Why Unitarian Universalists are Reexamining Article II

Why Unitarian Universalists are Reexamining Article II

As the 2024 General Assembly approaches, revisit this Q&A with UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald, where he answers questions about proposed changes to the bylaws.

General Assembly 2022 attendees discuss the Article II Study Commission’s work during a general session.
© 2022 Nancy Pierce/UUA


A smiling person with short, curly hair and glasses in a blue blazer and shirt, arms crossed and smiling as they pose for a photo outdoors.

UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald

© Paul Hammersley

The Article II Study Commission recently presented its proposed changes to the section of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws that includes the Principles, Purposes, and Sources. Carey McDonald, executive vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, spoke to UU World about the revision process, and why he encourages all UUs to delve into the commission’s findings and prepare to “engage in faithful discernment.”

Why is Article II being revised, and why is this work important?

The UUA bylaws mandate a regular revision process of Article II every fifteen years. Article II has the language that is at the heart of our faith for many of us as UUs. It has the Principles and the Sources, and our purpose as an organization. The language in Article II lives in the UUA bylaws and has been revised a number of times over the course of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s history. We are a living tradition, which means regularly reviewing and asking ourselves: Does the Article II core language reflect who we are now and who we want to be? 

Read the Article II Study Commission's recommendations in its Report to the Board of Trustees (PDF).

More specifically—and this shows up in the charge given to the Article II Study Commission by the Board of Trustees—there were a couple of proposed changes to Article II that started around 2017. One did pass, which changed “women and men” to “people” (in the second Source). There was a recommended change (in the First Principle) to “all beings” instead of “all people,” which did not pass. 

Then, of course, there has been the large grassroots movement towards the Eighth Principle. Instead of considering such changes one-by-one, the board created the Article II Study Commission in 2020.

One of the features of this process is that it is very strictly defined in our bylaws on how to make changes to the language in Article II. In addition to the regular fifteen-year review, the UUA is required to create an Article II Study Commission when any changes are considered, unless there is overwhelming support for the specific change.

There was a push from the Commission on Appraisal, a separate UUA commission, to make a number of changes to Article II in 2008–10. These didn’t pass, so there were still some of those recommendations to consider, which were also named in the charge that the board gave to the Article II Study Commission.

Are the Article II revisions moving away from our Principles? What about the importance of enduring values?

Growing up as a UU, the Principles were important to me, and values were just as important. These were the foundation of our covenant—what we agreed to do together and the promises we made to each other in the faith community. 

My view of the proposal from the Article II Study Commission is that it’s a deepening and expanding of the language of the Seven Principles to include commitments and actions. It’s being clear about the values that are at our foundation and what they call us to do as people of faith. I think it does a very good job of articulating what it means to be a UU today. 

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, individual congregations and UU communities can hold and value the Seven Principles as a meaningful part of our religious tradition, just as some have adopted the Eighth Principle on their own.

How are the Sources being changed, and why? 

The Article II Study Commission gave its presentation at the board meeting in January. The commission members talked about how the current list of sources is a list which is always incomplete. The members want to describe how and why something is a source of inspiration, rather than just enumerating them.  

I understand people have different opinions about that, and that it also can be invaluable to have one’s identity or beliefs explicitly reflected. I think this is one possibility that they spoke about during conversations with the commission at General Assembly 2022. I think this has been the cause for a lot of back-and-forth. With the inspiration section, as with the entire proposal, it is ultimately up to the delegates to decide whether this is the path forward we will take.

How has this process opened avenues for deep discussion of UU theology?

I think that we lack consistent ways to deepen our theology and have conversations about it that are accessible to all UUs. At its best, the process for looking at our Principles and Sources, and the values, inspiration, and covenant is helping us have those essential conversations. It’s helping us really dig into what matters to us, for us as Unitarian Universalists.

"It’s helping us really dig into what matters to us, for us as Unitarian Universalists. "

I think that in the absence of that, a lot of things then get channeled into discussions about Article II that are unresolved in Unitarian Universalism more broadly.

This is part of what I see having played out in the previous discussions, which is that people certainly had attachment to certain phrasing or language. But more than that, it was not part of a broader stream of deep and rich theological conversation that most UUs participate in, and that’s definitely really needed.

I see that starting to happen as part of this process of the Study Commission’s goal: to really get UUs talking about theology—not just in seminary or in an academic or professional context—but all members within our faith community being able to participate.

