Who Owns the Church?

Who owns the church? You do! Let me repeat that question, who owns the church? The answer is the same: you do.

I could sit down now, but I think it bears some explanation of why the answer is clearly that you own the church.

Before the history, though, we have to understand why it matters. This morning it matters that you own the church for two reasons: first, as I think everyone here knows, I have worked out an agreement with the President and treasurer, approved by the Board of Trustees unanimously at their meeting last week, that I will retire from serving this Meeting House as minister on January 1, 2020, a little over nine months from now. The second reason is that today marks the start of the pledge campaign when the Meeting House is asking you to commit to continuing your financial support.

If the minister or the denomination or some other entity owned the church, your reaction to the pledge campaign might very well be, “let the minister or the denomination or some other entity pay for the upkeep.”

For example, let’s say the Board of Trustees decided to sell the Congregation to Microsoft Corporation so that they could put up a big sign in the front yard advertising their wares. I expect that most of you would be pretty alienated by that move, and you wouldn’t see any point in continuing to pledge if Bill Gates is going to step in.

But in fact there is no big corporation riding to the rescue. There is no cavalry coming over the lip of that distant mesa. There is no Coast Guard cutter braving the surf to offload the crew. The fate of the Meeting House is in nobody’s hands but yours.

And that’s why it matters that you own the church.

It might have been different. Other denominations are set up differently. We have watched the United Methodists over the past month go through struggles over GLBTQ clergy and lay people, and the open and affirming congregations, of which there are many, if not a majority, in this country, will be faced with the question of what to do if the denomination doesn’t reverse the decisions it made last month. Do they secede? Or do they swallow their principles and stay in the fold? If a Methodist church says its principles and its view of Jesus’s love command cannot be squared with the recent decisions taken, can they just declare themselves no longer part of the United Methodists? Do the individual congregations own their buildings?

Consider the Episcopalians, a faith in which I was raised. In South Carolina, a legal battle has been waged for years among factions in the Episcopal church. As with the Methodists, this battle revolves around acceptance of LBGTQ people as congregants, as priests and bishops. But with the Episcopalians, the national church came down on the side of acceptance, and this caused a conservative backlash in the congregations in the diocese of South Carolina. Many of these congregations declared themselves no longer part of the national church, but affiliated with conservative anti-LGBTQ bishops from Africa.

I have a lawyer friend in Charleston who represents the national church, and a few months ago, he won a big victory in the state Supreme Court. That court ruled, in effect, that the national church owned the congregations. Individuals could leave any church over any issue of doctrine, but a congregation could not secede from the national church because of a disagreement over doctrine.

Now the disputes among Episcopalians may seem far afield from our concerns here in a Unitarian Universalist congregation on Cape Cod. We know that the Episcopal Church, like the Methodist church, is organized hierarchically. They have bishops, and each bishop has responsibility for a geographical area called a diocese. At the national level, the Episcopalians have a Presiding Bishop. And above that, they are part of a worldwide Anglican Communion whose leader is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Roman Catholics, of course, are even more hierarchical, and they grant to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, ultimate authority. By contrast UUs, like the Baptists and the United Church of Christ are organized under congregational polity. The power in such a system resides in the congregation, and the denomination is a weak structure which is basically an association of congregations.

Where does congregational polity come from? I’d like to take a few minutes to trace the history. The first part of it involves this very sandbar on which we live.

The Mayflower sailed in 1620. It held a bunch of Calvinists who had become dissatisfied with the Church of England and had given up on trying to reform it. They had a congregation in Holland, but that didn’t work out, so they decided to set up a colony of their own in the New World. They obtained permission from the King to do this; they sailed with a charter to establish a colony in Virginia. The actual place they were hoping to get to was the Hudson River, what we today call New York, but it was then a part of Virginia.

On crossing the Atlantic, the first land they spotted was Cape Cod, somewhere on the north-south Outer Beach, and they turned south to try to get to New York. However, once they had cleared what we now call Chatham and Monomoy Island, they tried to turn westward, but ran into the Pollock Rip, an area of shoals between Monomoy and Nantucket through which the waters of Nantucket Sound drain into the Atlantic twice a day.

The Mayflower got sucked in to Pollock Rip and almost ran aground. They decided a safer course of action was to retreat to Cape Cod. So they sailed back around the northern tip and dropped anchor in the protected harbor of Provincetown.

There they realized that they had traded a nautical problem for a legal one. They escaped Neptune’s clutches, but now they had no way to get to Virginia, the place where their royal charter said they could settle. The only way to amend that charter was to sail back to England.

