The Democratic Principle

February 3, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein



It was quite a drama, how it all began back in 1642.  Some of the Puritan congregation over in Scituate was at odds with their minister as to the proper way to baptize new initiates into the Christian faith (whether babies or adults).  The minister was all for what we call "full-immersion." We don't know but that he may have been dunking people in the North River. Could have been.  And a minority of the congregation believed that sprinkling was fine.  The arguments must have been terrific ones: intellectually spirited, Biblically-referenced, theologically and spiritually passionate.  The end result was that a group of folks arguing for sprinkling decided that they would form their own congregation.

Let's think for a moment about this. It's 1642.  These people aren't even Americans yet, they're European immigrants – most of whom have come over in July of 1635 on a ship appropriately called "The Blessing" – and they are living among a fairly sparse population of other white folks.  They are at risk in many ways, infant and adult mortality is very high, they have pretty good but tenuous neighborly relations with the American Indians in the area: it would certainly seem to me that people in this fairly fragile state would have better things to do than do than to pick theological arguments.  It shows us how deeply important their church lives and communities were to them, but still….

I've puzzled over this for some time and read all the document history I can get my hands on from that era, read letters full of argument and hurt, seen how the Rev. Charles Chauncy tried to bad-mouth his little band of break-aways to other congregations, attempting to persuade other congregations in good standing to close off fellowship with the "rebels" who founded our own congregation.  Even in 17th century archaic language, it's passionate stuff.

And I think, in the end, it wasn't just about baptism.  I think it was about relationships in general, and authority, and – just putting the pieces together here -- I'm guessing that the Rev. Charles Chauncy was inflexible about more than just baptism in his congregation, and that he had a bit of pompous control freak in him, and these people wanted to live out their religious lives out from under his thumb.

It was so brave, what they did.  There were seven of them: William Vassall and his daughter Judith Vassall White. Thomas and Suza King, John Twisden, Thomas Lapham and Anna Stockbridge.  The first public statement they made about what they were doing was their covenant.  You heard part of it as the chalice lighting.  Beautiful phrases like "We will walk in the ways of God that are and shall be revealed to us."  Such trust there, that it was okay if they didn't know everything – there would be more understanding yet to come.

Now, have you ever been part of a committee that had to produce this sort of thing, a mission statement, a vision statement, anything like that? You work on it and work on it and wordsmith and after awhile you either want to stick a pen in your eye or in the eye of someone on the committee?  But you stay with it and you hammer it out.  And then, in most cases, someone or some body of people gives their yay or nay.  There may even be an opening up for discussion and more word-smithing.  It's arduous as can be. No one does this for fun.

But back in 1642, those seven founders crafted their covenant (it seems likely that one or two or three of them took primary responsibility for drafting it and then the others had an opportunity for input), and then they voted on it.  They voted on it because part of their foundational religious commitment as congregational Christians of that era was to vote on all matters of importance together, in a spirit of careful discernment and prayerful consideration.

Here's why: having broken away from the Church of England, where the bishop or some other authority made decisions for the church, they were embracing a "radical new doctrine that relocated religious authority in the lived spirit among the covenanted members" of the congregation. (Alice Blair Wesley)

As Alice Blair Wesley, a UU minister who writes beautifully about this aspect of our history, these ancestors of ours "would obey, not king or bishop, but only the direction of the holy spirit working in their own hearts and minds."

A few weeks ago a lovely lady who has attended services here this winter approached me after the service was over, in the receiving line we have during the Postlude.  She had the order of worship in her hand and she said, "I think this covenant doesn't go far enough. I think it should read, ‘we minister to each other's needs, to those of humanity, and to all living creatures' – because we're leaving out the animals." I thought right away, "Well, I think that cultivating reverence and honoring the holiness at the heart of being include a reverence for all creation including animals," but I didn't want to sound defensive. So I tried to think on my feet as best I could.  I don't know that I handled it very well.

As many of you remember, and as this newcomer had no way of knowing, we crafted our covenant together in 2002 after long deliberation, several night time sessions which about fifty of you attended, then a team of four of us went off and spent hours distilling the wisdom and opinions and thoughts collected during those evening meetings and wrote this covenant.  We then brought that to you, the congregation, at the annual meeting and you voted on it.  If you had voted against it, we would have gone back to the drawing board. But the congregation voted for it – as I said at the time, our new covenant would be "meaningful for more of us and perfect for none of us," and it was a very important experience for us. 

It was so inspiring to me personally that I enrolled in a doctoral program at Andover-Newton Theological School and will be writing my dissertation on the relevance of covenant to 21st century churches over this coming year or two.  I've been teaching the democratic process we used to other congregations (and Deanna Riley and I brought a workshop on what we did here at First Parish to our General Assembly in 2005, where about 85 delegates learned the process).

