Polity, Schmolity (Why do we do things the way we do?)

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Some years ago, a friend of the congregation I was serving, said, “Just do it; you’re in charge!” I do not remember what this person was encouraging me to do. What I remember is thinking that person had the wrong idea about UU church governance and how things work! I had clarity about what things I was in charge of, yet in no way had I been granted the role of “Queen of the Congregation!”

There was another time when I was with a different congregation, when a former member made an appointment with me to ask me to “control” the behavior of a current member who she felt was doing something inappropriate. I wish I had that power!  

I only get to use the title Reverend because I was ordained by a congregation—two at once, in my case.

And, yes, so I am the Reverend and just that title may command certain respect, but I am not the queen of this or any congregation. I don’t hold all the power. We hold it together! In our way of doing church, the minister and the congregation are partners in a power relationship for as long as their partnership is working.

Why is how a congregation and a minister relate to each other important? Why is how we organize our congregation important? Polity, schmolity! Polity is just a word for church governance. There are different ways to organize a congregation, to organize a denomination.

We UUs are organized according to what is called “congregational polity.”

We come from spiritual ancestors, who found the hierarchical—and often despotic—“authority” of priests, kings, and even queens, not in line with how they wanted their faith communities to be structured. These spiritual ancestors, mostly because they were finally able to read the Bible for themselves, became convinced that they did not need an “authority,” spiritual or otherwise, to tell them what to believe, or what to do in their relationship with each other, or with God. They wanted the power to figure that out for themselves in the company of each other. 

Our church ancestors did what they needed to do to have the right to be in charge of themselves, to think for themselves, to organize their affairs as they saw fit, to figure out for themselves what was most worthy of their time and attention, and how best to behave with each other.   

Perhaps one could say they entered into the next stage of maturity when they rejected the “authority” of priests, of kings and of queens; although it is clear now that the band of equals they wanted to be did not include all who could have been included. In other words, they were unaware of the “water they swam in” in so many ways, even though they may have reached a new level of development. For the most part they formed a band of white brothers; white brothers who owned property (and in some cases people). It took a long while for white women to gain an equitable place inside the band of believers. It took even longer for others who should have been “us” from the beginning. We are still struggling to include everyone who wants to be—who ought to be—inside the circle of our congregations, or our association of congregations.

We are and have been about the work of making the band of equals as our ancestors imagined it much more inclusive. They made mistakes, plenty of them, as have we. 

Yet it is important for us to understand how critical it was for our spiritual ancestors, those arising from within the ranks of the Radical Reformation, to create a church governance structure that reflected their belief that they could and should determine what was important, and focus on those bonds and callings in the company of each other.

We are heirs to the liberal religious faith that they created. The church structure, known as congregational polity, came from the same impulses that created the democratic governance that made the USA possible. Our nation’s “polity” also carried the same unawareness of what equality ought to look like, but that is the subject of a different sermon.

Our way of “doing church” known as congregational polity doesn’t rely on outside authority, or financial support, or decisions from beyond the congregation itself, and no party within is any more important than any other.

One could say that when an individual makes a commitment to join a UU congregation, that person is making a promise to engage with others to be the church, to do all that is necessary to make not some big institution run, but to make this ONE run.   

Our spiritual ancestors also came to believe that the only kind of power that was necessary and legitimate was to the power of persuasion. They had had enough of coercion, of outside “authorities” telling them what to do, mandating what to believe.

What they started was a grand experiment, which we continue, that was and is based on mutual trust and committed lateral relationships. The “power” one had was to speak one’s mind. The “test” was how the community of equals responded.   

People who join this faith are free to speak their truth. Ministers are free to speak their truth. The responsibility for whether or not what is said has any power is ultimately on the person or persons who hear the message! That is the democratic process, one we hold dear.

The religious communities our ancestors formed were not always perfect. They did not always get it right. We aren’t the only religious organization that follows “congregational polity.”

One of the possible drawbacks in our way of doing church is that there is rarely a final word on anything! There is endless processing! One way to describe what we do is a constant discernment of where the spirit of love is moving us to go. 

Our spiritual ancestors came to understand that revelation (new understandings of old truth, and understanding new truths) was always evolving who we would become, how we would be in this world—together. It is important to remember that our spiritual ancestors wanted to reserve for themselves not only the freedom to speak their minds and to make their own decisions, but also to discern for themselves the presence of the “spirit.” (They would have said the Holy Spirit; we might say the spirit of life, or the ways of love.)

For them, the “truth” was discernible. Whatever “truth” was, it wasn’t true because a ruler said so. It was true if it was loving, if it was reasonable, if it made for a better world, a more just society; if it deepened the worthwhile connections that made life worth living. It was liberating truth if it led to a transformative evolution.  

Individual “truth” had to be “tested” in community. As Alice Blair Wesley, our expert on the Cambridge Platform, used to say, there is no such thing as a UU alone by themselves. To be a UU is to be in community with others.

It takes a mature calm, steadiness to stay in relationship with folks you may not always agree with. It takes a mature, calm steadiness to trust the process and not succumb to the easier way of putting someone in charge—perhaps so someone is to blame when things go wrong!

It is not easy to trust our way of doing things.

It takes constant courage to trust each other, to believe that the process of the free church is worth it.

Our religious ancestors, arising from the Radical Reformation, came to believe that with freedom and education, within a congregational system of voluntarily gathered “equals,” where no one person was “in charge,” (at least not for very long) they could together figure out where the spirit was leading. What they came to believe was that power was to be shared with those one knew well and with those with whom one was in a committed relationship.

These religious ancestors of ours came to America as the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Many have claimed that it was their thought and practice about how to organize free churches that contributed to the American form of democratic government. 

They organized their faith communities the way they did, a form of governance long called “congregational,” because they wanted a faith community were those gathered together could discern for themselves the presence of the spirit of love; could discern where and how it moved among them. 

They believed that gathered together they could discern the living, present spirit of life. Bound not by common doctrine, but by their promise to walk together in the ways of love, they knew they needed freedom and the exercise of reason; and most of all, their commitment to each other to behave in the ways of love.

They modeled their churches after what they understood to be the way the early Christian communities were structured. It was what made them radical; this deep desire to return to what they believed to be the roots of their faith. It was for them an anti-empire stance.

In 1648, our religious ancestors produced a document long called The Cambridge Platform. This document contains the five hallmarks of “congregational polity,” the way that they believed a free church should be organized.   

One hallmark of the free church was that each faith community should have the right and responsibility to call its own minister. They reserved this right for themselves, believing that they could best decide who their spiritual leader would be. They rejected any “assignment” of a spiritual leader from any person or group beyond themselves. They trusted that they could figure out who could be their best partner.

The second right and responsibility of a free church was that each congregation would control its own property and its own funds. Like members of UUCSH will do today, they decided what to do with their money and their assets.

The third was that each congregation would decide for itself who its members would be. No one—not even the UUA—tells you how you must decide who is a member and who is not. All the UUA says is that they expect each congregation to follow their own bylaws.

The fourth hallmark was that each congregation would be free and should be responsible for associating with other free congregations of their choosing, recognizing and reaching out to other free churches in lateral relationship.

The fifth was that each congregation had the right and responsibility to deal with issues of discipline and conflict by means of voluntary inter-church conferences. Each congregation was independent, yet free to associate with other congregations, especially to share wisdom and counsel.

“Polity” actually means “wise policy.” Our “wise way” is based on the voluntary commitment of those who are equal, engaged in relationships based on trust and respect, walking together in the ways of love.

What you will do today—gather as members for an annual meeting—has been the way the church governed by congregational polity does church for at least nearly 400 years! 

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