Power Tends To Corrupt, And Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely…or Congregational Polity 101 pt.2

Do I think congregations are perfect? Hell no. As we say in the church I grew up in, “There are just as many devils in the church as out of it.”

Do I think congregationalism is the best form of church governance? Damn skippy.

Why? Because I’ve seen what can happen in the in-between.

Some of my friends are members of the Church of the Brethren. Now if you’re not familiar with the CoB, they are part of the Anabaptist and Pietist movement. And polity-wise they are essentially a hybrid…Congregational and Presbyterian.

Institutionally, the CoB is a lot like the UUA; they have a “home office” (in Elgin, Illinois), districts, and congregations. Like the UUA, they have an annual assembly; theirs is called Annual Conference. The biggest difference, aside from theology (although you might be surprised), is how they handle ministers and ordaination.

The CoB’s Annual Conference carries a little more weight than GA, primarily on districts but also some on congregations. This is especially true when it comes to the handling of things ministerial. Wanna know what Annual Conference has been discussing for the last two years…whether those who have an M.A. in religion/religious studies instead of an M.Div. should be allowed to be ordained. Even us, uppity/arrogant/elitist as we can be, ain’t talking that sh*t.

But if you really want to know how messed up this can be, be an LGBTQIA Brethren and trying to be ordained. It all depends on the district that you want to be ordained in, who the District Supervisor is, who is on the committee that interviews candidates. If you’re lucky, you might be in the Pacific Southwest district (which encompasses all of California and Arizona). If you’re unlucky, you might be in the Southern Plains district (Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma). And woe to the church in a district that doesn’t really want to have to deal with the issue; as the Manchester Church of the Brethren found out when they ordained a gay man. All because the church took it upon themselves to ordain someone who they felt was called but couldn’t make it through the committee.

And there are districts that are still debating whether it is good to ordain women.

Most of us have heard the Lord Acton quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What most people haven’t heard is the next sentences:

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

And in another letter Lord Acton wrote:

Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.

And finally, Lord Acton said:

Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety of the power of the country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.

So let’s say that somehow ordaination standards were going to be codified. What’s going to be the code? How much is going to be objective? How much is going to be subjective? Who’s going to do the codifying? What makes them the right people to do the codifying? Who’s going to do the deciding whether candidate X meets a certain criteria? How are you going to eliminate class/race/gender/sexuality/educational bias that becomes inherent when things become codified? To bastardize Plato…who will guard the guardians?

I end this post as I ended the last post.

Congregationalism requires trust. Trust in the individual congregations to know what is best for their locality. I have that trust. Do you?


10 thoughts on “Power Tends To Corrupt, And Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely…or Congregational Polity 101 pt.2

  1. If I cannot trust that the whole of the UUA is well suited to declare a person fit to lead within the UUA, then why on Earth would I trust one congregation, large or small, to ordain only those who are fit to be clergy of the Unitarian Universalist movement?

    My problem, again, goes well beyond issues of abuse and right to the heart of identity. What we have is a crisis, and it will not be solved by sticking heads in the sand and carrying on as always.

    We need to define ourselves, because there will be a definition, and right now, that is going to be “anything goes and nothing matters”. We cannot change that with rabid individuality and ego. We can only change that by working as a movement and a religion of covenant.

    We need a coherent message. The fact that your uncle was ordained at the ripe age of 14 proves that polity allows stupid choices to be made. That isn’t something I want in any UU congregation. I want all UUs to know that their ministers are trained, learned, and worthy of respect. Polity does not offer that. It offers lots of room for muddling and lunacy to slip in. There is not even an office in place to help the victims of clergy wrong doing, much less any oversight to actually prevent it. That isn’t just abuse, but rogue theological or psychological concepts that creep in over time. We are headed rapidly towards a problem between militant humanists and those who will not give up The Spirit of Life. Polity solves the problem by letting the humanists claim that they are the real UU, and the theists likewise. That’s going to be really difficult to cover with visitors.

    We need a stronger UUA. We need a coherent and defined message. We need to know what we stand for and why, We need these things, or the UUA will not stand another 50 years. What is more important to you: doing things the way they’ve always been done OR actually building something with the potential to make this a better world?

