The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism have stood as a statement of fundamental faith values unaltered for nearly forty years, not meant to tell UUs what they have to believe, but as a guide for people who choose to participate in UU communities. They explain the heart of the UU faith.
They could be changing, though, as a six-member commission and the General Assembly consider possible revisions to the portion of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws that includes the Principles and Purposes, and the Six Sources of the faith.
Will there be eight Principles? Or three? Or some other statement defining Unitarian Universalism and its purpose in the twenty-first century?
The next three years will tell, as UUs pursue a reconsideration under bylaws that mandate a review of Article II every fifteen years but allow the Board of Trustees to appoint a commission to do so at any time. In 2020, the board wrote a 1,000-word charge to the commission and appointed the six members, launching a process that will conclude with a final General Assembly (GA) vote in 2024.
This is the first time this specific review process as spelled out in the bylaws is being pursued, said UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald, but it is only the latest of a number of Article II reviews. Some have led to changes, some not.
The last review concluded in 2009 when the GA voted down a proposal that would have revised some Article II wording, but for the most part did not significantly change the meaning.
The General Assembly, for example, rejected a proposal to remove the words “the primary purpose of the Association” is to serve member congregations, form new congregations, carry out UU principles, and support UU institutions.
The Assembly that year also rejected proposed changes to the “Sources” section of Article II, including a line saying that the “Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.”
The most significant changes to Article II came in 1985, when the Principles were revised for gender-neutral language and to add a Seventh Principle affirming “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
This departed from the original version, adopted in 1961, which had Six Principles, and language that revolved around men. The Principles emerged originally in the union of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association.
This time, a major consideration is whether to add an Eighth Principle, which would commit congregations to “actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions,” according to the website of the Eighth Principle Project, an advocacy group of UUs.
Members of the current study commission started discussions in the fall of 2020, since then meeting online once or twice a month, then for the first time in person for a weekend in February 2022.
Hours of discussion already, hours more to come. Not to mention reading the results of hundreds of surveys on UU member attitudes and consulting with a range of distinct groups within Unitarian Universalism that are advocating for, among other interests, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and environmental protection.
The work of the Article II Study Commission will be a big part of the UUA’s 2022 General Assembly—online and in Portland, Oregon—where delegates will hear from the commission about its work so far, and where the commission will gather ideas and responses from the attendees. Delegates also will vote on whether to endorse the Board of Trustees’ plan to do a comprehensive rewrite of the rest of the UUA bylaws besides Article II.
In January 2023 the commission will present the Board of Trustees with its proposed changes to Article II. The 2023 UUA General Assembly, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is then expected to vote on the proposed Article II changes.
If that proposal as presented or amended wins a simple majority vote, it will then go before the 2024 GA for a final vote. Final proposed changes will require a two-thirds majority for adoption.
For now, there is much work to do.
Commission Members Consider Deeper Questions
“We are trying to undertake a more deep examination” of fundamental questions, says study commission member Rob Spirko. “What does the world need us to be in the twenty-first century? What do we need to be in the twenty-first century?”
The Rev. Dr. William G. Sinkford, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, who served as UUA president from 2001–2009, and then as interim co-president for a few months in 2017, says the stakes are high.
“Periodically, it is extremely important to reflect on why [the UUA] exists,” says Sinkford, who was president during the last time Article II revisions were considered. “What its good is for the world,” and what is UUA identity.
After about eighteen months of discussion, Spirko says it’s still too soon to say where exactly the commission is headed. The focus, however, is on the Principles, not the Sources.
“We’re not going to foreclose possibilities,” Spirko says. “What we wind up with might be very, very different” from the current Principles. “Might be mostly the same . . . We could eliminate the Principles altogether.”
Much discussion has focused on the prospect of adding the Eighth Principle, which explicitly opposes racism, Spirko notes. Indeed, the Board of Trustees’ charge to the commission says that a “commitment to antiracism” is essential.
Paula Cole Jones, one of the creators of the Eighth Principle and a member of the Article II Study Commission, said that 161 UU entities—155 congregations, five State Action Networks, the Canadian Unitarian Council, and ten other UU organizations—have already adopted an Eighth Principle since the proposal was developed in 2013. The subject continues to stir debate.
“It seems on the one hand this shouldn’t be controversial,” Spirko says. “But, on the level of administration, or how does this work” some UUs raise questions.
Statements posted in videos and online forums by congregation members and leaders show several concerns. Some wonder what “accountably” means, and to whom members and leaders would be accountable. How would “racism” be defined, and by who?
Some say an Eighth Principle would be redundant, as an antiracist commitment is established in the first two Principles: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”
Supporters say that while UUs championed civil rights in the twentieth century, racism embedded in the faith’s history should be confronted more forcefully. Existing principles may “imply” the Eighth Principle, but do not call on congregations to dislodge “systemic” oppression, the Eighth Principle Project site says.
On a different issue, the Board of Trustees also wants the commission to do some wordsmithing, calling in the charge for an Article II “that is inspirational, memorable and poetic.”
In the 1980s, Article II revision sought to “avoid religious language in the Principles, particularly any language that hinted at our religious roots,” Sinkford says. “All that religious language got put in the Sources, not the Principles.”
During his first stint as UUA president, Sinkford worked to reinsert a “language of reverence” within the Association, a controversial move at that time. Within the newly imagined Article II, he’d like to see “a language of mission that is religiously grounded and hopeful . . . a language of calling.”
Spirko, who teaches poetry and American literature at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, acknowledges the Principles are scarcely lyrical, sing-able, or “poetic.” But how, as a group, to write poetry, which typically is best forged by an individual imagination?
“How do you be a committee that doesn’t sound like a committee?” he asks. “How do you put things that are bigger than words into words?”
The commission has a few months to figure that out. And so the work goes on.