THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE INDEPENDENT AFFILIATES
Recent UUA Board actions in regard to the independent affiliates of the UUA were a lively topic of informal discussion at the 2007 GA in Portland. Information from several sources is summarized here, including especially the Board activity reported in the UUA Annual Reports 2007 and www.uuworld.org reports. This topic will be revisited by the UUA Board at its October 2007 meeting.
A “Congregations Come First “ initiative proposed by a team under moderator Gini Courter aims “to explore ways to remove organizational obstacles to congregational health and vitality”. One of these obstacles was considered to be “that our congregations are not served by Independent Affiliates operating in isolation or being an alternative for congregational life” (both quotes are from Annual Reports 2007, pp.2-3), so they are all forced to reapply for their status. The letter which was sent announcing this move to the leadership of the Independent Affiliates of the UUA by Paul Rickter as UUA secretary can be found at http://www.uua.org/aboutus/governance/boardtrustees/letters/26969.shtml ; it makes clear that from the first the intent was to withhold independent affiliate status from many of the existing organizations. After the decision that Independent Affiliates must reapply for that status, the Board discussed conversations with organizations which wish to (re-)affiliate with the UUA.
The significance of the Independent Affiliates controversy is not obvious at first. To portray their role schematically, let us consider the external organization of the UUA as a vertical branching diagram, in which branching takes place from a node at the top of the diagram, representing 25 Beacon St. The first branching is from the central office to the districts. The second branching under each district divides it into congregations (in most places the significance of cluster organization is so limited that clusters are ignored here). Under each congregation there is a final branching for individuals. The main information flow is vertical; in fact, it is mainly downward, with much less information going from congregations to the districts and the central office than comes downward from the central office. In some senses, of course, since congregational decisions depend on available information, such information flow is closely related to control relations.
Many UU congregations function in isolation, and the involvement of most members does not go past the immediate congregation. On the other hand, for those members whose interests pertain e.g to a particular area of religion, religious philosophy, international activity or association, we can picture a second sort of connection which may be considered as horizontal. These members often are vitalized by connections to others, mostly inside but also outside the UUA, on such special topics as humanism, Christianity, Jewish heritage, Buddhism, etc. About sixty such horizontal connections exist in practice. These topics are served by what from the UUA central office point of view are known as the Independent Affiliates. Although they are not all of equal interest to everyone, they provide an important part of the theological richness and ideological diversity of modern Unitarian Universalism. They offer an affiliation between individuals which is distinct from and not controlled by the vertical central stem of information flow.
For an example of the role of the Independent Affiliates, let me take the case
of a liberal Christian who finds himself in a UU congregation in which there is little interest in that orientation. (For clarity, the present writer has never been a member of a Christian church, but speaks rather from his observations of membership patterns.) That person, cast entirely on his own resources and those of a minister if there is one, can either shift to another UU congregation which is more oriented to Judeo-Christian tradition, search with little guidance for external connections, or remain frustrated and isolated from the sort of liberal religious connections which he has probably already left a Christian congregation to search for. The existence of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship provides connections, publications, specific UUCF events at GA and elsewhere, internet connections to discussion groups and blogs, connections to UU Christian ministers, etc. The possibility of such a diverse religious and ideological network across congregations, now under attack, has been a strength of modern UUism.
Unitarian congregations have offered the community aspects of the connections inherent in the maintenance of a congregation and its activities, which might be seen as local horizontal connections, and the input of local ministers can leaven local resources by pointing members towards UUA and external resources. The more distant horizontal connections have provided religious and intellectual associations of a richness and variety which only the largest local congregations can provide. This sort of multiple connectedness is one of the more attractive aspects of UUism, in contrast to hierarchical religious groups in which the flow of decisions and doctrines is exclusively vertical and downwards. Where the more distant connections are weakened or even abolished, the religious, intellectual, and ideological connections that draw thoughtful people into association are weakened. Such weakening of the horizontal connections approximates the UUA system to a vertical hierarchical one which most members have already rejected in their decision to join a Unitarian-Univeralist congregation.
. The decision of the Board of Trustees that each of the independent affiliates loses its status and must apply for reaccreditation is not pro forma. Until renewed recognition is acquired, none of these organization is recognized by the UUA as an affiliate organization. However, those organizations already enrolled in a UUA benefit program remain enrolled through December 2008. Only two out of the seventeen applicants which had requested independent affiliate status at the April 20-22 Board meeting in Boston were granted such status, the Council of Unitarian Universalist Camps and Conferences, and the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (see Jane Greer’s article in http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/23524.shtml for May 7, 2007). On June 25, two more independent affiliates were granted affiliate status. These were DRUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), and Universalist Convocations, a consortium of Universalist conventions. Associate status was granted to the UU Women’s Federation, the UU Service Committee, and the UU United Nations Office. The applications of the Partner Church Council, the UU Ministry to Earth, and the UU Small Group Ministry Network were tabled for consideration in October.
It is striking that not a single organization which focusses on religious or ideological aspects of UUism has been approved. Tom Stites notes in his report of the present status of this decision that these organizations thus lose the ability to arrange GA workshops, to gain recognition by listings in the UUA directory, and to have discounts for advertising in the UU World, as well as other benefits. See his report at http://uuworld.org/news/articles/31344.shtml A summary of these events is provided by T.S. in the fall 2007 UUWorld at p.53.
This action of the UUA threatens to weaken the independent intellectual streams in modern UUism. Some of the formerly affiliated organizations will adapt, others may die. For anyone who is not comfortable with my presentation of this conclusion, many of the above arguments, and other related ones, have been developed in a different way in a series of blog-posts by a Massachusetts minister (LT) at the address http://www.thelivelytradition.blogspot.com, in the posts with the titles (in reverse chronological order, as is usual on blogs) “One Meaning of the Independent Affiliate mystery” on June 7, “Serving Congregations?”, “It does not follow”, “More on the IA Mystery - Going a Little Deeper”, “Why the Independent Affiliate Mystery matters”, and “The Independent Affiliate Mystery”, which includes a list of the rejected organizations as of that date, and the form which organizations had to return in reapplying for independent affiliate status. On July 5, LT posted two later comments stating one hypothesis about the target in these proceedings, which indeed was suggested in private discussion at GA.
As stated in the preceding summary of Board activity, the Board’s actions have been rationalized on the ground that they will better serve congregations. This is a specious argument, as has been well argued by The Lively Tradition’s posts. Actually, the opposite is true, since the Board’s actions will make it more difficult for congregations to receive input from religiously diverse UU sources. At the present time, a weakness of the independent affiliates is that they are not well known to those who do not attend GA, so that they do not develop as extensive participation as they potentially could have. The independent affiliates are capable of providing a much richer leavening of religious diversity and information to UU congregations than has in general been available. For this reason, the existence and activity of especially the religious units among the independent affiliates should be made better known to congregations, rather than weakening their connections to the UUA.