    • Ok…let me see if I have this straight. I give you a really concrete example of why the chaos of the Church of the Brethren is not what we want and you pass right over it.

      You have continued to not answer the fundamental question that I asked you…who will guard the guardians? And I know why you can’t (or won’t) answer the question. Because you know that the answer is that noone will guard the guardians.

      Have you read chapter 5 of “The Grapes of Wrath” recently? If you haven’t do that and then tell me that I should trust the UUA to do something.

      But even more…why are you so worried about the UU brand? Is there some epidemic of “unworthy” UU ministers running around out there that I don’t know about?

      Why is it that there aren’t any Baptists writing about codifying ordaination standards? Neither are any Disciples (to my knowledge and I’m really sure that I would know if that were going on). Or even anybody in the UCC. Maybe it’s because they understand that congregational polity matters and that trying to protect the “brand” will lead to the destruction of congregational polity.

      One last thing…if the UUA would be so great in determining who is fit to be a minister, then why wouldn’t the individual congregations that make up the UUA? If you don’t trust the congregations, then why would you trust the UUA?

      • You mentioned the Brethren. It isn’t my place to look up their problems and confirm your point. What problem are they having that polity is the cure for?

        No one is guarding the process now, so that’s not an honest concern. If the UUA is doing the work, and the congregations are the UUA, then the congregations are still directing the process, but no one rogue group can ordain a 14 year old, as can happen now.

        There are Baptists looking for standards. As the current leadership ages out, changes will come. I know several young Baptists who are concerned about the issues of polity and credentialing.

        I can tell you to read Heinlein and tell you how great Libertarianism is. Point out some non-fiction if you ever want to be taken seriously.

        Ultimately, you have proven to me that this debate is only going to waste my time. You cannot seem to make a qualified point, and your idea of evidence and fact are severely lacking. You have your ideas, and you are going to hang on to them, logic-be-damned. That’s fine. There will be change, and I will work to insure that people like you aren’t allowed to force our movement to die for your ego.

    • “We need a stronger UUA. We need a coherent and defined message. We need to know what we stand for and why, We need these things, or the UUA will not stand another 50 years.”


      We need a denomination with top-down authority. We need a creed. We need to be told what we believe and what that tells us to do, and how.

      If THAT is what will make UUism live for another 50 years, then–having been born just as it came into being and raised in it, and being en route into its ministry–I will CHEER its demise, and the rise of something else.

      The Principles did NOT exist at merger. They were hammered out over the next roughly 30 years. And they are NOT sacrosanct, and are up for regular review and even radical revision. As a Universalist minister said over a century ago, we do NOT stand–we move. And I pray, oh how I pray, that the UUism that is alive and vibrant in 75 years will have moved sufficiently that I might find it rather a tad too radical and evolved.

      THAT sort of change has NEVER come out of an institution, and certainly not out of a large one. Theodore Parker was a raging pain in the neck and a blister on the ass of the Unitarian Boston clergy–and today… we hold up his work and words and say *THERE*. There we are. That’s a great voice that came forward, worth hearing today–and worth making every one of our ministerial candidates read, and have some familiarity with.

      The institution of the time tried to expel him, tried to find a way to get him to expel himself, and then tried really hard to deny and ignore him.

      We don’t need a stronger UUA. We need stronger UUism, out in the weeds, full of irascible, cranky, opinionated and disagreeing voices.

  2. it seems to me that forcing UUA affliated congregations to only have UUA ordained minsters would result in a dramatic increase of lay-lead congregations without any professional ministerial staff. Which, I guess, would certainly decrease any chance of clergy abuse.

  3. Pingback: Why Worry About Somebody Stealing A “Brand” You Can’t Give Away? (Congregational Polity 101 pt. 4) « East Of Midnight

  4. the post is actually the freshest on this laudable subject. i harmonize with your conclusions and will look forward to see your next posts.

  5. Lord Acton used to talk about church/religious matters, and used properly in its application, is a rare thing. I appreciate you going into detail, especially when used in conjunction with the post before this one. I hope you continue to talk about power and where/how/when it’s used in church/religious settings.

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