Can the UUA “recognize ordinations”?

Obijuan (Returning . . . .) wrote about the Service of the Living Tradition and then threw this out

What an absolutely boneheaded thing to say in that context as: (1) Many of us already are ordained, and (2) [WARNING: POLITY GEEKING AHEAD] congregational polity means the UUA doesn’t recognize ordinations. Period. That is the job of the congregations. You can welcome us into fellowship, which you’ve just done. Leave it there.

Oh dear, time to say something. I started writing this as a comment, but I believe long, long, long comments by other bloggers are kinda rude, so I brought it home. Here goes, all cut-n-pasted.

I’ll see your geek and raise you a wonk. In short, your take on the polity is wrong and I will demonstrate why.

You’re confusing independency with congregationalism. In both, a congregation has sole power to ordain. Why? Because, in the church does not exist in some nebulous sense apart from the explicit covenanted community, or as the Cambridge Platform calls them, “visible saints by calling.” There just isn’t any body, apart from the congregation, that exists to ordain. For independent churches, the matter stops there.

Unitarians, Universalist and others who practice congregational polity recognize that there is a communion between the churches which does not undermine their autonomy. Congregational polity means something different for different bodies that hold it: even Unitarian and Universalists meant different things from each other, and the UUA practices something between the two. (Which is why I bristle when some people say “we’re becoming Presbyterian” when it seems to me that we’re following some historically-valid Universalist polity choices.) The main difference of application in congregational polity between the Unitarians and Universalists, historically, was whether or not a standing body could exist that could judge whether the basis of communion was being kept for all of the churches which share this mutual communion. Unitarians, no; Universalists, yes. Viscinage councils — still used in some congregational fellowships, with the practice just surviving among some Unitarians — for the Unitarians and state and the central fellowship committees for the Universalists.

On this point current practice favors the Universalists, though with consolidation the authority became far, far more centralized. Fellowship, however it is couched or explain, is more than a fitness vetting, though it certainly includes this; it is also a representation on behalf of all the congregations in fellowship. Though your fellowship standing, the member congregations of the UUA are represented in your ordination; upon this lines of mutual responsibilty follows. Very mutual and meta, to use the current slang.

So I’ll cut Bill Sinkford some slack. By the UUA, I read how he’s increasing using the identity not as the administrative secretariat, but as the fellowship of churches.  And if that’s the case: yes, it can recognize some ordinations — those ordained under fellowship of the UUA — and not recognize those who aren’t.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. My fellowship and my ordination are two separate things. I was not ordained when I attained preliminary fellowship. The bylaws of the UUA say nothing about ordination other than denoting that the power belongs to the congregations. The rules of the MFC say nothing about ordination, either. The MFC holds a copy of my certificate of ordination in my file, but it is signed by the president of my congregation. Fellowship (arbited by the MFC) is my associational recognition (our Universalist heritage). My ordination by my congregation is legitimate with or without the association’s blessing (our Unitarian heritage). There is a definite distinction, and most members of our congregations aren’t aware or don’t understand it. Sinkford’s statement only serves to muddy the issue.

  2. From my point of view, the UUA can recognize or not recognize ordinations. But what they can not do at the associational level, is dictate to the local congregations who they must or must not ordain. The power of ordination is held exclusively by the local congregation, which is the natural context for discerning if somebody has or has not manifested gifts for ministry.

    The issue is muddy because of the Frankenstein mish-mashing of Unitarian and Universalist practices. The benefit of this system, is that it allows for some quality control, while still honoring the congregation as a full manifestation of the Church (especially in its role discerning gifts for ministry), and allows freedom for congregations to dissent from the association within certain boundaries. A minister who is ordained by their church but not fellowshipped, is recognized as a minister by their ordaining church, and all other congregations are free to either recognize or not recoginize as they discern is best. Nobody is coerced.

  3. I’ll have to disagree with derek (“Nobody is coerced.”)

    Without ascribing any malicious intent (and acknowledging some distinct good intent!), our system coerces seminarians. Through them it coerces congregations.

    There are two mechanisms for this coercion, both tucked away where congregations and almost all lay people will not be aware of them. The first is the UUA settlement system. Without being in fellowship with the UUMA, no UU minister is permitted access to the congregations in search (yes, if they can find out that a congregation is in search, they can approach them outside the system–but in effect, this is a major piece of gatekeeping. And yes, I understand that there is a legitimate concern… but it might be better handled by flagging ministers who aren’t fellowshipped and *urging* congregations to investigate that if they consider such individuals…). This at least imposes on congregational polity with a paternalistic “we know best.”

    Secondly, seminarians are urged to join the UUMA (not a bad thing), and are obliged to agree to UUMA guidelines (they’re really more a set of rules…), which include elements which are exclusively applicable to seminarians–that they will not seek ministerial positions (without a waiver from the MFC…) until fellowshipped, and that they will not *accept ordination* until fellowshipped.

    *Right there*, that’s the really egregious violation. It coerces individuals, and it violates congregational polity, doing so in a place that’s out of sight of congregations and lay folk (i.e. The Church). So, who permits that? Well, the MFC/UUMA does that. Where do they get the authority to do so? Well… they have the approval of the UUA Board of Trustees. And where does the UUA Board get the authority to impose on congregational polity? Um. It’s never, so far as I can tell, been presented to the congregations of the association, asking them if the UUA may violate a strict understanding of congregational polity and narrowly limit who can accept ordination from a congregation which has determined that it (the sole entity we agree has the authority to ordain) believes candidate X should be ordained?

    I don’t believe that congregations would have accepted this, not as constructed.

    The current system severely constrains congregations’ authority–and does so (intentionally or not) in a way that’s out of their sight. It also coerces seminarians. They can’t attempt to join the club–the fellowship of ministers–without accepting the UUMA’s invasion of congregational rights, authority and privilege. Well… they *can*, but if they do, they’ll be trying to take a new minted M.Div and find a congregation with all the systems of the UUMA and UUA set up to hinder them.

    Granting all sorts of good intentions (and I do) like quality control and filtering out individuals who ought not be in our ministry… this still seems grossly excessive.

    I believe long, long, long comments by other bloggers are kinda rude

    Deepest apologies, Scott. This seemed the place to leave the comment.

    We went way beyond anything that the Universalists did, and the Unitarians would have blown gaskets over this. Hell, we had many, many Unitarian congregations reject joining the early denominational bodies *precisely* for fear that such formal association would tend to create a denomination.

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