General Assembly, Class Bias and a Democratic Faith
Registration and Housing reservations for General Assembly opened the other day, which signals the start of the annual discussion of how expensive General Assembly is, and how ordinary people cannot attend because it costs too much. The search for an alternative plan is on, and while the posse is mounting up to chase the unicorn, I have a few thoughts.
And no, I don't believe that the solution is to do away with General Assembly altogether. Yes, I am in favor of having it every other year,if only for the reason that it would give us more time between these discussions. But then I hear that if we have GA every other year, on the off year, we can all gather for some other great purpose -- another Justice GA like 2012 -- which will also be too expensive, so why bother?
The unicorn we are hunting is some magic bullet which will make GA a cheap bargain that more people can attend. It will always cost more than many people can afford, and some of those people will let us know their disappointment.
Let's question the premise: who should go to General Assembly? Our current system is that any UU who wants to and can afford to should go. We take pride in how many people come.
It's not a good system. It's not democratic, except in the most individualistic sense that any one should be free to make their own choices and to make their own voice be heard. It prioritizes self-expression. And when you prioritize self-expression, inclusivity follows along as its corollary. (If going to GA is the way you express your commitment to UUism, then it follows that everyone who wants to make that self-expression should be able to do so, and that all barriers and obstacles to it should be minimized.)
It's a middle-class presumption that every member of a religious faith should be able to attend the national convention of their faith. It presumes that most of the members of the faith are upper middle class and have the resources to do so. If UUism was not such a comparatively wealthy faith, such a goal would never occur to us. I am sure that many denominations of our size, but with less wealth, do not assume that every member of every congregation should be able to go to their national convention.
And as the middle class is squeezed out, and as UU congregations become more representative of their surrounding communities, the goal of a General Assembly cheap enough to be affordable by any UU who wants to attend becomes more and more unicornish.
We do not become less class-biased by subsidizing poor and working class people to participate as though they were upper middle class. We become less class-biased by structuring our work so that poor and working class people can participate as they are. Unitarian Universalism should be a democratic faith not because any member can go to General Assembly, but because every member votes for and instructs their delegates to the highest governing body of the Association.
General Assembly needs to be cut back to a shorter working convention that does the business of the Association. Who should go? Elected delegates and religious professionals. Churches and congregations are responsible for the costs of their delegations, not in the form of scholarships and subsidies to some, but as a standard practice for all. (Systems can be devised that share resources between congregations to even out disparities.)
All of the other functions of GA -- the socializing, the educational events and trainings, should be driven down to regional, district, cluster and on-line venues, so they are more accessible and affordable to more rank and file UU's.