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What is the Free Pulpit?

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Yesterday as I was reading Susan LaMar’s essay, “Unitarian Universalist Ordination–A Search for Meaning” I encountered a few concepts I needed to know more about as I move more seriously toward UU ministry.  I began this series of posts with an exploration of Socinianism.

Today’s concept is also from LaMar’s essay:  the Free Pulpit.   I’ve heard the term periodically, but have never taken the time to explore what it means.

Here’s one preacher’s take on the Free Pulpit (and the Free Pew):

There are two time honored institutions in Unitarian Universalist churches that are, or should be, guarded by clergy and laity as if they were the Holy Grail. They are the free pulpit and the free pew. Succinctly stated, the free pulpit means that when a congregation lends its pulpit to a minister by calling that minister as its spiritual leader, the congregation pledges complete and unencumbered freedom of speech to say anything from that pulpit that he or she believes to be true. But that freedom is not something the preacher is born with, but originates in the bond of affection, the covenant established between the congregation and the minister. The free pew means that when a Unitarian Universalist congregation is gathered by a bond of affection, a covenant that makes it into a spiritual community, the most sacred agreement made is that no theological test will be given for membership in that congregation. That freedom is not the freedom an infant is born with, but originates in a bond of affection, which is the reason we Christen our newborns. Everything else in any of our churches might be unique to that particular congregation, yet all provide and protect the Free Pulpit and the Free Pew as Unitarian Universalists. The bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom.

The UUA’s website says this:  “The free pulpit is a long-standing tradition within Unitarian Universalism, in that we allow our ministers to speak their minds rather than be restricted by a particular tenet or creed.”

As I look back on my time as a Presbyterian minister, I do remember that there were limits on my freedom as a preacher.  There were things one simply did not say.  A preacher who consistently strayed beyond the borders of orthodoxy might find herself in a bit of trouble–or a lot of trouble.

When I was ordained, I was asked, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”  As a minister, I was expected to honor my affirmative answer to this question by adhering to Scripture and to the confessional documents of our church.

Being a UU, and particularly a UU minister, is a whole different kettle of fish.  In this tradition, I am free to go wherever the search for truth may lead, and to preach about where that quest has taken me.  There is no predetermined document that says, “This far and no farther.”  I cannot be excommunicated or defrocked for heterodoxy.

This is a beautiful concept, but the skeptic in me wonders how it works in practice.  Surely, when the “bonds of affection” are weakened, or even broken, it is tempting for a congregation to seize control of the pulpit, or for a preacher to impose limits on the pew.


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4 thoughts on “What is the Free Pulpit?

  1. true that, heather! When I was preaching every week my own internal sense of what the congregation could hear was a much stronger limit to my freedom than anything in the book of confession.

    • Perhaps courage in the pulpit is part of this conversation as well. Courage to speak the truth, though it may make people uncomfortable. And balance, too. Knowing when to choose to limit one’s freedom.

  2. Pingback: The Free Pulpit | Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

  3. Pingback: The Free Pulpit | revjoshpawelek.org

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