I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Friday, November 24, 2006


Happy day after! I hope all of you are well. I have a stomach ache, alas, and cannot sleep. Here is an article I wrote for the church newsletter. Eliot is doing quite a bit of formal and informal work on its identity. One problem (and I have mentioned it before) for Union Churches is that they have so many affiliations. At the risk of confusing things for non-Eliots (this is part of a broader discussion). Here is what I wrote on the subject this month...

“Who (or What) are we?”
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

How do we describe the tradition and identity of the Eliot Church? Are we Unitarian Universalist? Are we United Church of Christ? What do we mean by “Community Church” anyway? I often hear these questions from members of the congregation. No doubt, many of you hear questions like these from fellow-members and from friends and family. The answer sometimes seems complicated. However, it really isn’t.

Much of the confusion, I think, comes from the attempt to reconcile three apparently distinct concepts. Two of these are related to the UUA and the UCC, larger institutions that we are affiliated with. The other is our identity as a “Community Church”. However, appearances can be deceiving. All three are facets of the broader tradition of American Congregationalism.

If someone asks you what kind of church Eliot is, you can’t go wrong by saying “Congregationalist”. Our tradition has a long history dating back at least to 17th century England. Interestingly, it had its start in this country when a small group of people deciding to separate from the Church of England eventually ended up in what we now know as Plymouth, Massachusetts! In addition to a tendency toward religious reform and theological diversity, this is the tradition that gave New England its town meeting form of government and a wide variety of social reformers, philosophers, scientists, and politicians.

Let’s start with our two associations, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. They are called associations for a reason. Associations are collections of independent congregations, each with its own tradition. Over the years the UUA and UCC have merged with other movements and have developed different interests and points of emphasis, but this fundamental fact of their lives has remained. In essence, the denomination in Congregationalism is the local church. This is why Eliot hires its own minister, owns its own buildings and, generally makes its own decisions without having to defer to a larger organization.

The UUA and the UCC are two of four associations of congregations that date their founding to one document, the Cambridge Platform of 1648. This document laid out a system of self-governance for individual worship communities. All four associations provide support and nurture to their member churches and to their ministers. Sunday School, retreat opportunities, continuing education for clergy and lay leaders, and mission (or social justice and outreach) programs are their primary function. The purpose is not to tell the churches or their members what to believe so much as to help them on the journey.

Are there differences between these institutions? Absolutely. A recent public discussion between the leaders of the UUA and UCC—attended by members of our church—underlined many of them. There are reasons why there are so many different paths on the Congregational Way. Not only are there differences between the various associations, but there are also differences within them as there are within any religious movement. Churches are not uniform monoliths so much as dynamic communities in conversation. The conversations that we have at Eliot are uniquely Congregationalist. These conversations are aided by our theological diversity and the creative tension developed from being part of more than one congregational group. However, even if we belonged to no association in particular, Eliot would continue to be a Congregationalist church! This is, after all, our history.

All four of these groups share certain things in common. One is the primacy of the local church, another is a non-creedal basis for membership. We believe that revelation is not sealed. In the words of the UCC, “God is still speaking”!

One of the two associations we are not currently affiliated with, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) puts it this way: “People of a Congregational Church do not seek to be led by a creed, but by the Spirit. Ours is the tradition of a free church, gathered under the headship of Christ and bound to others by love, not law.” The NACCC is interesting because it rests in theology and tradition right between the UUA and the UCC, as do we.

The term “Community Church” is also part of the Congregational tradition, although not exclusively. The word “Community” can be a vague one. Our building rests inside the neighborhood of South Natick in the town of Natick. Most of our members are from Natick as well. However, the term also refers to the “gathered community” of (drum roll, please) the congregation. Many of our members come from Wellesley, Framingham, Dover, and Sherborn. They are part of the church community, too. So while we take our place in Natick very seriously, ultimately, the congregation is the community that we are most accountable to.

As we say on Sunday morning, “we bring many gifts and together build one church community”. Our tradition and identity as a non-creedal church, open to a broad understanding of Christianity and of religion in general is the cornerstone, not just of Eliot, but of a great and vibrant tradition. It is worth exploring and talking about in the years to come.