Our Director of Administration, Linda Topp, is… known for being blunt. So, I was a bit taken aback when earlier this week, she called me into her office, with a sort of sheepish look on her face and said, “Can we change the wording in your sermon blurb before it goes out in the enews? I mean, I know your sermon will not actually be a snoozer, but the words ‘congregational polity?’ those are a snoozer.”
Wait, what??! Whooya callin’ a snoozer, Linda?! I mean, I know I’m a geek about this stuff, but c’mon! It’s one of those buzzwords that doesn’t inspire confidence. Honestly, I’m not sure why it comes off as such a bore, especially since it is so fundamental to who we are! Congregational, of course, refers to the gathered community within a church or other religious body. Polity means governance structure.
Let me pause for a quick point of order – a few years ago, you voted to change the name of this community from the UU Church of Asheville to the UU Congregation of Asheville. This was done this largely because the word congregation is more inclusive to people who do not identify as Christian, and it is important to us to have an inclusive and welcoming name. For the purposes of this sermon, and because it relies on the historical record, I will use the words church and congregation interchangeably.
So, congregational polity is central to our faith – it’s our religious DNA – core to our identity as Unitarian Universalists. It matters, because it impacts who we are today and how we organize and create community.
Congregational polity means that the people are the ultimate authority in Unitarian Universalism. It is why there were congregational meetings in 2004 and 2014 when you voted to call both of your ministers. As a governance structure, its origins are rooted in both the history of Reformed Christianity and the birth of America.
In 1637, a group of people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in what is now Dedham, decided to gather and create what they called the Free Church. They began holding cottage meetings, not to discuss and decide on what they believed, but how they would gather.
These meetings had a few simple rules, which I share as paraphrased by Alice Blair Wesley, “Rule 1: They would decide before leaving each meeting what question to discuss next week… Rule 2: Each week the host of the house would begin, speaking to the agreed-upon question. Then everyone else could speak by turns… Rule 3 was: Here we speak our own understandings our doubts. No arguing.” (ABW, p19)
The Dedham rules are surprisingly similar to the guidelines we use for small group ministry today. In any case, they spent over a year asking questions of one another and having these discussions before the congregation was founded in 1638. They understood that a healthy church would mirror a healthy society in which “concerns for justice, peace and reasonable laws can be freely and effectively voiced, without suppression.” (ABW, p.20) So the free church was established with an explicit responsibility to both its own members and the larger society.
They created a “…radically lay-led church gathered by mutual consent rather than by mutual belief.” (ABW) At that time, their beliefs actually were very similar. They could easily have organized as a creedal church, but chose not to. They were, of course, reacting against the prescriptive and limiting reality of the English church – it was the 17th century, after all, and these were colonists.
This doctrine, this way of organizing, comes out of an historical context. It is steeped in the outcomes of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, impacted by British political and church politics, and intertwined with the American Revolution. The ideas and governance structure created by the folks in Dedham was described in and codified as the Cambridge Platform, which remains the highest authority on the origin of congregational polity as practiced by a number of denominations, including the United Church of Christ, the Baptists, and most Anabaptist and non-denominational congregations.
All week, a phrase kept popping into my head – an earworm, if you will, with no music. You may recall it. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” It’s the final line of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence came out of the same political and social stew as the Cambridge Platform. Over a century after the Dedham church was founded in the Massachusetts Colony, the country itself was founded. These new Englanders believed that the strongest, clearest, most authentic voice in their whole society would come from the Free Church once it was established. (ABW, p20)
When you are living in Massachusetts, or even greater New England, you are surrounded by the origins of both Unitarian Universalism and the country, and you can see their interconnectedness everywhere. You can visit Walden Pond, and many of the pivotal moments in the revolution are intertwined with churches that are now part of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Names of the founding fathers are sprinkled throughout the cemeteries and named rooms or buildings of numerous local churches. Similar to living in Asheville, where everywhere you turn you can see views of mountains surrounding us – this history is simply part of the scenery.
Interestingly, the values that caused the folks in Dedham call a series of cottage meetings and set their intentions down on paper were the same values that caused the revolution and the birth of the United States. They had been persecuted in England, moved to the colonies seeking freedom, and worked diligently to lay out a societal structure that would guard against the kind of limits on free expression they had fled.
It’s a question of authority, and of integrity.
Who has the authority? The people. The congregation has the power – through freedom of the pew – the right to discuss, decide and express the vision and mission of the congregation. So too is there a provision for freedom of the pulpit. In fact, the boilerplate contractual language for most ministers (including Mark and myself) calls the pulpit “…free and untrammeled.” It goes on to say that “The Minister is expected to express his/her values, views and commitments without fear or favor.”
