Monday, December 5, 2011

The General Assembly

Not sure where this post goes but it is something that I have been musing and I think it fits best under governance.  Recently postings on the UK Unitarians Facebook group have provoked my thoughts. There have been some describing the General Assembly (GA) as the national centre and about the GA trustees (EC) wanting to influence congregations.

The GA is the national Unitarian organisation  for congregations, fellowships, societies and ministers and perhaps those who choose to be Associate Members.  However there is a difference between being the national organisation and being the centre. There have also been comments about how there are (may be?) many congregations that do not relate to/are unaffected by what the GA does.  If this is the case then can the GA actually be described as a centre, at least for these congregations?

Congregations are made up of individual people and they do not belong to the GA so perhaps there is also a problem with connections between the GA and individual Unitarians.

So is the role of the GA to be the national centre? The GA's constitution states the purpose of the GA in its Object

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition. 

To this end, the Assembly may: 

1. Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds; 

2. Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity; 

3. Act where necessary as the successor to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (including the formation and assistance of Congregations; the publication and circulation of biblical, theological, scientific and literary knowledge related to Unitarian Christianity; ....) and National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations (To consult, and when considered advisable to take action, on matters affecting the well-being and interests of the Congregations and Societies on the Roll of the Conference, as by directing attention, suggesting plans, organising expressions of opinion, raising funds to carry out the foregoing objects) ... 

4. Do all other such lawful things as are incidental to the attainment of the above Object. 

I have added in the bits in brackets to say what these roles are.

(Incidentally the EC's November meeting notes say, 'Constitutional Review Group. A report was received from the group. No constitutional changes were recommended.'  Which seems a real shame because I don't think that the Object is at all clear; I don't think it covers everything that the GA does or that it aspires to do; and it does not identify clearly who the charity's beneficiaries are.)

It seems to me that reading this the GA's main roles are to speak to the outside world and to act as a service organisation for local congregations.  These roles may be seen as central roles but they are not the same as a national body which controls its local, affiliated bodies like some national charities. This is a different model and therefore different approaches and attitudes are needed. Another concern, as I have written before, is that the new priorities are very inward looking. For the first time in my memory (in Unitarian terms this is relatively short) there is no priority around social action.

The second point is about whether the GA should be influencing congregations and fellowships.  As a service organisation it should be providing advice and guidance.  It should be organising events to identify and promote good practice.  They also have a significant input into the selection and training of ministers which might be seen to be a significant influence. So the GA can and does influence. 

What further ability to influence would they seek? And who wants to do this?  The item prompting this posting came from an EC member - so is it the EC which seeks to have more influence of local congregations and fellowships or just one EC member?  As an active member of a local congregation there are plenty of people trying to influence things locally, which is all well and good because they are within our community.  I guess we would say that we do not want the GA influencing what we do rather we would like them to support us in making our choices and taking actions.

I think that there may be some significant mismatches - between the GA's Object and what they do; and between what they think their role is and what we locally think their role is. My view is that it is better to reduce such mismatches so that there is greater clarity and everyone has a similar understanding about what the GA does.  

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