Over on The Lively Tradition, Tom Schade has opined that it’s time for us Unitarian Universalists to completely restructure our organization. He proposes a central database of UUs, lodged not in a building but in the e-cloud that anyone can access from anywhere. This database would embrace all kinds of expression of UU affinity. Not just congregational membership, but camp attendance, participation in the former affiliate organizations (UUs for Economic Justice, Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Association, etc), and, presumably, just people who write to 24 Farnesworth Street and say, “Sign me up” but do not choose to join the Church of the Larger Fellowship. To Tom’s post, I responded that this used to be Unitarian polity, prior to 1925. Congregations joined their local chapter of a separate but linked organization, the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Churches, while both individuals and congregations signed up to support the American Unitarian Organization. Until 1899, the AUA’s function was producing Unitarian materials for reading, reflection, discussion, worship, and personal spiritual growth, and providing these products to individuals or congregations who requested them. Naturally, a lot of congregations wanted this information packaged in a human minister, so the AUA helped them obtain ministers known to them through participation in the production, examination, and dissemination of AUA materials, particularly through graduation in certain schools for ministry.
To Samuel Atkins Eliot II and his modernizing allies, this bicameral structure was not just cumbersome, it diluted the message and decentralized control of adherents. When the AUA redid its bylaws in 1899, casting itself as an activists corporation with an executive president and advisory board of directors, it set the goal of linking all congregations through a single hub, and connecting all individuals through their local, hub-linked, hub-approved parish minister.
Many Unitarians — often with Universalist comraderie (Universalism did not require congregational membership) — preferred to forge, improve, and employ connections around primary interests other than congregational worship and polity. What used to be “the affiliate organizations” developed large constituencies, many of whom cared nothing for congregational life. I spent my most active, most stable UU years not in any one congregational setting, but in two affiliate organizations, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. To this day, I have more active religious conversations with folks I know through these affiliations rather than those I know through congregational ties. Most of us in these groups believe that the UUA Board of Directors voted to jettison the affiliated organizations because they envy their vital, mostly self-sustaining communities. UU camps, scholarly groups, social justice networks — all demoted, until such time as we rearrange ourselves according to UUA instructions.
Instead of re-fighting those battles, let’s walk back those paths a bit, to see how much can be recovered as a foundation for what Rev. Schade proposes we do. Our denomination would have massive separate subsections, with mission-focused publications and ministerial credentialing criteria (Eliot was big on all ministers fitting his model, which was male and hyper-academic, faithfully served by devoted wives and children. Can you say “Victorian Era”?) Ministers like me, whose primary gifts lie in areas of content, would be accountable to examining boards who can judge what we say we know and what we do with it. Our products would be workshops, ministerial tutorials, guest preaching gigs — and management of the materials in which our content appears, such as libraries and media channels. Ministers whose primary gifts are pastoral and administrative would nurture, educate, and credential in their own streams, again according to what they covenant to prioritize.
And who would locate individual UUs within these complex networks? Let’s jump the rail here, to the Universalist State Convention structure, the very first target of Eliot’s streamlining enthusiasm. Universalists belonged to state conventions, which had diverse manifestions, only some of which were congregations. They met in various ways for various purposes, and sometimes the folks who met for other purposes chose to link into congregations and call a ministry. The state convention owned the church building, so that if this node of congregational enthusiasts dissolved, died, or went broke, the building became an asset for other folks ready to make themselves vessels of the fundamental faith. Several of the state conventions marshaled their forces to plant major congregations in major cities, but again, these were state convention projects until the hope of merger with Unitarians led to congregational bylaws and covenants.
And what happened when a Universalist moved out of one struggling rural area into a more promising one in a different state convention? The state conventions had a national organization, whose function was not religious, but administrative. Scott Wells, at Boy in the Bands, is my go-to expert on Universalist polity, so he would be the one to ask about what the Universalist National Convention did prior to its reformulation as The Universalist Church of America — which it did, openly, as a requirement for consolidating with the American Unitarian Association into a new, superceding entity to be called the Unitarian Universalist Association.
My guess is that the answer to that question will show us powerful ancestral precedent for what Tom is proposing. But I would be untrue to my old mentor, C. Conrad Wright, and his faithful Universalist ally, Alan Seaberg, if I said that all we need to do is turn back the clock and lean more weight on the other of our two historical rails. Universalist polity had genuine problems that need to be thoroughly considered before we all burst into yet another chorus of, “It’s Universalist, It’s Okay” (to the tune of “He’s A Lumberjack,”) it’s time for our serious Universalist forebears and scholars to guide our conversation. Let’s get out those old copies of The Larger Hope, and countless editions of Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. Let’s dig into long-buried sermon collections in the various state convention archives, many of which are amazingly rich and well-tended, but not in or near Harvard’s UUA Archives.
There are right and wrong ways to follow up on a worthy proposal. Maybe the UUA has taken the UUA model a step too far. But before we get all upset and call for firing somebody, let’s remember that Tom has identified a crisis of abundance. There are too many folks who want to be UUs, who want to be served by UUs, who want to hang out with UUs, to fit into what Eliot wanted to carefully manage as a tiny, elitist archetype. In a very real sense, the real reason to look at Universalist polity again is that Universalism has won the merger wars. More people nowadays identify with one of the Universalist theologies than with ANY of the Unitarian ones — if they even can separate the Socinians from the Arians from the pantheists. But the first time around, Universalism was also winning the theological competition: mainline religions, including Unitarianism, were dropping hell like hotcakes. So we need to remember that good theology did not, back in its heyday, overcome something terribly awkward and untenable in its polity.