Tag Archives: associationism

Associationism, part four

Part One of this four-part series

Present-day alternatives

To better set the associational rigidity of today’s Unitarian Universalism into relief, it is worth considering other forms of associationism currently in existence which do not match this ideal. By considering these alternative forms of associationism, we can better understand that associationism is not restricted to certain received forms or ideals. In recent years, we have seen existing congregations supporting new start-up congregations with administrative and financial support, without going through traditional district or denominational structures: that is, associationism allows direct contact between local organizations without being mediated by a regional or national associational structure. In recent years, we have seen a few ministers experimenting with more entrepreneurial approaches to starting up new congregations aimed at reaching young urbanites, including store-front churches and house churches: this harks back to the itinerant Universalist preachers who adapted their religion to regional differences and to rapid changes in society. We have seen individuals or congregations developing innovative new resources on their own and providing them directly to other congregations (e.g., small group ministry resources): this recalls the efforts of groups like the Unitarian Sunday school Society before its functions were effectively taken over by the AUA.

Associationism is (or should be) a flexible, highly participatory organizational structure that allows both local autonomy and effective cooperation between local organizations. Associationism is grounded in the principles of voluntary association that involves, among many characteristics: free association within and protected from societal and governmental structures; civic engagement (i.e., participants in a voluntary association run the association themselves, rather than the state or ecclesiastical authority); the creation of metaphorical spaces within society where individual voices can be heard; combining individual voices together to make a broader impact on mass democracy or other government. Associationism is structured by written documents (minutes of business meetings, bylaws, communications between local organizations, etc.). Associationism is also structured by behavioral norms that allow voluntary association. Associationism does not require theological rigidity, or another other kind of rigidity for that matter, including the current rigidities of Policy Governance (TM) and Wesley-style covenants; at the same time, associationism can easily accommodate Policy Governance and Wesley-style covenants, if those prove to be effective organizational structures for local organizations. Continue reading

Associationism, part three

Part One of this four-part series

Merger and its aftermath

Upon the merger (the legal term was “consolidation”) of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, two different forms of associationism had to merge. I find it significant that some of the old Universalist state conventions determinedly maintained their separate corporate identity; such a thing was not practically possible in more centralized Unitarian form of associationism. This also reveals something of the associational rigidity that the Universalists had fallen into; they could not let go of old associational structures; and this does not compare well with the associational innovation of the Unitarians at that time.

The merger of the two forms of associationism proved awkward at best. The Universalists felt like they were being taken over, and from an asosciational point of view that was true. The Unitarians, for their part, forgot to keep on innovating. Dana Greeley, the Unitarian who took over the presidency of the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), acted as if the 1950s were never going to end: he ignored signs that economic growth in the United States was slowing, and he was unable to deal effectively with the changes in society that confronted him, most notably when the Black Power movement came to the UUA. The 1970s were a period of serious decline in the UUA, as the 1950s associational models proved incapable of handling the new society that was emerging: it was not longer enough to start more fellowships and centralize curriculum development; something else had to change.

The first great innovation in the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association was second-wave feminism. Continue reading

Associationism, part two

Part One of this four-part series

A historical and descriptive definition: 19th century

The Universalist approach to associationism in the first half of the 19th century had strengths and weaknesses. The decentralization and methodological diversity allowed Universalism to adapt readily to local circumstances, and small Universalist congregations sprang up all over the United States and its territories, and to a lesser extent up into Canada. That same decentralization also meant that there often was no ongoing support and nurture for small new congregations, many of which died out two or three decades after they began.

Meanwhile, the Unitarians found themselves forced into associationism, kicking and screaming as it were. Disestablishment meant that the strongest and most powerful Unitarian congregations suddenly had to learn how to provide their own financial support; not only that, but they also found themselves competing for potential members with a wide range of other denominations (including, of course, the Universalists). The first feeble step towards real associationism came with the establishment of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), so at least there was some central body to distribute Unitarian propaganda; but the AUA was an association of individuals and a few congregations, so it cannot be considered true associationism, an association of congregations, using my definition. The Autumnal Conventions represents the first real emergence of associationism in the Unitarian camp: a few far-sighted individuals decided that delegates from Unitarian congregations needed to meet annually to organize themselves around topics of mutual interest. The Autumnal Conventions were weak associationism, however: many Unitarian congregations did not send delegates (or much care about the Autumnal Conventions), and the Conventions didn’t do all that much.

Associationism among the Unitarians really begins with Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Unitarian Conference in the 1860s; that well-documented story need not be reviewed here. Unitarian associationism is also represented in the old Western Unitarian Conference, which actively promoted connections between congregations, and actively worked to spread Unitarianism in new areas, using innovative methodologies such as encouraging women ministers (e.g., the women ministers known as the “Iowa Sisterhood”). What is important is that Unitarian associationism required neither covenant nor Puritan-style connections between congregations. Continue reading

Associationism, part one

Abstract: In this four-part essay, I claim that the central organizing principle of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now Unitarian Universalism, has less to do with theology, liturgy, religious practice, etc., and more to do with social and institutional structures. We are unified by an institutional approach which I call associationalism. I define associationalism through describing past and existing associational structures, and then briefly set forth a possible direction for the future of associationism within Unitarian Unviersalism.

A historical and descriptive definition: Beginnings

In terms of organizational structure, Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America are often closely related to the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions. Stephen Marini has documented how early Universalist congregations in central New England often started out as Baptist congregations; and it is well known that many New England Unitarian congregations began as Puritan congregations, and so are closely related to those Congregationalist congregations that also emerged from the old Puritan Standing order churches. We could say, more broadly, that these are congregations that come out of the English Free Church tradition.

It is important to remember that not all Unitarian and Universalist congregations trace their historical roots back to the English Free Church tradition. The Icelandic Unitarian churches in Canada were founded by liberals from the Icelandic Lutheran tradition, who happened to find a comfortable institutional home within Unitarianism; similarly, Nora Church in Minnesota was founded by liberal Norwegian Lutherans. King’s Chapel in Boston evolved away from its Church of England roots to a Unitarian theology, but it still keeps its revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer today. There are churches like First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester which were founded independently as Unitarian and Universalist churches without any previous denominational connections. And once Unitarians and Universalists traveled West of the Allegheny Mountains, they often had tenuous and even antagonistic connections with eastern churches, and their organizational structures were innovative, diverse, and/or fluid.

Thus it is quite simply wrong to state that all Unitarian Universalist congregations today trace their organizational structures back to the Puritan congregationalist methods captured in 17th century New England political theocracy, church covenants, and documents like the Cambridge Platform. That 17th century New England inheritance is one part of our organizational history, but it is only one part. Continue reading