Freedom Has Its Rules - December 2006 "Freedom Has Its Rules, But What Are They?"
Peg Duthie
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville
17 December 2006

[Assignment: To speak on the Fifth Principle - "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large."]

Winston Churchill once claimed that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The first time I heard that quote was when a friend said it to me during a coffee hour at my church. It was long enough ago that I donít recall the exact topic of conversation anymore, but I do remember saying, "A-men." During coffee hour last Sunday, another friend and I got to discussing our mutual allergy to meetings, and she mentioned that one of the hardest parts of committee work for her is letting the committee process actually happen. Her natural tendency is to be a do-er rather than a discuss-er, as is mine, and for people like us, it is so darn hard to sit still, to not interrupt people and finish their sentences for them, and to make ourselves wait for things to be properly talked-over when we know weíre right and we just want to get on with getting things done, and whyin the world is everyone else taking so impossibly long to get to the obvious conclusions?

Now, in case itís not clear, Iím making fun of me here. I never really enjoyed group projects when I was in grade school, so itís a bit ironic that this is the first winter in five years that Iím not on a board, task force, or committee at my church -- which in turn means itís the first December in half a decade I donít feel on the spot at potlucks and parties when fellow congregation members start complaining about why something isnít already happening that they think ought to be, or why they werenít consulted about something that did happen that isnít sitting well with them. Itís been more than a little weird for me to be seen as an apologist for "the establishment," but if Iíve learned anything from my years around the 1808 Woodmont conference tables, itís that there are hours upon hours of discussion and deliberation behind the policies of my church, and while I may not agree with every last one of them -- including some of the ones I voted on myself -- I do know that hard decisions are made with great care and thoughtfulness, and with considerations for "the bigger picture" that members of the wider congregation may not be aware of (and sometimes willfully so). I have learned that no matter how often or how carefully I explain a decision, there will be people who just wonít hear what Iím saying, because theyíre so focused on the fact that I have to be wrong, or that they have to be right, or weíre coming from places too far apart for us to find common ground on that particular issue. I have found that aspect of congregational life to be extraordinarily painful at times, given that I donít enjoy being seen as a fascist or a censor or a bureaucrat, but itís also taught me to appreciate the work that church and community leaders do, and not to take it for granted. Thereís a part of me that feels everyone who belongs to a church should serve on its board at least once, just so they can fully appreciate the responsibilities the board members face -- but I remember a minister I used to work with visibly shuddering when I said that, no doubt because not everyone in a given congregation knows how to handle responsibility, or how to interact responsibly, and the minister is the de facto chief of the bomb squad when explosive personalities make themselves known.

Interacting responsibly is a learned skill. One of the most dramatic demonstrations Iíve ever seen of this was at the congregation meeting my church held to discuss the compensation package for our new minister. The meeting began with people simply speaking when recognized, and at one point, it seemed the congregation was going to be very much against a particular item in the package. However, a longtime member of the congregation then pointed out that standard parliamentary protocol is for ďproĒ and ďconĒ point of views to alternate turns at the microphone -- which is what is done at General Assembly -- and when the "pro" voices were given equal space to be heard, there was an almost palpable shift in the roomís atmosphere: it wasnít that the "con" voices had been actively trying to silence those in favor of the item in question, but the initial impression of there being a ďconĒ majority had been enough to deter some of the shyer or quieter "pro" voices from coming to the fore, and the congregation ultimately voted in favor of the item. (I speak as someone who leaned toward voting against the item and ended up abstaining, but Iíve been pleased with how things have turned out regardless.) There have been discussions in a number of UU circles about the ways people can feel stifled or silenced in ways which those around them may be unaware, and while itís ultimately an individualís responsibility to find the courage to speak for themselves, itís also important to strive for an environment where people feel they can and will be heard, regardless of cultural or class or personality type.

In a similar vein, there are people in my congregation who believe that the majority of the church was against the changes made to our Joys and Sorrows format in 2001, in part because those opposed to the change were extremely vocal about it at the forums held on the issue. However, I can testify that the minister and the worship committee had fielded numerous expressions of unease and requests for change long before one was implemented, and one leader of the church pointed out that, in his experience, itís an issue that never really goes away -- something bubbles up and over every five years or so, which is perhaps the nature of many perennial church conundrums. For me, a particularly fascinating facet of the controversy has been the question of whether it is an issue open to congregational vote. Iíve met people who appear to believe every aspect of Unitarian Universalist community life should be handled through majority rule, including worship, but both of the settled ministers Iíve worked with at First UU have firmly stated that the format of Joys and Concerns isnít one of them. Neither of them are theological autocrats, so I feel confident stating that it isnít a power or hierarchy issue where theyíre concerned, but a matter of responsibility: while every aspect of UU community life is open to discussion, decisions on the handling of pastoral and liturgical matters arenít ballot items.

When I mentioned this to my husband, he was astonished that it was a topic even open to debate, and Iím sure some of my friends in other denominations would be equally ďoh, you UnitariansĒ about it as well. We UUs are notorious for what some see as a rather extreme devotion to congregational independence, and the first thing I say to almost anyone interested in Unitarian Universalism is, "it depends on which congregation you visit." Thereís one church in New England that was so Trinitarian it made me feel ill at ease the morning I was there, and Iíve visited several others that were too New Agey for my taste. Shopping for the right flavor and fit of church isnít unique to Unitarian Universalism, but we are more eclectic than many creed-based denominations -- because many of our members choose this variation of faith rather than being born within it, there are numerous, often-conflicting expectations of what makes a church ďchurchĒ and what is truly "Unitarian Universalist." My choir director gives me a fair amount of friendly grief for being distinctly "high church" in my tastes: two Sundays ago, one of the hymns at my church was "O Come, O Come Emanuel," and not being entirely awake during first service, I didnít really look at the words before I started singing -- which is a problem when the words have been changed, at least when singing as loud as I was. Afterwards, Jason made a point of sidling up behind me to mutter, "Traditionalist." Itís sometimes funny and itís sometimes squirmy: I honestly donít know if I could handle regularly attending a church that sings "Spirit of Life" every Sunday as some congregations do, because I viscerally loathe that hymn that much, but I know of other people for whom itís the highlight of the service, and itís just not the same for them when they visit UU churches who donít share that particular custom.

