In some ways, you could say that the Rev. Diane M. W. Miller’s son Graham Durrall is a Unitarian Universalist bylaws baby.
In the fall of 1981, Miller, pregnant with Graham, was serving as the new minister at First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts, when she was asked to join a committee to examine the Unitarian Universalist Association Principles and Purposes as stated in Article II of the bylaws. A few months earlier, General Assembly 1981 had voted to review this aspect of the bylaws, which had been created twenty years earlier during the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Among other concerns, the language of the 1961 bylaws was gendered, and overall, it felt dated, Miller recalls, so she and five other UUs—Rev. Walter Royal Jones, Jr., G. Peter Fleck, Linnea Pearson, Priscilla Ledbury, and Rev. Harry Hoehler—set out to create a new statement of UU values.
“I was appointed as a young, feminist minister, given that much of the impetus for change had come from women seeking more inclusive language and perspectives,” Miller says. “There was enough groundswell of people who wanted to change the language around feminism, for one thing, but there were many other reasons. People were ready for some different expressions in there.”
Over the next four years, as Miller’s son was born and grew into a toddler, a new set of bylaws was born, too, through the work of the Purposes and Principles Committee and the input of thousands of Unitarians Universalists around the country. The committee reviewed its charge and covenants and statements of faith, sent questionnaires to UU congregations seeking input, and came up with some draft language. It was a time of great creation. “The first year was an amazing year for me,” Miller recalls. “I was starting a new ministry, and I was pregnant at the same time.”
Graham was just six weeks old when he accompanied his mother to the 1982 General Assembly in New Brunswick, Maine. “I remember standing in the back of this big hallway bouncing a baby, and then I had to get up and give my short report,” Miller recalls, so she handed the infant to a friend so she could speak to delegates. And as the committee absorbed comments from UUs and congregations around the country and revised their work, she often brought her nursing baby with her to committee meetings.
But neither Miller nor her son were at GA 1984 when delegates overwhelmingly voted in favor of the new bylaws, which, with amendments at GA, came to include Seven Principles and Five Sources that have remained largely unchanged for four decades as the faith’s values statement and moral guide (a Sixth Source, earth-centered religions, was added in 1995). Busy with her young toddler, Miller stayed home that year, watching from afar as the work she and her colleagues had done came to fruition. (The language received final approval at GA 1985; Article II bylaw changes require approval at two consecutive GAs.)
Today, Miller’s son is a grown man, a parent himself who works as an electrician in Salina, Kansas, where Miller lives, too, in order to help out with her two grandkids. Time passes—both Jones and Fletcher of the original committee are “with the ancestors,” as Miller, now 74, puts it. Just as people grow and change, so should human institutions, Miller believes—which is why she is delighted that the Principles and Sources that she and so many others worked hard to forge are once again being examined.
“I am thrilled to see that the work we did is being revisited! It is exciting to see the participation, engagement, and re-working of our core values and purpose.”
“Times change! We have changed! Hallelujah!” says Miller. “A statement of who we are, in our own words, need not be fixed in generations past.”
For the past two years, a new Article II Study Commission has worked to review and meet the requirement to revise the bylaws that were last revised when Miller’s son was a little boy. This summer, at General Assembly 2023, delegates will vote on proposed revisions to Article II of the bylaws—specifically, the Principles and Sources. Delegates will be able to offer amendments formally, and if a new version of Article II receives a simple majority vote of approval, a final vote will be held at GA 2024.
“To me, a lot of time has passed, and I think it’s great we’re doing it again,” says Miller, who has preached on her support of the proposed bylaws. “I am thrilled to see that the work we did is being revisited! It is exciting to see the participation, engagement, and re-working of our core values and purpose.”
While the current Principles and Sources are cherished by many, Miller wants UUs to understand that they are neither sacred nor mystical texts. “They were not given on tablets on a mountaintop. They emerged from a small group of dedicated UUs in living memory, with tremendous input from UU church members, church leaders, congregational meetings, and clergy,” she says. “How glad I am to see these core statements and values being widely examined once again!”