And the freedom of the pew is defined by your shared covenant – the bonds of affection you create with one another, and the relationship between the congregation and its minister.
As John implied in his opening words, the congregational idea of freedom is complicated. It’s not that we can do, say, or believe whatever we feel like. It is that we choose to be in community, and we are free to explore and understand our own mind, our own heart, our own truth. And we do it together.
It is a beautiful thing. We are gathered together, here in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the places this faith began – far from Geneva, where Michael Servetus was executed, far from Hungary and the Edict of Torda, far from Boston – and yet we are connected to this tradition. We, too, have the opportunity to pledge to one another our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. Our bonds of affection are stronger because we choose them.
And that is the power of the Free Church: The power of choice. I once heard an “elevator speech,” that ubiquitous attempt to explain Unitarian Universalism in the time it takes for an elevator to go from floor to floor, that centered around the origin of the word “heretic,” which is the Greek for “one who chooses.” Our lives as religious liberals are full of choices. But fundamental to them all is the one We choose to be together, not because we share belief or creed, but because we share a commitment to the good of all.
I began this morning with the words of the Griswold Covenant. It is the most famous of the covenants that is used by UU congregations today – having been adapted time and time again. The members of the Dedham congregation followed a more explicitly Christian covenant, but they created a covenantal organization that lifted love as the highest value, and we have followed in their footsteps.
Covenant is about relationality. If we have no creed – we must nonetheless have something to bind us together. And so we make these relational promises to one another in this community. Our cultural fabric is full of promises – from the Hippocratic oath under which a doctor operates, to the promise to serve and protect as a law enforcement officer. Most of these promises, however, are enacted in relationships between individuals or small groups. Our covenant begins with one on one or small group relationships, but it expands further to connect and include people we may never meet. Our integrity as a community relies on our shared commitment to this covenant.
Can we identify our commonly shared loyalties? What is most important to us? If love is the spirit of this church, what is it that we, as a congregation, most love? Where are we putting our energy? Our lives are intertwined by the covenant we share.
John shared a version of our liberal covenant earlier in the service – and what a lovely, lofty goal those words are: With incomplete knowledge, partial truth and uneven love, we nonetheless believe that the bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom. She acknowledges that there is always more to learn, but that fulfillment is possible for us and for our children – and that, like the settlers in Dedham did, we have a responsibility to the world outside this gathered community. Though our 17th century forbears did not have golden shirts with catchy logos on them, they were committed to the ideal of an active, engaged love.
Keeping covenant is a challenge. I recently spent some time reflecting on the fact that I am in covenant with somewhere around 1500 people – other UU ministers – most of whom I have never met. It’s a strange and challenging reality. You, too, have this challenge. We have close to 600 Members, somewhere over 100 Friends. And more people who have not signed the membership book but affiliate with this congregation. You, too, are in covenant with people you don’t know.
And so, how do we do that? How do we love one another when we may not know one another? It is in some ways like any relationship. When I write vows with couples preparing for their wedding, I always encourage them to include a formal vow – whether the words are traditional or not – so that they will be promising the same things to each other. My own wedding vows were like this: we repeated the same vows to each other, and we return to those vows regularly, to see how we are doing, to revisit, to re-promise. A covenant is an active and relational promise, and requires presence and attention to sustain itself. Cindy and I each have three stones in our wedding rings – which remind me that there are three parts to my marriage: myself, my wife, and the two of us together.
We begin with a lofty promise, and then we live our lives in the day to day. And so it is for congregational life.
Sometimes living in covenant feels like striving toward an impossible ideal. It’s often messy. We fall down, we hurt each other’s feelings, we make mistakes. And yet, we continue to return to that highest ideal, we continue to strive.
We choose to be faithful, to be loyal, and to remain in relationship, even when it feels impossible, even when we are uncertain, hurt, or lonely.
We choose to remain in relationship because life’s venture is important, and we understand that we are that venture.
The legacy of the Cambridge Platform is the practice of lifting relationship above creed – covenant above doctrine – so much so that love becomes the doctrine. Our own congregational covenant, which I will explore in more depth in the second installment of this sermon series on January 25th, ends with the line, “Our life together declares that the future of each depends on the good of all and the future of all depends on the good of each.” And so we, here in Asheville, have taken up the charge laid out by the settlers in Dedham over three centuries ago.
May we reach toward the ideal of our own covenant
May our history inform our future together
And may active, engaged love remain our highest ideal
May it be so.