You Can’t Change the Principles!

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

Years ago, when I was doing a lot of consulting work for the UUA’s Transitions Office, I was traveling around meeting people on UU Search Committees and Boards. I met lots of folks eager to do the right next thing for their congregations. Some had been on search committees before, and they were a little jarred by the ever-changing ways that our denomination has gone about helping to match ministerial candidates to congregations ready for their next “Rev. Someone.” I was there to explain the then-current process, and to answer questions, to be available to keep those search committees on track. Those days, I traveled mostly in the southeastern US to congregations I sort of knew or at least knew about.

One of those trips was to Alabama. A few of the folks on the Search Committee, chosen by the congregation to do this important work, were relatively new UUs. That fact will be important for you to remember as I tell this story!

Back in those days, not only did I meet with the search committee on Friday night and Saturday, I also preached on Sunday mornings to the congregation in a more general and less detailed way about how searching for one’s next minister, done “well,” would bring a congregation the right next minister for them. After the sermon was over, I usually stayed to talk with anyone who wanted to ask more questions about the process. I remember that one of the newer UUs on the search committee stayed afterward to talk. She wanted to my opinion of how to solve some issue that was going on in the congregation, some conflict she was having with another congregant.

Actually, she didn’t really want my opinion. She wanted me to endorse her opinion. It turns out that she was trying to solve some conflict by applying “the principles.” It was hard for me to follow her logic. I asked her questions, trying to learn more about how she understood the Principles.

If perhaps you are a new UU or a not-yet UU, and don’t know what I mean by the Principles, reach for a hard black hymnal. On the pages between the Preface and Hymn #1, you will find the Principles and the Sources. They are located in the UUA Bylaws (as Article II). They were adopted during the 1984 and 1985 General Assemblies by delegates from all our member congregations who sent their delegates to those two General Assemblies nearly 40 years ago.

(Note that what we call the Principles didn’t fall from heaven at the beginning of time!)

I realized that day in Alabama, with the young, earnest new UU, that she was attempting to apply the Principles as a way to “win” an argument with another person in the congregation that she perceived as “wrong,” as a foe that she disagreed with. I did my best to help her see that our covenant of love for each other, for all, was way more important than any right or wrong opinion. We most value the spirit of love, and together we promise to follow the ways of love.

Over the years there have been many varying opinions regarding the value of the Principles as they are currently stated. There have been some people and some groups who like one principle more than the others. There have been some who have tried to determine exactly who has worth and dignity, and on and on.

It is true that for some religious institutions, the equivalent of Article II would be regarded as a permanent statement of belief. Ours, however, is [what we call] a Living Tradition. That means that we have committed ourselves (in the very same Bylaws) to regularly revisiting our Principles and Purposes to ensure that we are relevant; that as we grow in understanding, our Principles and Purposes grow, too.

As a new UU myself some years ago. I shared the Principles (which at the time could be carried around on a little off-white, double-size business card with green print). I shared that card with the Principles with my Mormon grandmother, who wanted to know more about the church I had joined. She put on her reading glasses and studied the card. She gave it back to me smiling, saying she agreed with every word on it.

I knew then they weren’t radical enough! Or perhaps, my loving, generous grandmother saw through all the words to the point!

Yes, the Principles and the Sources, and the Purposes in their current form, date from 1984. Several years ago now, a commission was formed, the Article II Commission, to consider how that part of our UUA Bylaws may need to be changed to reflect who we know are and who we aspire to be.

[From the Article II Commission]:

“Article II is one of the ‘C’ Bylaws, dating to the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Association in 1961. Much of the ‘C’ Bylaws reflects compromises that were made in order to achieve merger. The first major rewrite of the Principles and Purposes post-merger were adopted in 1984. Some slight changes were made after that, but the language is largely unchanged.

“(See the UU World article “Shared Value” and The UUA Bylaws: A Study in Ambivalence).

“The Principles guide our actions and priorities, encouraging us to “affirm and promote” core values, while our Sources provide the context and grounding for those Purpose and Principles. This Article states our purpose, our very reason for existing. Section 2.3 commits us to being inclusive, and to replacing barriers that have kept some people and groups from full participation in our faith. Article II ends by ensuring freedom of conscience and prohibiting creedal tests.

“Since then, General Assembly [has] committed the UUA to working toward being an Anti-Racist, Anti-Oppression, and Multicultural Association. Recent events have caused UUs to explore more deeply institutional and cultural oppressions that exist in our Association and its member congregations and covenanted communities.

“We are now well into the first quarter of the 21st century. Our Association has grown in its understanding of systemic oppressions, such as racism, ableism, and heteronormative beliefs. However, many people feel the language of Article II does not reflect these learnings. The UUA Board believes we need an Article II that leads us into the future,” rather than one that reflects the past.

“So, they called together a commission, the Article II Commission, that has made several proposals for a rewrite. UUs have been invited to comment and make suggestions for improvements. That all happened this past fall. Their final draft has been given to the UUA board for any further modification. What results will be voted on at this year’s GA in Pittsburgh, by delegates that congregations send to vote on important matters.

“The final version of Article II, as amended by the Board of Trustees and/or the 2023 General Assembly, must receive a simple majority vote to move forward for a final vote at the 2024 General Assembly. It will take a 2/3-majority vote at the 2024 General Assembly to be adopted as the new Article II of the UUA bylaws.”

I personally think it will pass. I hope it will pass.

The final version of the rewrite centers LOVE. Our purpose as a faith will be “to transform our world by our liberating love.” My grandmother would approve of that. I am sure she would.

I certainly approve. I hope that you do. We need to change the Principles and the Sources to be relevant to today, what we have been learning, who we are becoming.

The article that has to do with the Sources has been reworded thusly: “Inspirations. As Unitarian Universalists, we draw upon, and are inspired by, the full depth and breadth of sacred understandings, as experienced by humanity. Grateful for the religious lineages we inherit and the pluralism which enriches our faith, we are called to ever deepen and expand our wisdom.”

In other words, we draw from every religion, from every writing we might consider sacred.

The full depth and breadth of understandings, allowed to the human mind and spirit.

We have changed. Unitarian Universalism is a world religion, certainly an American religion. We can change the words we use to describe ourselves. I hope you will plan to be in Pittsburgh.

This is about us saying who we wish to be into the future, perhaps for the next 40 years!

[see Article II Study Commission | for more information]

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