For example, when the ’80s committee was trying to draft the Principles, it got stuck on trying to include the myriad religious and non-religious viewpoints that comprise the faith. So Hoehler, who was co-minister at First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts, with his wife, Rev. Judy L. Hoehler, suggested creating a separate statement expressing the historical sources of the UU tradition. “Everything clicked after that,” Miller explains, and thus were born the Sources.
At the time, “there were a number of theological tensions—not battles, but different points of view that made up the UUA at that time,” recalls Hoehler, who is now 94 and lives in Seattle with Judy. “That’s why I felt we should look at our sources. What did we have in common, and what were the sources that differentiated us but that we still respected with regard to those different points of view?”
The fact that UUs landed on Seven Principles as opposed to some other number has no particular significance. “Seven is a classically mystical number in ancient religions, but it’s just what we came up with,” Miller says, noting that the committee originally offered Six Principles, while the Seventh—regarding the interdependent web of life—was suggested by Rev. Paul L’Herrou at GA. “I’m sure we never said we have to have seven because that’s a nice round theological number, it’s just to say what we wanted to say.”
While she herself is not involved in the work of the current commission, Miller strongly supports the proposed revisions—“I would say what struck me the most is that love is at the center, and love is the word that now captures so much of what is special, what is holy, what is divine,” she says—and she looks forward to lively debate about the proposal at GA 2023. “This is participatory theology. It is inclusive and alive. I am hopeful that we will, together, forge a new statement for these times.”
Miller knows that some UUs may not be enthusiastic about changing Article II, whether because they are attached to the current version or because they may feel it’s not a pressing issue right now. But as she looks back at the objections UUs voiced forty years ago—which are collected in the committee’s 1982 report known as the Purple Book—she notes they are strikingly similar.
“We heard just about exactly the arguments you are hearing now,” she says. “People said, ‘Our present statement has served us well for twenty years, so why tamper now?’ You hear that now!” Some UUs objected that bylaw revision shouldn’t be a top priority, or that it would create divisiveness and confusion, she notes—all arguments resurfacing today.
But Miller urges UUs to see the process at GA 2023 as a remarkable opportunity to shape their faith by discussing what it means to be a UU. It’s a process that is rare in organized religion, if not unique to Unitarian Universalism.
“The thing I loved about the process was the actual engagement with theological questions and issues,” recalls Miller. “I loved it and loved that we were doing it as a group, as an Association, not only as a committee group but with the whole movement being asked, ‘What is our faith today?’ To me it’s thrilling. To me it’s like the Council of Nicaea¹, when people got together and hammered out what they thought. I just find it exciting that we are open to that, that we do not cloak our statements as if they were a revelation from misty times and some divine being. People wrote these around a conference table in a meeting room!”
“If there’s anything I could say that would reduce their anxiety about this and help people to see nothing’s really going to be lost, [it’s] that there will be new ways of teaching and conveying this to children and adults and newcomers that will emerge just as they did for the ones we have now,” she says. “And I also think people should enjoy the chance to do theology publicly. To talk about the most important guiding principles and values of their lives, and to be able to do that with other people who share a lot of the same feelings and values you have is a great opportunity. And yes, there’s a certain amount of wordsmithing, you might not see everything you like in the final version, but to engage with this is to really ask, ‘What are we about?’”
Moreover, she adds, “The Seven Principles will not be lost. They are always part of our heritage. Congregations will continue to use them in various ways. But the UUA bylaws could use new insights and fresh language. We need to reach for a theology of our time.”
Miller, who is minister emerita at the Belmont congregation, won’t make it to GA in person this year, since she takes care of Graham’s 10- and 12-year-old children during the summer. But she will be attending as an online registrant, with her bylaws grandbabies nearby. And she has some advice for all UUs.
“I would say, loosen up, enjoy it! Relish the fact you get to have a part in this process of a new direction, and see if that is something you could live by. They have done lovely work,” she says. “I’m very excited.”
¹ The Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in AD 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine I, which attained consensus on certain questions of theology, and from which emerged the initial part of the Nicene Creed.