Congregationalism Part 1

Paula Northwood February 4, 2018

Scripture Hebrews 11 (selected verses)

I often hear from new members that they do not fully understand what Congregationalism is, and I have heard long-term Congregationalists say some things are Plymouth’s version of Congregationalism, not necessarily Congregationalism in its pure form (if there is such a thing).

This sermon is part one of a three-part series on Congregationalism. There are three characteristics of Congregationalism that Beth, Seth and I want to highlight over the next few Sundays: Faith, Freedom and Fellowship. This morning we will look at faith.

But first we need some definition of terms, because the word congregational is used in a variety of ways. Maybe this has happened to you. Someone asks you what kind of church you attend, and you say, “Congregational.” And they say, “I get that, but what denomination?” and you say “Congregational,” and they say, “No, really,” and you say, “Yes, really. I am a Congregationalist.” They look puzzled—or they say, “That’s not a denomination.”

We use the word congregation with a small c to describe any gathering of people. When we use the word congregational with the word polity, we are describing a kind of church governance. This governance means that the local church has autonomy and authority to worship and minister in the ways they discern. These congregations may be connected to others as associations and denominations that work together for the common good, but the level of involvement is discerned by the local church. They are not bound by a governing body or judicatory system like Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

Congregational churches like Plymouth embody a congregational polity, but so do Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, Unitarians and all nondenominational churches—just to name a few. Plymouth is not unique in its congregational polity. I will give you an example: I grew up Mennonite in a little tiny Mennonite Church in northern Ohio. There were five Mennonite churches in a 10-mile radius, and they were all distinctly different. One was socially liberal; one was very conservative, where the women wrote dark-colored dresses and bonnets. The church I attended was theologically evangelical. Each congregation could discern its expression of the Mennonite church. Before coming to Plymouth, I served an American Baptist congregation, and it also practiced congregational polity. In many ways, that Baptist church was more liberal than Plymouth. Every church I have served has embodied a congregational polity. It is in my bones, and I truly believe that for the teachings of Jesus and the living Christ to be lived out in every age, there must be this freedom.

I don’t know the statistics but I am guessing that more than half of this congregation, maybe even two-thirds, comes from another spiritual tradition. So allow me to give a very quick history of our spiritual ancestors. In the 1500s, the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church. It was the practice of the Church of England to repeat creeds and prayers without thought. Our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors objected to this (among other things). They strongly believed that personal conviction and thoughtfulness were critical components of faithfulness. In Great Britain, the early Congregationalists were called separatists. In 1620, members of John Robinson’s congregation in Holland, originally of Scrooby, England, traveled to America on the ship called the Mayflower. Once in America, these separatists were called Pilgrims or Puritans.

While Pilgrims did not abide by a creed, they did have statements of faith, two in particular: The Westminster Confession of 1646 and the Savoy Declaration of 1658. Both documents expressed the beliefs held by early Congregationalists; they differed only on church governance. In America, the Pilgrims had the freedom to create new statements of faith for the changing times. In 1648 the Cambridge Platform, a summary of principles of church government and discipline, was drawn up.

What remained foundational in each was that each local congregation and member thereof “possesses full liberty of conscience in interpreting the Gospel.” Congregationalists have long embraced the idea that, in God’s eyes, all of the faithful are spiritual equals. So each congregation had the freedom to create their own governing principles and beliefs. Congregational Churches, then as now, are based not on belief in a creed but instead on a covenant. This covenant assured that Christ was in their midst as the only authority over the church. No outside religious oversight was needed or proper. This meant that the affairs of the church were in the hands of the congregation. Decisions were made under the direction of the Holy Spirit and within the bounds of commonly understood Christian faith.

We don’t have time to look at all the ways Congregationalists influenced history. But they were very involved in setting up this country’s early government and promoted higher education by establishing Harvard, Union and Yale, to name just a few institutions. They took a leading part in the Great Awakening, which was started by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational theologian and preacher. Congregationalists also became advocates for many social reform movements, including anti-slavery and women’s suffrage.

Fast-forward 200 years: In the 1900s, some Christian religious groups with a common ancestry were consolidating and forming associations and denominational ties. The reasons for this were often very practical: they thought they could accomplish more ministry and mission by doing it together.

In 1957, most Congregational churches joined with the Reformed and Evangelical Church to become what we know as the United Church of Christ. The remaining churches later would form what is called the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Currently, there are 5,000 churches in the United Christ of Christ (the UCC), and there are almost 400 in the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC).

I have heard people say that Plymouth is a stand-alone church; that is not accurate. We are a member of the NACCC, and we are a second-tier member of the Minnesota Conference of the UCC, which is similar to being an associate member. So we have ties to two Congregational entities, but, because they embody congregational polity, we have the autonomy to worship and live out our Christian faith as we discern.

