Cambridge Platform Shoes

by the Rev. Tony Lorenzen

Sunday, October 7, 2007

First Parish Church in Billerica, MA



                  Puritan ministers representing congregations from around New England, mostly from the greater Boston area gathered in a synod spread over three sessions in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1646 to 1648 to discuss how the Christian Churches in New England would govern themselves.  According to Henry Wilder Foote in a 1949 essay the synod apparently kept no records[1] apart from its final document. The final product of their deliberations came to be known as the Cambridge Platform and is still the cornerstone for our type of church government. Foote notes, no pun intended, that the writers of the Cambridge Platform didn’t like the term “independent” as that term carried negative overtones from ecclesiastical battles fought back in England, so they settled on the term “congregational.”  According to chapter II, article 6 of the Cambridge Platform a  

                  “congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the militant visible church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification of one another in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”


Although there are still Unitarian Universalists who claim a Christian spirituality and Unitarian (as opposed to Trinitarian) and Universalist (as in Universal salvation) Christians, giving us the historical as well as the eponymous roots of our faith, Unitarian Universalism has also added many rooms onto the theological house of Christianity since the Puritans came to Massachusetts.  One of the constants of our faith however, perhaps the most important constant, is the way we organize ourselves religiously.  Since 1648 when the Puritan ministers gathered in Cambridge our roots have been in covenantal congregationalism.  The puritan Congregationalism of the Cambridge Platform is rooted in the idea that each gathered church is an independent, self-governing body of faith, its people bound together by the sacred promises of the covenants they make with each other to BE a church. 

                  This is a radically different way to be church than the other two ways groups of Christian govern themselves.  In Episcopal polity, both administrative and theological power rests with the episcopos or bishop.  It is a top-down, hierarchical form of governance.  Even in situations, such as the Episcopal Church where bishops are elected, as opposed to the Roman Catholic church where bishops are appointed from even further up a hierarchical ladder, the power does not rest in the congregation, but with the bishop.  Royal governance or dictatorship is the civic equivalent of Episcopal polity in a church.

                  In Presbyterian polity, administrative and theological power rests with the presbytery or elders.  Ultimately, whether elected or appointed, at the congregational, district or national level (or even international level), church authority rests with the assembly of elders (called by different names at different levels and in different denominations).   Presbyterian polity is a cross pollination between a hierarchical and a grassroots governance. Representative democracy would be the closest civil equivalent to this form of church government.  Presbyterians, and some would argue now, even Congregationalists follow this type of church polity.

                  Congregational polity is best represented as true grassroots democracy.  It is old time New England town meeting, Greek polis democracy.  It is both a blessing and a burden.  No one can tell a congregational church how to run their congregation – no bishop, no assembly of elders, no civil government.  On the other hand, a congregation can get bogged down in process (any veteran of town meetings can verify this) and forget that the life and vitality of the congregation depends on the ability to meet people’s spiritual needs and get business done in a timely manner.

                  What holds churches together under congregational polity is the idea of covenant – the sacred promises we make to each other about how we will treat each other.

                  Rev. Mark Harris, the minister of our UU congregation in Watertown, MA, and one of our notable  contemporary UU historians, notes in his recent Historical Dictionary on Unitarian Universalism that of the sixty-five still existing congregations that gathered to approve the Cambridge Platform, 21 are member congregations of the UUA today.  Rev. Harris also points out that central to the Cambridge Platform was the concept of covenant and that the platform outlined four elements for a congregation’s covenant:

                  From the structure of our church organization to the importance of covenants for holding our communities together, our present day Unitarian Universalist congregations were built on Puritan Congregationalist foundations.  We stand on our Puritan ancestors’ shoulders in Cambridge Platform shoes.

