One meaning of the Independent Affiliate mystery

Henceforth, all things, great and small, done in the world of official Unitarian Universalism will be done in the name of the "congregations." Just as every time the Secretary of State goes to a Mideastern capital, they do so "to advance the peace process", so will all decisions be done to "serve the congregations."

The disaffiliation of Independent Affiliates is between the UU Board and the Independent Affiliates. The concrete resource in contention comes down to the presumptive program slot that an IA has at the General Assembly. Just below the surface is the ability of an organization to claim some sort of official relationship with the UUA simply by mailing in a few words and a hundred bucks. The Board realized that was an invitation to potential embarrassment, a wise perception.

But I cannot see for the life of me how the congregation I serve has a dog in that fight.

Congregational Power has been on the banner of most of the people who have been critical of the path of the Unitarian Universalist Association since shortly after merger. This loyal opposition was centered primarily in Christian/Theist churches and many were aggrieved by the fact that they were humiliated by the fact that the founding documents of the UUA gave only the most grudging and stingy affirmation to our Christian background and the worship traditions of some of our churches.

After it became clear that the defense of Christian/Theist theology on the national level was a dead issue through the 60's - 80's, many of this traditionalist caucus took up the theme of "congregational polity" as defining their movement. It had many meanings.

It defended the local church and its worship tradition, which is where Christian/Theist theology endured.

It meant the local church did not have to go along with everything that came out of 25 Beacon Street, whether it was demands for funding, chalice logos, whatever new hymnal was coming out.

It was a powerful rhetorical brake on what was seen as the politicization of the Unitarian Universalist movement at the national level, asking whether the positions of the Washington office were actually representative of the congregations' concerns.

Over time, it became the overarching theme of a traditionalist caucus within Unitarian Universalism. It had a powerful history, was understandable by one and all.

Within the last 5 years or so, it has won the day. I think that such a circumstance came about because of the successive Free Church Conferences, the publication of Rev. Alice Blair Wesley's enormously persuasive Minns Lecture on congregational polity, the presidency of William Sinkford and the elevation of Gini Courter to Moderator. (I think that the pre-Sinkford anti-racism effort showed the limits of trying to change Unitarian Universalism by the national staff organizing to "train" the congregations; these events were part of the change, too.)

The result is that a rhetorical unity has been reached that "serving the congregations " is the highest level value of National Unitarian Universalism. And this is good, but it raises a lot of questions.

Alice Blair Wesley's argument was that first the AUA, and then, the UUA was and is organized, in fact, as a non-profit corporation, governed by its board. It is not really an association of congregations and the General Assembly is not truly a representative body of the congregations doing the work of the association. It appears to be, but it is not.

So, what happens when the Board and the National officers and staff adopt the language of working always on behalf of the congregations? The temptation will be that it will become an all-purpose slogan, and a language that justifies anything and everything.

I think that IA controversy indicates that we have reached just such a point. The language about engaging congregations seems to be so vague and elastic that it cannot point to a real meaning in anyone's head.

Evaluating IA's on the value that they provide congregations would be quite easy. Just say that in order to get affiliate status, an organization would have to turn in letters of recommendation from 5-10 congregational boards, with a check for hundred dollars from each board. You would find out real soon which have relationships with congregations and which ones don't. Tinker with the details all you want, but the Board went another way. A statement is being asked for, and the Board will decide on whether Party A is serving the needs of Party B. Who has the power in that situation? Party B? I don't think so.

Language that defines discourse has power. It has the power to clarify and it has the power to obscure. When it is obscuring the reality of what is going on, then people have to ask deeper questions, and the first one to start with is "what is at stake here?" and "where is the power going?"


  1. I think your proposal for IA validation is a good idea. While I am a lot less hostile to 25 or the Washington Office I think your analysis is spot on.

  2. to jfield:
    I am less hostile to both than you might think.

  3. I appreciate all your writing on this topic. Learning a lot.

  4. I question the formulation of a "primary focus" of the UUA. In particular, I am troubled by a "primary focus" which is narrower that the primary purpose of the UUA as it is set forth in the bylaws. Part of the primary purpose of the UUA is to further the principles in ways that the congregations cannot. I think that the "core" IAs (liberal Christians, humanists, pagans & Buddhists) do that and aid the congregations and do not in any way harm the congregations.


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