Does the UU community have a say about changes, and how can congregations get involved?

One hundred percent! These decisions are made by our delegates of our congregations. They are the ones who will have to vote multiple times on this for it to be enacted, and they are the ones who shape it at this point by deciding what amendments should proceed. The process in the bylaws of how the votes proceed is very explicitly defined. 

This year, delegates will have the opportunity to submit amendments, to vote on amendments, and then do a preliminary vote of the whole proposal with those amendments. If the proposal gets 50 percent approval at GA, then it will be up for a final vote the following year at GA 2024. Depending on the amendments, the commission may go back and make additional changes. The board may submit additional changes as well.

If the proposal, including any amendments, doesn’t receive at least the majority of support at this year’s GA, then the process is over. 

The board is very committed to making sure that there is lots of time and opportunity to propose and discuss amendments beforehand and see how those fit together. 

How can a congregation or delegate learn more, including making amendments?

The board is planning to hold amendment workshops, so if you’re thinking of proposing an amendment, you can submit it there. You can discuss with other people who are thinking about that. First, they also want to spend some time helping people review and dig into the Article II Study Commission’s proposal, rather than moving immediately to what people would like to change. They are encouraging people to spend some time first with what’s been put on the table and explore the comprehensive and thoughtful work of the commission. 

"We want no one to show up to General Assembly surprised that this is on the ballot. We want everyone to have engaged with it beforehand, so that we’re ready to engage in faithful discernment when it’s time for GA. "

We take our democratic commitments very seriously. We want people to be involved and engaged. We had a huge turnout just to watch the presentation at the board meeting in January. Hundreds of people wanted to see that presentation. I think that’s great. 

I want more people to be talking about it in their congregations. We want no one to show up to General Assembly surprised that this is on the ballot. We want everyone to have engaged with it beforehand, so that we’re ready to engage in faithful discernment when it’s time for GA. 

What will happen to the Eighth Principle? 

It’s been a decade that people have been talking about the Eighth Principle. It’s been a true grassroots movement—not something led from the UUA. Hundreds of congregations have now adopted the Eighth Principle for themselves.

The UUA is very committed, as a whole, to what’s in the Eighth Principle—understanding our commitment to dismantling oppression and white supremacy—as part of what it means to live out our faith. That’s not optional or secondary but is actually central to our understanding of how to honor every person’s worth, our interconnection, and our pursuit of justice in our world and in our faith communities. That is a core part of what makes us UU. 

It has been exciting to watch. It’s been a vibrant movement, and I think it has really shaped the Article II proposal. The founder of the Eighth Principle movement, Dr. Paula Cole Jones, is on the commission.     

Because the proposal really zooms out and rethinks the entire structure of Article II, it doesn’t add the Eighth Principle as it’s been drafted, but I do see it woven into all the elements of the proposal. 

Is there anything else you feel is important for UUs to know about the Article II Study Commission’s work? 

I really understand this as a test of our living tradition. These are big conversations. They are really important ones. We want people to feel like whatever their experience is, it’s valid. We want them to participate. We want them to share. We want them to be able to sit with this new language for a while and think about what it really means. Does it feel like it captures what being a UU means to you, and what you want it to mean?

There is a lot of appreciation for the individual members of the Article II Study Commission for the incredible head and heart investment that they have made.  

"I hope UUs feel more connected to their faith. Whatever they may think about individual parts of the proposal, I hope that this process helps us connect with our theology more deeply. "

We’ve had thousands and thousands of people submit their thoughts, their ideas, their feedback, and from this point on, we will have thousands and thousands more involved in the conversation and then their desires will be reflected in the delegates’ voting—and that’s what we want.     

We want people participating and helping to shape their faith. That is something that is distinct about Unitarian Universalism: the understanding that we all can shape our faith. It’s not held in the hands of a bishop or sole leader but is a part of our individual calling. I hope that this is a renewing, life-giving process for people. 

I hope UUs feel more connected to their faith. Whatever they may think about individual parts of the proposal, I hope that this process helps us connect with our theology more deeply.

Right now, we’re working with our staff to help host conversations and curate different resources to help congregations understand how they can participate and how to learn more. We are focused on encouraging that engagement across congregations, and helping people talk to one another about the proposal. 

Learn more about how you and your congregation can engage with this process.