Freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power. —James Luther Adams
For the first twenty years of my life, I lived among the Plymouth Brethren. The tiny assembly my family attended was part of the Tunbridge-Wells splinter of the highly-schismatic larger movement. The TW assemblies were part of the Closed Brethren: only those “in fellowship” with the TW branch of the Brethren were welcome at the Lord’s Table; and decisions made by any individual assembly were binding on all the other assemblies within the TW Brethren.
They had neither the power of organization nor the organization of power. Instead, power surged through charismatic individuals, or was clutched, scepter-liked, in the hands of dynastic families. They believed that Truth could and must be found and defended, and division was better than compromise.
As I entered young adulthood, these forces fractured the TW Brethren. My mother is one of seven children, and the fault line ran right through her family, dividing sibling from sibling. In some families, the division meant a complete cut-off–no conversation, no visits, no meals together. Even now I can still feel the pain and anxiety this schism caused.
It makes sense that my next move was to the Presbyterians. After all that chaos, “decently and in order” sounded wonderful. For a while I thrived within a system that revised its Book of Order each year. I understood in my bones what my polity instructor at Princeton said about the Book of Order: “There’s blood on every page.” Each of those rules was the community’s best judgement about how to resolve conflict and avoid schism.
But I came to the Presbyterians at a time when the denomination was deeply divided about ordaining LGBT ministers and elders. As I listened to the debate, I wondered if the denomination had not yet healed from the process of opening ordination to women. In a series of steps, the PC(USA) had moved from not just allowing the ordination of women to all offices within the church, but mandating the ordination of women. Any ministerial candidate who refused to accept the ordination of women would not be ordained. Churches had to interview both women and men in their ministerial search, or the presbytery would not validate the call. The presbytery also monitored church sessions and boards of deacons, making sure that women and men were equally represented.
In conversations about the ordination of LGBT people, I heard this underneath the words of its opponents: “They’re going to make us have a gay minister (just like they made us have a woman minister).”
When I finally admitted to myself that I was one of those gay ministers that everyone was so scared of, I began looking at the UCC as a possible place of ministry, and part of that exploration was a UCC history and polity class.
I took the class in 2003–between the release of The Two Towers and The Return of the King. As I read the course materials and participated in class, I kept hearing in my mind, “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” I began to understand that imposed conformity creates resistance. Congregational polity offered a different approach.
After joining the Anchorage UU Fellowship and becoming increasingly involved in leadership, I learned about the shadow side of congregational polity. Too often, the theme song of congregational polity was You Don’t Own Me. To use a more current reference, we were like South Park’s Eric Cartman, demanding, “Respect my authoritah!” and declaring, “I do what I want!”
In the last few months, however, as I’ve worked through the UU history readings, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the logic of congregational polity. It’s not just about avoiding tyranny by keeping the locus of authority in the congregation, rather than ceding it to a bishop, or to a presbytery.
It’s about community, emerging in a particular place, with particular members, choosing its own covenant. In the words of the Cambridge Platform, “Ephesus is not Smyrna, nor Pergamos Thyratira.” Anchorage is not Fairbanks, nor Sitka Juneau. Anchorage in 2011 is not Anchorage in 1991. As members come and go, as the conditions around us change, we renew our covenant with each other, again and again.
Congregational polity is an organic, sustainable way of organizing power. The structures we create are for this time and place. We create them, understanding that before long, we’ll need to tear them down and start again. We reduce, reuse, renew and recycle. We travel light and leave no trace. When we use the power of organization, when we organize our power, we’re not building monuments and edifices. We’re growing people who participate in the world’s transformation.
The universe is a funny place. Just as I was about to publish this love letter to congregational polity, I found this: Institutional Fluidity. From a Presby. Go figure.