So they did something radical. They drew up their own charter, the Mayflower Compact. They established a government based on no higher authority than the consent of the governed. This was several decades before the philosopher John Locke expressed a conception of society as a social compact, which idea then was taken up by the revolutionaries who signed America’s Declaration of Independence.

As the civil state could rest on consent of the governed, so could the religious organizations. The Puritans, coming 10 years after the Pilgrims, wanted to purify the church of England, not to secede from it. They wanted to establish a theocracy, a “city on a hill” which would be governed by God’s will.

The church and government were intertwined in the Puritan system from the beginning. In order to create a new town, the settlers in that area had to tithe, that is, to set aside one-tenth of their crops and livestock and give it to the community. Then they had to find a site and erect a meeting house. With the tithe and the building, they would set about finding an educated minister of the Gospel. Once they had Meeting House, minister’s salary and minister, then and only then could they apply to the Great and General Court for a charter as a town. As we learned in 2013, Chatham had to wait several decades before it qualified under this system.

The religious/governmental system set up by the Puritans was known as the Standing Order. It had three features: (1) there was no separation of church and state; in fact church and state were intermingled. The settlers in a town were taxed to pay the compensation of the minister. (2) The minister was considered a public teacher, and often conducted school as well as church. (3) The membership of the church was of two levels: the parish and the communicants. The parish embraced all those who lived in the town who were qualified to vote. This in practice meant white male property-owners, but it meant all those people. There was a law requiring everyone to be a member of the church in order to exercise political freedoms; this gave a certain support to the idea that all voting people within the town limits had a stake in the town church. The communicants were a smaller group who were within the covenant, that is, who passed the relevant religious test in order to be entitled to take communion.

What was that test? In the early years of the Massachusetts Bay colony, the original covenant test was quite strict: you had to attest to a direct experience of Jesus Christ in your life. And however attractive it might have been to be a communing member of the church, you wouldn’t lie about something like that, for your immortal soul was at stake. But this requirement of a direct experience of Christ soon prove too restrictive, and the colonists adopted a compromise called the Half-Way Covenant. Under this, if your parents were admitted to the communion table, you were qualified as well.

The great irony of the Puritan settlement of New England was that the Puritans came to America for their own religious freedom, to escape persecution they were experiencing in England, but proved utterly unwilling to allow others, such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison, the same freedom. It certainly was not free as we think of that term today.

Central to the idea of congregational polity is the idea of covenant. A hierarchical church will have a creed or basic set of beliefs, and will not tolerate deviations from it. Congregational churches are founded on covenant, or voluntary association, rather than allegiance to any particular points of doctrine.

The fountainhead of covenant is the Cambridge Platform of 1648, which specifies the arrangements among congregations for resolving disputes. The operative language is “walk together.” For the Latin roots of the word covenant is co venant, to walk together. As the Mayflower Compact expressed a resolve to live together, the covenant founded under the Cambridge Platform expresses the i9ntention to walk together. Not to agree on all points of doctrine, but to stay in relationship with one another.

When I have welcomed new members into the Meeting House, I have sung them a song whose chorus is

It’s a pleasure to know you

A pleasure to see you smile

A comfort to know

We’ll share the road awhile.

For I think that image of sharing the road awhile agrees with our present experience of a UU church as a place to spend some segment or segments of the journey of our lives, which may turn out to be our whole lifetimes, or maybe not. And it also agrees with the Cambridge Platform notion of covenant, walking together as the foundational religious relationship.

But there were two problems in the old Standing Order. First, the idea of covenant was in tension with the idea of theocracy. What did we do with those individuals who didn’t embrace the vision of Calvinist orthodoxy, who might have wanted to pursue a Baptist or Episcopal or Roman Catholic path? Were they still part of the Parish organization? And secondly, after the American Revolution the people adopted a Bill of Rights which decreed that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

This First Amendment was by its own terms a restriction on the new federal government and did not affect tax-supported churches in places like Massachusetts. But in terms of public values, it pointed the way for complete disestablishment at the state level too. Massachusetts was the last of the original thirteen colonies to disestablish it’s publicly-supported churches, and this not until 1834.

But by that time the Dedham decision had already happened, in 1820. That was really about who owns the church, and it was at the beginnings of Unitarianism as a body distinct from the Standing Order.

What we today call Unitarian thought was a loose collection of ideas and attitudes which had been growing in the Puritan-founded churches of New England for decades. In the mid-eighteenth century, a religious revival called the Great Awakening had broken out in these churches, and many were swept up in that enthusiasm. But there were some cooler heads among the clergy which looked with dismay on that evangelical fervor, and insisted that the holy resided in reason.

By early in the nineteenth century, these rationalistic liberals had won a key professorship at Harvard and from there took over most of the divinity faculty, so that a ready supply of liberal ministers became available for hire.

