Congregational Polity

Dear friends,

I am reading the Cambridge Platform for my UU Polity class, a document written a signed in 1648 by our Puritan forebears here in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A response to the Westminster Confession written in the same time period, the document established our congregations as separate bodies, governed by themselves–by the laity–to covenant together to walk in the ways of love with one another and with God. Their devotion to the Bible, and the laity’s insistence that we read and interpret the biblical text without the intervention of church hierarchy was their inspiration for the creation of this document. And the Cambridge Platform established from that day forward what is referred to as congregational polity.

It was entirely democratic; this form of church governance, and it is still the form of governance we use in our UU churches in 2013.

And friends, it was some radical stuff. It was seriously progressive. And make no mistake about it: there was nothing remotely liberal or progressive about the Puritans except their polity. These were the people who established blue laws in Massachusetts–who believed in the total depravity of humanity–who believed that some were elected and some were going to burn in the fiery pits of hell, and we would know who the elected were by their works. These people didn’t play instruments in church. They didn’t dance. They didn’t celebrate Christmas–it was too joyful and would lead to drinking and carousing.

And yet, the Puritans’ radical way in which they insisted on governing their churches would pave the way for the theological diversity we have today within Unitarian Universalism. I’m sure they are turning over in their graves at the thought, but it is true.

Because we have decided to govern our churches from the bottom up–because we use the democratic process–because we can hire and fire our ministers–because our ministers have freedom of the pulpit–and because we can create together our own promises to one another to walk in the ways of love–THIS is how we got to where we are today; a still creedless religion that has allowed for more than one path to truth in our congregations. Our polity has become the center of our theolog(ies). As I have written in an earlier blog post, our Puritan method of doing church became our message.

Covenant is at the heart of that message. We famously tell people we are not a creedal faith. We have no creedal test to pass. Sometimes we forget that what we do have is tougher than any creedal test. We have to add our voice to a set of promises–not just to our God or all that is holy, but to one another–to walk together in love, and to support one another on our journeys of faith.

We recite the covenant of this congregation at every worship service:

Love is the spirit of this church
And service its law
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace
To seek the truth in love
and to help one another.

Though our ancestors would cringe at our current day liberal theology, I think they’d be proud of our commitment to establish our own sovereign churches in the bonds of love, seeking the truth, and helping one another on the path.

May we carry on that legacy of freedom from tyranny and oppressive hierarchy, tempered with a healthy dependency on one another and with the holy.


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