Membership is Weird

Unitarian-Universalist minister “Peacebang” has a post up at her blog today about membership issues in her church, especially the issue of whether to keep listing people as church members who never attend.  Reading it, one may be struck by how odd the idea of “membership” is in Christianity (which is where Unitarian-Universalists derived their thoughts on the matter from).  Most religions have no concept of congregational membership. For example, Buddhist temples in most of Asia, mosques, Shinto shrines, Daoist and Confucian temples, and so on have no formal membership (though they may develop such ideas in America under the influence of legally-embedded de facto congregationalist ideas by which non-profit religious organizations must operate).  Peacebang’s post simply would not make any sense in most human religious contexts.  But it does make sense in the UU context, which helps to show a) how idiosyncratic on the bigger scale some UU traditions andconcepts are, and b) how thoroughly Christian Unitarian-Universalist models are whether or not UUs recognize it.

Let’s recall also for a moment that families used to literally own or lease the pews in Unitarian and Universalist churches, and that this practice only died out in the 20th century.  Indeed, the income from pew sales is what provided the necessary funds to build many of the historic churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and it was the pew owners who pretty much governed them, despite any nominally egalitarian democratic policies that may have existed on the books.  And also that in an earlier period the Puritan churches (from which American Unitarianism largely evolved) were organized on a parish model, with everyone within a certain geographic area legally obligated to associate with a particular church, which was supported by taxes.  So Unitarian-Universalism has gone through quite a lot of evolution to reach the point where a minister has to ponder whether or not to keep non-attendees on the roll.

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2 Comments

Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

2 responses to “Membership is Weird

  1. Thanks for an interesting response! PB

  2. While i havent seen any documentation on pew rentals in rural southern churches, it does seem to be the standard format for all the union churches. Union churches being a concept that most folks today dont understand too well – but you get everybody in the community to buy pews and then you split the money by denomination and divy up the Sundays by the amount each denomination gave. Some denominations get twice a month, the poor denominations get once a quarter (or less). Membership had its privileges.
    I should mention that some community churches did allow every traveling preacher pulpit rights.

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