Sunday, October 25, 2020

Early Congregationalism

"Pilgrims Going To Church," George Henry Boughton,1867

If there were a ranking of titles that on their own were sleep-inducing, "A Book Which Showeth the Life and Manners of All True Christians" would have to be in the top 100. Published by Robert Browne in 1582, the text is extremely significant for congregational polity, as it outlines a system in which congregations form a covenant and manage their own affairs, such as continues in a number of denominations today. In fact, some of Browne's ideas made their way into the Cambridge Platform of 1648 in New England. Among the ideas described in Browne's work are a few that I'd like to focus on briefly here.

First, there is the notion of church 'planting.' This is common language in missiological circles, and since my transition to Unitarian Universalism I've been in a couple of situations where the terminology was treated as alien and somehow unique to evangelical Christianity. While Unitarian Universalism isn't a proselytizing faith, and so it's to be expected that this language will seem foreign to Unitarian Universalists, it shouldn't be treated as though it's of uniquely US evangelical provenance. It has long usage in the English language, and makes particular sense in the context of congregational autonomy and the application of the 'three-self formula.'

Second, the discussion in Browne's work around covenant reflects the strong belief in a two-way relationship with God, something absent from contemporary Unitarian Universalism. 

36. How must the church be planted and gathered under one kind of government?

First by a covenant and a condition, made on God's behalf.

Secondly, by a covenant and condition made on our behalf.

Thirdly, by using the sacrament of Baptism to seal those conditions and covenants.

(McKanan, 2017) 

We find here a transactional relationship in which God has laid down his terms in the Bible, and the gathered church commits to respond together to those terms. The way to make the deal effectual, almost as though it were a contract, is through sealing 'those conditions and covenants' with the sacrament of baptism. 

As I've mentioned, the covenants formed within Unitarian Universalism omit the portion about God, as that is not relevant to pluralistic congregations formed of theists, non-theists, and agnostics. The concept of forming a covenant remains, as does the act of 'sealing,' typically by signing a membership book. 

Third, I think it's worth noting that Robert Browne, who had been ordained an Anglican priest, saw no need to change from infant baptism to believer's baptism. Based on the text, it appears that he justified this through the children being in the household of faithful people, 'and under their full power.' Without going into the validity of that viewpoint from the perspective of the New Testament, I find it interesting that in Unitarian Universalism we have essentially become a believer's church. 

Although we don't usually practice baptism (with some New England congregations and King's Chapel being exceptions), we do have the membership book that I mentioned above. We have a ceremony for infant dedication, but it's more for welcoming the child into the church community, and doesn't confer membership. Children don't sign the membership book, but their parents do. The children are treated as little UUs, but we encourage them to make their own decisions through Coming of Age and on into adulthood. We hope that they'll choose to sign the book and become active adult UUs at some point, but there isn't compulsion. 

This bit about infant baptism and the gathered church remained a bug of sorts in the system, leading to Puritans in New England feeling compelled to formulate a 'Half-Way Covenant' so that those who were themselves christened as infants but had not become members officially were able to have their children baptized as well. This opened the door to generations of churchgoers — with varying levels of attendance  — not personally accepting the core doctrines and claimed religious experience of the religious tradition. It is in this space that differing beliefs and dissenting views had room to breathe and persist.

Robert Browne himself ultimately recanted when threatened with excommunication from the Church of England. Those were times in which it was dangerous to be different, something that remains to be the case to some degree in our society, but about completely different topics. Nevertheless, his ecclesiology contributed to the development of what has become a very common and even standard understanding among many liberal and evangelical Christian denominations, as well as for the Unitarian Universalist Association


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.