Monday, July 6, 2020

Rethinking the Principles

Unitarian Universalism must remain creedless, and we have a clause in our bylaws to help insure it. We'd best make the most of it.

Among my earliest memories of church are those of the communal recitation of the Apostles Creed. I can still recall the voices of my mother and older brothers, together with everyone else gathered for Mass, repeating those same words week after week. For a long time before I could read and received formal religious instruction I wondered what a 'Pontius Pilate' was, and why someone suffered under it. Now I wonder what small children in Unitarian Universalist congregations think of our words for chalice lighting. Hopefully it's nothing so head-scratching as 'he descended into hell.'

At my local congregation in Summit, New Jersey, where I serve on the board and as a chaplain, we don't recite the 7 Principles of UUism in our services. It's hard to imagine any congregation doing that, but I've been given to understand that it does happen in some places. Perhaps it's not a weekly event; I just don't know. We do teach and talk about these principles in our RE program, and here and there throughout the building you'll see something posted that references one or all of them. Throughout the association the words of this set of principles have become cherished, and to some are sacrosanct. That's one of the reasons why they need to change.

Over the years of my childhood I recited the Apostles Creed and other responsive lines along with everyone else at Mass. It became a habit that I barely thought about. The words, ingrained in my memory to this day, flowed effortlessly from my mouth while I mulled over other things, like how I'd spend my Sunday afternoon. Taking in the big picture, the recitation did its work. The creed worked its way deep into me, serving as a means of identifying myself with a larger group and our shared fiction. At the same time, the actual practice of recitation became meaningless.

Creeds can only ever serve as a means for defining the lines of "in" and "out," something our universalist ideals resists. They do provide a snapshot of where a religious body was at any point in time. The United Church of Christ, a sibling denomination of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a long list of creeds and confessions that they recognize, but do not endorse as the final word. In fact, on a page devoted to this topic on the church's site, it says: 

We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.1

So, rather that a test of faith, creeds and confessions in the UCC are honored as the words of their spiritual ancestors. The UUA has not generally had to come up with any logic like that, because historically we've had only confessions that have served more as the basis of covenants than strictly defined and enforced statements of belief. Yet, there is a risk of our principles either binding us or becoming irrelevant. 
What has been made more clear for me through General Assembly 2020 is the need to revise our Principles and Sources. I think that whatever we come up with, it needs to be strongly anti-racist, and at the same time broadly inclusive in terms of beliefs and traditions. From reading I did for the UU Polity course I took in conjunction with this years assembly, it seems to me that our struggle over the years, before and after the merger in the mid-20th century has always been tied up with our polity. Who are we, how should we relate to one another, and what should be be focusing on? These are the questions that need to be answered.

The UUA Bylaws mandate a review of Article II, containing the UUA Principles and Purposes, every fifteen years. Section C-15.1(c)(4) reads: 

If no review and study process of Article II has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to review and study Article II and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees shall review the recommendations of the study commission and, in its discretion, may submit the recommendations of the study commission to the Planning Committee for inclusion on the agenda of the next regular General Assembly. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein, proposals to amend Article II which are promulgated by a study commission in accordance with this paragraph shall be subject to a two-step approval process. Such proposals must be approved preliminarily by a majority vote at a regular General Assembly. Following such preliminary approval, the proposal shall be placed on the agenda of the next regular General assembly for final adoption. Final adoption shall require a two-thirds vote.2  

From what I've been told, the last attempt at a revision3 didn't go well. I've heard from UU Humanists and practitioners of earth-based spirituality at a prior GA in private conversations that aside from the length and perceived 'clunkiness' of the proposed revision, there were hurt feelings and tension around the privileged position the Jewish and Christian traditions were given among the sources. I'm sure that an immense amount of thoughtful work went into that revision, but it has the appearance to me of something produced by a committee. 

It's my belief that we need a radically new, fresh take on the Principles that doesn't attempt to echo or elaborate on what went before. Like our UCC siblings we can certainly keep record of what we've held as central in our covenant, and the local congregations can certainly use older versions as they deem appropriate. At the same time, I think things need to be shaken up, putting anti-racism and welcoming affirmation at the core of our identity, building on that with an embrace of the whole of the fruit of human civilization, respected with cultural sensitivity, and solidly convinced of the value of science for informing us about the natural world and our place in it. 

That's what I would like to see happen. Part of being Unitarian Universalist for me is accepting that matters might take a course that I don't like, and the evidence of my UU convictions demonstrated when I stick around and do my part anyway.  


1Bylaws and Rules, Unitarian Universalist Association (2019)

2Testimonies, not tests of the faith, United Church of Christ

3Draft revision of UUA's Principles and Purposes, UUWorld (2008)