The congregational churches of the Standing Order were usually called First Parish, and as you drive through New England today, you will often find that the oldest church on the village green is First Parish.

What happened in Dedham in 1820 became a model for what happened in many other First Parishes thereafter. There was a vacancy in the pulpit, and the parish, which was, again, all the people in town who qualified to vote, had voted to call a liberal. The church, that is, the communing members, were more orthodox in theology and a majority of these objected to the liberal minister, while a minority of the communicants agreed with his ordination. Since the liberals would not agree, the main body of communicants bought the lot next door, built a church building, and took the communion silver and all the church records and property with them. Then the liberal replaced some deacons who had departed and sued for the return of the church property.

The case was tried to a jury, which decided in favor of the parish, and that decision was then upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The jury’s decision was: “When the majority of the members of a Congregational church separate from the majority of the parish, the members who remain, although a minority, constitute the church in such parish, and retain the rights and property belonging thereto."

This decision became parodied by the orthodox as “we kept the faith, they kept the silver.” And in town after town today, you will find a church on the town green called First Parish. If the liberals won the vote back in the 1820s, that church today will be UU. If the orthodox won, that First Parish church will be UCC. Here in Chatham, the church of the standing order is congregational. And where the First Parish is UU today, there will usually be another church nearby called something like Trinitarian Congregational, to be perfectly clear on its theology.

The Dedham decision confirmed that a congregational church stands on its own, and its members determine its direction. What it specifically decided was in a dispute between the larger group of parish and he smaller group of communing members of the church, both could be considered the church but th parish’s will will prevail, because it is more numerous.

The most important power a congregational church possesses is the right to call a minister agreeable to the majority of the members.

Who owns the church? You own the church. And you have owned it back to 1648, even though it wasn’t founded until 1996.

Rev. Alice Blair Wesley is one of the wise elders in our denomination and she has done some deep thinking about congregational polity and all it implies. Let me share with you her comments in an online discussion among ministers about fifteen years ago:

“Our theology of organization - of congregational polity - does NOT derive from a theology of God, or from any answer to the question: What IS God? or

Is there such a reality as God? Rather, it derives from our answer to this question: Where and how, under what circumstances, does the holy most reliably HAPPEN in us - not with any absolute guarantee, but most probably?

Our 17th century ancestors' answer - and, I think - our answer is: In lifelong, regularly, faithfully gathered groups (churches) of lovers of truth and right, wherein we can hope for "genuine discussion about what enriches or hinders" our lifework of being healthy (holy) human beings. IF, we believe, we are often together in the holy, or right spirit, we shall - not in any formulaic way, but eventually - find our way again and again to those truths and that right in which we are PERSUADED we ought and want freely to walk.

“This answer is at the heart of the insistence of congregational polity that there will be NO ecclesiastical hierarchy, NO authority or governing

power ABOVE that of congregations meeting regularly, face-to-face, locally.

“That answer does NOT, however, imply in the least that congregations are or can be self-sufficient. Rather, it implies that when officers of the congregations come together, they ALSO come together, NOT to make decisions concerning "the position" of our churches, but for "genuine conversation about what enriches or hinders our work," in the expectation of our basic faith that, if the conversation is "genuine," we are likely to learn things helpful and empowering in our churches.”

Who owns the church? You own the church. But your ownership is only as important as the value you place on it. This congregation will soon be out of the sphere of influence of Edmund Robinson’s mind, actions and words, but there are many other minds and personalities at work within these walls, and there is great worth in walking together. Those who came yesterday to the meditation and to the criminal justice workshop can have no doubt of that worth. We are adults who come together to talk about adult things; but we don’t always take ourselves too seriously; we laugh and sing and work together.

Great things happen when we get together, and they will keep on happening when I am no longer here to share them with you. Because you are the engine that makes this place run. Please please stay with this Meeting House.


Reading: One version of our liberal covenant, from The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: the Spirit and Promise of our Covenant (the 2000-01 Minns Lectures)(Meadville Lombard Press 2002) Rev. Alice Blair Wesley. P. 82

Though our knowledge in incomplete,

our truth partial and our love uneven,

From our own experience and from

the witness of our faith tradition,

We believe

that new light is ever waiting to break

through individual hearts and minds

to illuminate the ways of humankind,

that there is mutual strength

in willing cooperation,

and that the bonds of love keep open

the gates of freedom.

Therefore we pledge

to walk together in the ways

of truth and affection

as best we know them now

or may learn them in days to come

That we and our children may be fulfilled

And that we may speak to the world

with words and actions

of peace and goodwill.

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075 
Email: karen@chathamuu.org

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