                  The Puritans often get a bad name or stuck with a bad reputation for things they don’t deserve.  I can’t condone the witch trials, or agree with their Calvinist Christianity, based on the idea of the visible community of saved saints who demonstrate what we would now call a born again experience.  Yet they were not all dour, fire and brimstone and intolerance.  Few human beings or human communities are so cut and dry, black and white, good or evil.  The puritans didn’t wear black.  They favored rustic, fall earth tones, seeing black as putting on airs.  They valued religious freedom in their own way.   They came to North America to escape religious intolerance and the framers of the Cambridge Platform laid the groundwork, or according to Henry Wilder Foote “the hidden seed of toleration for differing interpretations of the gospel.”[2]  The puritan architects of the Cambridge Platform also started to lay the foundation for the wall that Thomas Jefferson would build between church and state. The puritans had fled an England where the religion of the ruler was the religion of the state, only to see the religion of the king replaced by an equal religious bigotry practiced by Cromwell’s Commonwealth.  They recognized a need to keep a partnership between civil and church government without the civil government commanding the church.  They believed church government stood in no opposition to civil government[3] and that is was unlawful for “Church officers to meddle with the sword of the Magistrate.”[4] They also stated in that “Idolatry, Blasphemy, Heresie…contempt of the Word preached, Profanation of the Lord’s Day…and the like are to be restrained and published by the Civil Authority.”[5]   On the other hand the platform states that “it is not in the power of the Magistrates to compel their Subjects to become Church-Members, and to partake at the Lord’s table.” Their compromises may still make Massachusetts Bay seem like a religious state to us, but it led to the eventual development of a secular government, not a theocracy in the United States.

                  The Cambridge Platform was the first of a series of general outlines or agreements between congregations that helped to define congregational polity as we now know it.  Because each congregation is its own independent manifestation of the church, the Puritans sought a way to hold each other to some common standards and to provide guidelines for common practices of church discipline.  The platform outlines the different leadership roles in the church and I’ll talk about those next week when we discuss right relationships.  The Cambridge Platform was not only concerned with covenants within a congregation, but with relationships between congregations.  The platform is explicit in stating that the local congregation has the right to call and elect its leadership.  Yet, it’s also careful to mention that “Although churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confounded one with another, and equal, and therefore have not Dominion one over another, yet all the Churches ought to preserve Church-Communion one with another…”[6]

                  Churches should remain in communion with one another, says the platform for “such activities as mutual advice and counsel, admonition concerning church offenses, intercongregational sharing in the Lord’s Supper, aid to needy churches, organization of new churches, inter-church participation of calling and settlement of new ministers.”[7]

                  The puritans knew that even independent congregations need relationships with others to keep them on track with their faith; that being completely isolated was a sure-fire way to implode.  Communities of faith need other communities of faith for support, advice, counsel, and mutual sharing.  In the UUA we have many resources available to us based on the old congregational model of mutual assistance.  No congregation is an island. We ignore what help exists in our sisterhood of congregations at our peril.  Perhaps the biggest mistake of congregations in our form of church governance is to be lone rangers, thinking that other congregations in our association have nothing to offer us.

                  One of my mentors, the Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle, senior minister of the First Parish Church in Weston, says “covenants are the promises we make to each others, the keeping of which make us who we are.”  The Cambridge Platform helped define the covenantal basis for congregationalism that made the puritan church what it was and makes us what we are today.  We keep promises with our members and with others congregations to be a certain type of church.

                  Eventually, Unitarian churches broke away from our Trinitarian Congregationalist cousins.   The American Unitarian Association began as a professional association of ministers in 1825, by the middle of the 19th century it had become an association of congregations.  Over the years, any time a creedal statement was introduced as a requirement for membership in the UUA, it was voted down.  The promises we’ve made to each other as congregations over the years that make us who we are religiously are remain creedless ones, free of dogma. They are promises founded on a commitment to reason, freedom and tolerance and a devotion to covenant and congregationalism. 

