I developed a better appreciation of Universalist conventions this year, largely following my research at the Universalist archives at Harvard-Andover library. On the one hand, it makes me appreciate — or at least understand — parts of our current polity that more stolid congregationalists denounce (correctly) as “not properly Unitarian.” These include a central ministerial fellowship process and ministers voting at convention, er, General Assembly.
But what stands out for me are the rules, forms and gracefully-degrading structures that allowed for differing practices of discipline and organization as appropriate for the Universalist population. Gracefully degrading? If there was no state convention, the powers of the state convention would be held by the General Convention. Likewise, you sometimes saw a “Convention Church” that provided worship and fellowship opportunities for isolated Universalists in a particular state. (Shades of General Assembly today?) And if the state is too big? There may be associations that meet to consult, but not legislate.
A shared, high-level concept of the local parish and state and General Convention, with common rules around ministerial and parish fellowship, with accountable delegated authority … well, if it worked in practice half as well as it appeared on paper, I imagine that Universalist fortunes might have been very different had there been more ministers, money or both.
It’s not that I like rules, per se, but that the structures for order allowed and prepared for self-initiative, whether that was a parish that organized by people inspired by printed tracts, or an aspirant for the ministry planning to develop a vocation. Rules and structures of authority, in this way, allow freedom in ways that endless choices (and others’ careful discretion) cannot.