Polity quandries and the UUA Bylaws

Disclosure #1: In my hypothetical church planting exercises, I believe that UUA membership would be desirable, but not essential, to the welfare of the church.

Disclosure #2: Rules — in this case the UUA bylaws — are not made to be broken, but imagination must be applied to them, so as the negative parts of the culture behind the rules do not taint the new work and mission. In other words, there is more than one way to read the UUA bylaws and still stay true to them and Universalist Christian church planting.

Disclosure #3: I believe that any new Universalist Christian church needs to rest on the Winchester Profession, even if there is a local profession built on top of it.

Now, to the UUA Bylaws.

Section C-1.1. Name. The name of this Association shall be Unitarian Universalist Association. It is the successor to the American Unitarian Association, which was founded in 1825 and incorporated in 1847, and the Universalist Church of America, which was founded in 1793 and incorporated in 1866.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief. Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

Section C-3.1. Member Congregations. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships, referred to herein as member congregations, which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together.

Section C-3.2. Congregational Polity. Nothing in these Bylaws shall be construed as infringing upon the congregational polity or internal self-government of member congregations, including the exclusive right of each such congregation to call and ordain its own minister or ministers, and to control its own property and funds. Any action by a member congregation called for by these Bylaws shall be deemed to have been taken if certified by an authorized officer of the congregation as having been duly and regularly taken in accordance with its own procedures and the laws which govern it.

*Section C-3.3. Admission to Membership. A church or fellowship may become a member congregation upon acceptance by the Board of Trustees of the Association of its written application for membership in which it subscribes to the principles of and pledges to support the Association. The Board of Trustees shall adopt rules to carry out the intent of this Section.

See also

Rule 3.3.5. Rules and Regulations for New Congregations. It is essential that Unitarian Universalist congregations be affirmative in spirit, inclusive in fellowship, and mutually supportive in their relationships with other congregations. The following statements represent the Association’s best judgment as to the meaning of this general statement and shall be used by staff and the Board in determining action upon applications for membership.

. . .

(b) The Association interprets its statements of purpose to mean that no congregation can be accepted into membership if its bylaws exclude from its local membership any person because of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin.

(c) All member congregations must be congregational in polity; the final authority to make decisions must be vested in the legal membership of the congregation.
. . .

My questions are

  1. What constitutes a creedal test? Do organic polity documents of a UUA predecessor have special status? Is the Principles and Purposes, if individual acceptance is made a qualification for congregational membership, a creedal test?
  2. In what ways do the highly centralized habits of Unitarian congregationalism and de facto congregationalism of Universalist semi-presbyterianism influence the current practice of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism? And more, what does it mean to have congregational polity without an understanding of the “headship of Christ”? Does the UUA secretariat assume some of the spiritual character of unifying the congregational churches in its fellowship?
  3. Unitarian Universalists today use terms that have different meanings –congregation, church, parish, society — as synonyms, and apply a specific meaning to one term — fellowship — for adminstrative, but not ecclesiastic, reasons. What kind of polity, befitting a Universalist Christian church, would come from a clearer understanding of these distinct ecclesiastic terms?
  4. Likewise, what if we made clearer distinctions between language of theological identity, like creed, affirmation, profession, confession, and the like?

[Spelling corrections made. SW.]


  1. Great questions! I look forward to reading what others make of them. My comments regarding your first question:

    A “creedal test” would seem to me to involve the existence of a disciplinary body that could nullify a person’s membership on the basis of a discrepancy between the person’s stated beliefs and the church’s official statement of belief. It’s the withdrawal of fellowship from someone because of that person’s conscientious difference of theological opinion.

    I don’t think any of the historical Unitarian or Universaalist professions qualify as “creedal tests,” although there are moments in our history when they may have briefly been used that way — almost always to discipline ministers, not members.

    The really interesting question, in my mind, isn’t whether a member faces disciplinary action for deviating from our implicit or semi-explicit doctrines — since it’s pretty hard to find an example of such a thing at an organized, official level. It’s this: How does a congregation find a workable compromise between guaranteeing “freedom of the pulpit” while also expecting its minister to publicly promote the congregation’s values and doctrines?

    What if the minister’s conscience ends up at odds with the congregation’s? Can this be explicitly acknowledged, or does the congregation need to discover some other grievance to end the relationship? Do we have implicit creedal tests for clergy?

  2. – In your polity quest, have you found any references to the office of deacon? I found that my own congregation’s by-laws have a provision for deacons. A deacon by the by-laws is defined as a consecrated lay person, under the authority of the ordained pastor (or church board when there is no pastor), charged with assisting with communion and the care of the congregation. I was told it was mostly an office used in the times when the church was under the care of circuit riders.

    To me it sounds like a very good lay ministry to have around in small and rural churches that lack full-time ordained ministry. If I would be at my current church longer, I would definitely revive the office of deacon.

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