Re-Reading the Cambridge Platform

So here’s about the only heresy it is possible to utter in today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.  These words fly in the face of the only thing on which we officially self-described UUs have agreed to agree.  They contradict statements I have made for most of my professional life.

In fact, I cannot believe these words are leaving my computer to enter the larger world:

What if The Cambridge Platform no longer provides an adequate definition for liberal congregationalism?

Okay!  Okay! Don’t all scream at once!

How DOES the Cambridge Platform define a congregation?

“A congregational-church is, by the institution of Christ a part of the Militant-visible-church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united into one body, by a holy covenant, for the publick worship of God, & mutuall edification one of another, in the Fellowship of the Lord Iusus.”

Let’s not parse the old definition of “Militant-visible-church: and “saints by calling.” 

Let’s not even quibble over whether the Lord Iusus needs us to call his name or just shows up and sits in a back pew like so many other anonymous visitors that we are free to welcome or ignore.

 Let’s get straight to the mission statement:

“Publick worship of God & mutual edification one of another.”

Nope — I’m still happy with it.  Here’s why it still works for me:

Nowhere does this statement include a mandatory Sunday morning show-up for the saints.

Nowhere does this statement exclude people whose worship and mutual edification occur at irregular moments.

When I look at it, I see folks who want this connection at life’s major milestones, even if they haven’t used it for awhile.

When I talk with them — folks trying to arrange a memorial service or wedding after decades away from Sunday mornings, they don’t seem any less *religious* — meaning tied to a sense of tradition.

When I explore their relationships and ethics, they don’t seem any less *covenantal* — meaning seriously and reflectively connecting themselves to each other and to folks who have already so connected.

In other words, maybe our private relationships really can be enough for the Cambridge Platform.

I have a coworker who went through a tough divorce and near-fatal car crash.  She only made it with the devoted assistance of a close circle of friends.  In gratitude, now that she’s back in the mainstream, she is slowly bestowing a piece of major jewelry on each one of them.

So here’s the heresy.  It isn’t about the Cambridge Platform after all.  The issue is how the Puritan culture continues to hang on around it.

Maybe it’s time to separate the Cambridge Platform out from its UU worldly accretions — the weekly Sunday worship of the Roman Catholic mass, the corporation laws of Massachusetts — and see if there’s anything left to serve the liberal religious seekers who petition for our community-based ministerial services.

These seekers describe their faith in terms in which they immediately recognize our principles.

They trace their spiritual imagery through wider worlds they find affirmed in our sources.

Why does the UUA somehow continue to regard their covenants — the meals cooked while exhausted, the bills paid in boring jobs, the vacation destinations enjoyed because their loved ones wanted to see them — why are these evidences of covenant somehow inferior to the covenant of folks who return to our pews, chairs and classrooms, Sunday after Sunday?



3 thoughts on “Re-Reading the Cambridge Platform

  1. Okay… I accidently erased my first comment, let’s see if I remember what it was I said…

    I think there is a conflation between a covenant of congregations and a covenant of individuals. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was a convenant between congregations. It gave the congregations a means in which they could recognize the ministers of the other congregations. The ministers were ordained by the congregation that called them. They were not ministers in other communities, only by the congregation that ordained them. The platform therefore gave a means in which the congregations could come together under one roof. This was covenantal and not creedal. Other denominations have creedal tests that prove a congregation is of that denomination, we had a covenant.

    It was the congregation that made up the corporate body of Christ not the individual. And it was the corporate body that selected its head, the minister. It is only the congregation that can ordain the minister. (and which congregation ordains in recent times has become an option) Under the Platform, the congregations that covenanted together would recognize the ministers from the other congregations.

    Community ministers in the UUA is a fairly new phenomenon. Other denominations have had community ministers for generations. The Catholic church for instance has its Sisters and Brothers who are ordained to perform community ministry as their service to the church (Chirst). Congregations during the Platform time period saw that everyone was to perform such community and charitable works on behalf of others. A prophethood of all believers as james Luther Adams would describe it later.

    It really is only in recent times that it has become clear that community ministers have a role and a place in the denomination. This simply did not occur to the writers of the Cambridge Platform. What the UUA and the UUMA is beginning to do is to find ways to incorporate, enlarge the covenant to be more inclusive of our current needs. This is why community ministers are asked to affiliate/ associate with a congregation and why that congregation is asked to recognize that relationship.

    If there is an inferiority or inequality, it is because the UUA and the UUMA as well as our congregations are still in the learning mode of what this new dimension of service to our world means. How do we hold congregations accountable to community ministers? How do we hold community ministers accountable to the larger faith? How expansive a term is community minister? My guess that it is very expansive.

    Well, not as well articulated as the first time… so be it… Blessings,

  2. The writers of the Cambridge Platform were familiar with community-based ministers, and were against them. They placed complete attachment on defining and controlling the political community through the Society (not the smaller subgroup known as the Church). Anne Hutchinson was a great example of someone who could have been a community-based minister, and she was tried for preaching without education and authority, after which she was banished from Massachusetts Bay.

    The same group of leaders adamantly drove out independent individuals who were not in a position to buy land. Again, there was a particular definition of goodness and stability: the valiant yeoman. It did not admit of the itinerant, whether or not their goal was doing good.

    This does not mean that the followers of the Cambridge Platform, coming down through the generations in Massachusetts Bay, had no concern for the issues which often call community-based ministers to act. For one thing, many practical needs were addressed in Town Meetings, which were held weekly and often handed out work details to assist folks in a rough patch. But for the persistently challenged, they felt services would be more stable if done through philanthropic societies specializing in various aspects of self-culture. Hence temperance as a cure for families made indigent by a drunken father, Back to Africa for freed slaves, prison reform into penitentaries (a model which originated with Quakers in Pennsylvania, but which is not named for its home state). In other words, they had a particular model of salvation, based firmly in the Enlightenment and Reformation (which is why we UUs have a Beacon Press), and consequently, in the hierarchies of that era as well.

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