So I had all of this in mind when I explained to the woman that a covenant is a living document that belongs to a particular generation of a congregation and which can be revised, but that revision is a serious undertaking requiring a congregational process and vote --  and that our covenant was a very new one.  She was skeptical.  2003?  She didn't think that sounded so new.  She had no way of knowing that historically speaking, many covenants frequently stayed unrevised for centuries.  I said that if and when we do a revision process, I hoped she would raise the point about ministering to each other and to humanity and to all living creatures; that she was welcome to do so. 

"Well, I feel so strongly about it that I was going to bring it up during Joys and Concerns," she said.  I'm glad she didn't do that, because that's not what Joys and Concerns are for, but that's okay, it takes time to understand a congregation's liturgical tradition. Joys and Concerns are a time for sharing pastoral news and concerns, and for sharing milestones and knitting us together as a caring community. But I didn't feel like it was the time to explain that.  I simply said, "If you want to lobby for a covenant revision process, become a member of the church."

This comment made her very angry and she said so, and, to my knowledge, she hasn't been here since and I'm sorry about it.   This is not to shame or embarrass any party to this conversation.  It is simply the best recent anecdote I could share with you to illustrate that for our tradition, this is how it works: if anyone wants to suggest important changes, revise by-laws, or initiate policies, we take counsel with each other, enter into discernment together and eventually vote on the matter.  I'm sorry we may have lost a spiritual seeker and possible kindred spirit over this – it never occurred to me that she would hear my suggestion as a hurtful or exclusive response; this is just the way our congregations are governed.  Some of us treasure that tradition. For others, it just feels like an irritating requirement that gets in the way of the change they'd like to see happen NOW.

I just used a big word: discernment.  It is one of my favorite words, a fine word about using good judgment, keen perception, wisdom.  But in the religious context, it means more, and I confess to you that I lack the words to explain how.  I will be taking a course in May on the art of congregational discernment so that I can understand it better, but my intuition tells me that the heart of discernment is listening with an open heart to both the voice of fellow parishioners and for the voice beyond that voice, what the Bible calls "the still, small voice of God" and some might call Higher Consciousness or Spirit.  Intuition plays a part in discernment, too – after all, when you go vote this Tuesday, it's not just that you will have heard the speeches and read the position papers and seen the ads, you will have discerned alone and with others which candidate will get your vote.  It will not be a purely intellectual process but a creative, intuitive and emotional one as well.

The democratic process is probably the least interesting of our Principles to most people.  What a snore, right? But what more poignant statement of our belief that every person has worth and dignity could we make than to govern our congregational life around mutual discernment and voting?  What hypocrisy it would be to tell a community that they're all persons of worth and dignity and then to make their important decisions for them.  Our spiritual ancestors knew this.  They took tremendous risks to break away from their native land and their national church to make this point.

 So when Dexter Robinson, our Parish Clerk, posts a warrant for a congregational meeting to vote on anything, my desire, my hope is that you will all – every one of you – respond to that as an obligation, as an honor and as a way to express your respect for everyone else who shows up (having read all the necessary reports about the meeting in advance, of course!).  Members who have signed the book can vote.  If you are a friend of the church, you can attend and observe. As you watch the meeting in progress, consider that people all over the world have died for the right to freely assemble to discuss, discern and to make decisions on matters of religious importance.

And finally, this.  The democratic process gives a voice and one vote to each member.  It does not guarantee unanimity of opinion and it does not promise that everyone will be happy with the outcome of a vote. As Parisa Parsa writes, "Everyone who has lived with other people knows that we can commit to a community and then find ourselves at odds with the community's decisions.  The ego is tempted to rail against the community and even to stomp away in anger.  Ego freedom lets us walk away in a huff.  But freedom of conscience, having already committed to a life of accountability to this community, demands fidelity even in disagreement…. the experience promotes spiritual growth, maturity, and a deepened understanding of the cost and rewards of community." ("The Right Of Conscience and the Use of the Democratic Principle in Our Congregations and in Society at Large," in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship)

Religious life anywhere should never be a spectator sport.  Our fifth principle not only reminds us of this fact, but demands that we get out on the field and play, to participate, to stay off the sidelines and take our part on the team where the only rule of the game is to be guided by an ethic of love in all things we do together.

"Democratic process is our liturgy, the work of our people.  And it is holy work." (Parsa)  How beautiful it is to be doing this work together, in this blessed generation of a congregation that has been walking in just this way for 366 years.