Service at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church
It is good to be together. Gazing out at people from different Unitarian Universalist congregations, maybe two congregations, maybe some UU’s from other congregations who snuck in here to see what this Friendship Day thing was all about … embracing this atmosphere of meeting and collaboration, one might wonder, “How did this happen?”
Back in those days in the colony of Massachusetts, the English Puritans had a similar theology to their English Presbyterian siblings across the Atlantic, but they had their own way of doing church. In the colony, Puritan congregations were self-governing. Unlike in Presbyterian settings, church members who were not elders had some say in the operation of the congregation. Unlike Catholic and Church of England settings, the Puritans of Massachusetts only counted as church members those who chose to be members AND who were accepted as members, not simply anyone in a certain geographic area. They said a congregation isn’t just a collection of people, it is a “community of saints by calling.” So membership wasn’t automatic; and members had rights, responsibilities, and a covenant to hold them together.
This system drew some criticism. And so the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts colony got together and created a document called the Cambridge Platform to explain it. They showed the Biblical basis for their practice, and outlined orderly ways for congregations to operate and to interact with each other. Later American Unitarians drew from the Cambridge Platform for ideas about how to do church, even as their theology was heading in a different direction. There are certainly lots of differences between UU congregations today and the Massachusetts Puritans of 1648 — For instance, I’m standing up here as a woman ordained minister talking to you — but when we look at the way congregations operate, there’s clearly an ancestral family resemblance. We call this way of doing church — this system of congregations being self-governing — congregational polity.
Congregational polity means that congregations are on equal footing with one another. The power structure is a little flatter, a little more democratic, a little more responsive to the local environment than it might be in a strict hierarchy. Sometimes we get so caught up in the independence of congregational polity, the idea that there’s no grand sovereign that can tell all the local congregations what to do, that we forget about the interdependence. Even back in 1648, congregations were never meant to be cut off from each other, isolated, or shielded from accountability. Relationships between congregations are part of the design of congregational polity. And relationships take work, honesty, humility, creativity, and sometimes willingness to try new things. So here we are, being creative, working together, and trying some new things.
The Cambridge Platform outlined six ways that congregations would demonstrate their relationship with one another. The first two are:
- “By way of mutual care, in taking thought for one another’s welfare”
- “By way of consultation one with another,”
With some translating, these six practices are still helpful ways of remembering that local congregations are directly in relationship with one another. I won’t go into detail for all six, because this is a short homily on a beautiful day. I do want us to stop and reflect on what it would mean for congregations to follow a way of mutual care, to “take thought for one another’s welfare.”
What would it be like for us to hold the projects and ministries of our neighboring congregations in our thoughts and prayers? How would we know what kinds of things we could learn from our neighboring UU congregations? How would we stop taking for granted the gifts and unique ministries of our own congregations, being ready to offer consultation to others? We’d have to get out of our comfort zone.
And this brings me to today’s story. Unitarian Universalist congregations are different from each other in many ways. There is no one to tell us that UU worship has to follow a certain format, or that our sanctuaries have to be built to a certain design, or that we have to use one particular text on a particular day. So each congregation might end up thinking of ourselves as distinct from the others like the cat, the dog, the bird, and the frog. If we all get together, it might be a little bit crowded or uncomfortable. Yet there are forces at work in the world that call for our unified response. There are things we can do together that no single congregation can do alone. Our combined voices have a power that is more than the sum of its parts. And when every community brings something to the cauldron that speaks to that congregation’s gifts and assets for ministry, we can create something with room for all of us and for the UU communities that have yet to be formed.
Let’s stop and think for a minute. If you usually attend at Cedar Lane, what is something you appreciate about the UU Church of Silver Spring, or that you are curious about? If you normally attend at Silver Spring or you are a first time visitor, what is something you appreciate or are curious about Cedar Lane UU Church? Let’s pause and think. Just hold your ideas in your mind for now.
Mingling ideas and appreciation and consultation is core to the practice of congregational polity. Ministers and religious educators and other religious professionals do this in our professional meetings, but remember congregational polity is about the members, not exclusively the commissioned leaders. The Pastoral Associates and Lay Ministry teams of several of our local congregations did this in February, when we gathered here for the Lay Pastoral Care Extravaganza training day. It was great! Let’s do more like that! To take thought for one another’s welfare, we’ll need to take a break from our routines, get out of our comfort zones, expanding our sense of who “we” are to include our community of the larger faith.
Let’s continue to appreciate and to practice curiosity about what is going on with our neighboring UU congregations. Let’s get together every so often, to hang out, to practice fellowship, to consult on matters of mutual concern. We are a community of saints and sinners and humans, drawn together by calling and by our saying yes to that calling. Our interdependence is a gift and a blessing and an inheritance and a responsibility. May we use it well. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.