Because we have this freedom of autonomy, I also have heard many of you say that Congregationalists “believe anything they want to” because we have no creed. Historically speaking, this is incorrect. In Christianity’s early history, churches used the familiar Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. It was expected that believers or Christians would recite and follow the tenets of the creed. The Nicene Creed begins: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.” If you are not familiar with these creeds, you can easily look them up on pages 511 and 512 in the Pilgrim Hymnal in your pew.

It is incorrect to say that Congregationalists have never used creeds or statements of faith. As I indicated earlier, Congregationalists have drawn upon creeds and statements of faith to express their beliefs. But, and this is important, Congregationalists rarely, almost never, use creeds as a test of belief or faithfulness or for membership. When creeds are used, it generally is because an individual congregation believes it enhances the experience of the worship of God and promotes the unity of the congregation. There is no creed or requirement of a creed that is binding on all Congregational churches.

Practically speaking, or maybe I could say even spiritually speaking, this understanding of being free “to believe anything we want” is correct to some extent. Because we do promote the freedom of individual spiritual exploration and practice, we all are at different places on the spiritual journey, and we do have different theological perspectives and expressions in the ways we live. But let’s be honest: There is no freedom in our church to believe that any human is less than another and there is no freedom to unkind, rude or hurtful—or at least we aspire not to be these things. And while there is freedom to be agnostic, humanist, even atheist, this is a church founded on the principles of Christianity. And each generation is free to discern what that means. My understanding from my time at Plymouth is that we worship God, we follow Jesus and we embody the Spirit.

By now, you may be asking: What does this have to do with us? Like all good paradoxes, everything and nothing. As far as our connections to state and national congregational bodies, I think it is important to belong to something larger than ourselves. From the UCC, we get our clergy, our medical benefits and insurance. We use their resources, and they assist us when we have conflicts. We are able to help support disaster relief through Our Church’s Wider Mission, a program of the UCC. From the NACCC, we get other resources, such as The Congregationalist magazine and our hymnal. From both, we get our autonomy.

What I am most concerned about at this time in Plymouth’s history is who we are. Local autonomy is a precious thing, but it means nothing if we are not strategizing about what kind of presence we are to have in the world. Let me say this again because it is important: Local autonomy is a precious thing, but it means nothing if we are not strategizing about what kind of presence we are to have in the world at this time in history.

Historically, our ancestors were grounded in a deep abiding faith in Christ as the head of the church. Congregationalism historically is a Christ-centric faith, but because we can discern what that means for our time, we have to figure out who Christ is in every generation. Christ can take different manifestations. That’s why some people joke that folks in the United Church of Christ are simply “Unitarians Considering Christ.” There is freedom to do just that. As I have looked at Plymouth’s ministers, a more liberal theology was introduced by Harry Dewey and a more Unitarian Universalist faith was promoted by Howard Conn. Vivian Jones was more traditional, I think. He told stories and had a great accent. Both Jim Gertmenian and Carla Bailey promoted social action and each had their Christology influenced by what is called Progressive Christianity. I will talk more about Progressive Christianity on Feb. 28.

The gift of local and individual autonomy, as a church and as individuals, is both our boon and bane. We can be nimble as a church to meet the needs of our neighborhood and our world. We can form our own governance based on representation of the people. But if we cannot agree on what or how to do that, we are ineffectual.

Individual autonomy or personal freedom of faith is wonderful gift. We are encouraged to spend time and energy to deepen our faith and practice. But it means nothing if we do not truly love and respect each other and our individual journeys of faith. It also opens the door to many theologies and philosophies that are not historically Congregational. Some of that is good; we do not want to go back to the rigid faith and prejudices of the Puritans or Pilgrims. This is the beauty of Congregationalism: We provide a big tent for everyone to examine and explore what it means to be in relationship with the divine, with Jesus and with each other. This is what it means to be in covenant. We work together to support each other in our journey of faith.

In our text this morning from Hebrews, we see God’s people embarking on a journey. By faith, they put their trust in God. In the Christian scriptures, God’s love is embodied by Jesus. By faith, early Christians put their trust in this embodiment.

By faith, the Pilgrims made a courageous move to the New World. We can appreciate and respect our founding story, and we can recognize the misperceptions and errors of their ways. We are not held captive by our history or tradition. We are a people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to have faith without demanding certainties.

By faith, modern day Congregationalists have directed their passions toward tolerance and unity rather than maintain the purity of a theological system. But our strength is our weakness. The challenge will always be to name our core identity in every age. This is what we will be working on in the coming months.

This is what I observe at Plymouth Church: By faith, we encourage the freedom of the mind (we can think what we want), being kindred hearts (it is love that binds us) and being unified in spirit (we operate in covenant as one body of the universal Christ). Free minds, kindred hearts and a unified spirit—is that our core identity?

Maybe so. Amen.