I want to talk about our Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes, because they are central to who we are as UU’s, and because they’re in flux right now, and I think it’s important to have an understanding of them. Next month I’ll talk about the proposed 8th principle, and then I’ll do a series on the other seven. But today let’s look at them in in their entirety, as it’s helpful to understand the bigger picture before getting into the individual principles.
UU minister Edward A. Frost wrote a great little book called With Purpose and Principle that I’ll be quoting from a lot. In it he says, “our Unitarian and Universalist forebears knew well enough that a religion needs to be able to say to the world what it is that its adherents believe. The difficulty, for these free churches, lay in formulating what could be said without usurping the freedom of belief cherished and firmly defended by their members. . . . The principles and purposes statement, incorporated into the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is but the latest in a long history of attempts to state, if not a common faith, at least a workable consensus about what brings us together.” (p. 2)
History of Unitarian and Universalism
To give a brief look at the background: In 1803, Universalism was becoming a denomination by uniting different groups of people who all believed in some form of universal salvation, though there was a difference as to whether the salvation would be immediate or only after burning in hell for a finite time. They adopted the Winchester Confession, which stated that God “will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”
A “liberty clause” was included that said local congregations could adopt their own statements of faith and belief “provided they do not disagree with our general profession.” The Universalists adopted new professions of faith in 1899 and in 1935 that updated the language but also affirmed that “no precise form of words” would be required of ministers or members. (p. 3)
Unitarianism grew as a movement within the congregations of the established churches of New England. By 1825, the American Unitarian Association had been formed, and issued a statement that reads: “We value our doctrines only so far as they evidently are the revelation of the will and character of God and so far as they tend to improve the religious, moral, and intellectual condition of mankind . . . . The great end of this association is the promotion of pure morals and practical piety.” (p. 5)
In 1894, and again during World War II, new statements were formulated that updated the language. The one from World War II consists of five principles with which it was believed most Unitarians would agree. This is the basis for our current formulation, which was worked on in the 1980’s. This last time, the main reason to update the language was to make it inclusive of women.
Seven Principals and Six Sources
As it stands now, the statement consists of seven principles and six sources that we draw from. At the end is the statement of purpose, which reads simply, “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual support and trust.” You heard the principles and the sources when Barb read it earlier, and the whole thing is in your hymnal just before the first hymn.
Many Unitarian Universalists have been preaching on the principles, teaching them to the children, and are happy to affirm them as a statement of what we have in common. To some, this seems like they are being taken as a creed, or used as one. It has been said that Unitarian Universalism has “a fear of creedalism that is irrational to the point of being dogmatic.” But the principles have never been used as a test for membership, and were never intended to formulate a common theology. It is precisely because of our lack of a creed that many feel the need for a statement of what we do have in common; a formulation of certain values we agree on.
The current formulation has stood the test of time. Except for the addition of the sixth source in 1995, the statement was has stood as is since 1984. But because the world changes, the faith changes, the context changes—it was determined that this statement should be reviewed every fifteen years. By 2006, a review was long overdue.
So, at the Board’s request, the Commission on Appraisal took up the review project. They conducted a broad survey to include as many voices as possible. They created a proposed revision of Article II of the bylaws, which reworked the statement extensively and thoughtfully, but left the 7 principles intact.
It was a multi-year project, and finally came up for a vote at the 2009 General Assembly when the delegates voted not to send the proposal on for a year of congregational study and a vote for adoption at the 2010 General Assembly.
It wasn’t time. There wasn’t enough reason to do it then, there wasn’t enough energy behind it.
The Commission said at the time that they “took into consideration the differences between the mid-1980’s context and the current one. In the mid-1980’s, the revision of Article II grew from grass-roots efforts by those who wanted to remove sexist language and those who wanted the bylaws to reflect more clearly changing theological ideas. In contrast, when the Commission took up this review, there was no grass-roots effort bringing forward any proposal for change. There was only the Bylaw section mandating review every fifteen years.”
Our 7 principles have stood the test of time
One proposed change of wording within the Principles themselves that received substantial commentary at the time of the recent review was the proposal to change the first Principle to refer to “all beings” rather than “every person.” They decided not to make that change, leaving the 7 principles unchanged.
The support for making our first principle more inclusive has not gone away, however. I myself think it is an essential step to moving beyond our anthropocentrism, our speciesism, our human-self-centeredness.
This change was being proposed again recently and was getting some momentum, when it was sidelined by another proposal that is coming out of our commitment to anti-racism.
The proposal is for an 8th Principle to be added that directly addresses that commitment. The proposed Principle is: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
I’ll devote a whole service to the proposed 8th Principle next month. It is felt to be necessary to aid our work in the dismantling of racism, white supremacy, and other oppressions at the personal and institutional levels.
Even with these changes, our Principles are standing the test of time. Nobody is suggesting an overhaul of the seven, whose wording was completed in 1984 with extensive input and consideration.
Our key principles and purposes
I believe the crux of who we are as a religious body is contained in the 1st, 4th, and 7th Principles.
The fourth, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” describes our creedlessness.
It defines the free church, and is what sets us apart from most other religions—at least Christian religions—, which are defined by what they believe. It tells us we are free to search for truth and meaning according to our own conscience, but also that we are responsible for how we conduct that search. There is also a responsibility to conduct that search. Because this is a free church, the foundation is not given.
We are not given a theology, a way of structuring, or describing reality. We must each develop our own theology. We must each determine for ourselves what, if any, order there is to the universe. We must find truth through our own path, through our own experience and reflection on that experience; we must create our own meaning. Each one of us individually, though in community with other seekers.
That said, it is clear the 1st Principle has a theological content. If we are covenanting to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that means we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In theistic terms, that is saying that we are each and all children of God, equal in God’s sight; each of us has a divine spark. It is a belief about the way reality is structured. Furthermore, it commits us to acknowledge in our behavior the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This is not always easy, but it is something to strive for.
It says that every person, no matter what they look like, no matter what they believe, no matter what they do, has inherent worth and dignity and deserves to be treated accordingly.
Even the perpetrators of hideous crimes. It is not something we can forfeit by our actions – it is inherent. We may not be able to forgive what they do, we may need to stop them from doing what they are doing, but embracing this principle means believing that even our enemies have inherent worth and dignity, and should be treated accordingly.
The 7th principle has theological content as well.
To covenant to affirm and promote “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is to believe that there is an interdependent web of all existence, and we are indeed a part of it.
It is a belief that all beings are related in an interconnected web, including humans. To believe this gives us a sense of who we are in the greater scheme of things. I am great because I partake in the whole of all that exists. Yet I must be humble because I am just a small part of all that exists.
The other principles address our relations to one another – that we seek to relate with justice, equity, and compassion, that we seek a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, that we seek to accept one another and encourage each other’s spiritual growth, that we seek to use democratic process. As individualistic as we are as a denomination, we recognize that we exist only in relation to others, and that our strength, and our purpose comes only in our relation to others.
Our Principles have stood the test of time, and they continue to inspire us. They are a good way to describe what we’re about, and what it is we all agree on, more or less. We have wallet cards you can take and hand out to anyone who wants to know more about us. We just got a new order of them—help yourselves and distribute them liberally.
May we all be inspired by our Principles, and may we use them to guide us in our daily lives. May we be open to revisions to them that reflect our changing world and our changing understandings of it. Finally, may we be proud to share them with others.
Rev. Jane Thickstun