Congregational Polity Fundamentalism: A Serious Threat to UUism?

In comments at the UU minister’s blog Peacebang, Patrick Murfin described a threat he sees to Unitarian-Universalism. Patrick has been a longtime observer of and participant in denominational events, and his views deserve to be given serious consideration. And since the issues clearly reflect the types of UU history concerns that this blog was founded to deal with, it seems relevant to tackle them. The conversation is likely to continue at Peacebang as well were the original comments were left, so you may want to follow the link to see how it is developing.

Here are some of Patrick’s comments, excerpted with permission. They are not necessarily reflective of this blog’s opinions, but are offered as part of a significant conversation about UUA history and direction that more UUs should probably be aware of.

“The intellectual mother of the Congregational Polity fundamentalism movement is a respected and beloved—as well as tireless—minister and scholar, Alice Blair Wesley. The manifesto of the movement was her 2000-2001 Mimms Lectures, which summarized decades of thinking, writing, and genteel agitating. That is available in book form as OUR COVENANT—THE LAY AND LIBERAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH: THE SPIRIT AND PROMICE OF THE COVENANT, published by Meadville/Lombard.

Many of Alice’s criticisms, rooted in a deep theological and historical understanding of covenantal relationships among the Puritans and their Unitarian descendents resonated with long time critics of UUA governance and—surprisingly—to some insiders within that governance structure. She drew almost exclusively on the polity arising from the New England Standing Order and chose to ignore the separate—and quite different polity and governance traditions—of the Universalists.”

Alice Blair Wesley is indeed a venerable figure in UU circles, both as a minister and with her various contributions to the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. She remains a regular contributor to the UUHS listserve.

“The problem is that in order to succeed in their governance goals, these folks felt the need to sweep away all non-congregational organs which might function in opposition to their plans. They can argue that the disaffiliated groups are still free to associate and pursue their goals, but by cutting off access to the General Assembly, discounted advertising in UUWORLD, and even simple linkage through the web site they know that many of these groups will whither and die.”

The previous post here at Transient and Permanent detailed how advertising discounts have been restored, but the larger issues here still remain. Even the seemingly most innocuous one–lack of listing on the UUA website–could be a serious problem for ingathering more members for some of these groups. While a Google search might turn them up, you have to know to search for such a group in the first place. Whereas surfing around the UUA previously would’ve introduced you, say, to the fact that there is a group of UU Buddhists, and you could follow the links to learn more.

“The excesses of this movement have now driven me to become the dirtiest word in the Congregational Polity fundamentalist lexicon—a “denominationalist.” Because what they are creating is an absurd world where there are no Unitarian Universalists, only book signed members autonomous congregations. When ever any one ceases for any reason, even temporarily, to be a member of a congregation they are to have no access to the UUA and its services and the UUA is to have no interest in them.”

Lest readers think Patrick is exaggerating here, there are indeed people who consider authentic UUs to be only those people on the membership rolls at UUA-affiliated churches. Commentators here and on other blogs have affirmed this position, and one encounters it in churches and meetings as well. Under the new shift in UUA culture, this could indeed mean that UUs between congregations are not considered appropriate objects of attention by the UUA. However, there is no other similar large-scale UU organization to advocate for or minister to such persons.

So, what do you think? Is Congregational Fundamentalism a real movement? Does it indeed pose the level of threat that Patrick sees? If so, what might/must be done to meet this challenge? Or do you see things differently? If so, what is your take on this issue?



Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

7 responses to “Congregational Polity Fundamentalism: A Serious Threat to UUism?

  1. There is definitely a push in my district towards ministering or serving young adults who are members of congregations. Being a member of a congregation seems to be a focal point more now than in the previous years I’ve been a UU.

  2. I suspect that I helped foster the belief that there are hordes of us who are aruging that folks can only be an UU by being a member , by my arguing that we play fair with statistics.
    If other groups only list members as those who are on the books, why should we have special privileges to include those who dont when comparing statistics? Comparing those who identify with UUs with those who have signed the book at (say) the Church of the New Jerusalem is bluntly lying with statistics.
    Every group has folks who identify but aren’t members (like everyone in an emerging congregation)
    I’ve also been grumpy about those who dont want to pay a dime to the UUs (congregation, ex-IAs, UUA, etc) but insist on their right to UU services created just for them and nobody else.
    I’m all for missionary work, but if you kill off your congregations, what will missionary work do?

  3. Patrick McLaughlin

    Oooh, look, shark-infested waters! The sane seminarian turns and gets clear of the beach.