All the same, I wouldnít trade our congregational diversity for any other system. Until I started working for an Episcopalian cathedral, I hadnít realized how fervently I believe in congregational rule. Over the past two years, Iíve witnessed the struggle of our local diocese through over forty rounds of balloting across four conventions to elect a new bishop, and in watching the national denomination cope with parishes threatening secession -- some unwilling to accept the election of a woman as their presiding bishop, others refusing to countenance the acknowledgment and support the denomination has openly given to GLBT concerns in recent years -- I feel glad that the Unitarian Universalist Association is as loosely knit as it is. While I sometimes long for a stronger, broader awareness of national UU issues and initiatives within my own church, I am beyond grateful that our participation in all such initiatives is voluntary, and not at the mandate of the UUA or any other governing body.

Iím overgeneralizing here, though -- the reality is that, within many congregations, be they Episcopal or UU or some other denomination, there is significant slippage between theological absolutes and the compromises of everyday life. In an essay on intolerance and forbearance, Kathleen Norris writes about her love of Presbyterian polity. She said what would happen in her "small-town church if the denomination passed a proposed resolution forbidding the office of deacon and elder to anyone who was neither 'chaste in singleness' nor faithful in matrimony. ĎWe will simply ignore it...the way we in the western Dakotas ignore so much that comes to us from the outside world.í"

She continues,

[Presybterian] lay ministers are chosen at the local level from within the congregation and are asked to serve because they have already incarnated the love of Christ in ways that have touched people and enchanted the life of the church. Thus, small Presbyterian congregations such as the one I belong to do not take kindly to outsiders telling them who they can and cannot ordain, even if those people might not seem to conform to the letter of the law regarding Christian behavior.

After giving some examples of such people -- an unmarried older couple, a gay man in a steady relationship -- Norris spoke about a pastorís wife for whom, quote,

the issue of homosexual deacons and elders had made her wary, less willing to trust individual congregations to judge the suitability of people for church office. This dilemma is not unique to Presbyterians, but in churches with a more highly centralized power structure, a list of what will automatically bar people from church ministry may be more easily drawn up and enforced. For us [Presbyterians], there is always a tension between being faithful to the greater church and to church tradition and allowing the Spirit room to breeze through the church at the local level. In the past, this tension has erupted into conflict over whether slaveholders could be ordained to church office, or divorced people, or women. And people of good faith came down on both sides of each issue. The issues change, but the central struggle over church polity remains the same. And, while sexual issues have taken precedence of late, it could be otherwise. Someone might propose barring from the churchís ministries, for example, people who are employed by large banks or corporations that they consider to be evil, having racist or economically rapacious business practices.

I didnít go looking, but I wouldnít be surprised if some variation of that last one already exists somewhere in the UUA archives. In her sermon last Sunday, my minister pointed out that Unitarian Universalism has never been able to claim a consensus on issues of war. 150 years ago, there were Unitarians and Universalist slaveholders as well as abolitionists, and hawks as well as doves. Many Northern Unitarians refrained from opposing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, believing it to be a necessary compromise with the South in hopes of averting civil war, while others eventually concluded that slavery was so institutionalized in this country that only outright violence would be able to eradicate it. Although the American Unitarian Association managed to pass a moderate anti-slavery resolution in 1844, dedicated crusaders saw the overall lack of stronger denunciations as a collective failure of conscience. One prominent minister [Samuel May] complained that in the "public meetings [,] the question was staved off and driven out, because of technical, formal, and verbal difficulties which were of no real importance."

Itís a sentiment I imagine many twenty-first century UUs can identify with, particularly when our democratic process necessarily moves so much more slowly than the issues we want to take action on right now. Iíve certainly heard variations of it after long, drawn-out meetings, and there have been times when Iíve repeated the serenity prayer over and over, because sometimes thatís what it takes to keep myself from committing acts of severe uncharity or outright homicide.

For all the conflict and exasperation it can engender, however, our "worst form of government" is one that permits our congregations to choose the ministers and ministries best suited to the spiritual needs of their members. It is one that gives congregations the freedom to devise the policies best suited to their specific circumstances, rather than adhering to the decrees of a distant prelate. It is one that, at its best, allows individuals to teach each other a little bit more about how to speak and listen to each other as they try to combine diverse strands of faith into the power of collective action.

Kathleen Norris writes,

I believe that where local congregational life is concerned, it is best to give the Holy Spirit all the room we can, because the Spirit has a way of reminding us that what we think is right -- even what we think the Bible spells out as right -- is not necessarily letter-perfect in the sight of God. If God did not choose in ways that confound us, grace would not be amazing. It would not be grace.

Whether you believe in grace, or God, or the Spirit, or none of the above, by choosing to be here you are choosing to be part of the covenant to affirm and promote congregational life in all its messy richness and possibility. May we each find the room we need to be confounded by each otherís ways, to grow in both wisdom and graciousness, and to extend the generosity and justice prized by our faith to the wider world. Amen and alleluia.


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