The big, unrecognized news at the last meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association wasn't about the 2012 Phoenix General Assembly -- see http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/175338.shtml -- but internal matters: things we can effectively change. Indeed, can be changed with a bit of red pencil. One relates to internal transparency -- more about that later -- and the other concerns proposed bylaws changes respecting congregational membership, and thus new congregations.
The January meeting was more than two weeks ago, so this has to be seen as a reflection rather than advocacy. But assuming that everything proposed was adopted -- there are no draft minutes or District Presidents Association notes -- and that the General Assembly adopts the same, church planters shall see a profound change in our polity. And for a change, it's a change I approve.
The changes are in the bylaws and rules, related to congregations. Download this PDF ("Bylaw Changes Recommended By Congregations Working Group", 61kb) to follow along.
Much of the bulk of the change would make "churches and fellowships" known simply as "congregations" and the more generic identification of staff groups. But that's not the important part. Also gone is the word local.
I see this as a repudiation of the geographic parish, that dates (on the Unitarian side) to before the disestablishment of state worship in Massachusetts, and has become less and less relevant in the successive ages of steam, automobiles, telephones, aircraft and the Internet. People have become increasing mobile in their weeks and lives, and yet our polity is anachonistically attached to place, and with it the idea that existing congregations have a territory from which they can inhibit the formation of new congregations, or their later recognition and acceptance into our fellowship.
One of the reasons I spent so much time cataloging the unserved towns and cities of the United States is that it's that much harder to reach into an underserved area, since the existing congregations -- whether or not they would be negatively affected -- have a voice in their gathering. But expectations of how people communicate, visit, work and pray are rapidly changing. The polity should keep up. (It also makes the continuing allusions to the Cambridge Platform, dislodged from history, deeply troubling. We've developed quite a bit in the last 350 years.)
Indeed, we even have lively models of non-geographic churches, even if they don't fit in our mythology.That's why the Church of the Larger Fellowship -- the non-geographic church that provides services though the mail, phone and Internet; publishes worship and education material; supports the program of smaller churches; and holds in-person worship services at General Assembly -- has seemed like such a oddity and exception. I'm unclear of the work of generationally-focused Church of the Younger Fellowship, a subset of the CLF, but encouraged by its existence I can easily imagine others wanting to imitate the CLF for their own needs. And the CLF is large and growing. Certainly the Christians -- who frankly don't seem well served by the CLF; I gave up hope years ago -- would want to imitate this mode of church, if it could. But the CLF's monopoly status has, until now, been unchallenged.
Also gone in the proposed rules: "including adult worship and/or discussion and when feasible establishment of a church school in the Unitarian Universalist tradition." The other piece is that new congregations could have members with a continuing membership in another congregation. The rules, if less directive, may be more open to innovation.
So two actions:
- Let your district Board member and congregational delegates know you approve of the Congregations Working Group proposed bylaws and rules changes.
- Think aloud how underserved groups -- rural areas, ethnic and linguistic groups, theological cohorts perhaps -- can make a non-geographic congregation come to life.