    On, the other hand, I’m going to wade right on in.

    I’m finding that between contacts at school and here at home in my district, I get both sides of this dished up. I’ve felt the siren call of ‘you’re UU if you’re a member,’ toying with the idea when an overactive lay leader. But that’s the feeling of (some of) those of us who are most active and most committed.

    And it’s wrong. Not utterly, but still wrong.

    Every congregation, every minister, every lay leader who’s been involved in new membership… knows that it’s not really right. People arrive at our doors all the time saying those words we can all quote by heart, “Where have you been for all these years? I’ve been one of you for decades, and didn’t know it.”

    (Ok, the words vary, but the theme will resonate.)

    This debate won’t resolve neatly. It’s got one answer, and that is that neither is wholly right–and neither is wrong.

    It’s probably akin to the profoundly bizarre and mildly byzantine construct we have that defines who is a UU minister. The bottom line is that you’re a UU minister if a UU congregation ordains you. And yet… the UUMA and MFC recoil (for understandable reasons) from that fundamental fact. You’re supposed to only get to get to that step if–and when–and after–the institutional path has been trodden; you’ve gotten an M.Div, you’ve gone through CPE and an internship and career counseling and been reviewed, considered, weighed… and passed… by the MFC. Now you’re worthy of ordination and you can go get your congregation to ordain you.

    Now, I understand the reasons for the professional process. I even agree with them and see their value.

    And it’s wrong; the weight’s been placed all on that foot, really. Sure, a congregation is still the only place that can ordain you, but the em-PHA-sis is on the wrong notes. The professional process is supposed to ensure that our ministerial candidates are suitable and trained and within some bounds, sane and ethical folk.

    But I’ve looked at it and while I’m on that track, I see it as having stepped over and started to egregiously violate the right of congregations to decide who to ordain, without any exterior body having any say so.

    We have dueling impulses, dueling legitimate needs and concerns.

    Back to the start of this:
    The congregations have to remain the focus of the UUA; the UUA is nothing but the creation of the congregations… for their collective benefit.

    And to not have it foster and feed the things that lie betwixt and between us, the things that help link and bind us and build our commonalities… is crazy.

  4. davidium

    I keep coming back to one salient point… and that is that the UUAoC does not have to be the end all be all of Unitarian Universalist organization…

    If the UUAoC sees its mission as primarily a congregational services organization, and if the congregations that created it agree, then such is its institutional focus. But, that does not preclude the creation of other organizations to serve the broader needs of the Movement of Unitarian Universalism.

    If the UUAoC is not supporting extra-congregational expressions of the Movement of Unitarian Universalism the way we would like, and shows no interest in doing so, then fine. Lets create and fund an organization that will… perhaps a “Unitarian Universalist Mission Board”.

    Rather than lamenting at the “strictures” of Congregational Polity, let us instead avail ourselves of the freedoms inherent in this kind of church governance… simply, that there is not a Bishop or Presbyter who can tell us what we can and can not do…

    Yours in Faith,


  5. Pingback: Do (Former) Independent Affiliates Meet UUA Bylaw Criteria? « Transient and Permanent

  6. Elz

    The first three posts in my new blog, Politywonk, have takes on this issue by three different thinkers.

  7. Patrick — there’s a difference between ordination, conferred by a congregation, and fellowship, conferred by the MFC. You can be ordained by a congregation without going through the hoops of the MFC (shorthand for all of the other groups involved, of course). You can even be called by a congregation without going through the MFC.

    But, to get official denominational support, access to the Living Tradition Fund, continuing education opportunities and funds, the official search process, etc, you do have to jump through those hoops. Since most of those things involve money, contributed by congregations and individuals, this seems to make sense. And most congregations agree, through their own governance, representation in their districts and therefore to the UUA Board, to cooperate with the fellowshipping process in considering who they will ordain, and call into service, for a variety of reasons.

    There are also those congregations who do not consider fellowship, and those who confer ordination on those not in fellowship for honorary reasons (ministers of music, for example, or honorary emeritus, such as was conferred on A. Powell Davies’ wife, Muriel Davies, by the River Road Church in Bethesda [see

    So it might appear that the congregations are bypassed in the processes of ordaining and fellowshipping ministers, especially from a vantage point inside the process, but they are really two separate things, and it is the congregations themselves who decide how closely they mirror the requirements of fellowship by setting policies for ordination within their own governance. For example, my husband’s ordaining church wrote a policy requiring that a candidate for ordination receive preliminary fellowship, but this is not always the case.

    And now I’ve gone on too long. 😉

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