize the vision espoused by the Principles and Purposes.
The Commission on Appraisal hereby asks the UUA, its congregations and other constituent groups, and its individual members to begin an in-depth conversation about our unwritten constitution: congregational polity. This discussion must include the most important but often overlooked element of polity: the responsibility of congregations to be in right relation within themselves, to one another, and to other communities beyond the Association.
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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.
- Congregational Bylaws
- Congregational Polity
- Theory and Practice
- Theological Perspective
- Comparative Congregationalisms
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- Spiritual and Cultural Ethos
- Pressure Points
- Congregational Governance
- Cooperative Relationships
- Religious Leadership
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- Leadership Development
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- Return to Covenant
- Getting Unstuck
- Board Orientation
- Leadership Starts Before Board Meetings
- Dependency in Congregational Life
- Large Congregations
- Congregational Stories
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