While proposing this new church, I think it’s important to support it with as many of the charisms, or distinctive gifts, that Universalist Christianity has developed, whether or not they are actively appreciated.
Not that every distinctive was a charism, or deserves this attention. The Universalist habit of debating theological opponents — our alternative to tent revivalism — died (after decades of decline) in the 1920s and I intend to leave it buried. But Universalists approached theological freedom and congregational polity in a different way than did the Unitarians, and these need to beÂ consideredÂ deeply.
If there was a Universalist golden age, it was probably in the years after the Civil War until the 1920s. The institutions were at their strongest and Universalists were at their most confident. (If not most distinctive: I take Ann Lee Bressler‘s read of postbellum Universalism’s betrayal of its early radical global communitarianism seriously.) Â As far as I can tell, they grew numerically, and had a keen sense of mission in the United States and abroad.
One feature of Universalism in those days was the system of churches, state conventions and the general convention. A church member would have the fellowship of the church, the churches and ministers would have the fellowship of the state convention (or be directly fellowshipped in the places that didn’t have a convention, like the District of Columbia) and the state conventions would have the fellowship of the general convention. The appropriate level ofÂ governanceÂ would make recommendations or coordinate action for its setting.
Interestingly, with the 1961 consolidation, some actions — ministerial fellowship in particular — became more centralized. OtherÂ prerogatives likeÂ as theÂ licensingÂ of lay ministers and the recognition of mission-focused organizations — theÂ independentÂ affiliates — have been given up.
A new Universalist-minded church would have to identify what parts of the state-level system survive in the UUA districts and as a whole, and which have to beÂ reconstitutedÂ — in trust, in a sense — at the congregational level. I suspect recognition of non-local lay ministries fall into this category. And perhaps in time, should there be a plural number of Universalist Christian churches in fellowship, some of these powers — meant to support and calm the sometimes turbulent free-spiritedness Universalists know — might be shared in common.