Every year, around February and March, the phrase ‘General Assembly’ begins to be heard. Mysterious “motions” are put before the church’s management committee and members, for approval or rejection – but where do they come from, and what is the ‘General Assembly’?
Two meanings, 1: The national organisation
The term ‘General Assembly’ actually refers to the national membership body of UK Unitarians, and as such its full name is “The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches”. It is a registered charity and a “membership body” consisting of congregations, district associations, affiliated bodies, Ministers on the Roll, and a few honoured individuals (‘Honorary Members’) as voting members. The underlying principles are described as follows: “Unitarians value the contribution of every individual to the life of the community and democratic principles underpin how we operate at national and local level. Authority within the Unitarian movement rests at the local level”.
Like many charities, it follows a structure where there are individual organisations at the local level (such as our church!), regional organisations providing support to each region (the Northern Unitarian Association is ours), and an overall national body which helps to co-ordinate actions at the national level, and provide support to local organisations (the General Assembly).
The General Assembly’s headquarters are at Essex Hall in London, which is why you may sometimes hear people refer to the national movement as ‘Essex Hall’. It is funded from various sources including church quota fees, donations, income from investments, and so forth. (The church ‘quota fee’ is the money we pay on behalf of each full church member to support the national organisation – currently £35 per full member of the congregation, which is taken from their annual subscription.) The national movement is governed by the Executive Committee, and there will be a subsequent article about them! You can read the full constitution and find out more details about this here: https://www.unitarian.org.uk/pages/our-object-and-constitution
The key point to notice is that unlike many other churches, Unitarians do not have an overall governing body at either national or international level, and we have no set dogma. Thus, whilst the national movement provides advice and guidance, introduces initiatives such as the ‘Vision 2020’ congregational growth initiative, and adopts positions on various issues (see below for how!), we are not obliged to follow its lead. We may well choose to do so, but the final choice about what we do rests with the church congregation.
Two meanings, 2: The annual meetings
However, the usual use of the term ‘General Assembly’ is to refer to the Annual Unitarian Meetings, which take place in April each year. These are the equivalent of the Newcastle church’s AGM, and the aim of the meetings is to “bring the whole Movement together to discuss and consider issues of importance”. These annual meetings are attended by delegates from congregations, fellowships, district associations and affiliated societies, along with individual Unitarians, and they are commonly known as the ‘GA’ within Unitarian circles. Below is Louise Reeve’s report about the 2017 General Assembly to the church AGM.
What happens at the GA?
The GA is where we conduct the national movement’s business, including signing off annual reports, reviewing accounts and any activities done during the past year, and considering motions. Motions are a way for the General Assembly to decide what to do about important issues of the day (background papers are provided by those submitting the motions, to give delegates more information about the subject). They are debated before the Assembly and voted on by members, and if passed, they become Resolutions. These are intended to result in action both at the national and local level. You can see the 2018 motions and background papers here, and also find out more information about how they are put together and who can propose them: https://unitarianmeetings2018.com/policydebate/
Each church and district sends a representative to carry their vote at the GA. This is why, prior to the GA taking place, motions are circulated to everyone planning to attend, and the churches and districts will review the motions and indicate to their representatives which way they want to vote. Following the GA, the church’s representative will usually provide a short report on how the GA went to both the management committee, and everyone attending the church AGM.
However, the GA is about much more than just business! We also hold workshops on new ideas and initiatives, Unitarian societies hold meetings to which everyone is invited to learn more about what they are doing, worship is held, the GA bookshop is open, and we take the chance to meet, mingle, socialise and make new Unitarian friends.
How do you get to go?
The church’s representative is always a full member of the church, and usually we simply ask someone to volunteer. As the representative, their attendance fee and travel expenses are paid for them. However, you do not have to be the representative, nor even necessarily a full church member, to attend! You can go as a day delegate, in which case some financial support will usually be made available either from the GA itself (especially for people aged under 40), from the church, or from our district association (the Northern Unitarian Association). Information about how to attend will always be put on the church website, the Facebook page, the church calendar, and read out in the notices in advance of the meetings. You can find out more about 2018 meetings here: https://unitarianmeetings2018.com/
Much of the information for this article was taken from the UK Unitarians website, to whom many thanks – it can be found here: https://www.unitarian.org.uk/pages/how-we-work