Friday, February 15, 2008
Limits of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism.
I remarked, back in this post, that I "have my own lingering doubts about the adequacy of a strictly congregational understanding of Unitarian Universalism." Dudley asked me to explain, and since Rev Elz has offered an unusually good response, I'm going to move my initial reply and Elz's reply into their own post here.
Some people identify "Unitarian Universalism" with liberal religious congregationalism. By this view, one can't "be" a UU without being a member of a UU congregation, at least not fully. This view seems to have especially strong support right now on the Board of Trustees and in some other leadership circles, where the Association's congregationalism — its "congregational polity" and the Association's accountability to its member congregations — is emphasized to the exclusion of support for extracongregational forms of UU life. (An interesting question is whether the General Assembly could assert that the Association is, in fact, dedicated not just to congregational life and congregational partnerships but also to other forms of Unitarian Universalist affiliation.)
The limitation of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism is that "Unitarian Universalism" exists beyond the limits of congregational affiliation, and beyond the formal boundaries of the UUA. Most of our congregations don't regard children (or teens under 16) as "members" of the congregation, due to the peculiarities of our understanding of congregational polity and our non-ecclesiological understanding of membership, yet our churches do encourage the kids to think of themselves as UUs. And these children grow up to be youth and young adults who quite naturally — and truthfully — do see themselves as Unitarian Universalists even if they have never formally joined a congregation. They may still maintain many other connections to UU life, through social networks, camps, online communities, etc. The religion, in other words, can be practiced and claimed by people who do not participate in our congregational polity.
There are different aspects of religious affiliation. Congregational membership is important — and, in congregational traditions like ours, it is especially important — but it is not quite the same thing as doctrinal agreement, cultural affinity, or sociological identification. I think a lot of people confuse "Unitarian Universalism" (a religion) with "Unitarian Universalist congregationalism" (an organized denominational expression of the religion).
That's my quick response, but Rev Elz offered an even more interesting take:
For an an interesting historical background to the current UUA super-focus on congregations, check out J.D. Bowers' Introduction to his fantastic recent book, Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America. This is the clearest, most concise statement I have ever seen of the roots of the conflict between theological Unitarianism, which finds its home wherever it is, and in whatever social structure works — family, individual, small group — versus New England's tightly congregational Puritan polity, regardless of individuals' theologies.
For most of my life, I have been a strong activist in congregational democractic rights, especially the right to elect its own clergy and leaders. But as a liberal, I have become more and more aware of how our current congregationalism (smaller groups with only one minister and a DRE) do not fit most UU's lives. Sadly, I have come to believe that the insistence on congregationalism for our members is hurting us the same way the insistence on celibate clergy has hurt the Roman Catholics. Trying to impose a one-ideal-lifestyle-fits-all form of participation undercuts right relations by making examples of people who over-sacrifice personal health and growth. It fosters secrets among people who don't want to shake the power structure. And it gives undue power to people who can manipulate marginal members, in our case, big donors who let small donors slide by.
Meanwhile, the actual theologies for which our martyrs died have been almost completely lost, treated as anachronistic relics. Yet many of our new members still come in through the same path as our forebears — they were put to reading the Christian scriptures and within them found a clear message of a human Jesus with a saving love from God. And while we still try to cultivate the conscience, our polity insistence on uniformity has atrophied our former skills at supporting diverse political conclusions derived from different readings of the same principles.
It is time to abandon this smug, quick judgemental commitment to forms and get back to remembering the functions of our faith. Great reformers everywhere have made a primary commitment to ministering to people wherever they are in spiritual need. But great religions let themselves be changed each time they find a new way of collecting committed people who are in basic agreement with the views and beliefs of their members and leaders.
Does that mean a return to credalism? No: you can be some kind of Unitarian Universalist while basing your spiritual practices in Buddhism or Christianity or paganism or Judaism or whatever. Our principles are historically derived and clearly stated. They differ dramatically from the fundamental theologies of those faiths: Buddhism, for instance, is not democratic.
Judaism is still our closest kin, especially once one learns to read the prophets and wisdom literature. So it behooves us to remember that our founders learned from those who read and carried the Torah. They offered literature, not congregations. They preached theology, not bylaws. And they have created a variety of meeting forms — family, minyan, congregation — according to the various circumstances in which people of a diaspora make covenants to carry on their heritage.
I'm really not in a position to comment on Buddhism's democratic potential — I'm thinking of those brave monks in Burma, for example — but I think there's a very strong to be made that theological or even cultural Unitarian Universalism have more forms than are currently found in our congregations.
Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 15 February 2008 at 8:29 AM