                  Many UU’s point to the principles and purposes almost as a creedal formulation these days.  There’s no doubt that most of us agree with these statements as personal theological and philosophical beliefs, but it’s important to keep in mind that the UU principals and purposes are actually statements of covenant between congregations. 

                  The UUA Principles and Purposes seek to provide the same anchors for UU congregations today that the Cambridge Platform did for the Puritans: guidelines for covenanting and common practices for ethical standards and what is called church discipline or ways of doing things.

                  Unlike our Puritan forefathers and foremothers who believed and professed in the Trinitarian Christian creeds, we today in the Unitarian Universalist Association and at First Parish Church practice a creedless faith. Ours is a religion without dogma.  This is not to say that one can believe anything one wants as a UU. One cannot.  One can not believe it is okay to discriminate against other human beings on the basis of race, or gender, or religion or sexual orientation or for any other reason.  One can’t believe in violence or hatred or greed. And so on.

                  What stops our faith from being a touchy-feely, New Age free for all?  Its history.  Its traditions.  Its method. Our liberal faith is grounded in a long history where the use of the human reason, the tolerance of other religious viewpoints, and freedom of conscience in matters of the spirit have always been the highest values. 

                  The seven UU principles are not a creed or a dogma.  They are statements in a covenant between the congregations in our association.  It’s important to remember that the Unitarian Universalist Association is not a Christian denomination, although there are many UU Christians.  The UUA is just what its name says it is: an association of independent congregations who come together in covenant to affirm and promote:

    * The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

    * Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

    * Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

    * A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

    * The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

    * The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

    * Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

                  These seven statements are section C 2.1 of the UUA bylaws.  They are followed in that section what are popularly known in UU circles are the sources of the Living Tradition:

                  * Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

    * Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;

    * Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

    * Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

    * Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

    * Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.


                  These principles and purposes almost didn’t exist.  There was a controversy over their composition.  In the early 1980’s the UUA Committee charged with revising the principles and purposes was at a logjam.  Humanists objected to the use of God language and UU Christians and deists didn’t want to let it go.  Rev. Dr. Harry Hoehler, longtime minister and now minister emeritus of First Parish Church in Weston, came up with the solution. 

                  In his book, The Premise and the Promise, Warren R. Ross writes about Rev. Hoehler’s solution saying, “His suggestion was to divide the statement into two parts: seven principles, followed by references to five living traditions we share (a sixth, referring to earth-centered traditions was added in 1995).” Since the summaries of the tradition were in essence historical statements, no one objected to the inclusion of a reference to the Jewish and Christian teaching which call us to respond to God’s love.”[8]

                  As we gather here this morning, across the country another revision of the principles and purposes is under way.  Chief among the points being discussed is a change in the first principal from The inherent worth and dignity of every person to the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, so that respect for all life forms, not just humans will be included.  The push for this change comes from, among other reasons, the ever-increasing numbers of UUs practicing Buddhist spirituality.

                  A puritan concern for covenant and church discipline has spanned three and a half centuries to a concern for all beings stemming from an east-Asian spirituality.   As we begin our month of contemplating covenant, let’s ponder how we got here, standing in our Cambridge Platform Shoes, and what are the sacred promises we make and keep, that make us who we are Unitarian Universalist people of faith at First Parish Church in Billerica.





[1] Foote, Henry Wilder “The Significance of the Cambridge Platform of 1648”  in The Cambridge Platform of 1648. Boston: Beacon/Pilgrim, 1949. pg 29 footnote 1

[2] Foote, Henry Wilder “The Significance of the Cambridge Platform of 1648” The Cambridge Platform of 1648. Boston: Beacon/Pilgrim, 1949. pg 29 footnote 1

[3] Cambridge Platform XVI. 2

[4] Cambridge Platform XVI.5

[5] Cambridge Platform XVI.8

[6] Cambridge Platform XV.1

[7] Cambridge Platform XV.2

[8]Ross, Warren R.  The Premise and the Promise, the Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Skinner House, 2001.  pg 97