Saturday, February 23, 2008
Baptism is more than signing a membership book.
The conversation about the limits of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism is one of the richest I've ever hosted in five years on this site. Thanks to every one of you who has contributed so far, including illuminating responses over on Celestial Lands and Making Chutney.
In my original post, I alluded to something I want to follow up on. I said that our narrowly congregational definition of "membership" is to "due to the peculiarities of our understanding of congregational polity and our non-ecclesiological understanding of membership." For me, the basic issue is not whether "congregations come first" or whether "conference spirituality" (or "circle worship") is more religiously satisfying than congregational worship (especially since it never has been for me) or whether extracongregational organizations deserve formal recognition from the UUA. The basic issue is what we mean by belonging.
Unitarian Universalists tend to view membership along the lines of active, legal membership in a voluntary society ("pledging members," for example), even though our congregations also include and depend on the active participation of non-member friends, the children of members, and many other people for whom the congregation is a vital part of their life. These folks may very well identify strongly with the congregation and with the religion it practices, but they aren't regarded as members.
Membership has its privileges — but for us these are 501c3 privileges, not ecclesiastical privileges: Members can vote in congregational meetings and can serve on governing boards; non-members cannot. But non-members can participate completely in our worship life, volunteer in the Sunday school, and engage fully in all other parts of our congregational life. We don't have a way to expand "membership" to encompass them. Are they Unitarian Universalists? They identify with, participate in, contribute to, and affiliate with UU communities. They are unmistakably part of our religious communities, but they are not legally members of our religious societies. And this is a place where our thinned-out doctrine of the church fails us.
As I've been thinking more about this subject, I keep coming back to one of the ways we Unitarian Universalists have departed from Christian ecclesiology. When a person is baptized, they're initiated into "the church" — not into Presbyterianism or Roman Catholicism or any other particular branch of the church, but into the church universal. There are particular membership requirements for individual denominations and congregations, to be sure, but the act of initiation into the Christian community comes first. Christians aren't merely Christians through an act of legal membership in a voluntary society; they're also Christians through their symbolic passage in baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
(I'm aware that some denominations refuse to acknowledge baptisms performed by the others, of course, but theologically, even narrowly sectarian Christian churches recognize a distinction between baptism into the church and membership in our church. Because I'm trying to make a theological observation more than a historical one, I'm going to step over the practice of Christian divisiveness and point to Christian concepts of universality.)
Christians recognize that the church is manifest in a variety of ways: at the congregational level and at the institutional/denominational level, to be sure, both of which are political and associational levels, but also at a more cosmic level as "the body of Christ," as "the kingdom of God," as the "church invisible." Ecumenism is premised on the idea that Christians are part of something shared, even though they are individually members of highly distinctive and even contending church bodies. The church is both a social phenomenon and, more importantly, a symbol of God's community.
By baptism, I'm part of the church universal — and therefore welcome to communion at my wife's Episcopal church, for example, as well as at King's Chapel, the Unitarian Universalist Christian church in Boston where I renewed my baptismal covenant at the Easter vigil ten years ago. That broader fellowship means a great deal to me. Then again, I've long said that my religion is Christianity, my theology is liberal, and my denominational affiliation is Unitarian Universalist.
If your religion is "Unitarian Universalism," however, you're faced with the question of what marks the point of entry, the threshold of membership, the portal through which a person becomes part of our broader fellowship. And that's where Unitarian Universalism has a problem. We don't really initiate people into a larger community, something that transcends the congregation.
Some of our congregations still practice baptism, of course, but that's because they continue to see themselves as part of the Christian church. For non-Christian or post-Christian churches, that option is closed. And while baptism has once again become a live symbol to me, it is probably a dead symbol for many UUs who were baptized in other churches. I'm wondering what practice symbolizes the broader fellowship for UUs who see Unitarian Universalism as their religion.
Unitarian Universalism's membership ritual is essentially signing a membership book, an act that is always local, parochial, and temporary — but that is in no way required for a person to feel religiously engaged with Unitarian Universalism. (It's temporary because a congregation can remove you from membership for any number of reasons, usually involving lack of activity or failure to make an annual financial contribution.) Although dedicated advocates of our voluntary-association approach to membership might think of the membership book as the gateway to "real" Unitarian Universalism, it strikes me as theologically thin. It's important but bureaucratic, and doesn't seem to have the capacity to symbolize a sense of more transcendent or universal fellowship.
Covenant theorists have done excellent work in trying to draw attention to the religious dimensions of congregational membership. But it seems that the covenant, not membership in the voluntary association, that has the real religious power. Many congregations operate with a kind of implicit covenant; some venerate "community." Some congregations still practice (or have more recently begun to practice) a spoken covenant or "bond of fellowship" in their worship services. A handful of ancient congregations in New England still use the covenant of their Puritan ancestors. The church in Jamaica Plain where I preached a few weeks ago uses this classic Unitarian covenant: "In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of humanity."
I think these covenants are better to point to than legal membership in a congregation when we're looking for thresholds or gateways to belonging. But these covenants are still much more local and parochial than baptism. You're a member of a particular worshiping community (by joining in the ritual of affirming the covenant) or a member of your local church (by signing the membership book and making a pledge), you're not a member of something larger. Your congregation is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but, technically, you are not. We could perhaps reimagine and redefine the Association to be a network of individuals rather than a network of congregations, but that wouldn't solve the basic problem that our sense of religious belonging is tied up with a legalistic, bureaucratic notion of membership in a voluntary association.
What does our belonging symbolize? Some forms of modern Universalism would propose a universal or pan-religious kingdom of God. Radical Unitarians in the late-19th century looked forward to a "republic of the world," a progressive incarnation of the "kingdom of God." The impulse to identify the cosmic fellowship that the local church symbolizes is exactly right. But it seems to me that we have failed to develop an adequate theology of this broader fellowship — and, perhaps more importantly, we have not yet developed a way to enact it or symbolize it so that it can serve as a meaningful threshold to our religion. We have yet to imagine what a baptism into Unitarian Universalism would be.
Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 23 February 2008 at 2:32 PM