Recently I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues say that they wish we had bishops. I confess to these thoughts occasionally myself. But bishops?! We’re Unitarian Universalists! We trace our congregational history all the way back to the Cambridge Platform of 1648! Bishops don’t tell us what to do. Ministers don’t tell us what to do. Nobody tells us what to do. We tell the leadership what to do. We’re Unitarian Universalists.
Ah. Yes. Well, there’s the rub, you see. Nobody tells us what to do. And this is where we get into trouble.
Our polity is congregational. It has been ever since the gathered churches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony got together and covenanted with each other in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. These early proto-Unitarians (and proto-Congregationalists) were fierce in their assertion that it was the people, not the bishops, who had the right to determine what happened in the churches. The churches – the faithful themselves – would call their own ministers. They would determine what was required for membership. They would determine who would be ordained.
But how could they be sure that they would call ministers who would preach to them what they needed to hear and not just what they wanted to hear? To be sure, this is the great weakness in congregational polity. The prophet Micah warned of this:
“If someone were to go about inspired and say deceitfully:
“I will preach to you for wine and liquor,”
such a one would be the preacher for this people!” (Micah 2:11)
Still, the gathered churches understood that they weren’t just getting together for the hell of it (as it were). They weren’t country clubs – they were churches. And as such, they did believe that there was someone who had ultimate authority to tell them what to do. But only one someone, and that was God. And that’s the big thing. Those early churches might have been passionately congregational, but they also had a rigorous theology. These two things cannot be separated without dire consequences.
And then along came Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, (who ended up leaving the ministry, by the way), who preached a fanatical individualism. And Unitarians, and then Unitarian Universalists, latched on to Emersonian individualism like ticks on a dog. We became all about “me” to the point where some of us have forgotten about “we.” And we’ve even codified this into our Unitarian Universalist Association covenant in the principles and purposes.
The covenant as it is written now in our bylaws lists seven principles – and most of our people can name the first and seventh if they can’t remember the five in-between. But I think our principles are completely out of order. We’ve placed individualism above all else with our first principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person;…”
We started…we started with the individuality bit. Not community. Not spirituality. The supremacy of the individual. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you. Way back before the Unitarians and the Universalists merged and before the apotheosis of the individual in the principles and purposes, Unitarians, fed on the diet of Emersonian individualism, were already firing ministers who were speaking uncomfortable truths to the people. Moncure Conway was kicked out of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, DC for his outspoken abolitionist stance. The people didn’t want to hear that. But the people needed to hear him.
I don’t really think that we need a shift to episcopal polity. But I do think we need to change some things. I think that we can’t have congregational polity without a rigorous theology. We are not the church of “do-as-you-please.” I’ve heard this more times than I care to count from people in our churches, “I come here because you can believe whatever you want here.” Um….no. No. We have other principles in the current covenant that follow that inherent worth and dignity one. Principles such as “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Just to name a couple. So no – you can’t believe whatever you want or do whatever you want – that’s not responsible.
So we could start by taking a harder look at our own covenant and holding ourselves to it. And then we might want to consider the form of our current covenant. Perhaps we might want to re-order the principles. And then we might want to take our spiritual journeys seriously.
We can govern ourselves – but not until we’re ready to put aside the “me first” mentality. Because it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us and those yet to come. When we make decisions for the church the decisions have to be about what’s best for the church – not about what I think I might want at this very moment. It’s not about what we want, but what we need. And sometimes we need to hear the hard things. Let us remember the covenant. Enough with the Emerson already!
That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.