Time to review the Principles

Time to review the Principles

UUA commission, trustees announce review of central covenant between congregations; mandated review is overdue.
Donald E. Skinner


Whether you find deep meaning in them or consider them unnecessarily bland, an opportunity is coming to consider changes in the Principles and Sources of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Article II of the UUA bylaws contains the covenant of the congregations that make up the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It includes the seven Principles and the six Sources, as well as the Purposes that set forth the Association’s mission. Article XV mandates that Article II be reviewed not less than every 15 years.

The Principles and Sources may seem immutable, but they have been changed twice since the original UUA Principles were created in 1960 during the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. The original language—six Principles, with no Sources cited—was overhauled as the result of a review in the early 1980s, and the seventh Principle (affirming the interdependent web of all existence) and five Sources were added at that time. The sixth Source (earth-centered traditions) was added in 1995.

The new review will be conducted by the Commission on Appraisal, whose nine members are elected by General Assembly delegates, making it independent of both the UUA administration and the Board of Trustees. The Board invited the Commission to take on this task, and the Board and Commission announced the planned review April 13. The process will begin April 22 at an Ohio-Meadville District meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The Commission had already arranged to be at the district meeting as part of its effort to meet regularly with UUs around the country before announcing its review.

Commission chair James Casebolt said the commission will use the meeting not to discuss changes in wording but to begin developing a procedure for reviewing Article II. “We want to hear from people about how they think we should go about this,” he said. “Given the emotional attachment to these texts, we feel a need to be deliberate about the process.”

Ideas for changes will be solicited at workshops at General Assembly in June in St. Louis. The review process is expected to take several years, Casebolt said, and will include ways for congregations to offer their thoughts after working through their understanding of the Principles, Sources, and Purposes.

He cautioned that just because a review is undertaken does not mean changes will be made. “Review doesn’t necessarily mean rewrite,” said Casebolt, who lives in St. Clairsville, Ohio. “The only reason this is happening is because the bylaws say it’s time to do it, and it’s required that this be done.”

The Commission is charged to “review any function or activity of the Association which in its judgment will benefit from an independent review and report its conclusions to a regular General Assembly.” The Commission meets four times a year—once at General Assembly and in three working meetings held in Boston and other locations around the continent.

Casebolt said the Commission is the logical group to take on the review because its previous report, on theological diversity within the UUA, included some reflection on the Principles and Sources. That report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, was presented at the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter said one reason the Board felt comfortable with the Commission conducting the review is that delegates from the congregations pick its members at General Assembly. “This is not the Board of Trustees hand-picking individuals to do this,” she said. “I hope that congregations will participate and take this review seriously. This could be a good practice of renewal for us to talk about what it is we believe—a way to articulate our faith. I hope this becomes an extension of conversations that I come across everywhere, of people interested in talking about what they believe. This is what we’re supposed to be doing, talking about who we are and what we believe.”

UUA President William G. Sinkford said, “I’m delighted the COA has decided to take this on. This will be a very challenging task, but the COA did a lot of groundwork for this in its last report and the members have the skill to do this.”

Sinkford said that in his visits with congregations the Principles come up frequently. “They represent the place most people go when they’re asked to explain Unitarian Universalism,” he said. “For that reason, I hope the Commission takes a look at the language and involves the congregations in conversations about what is the mission and vision we’re trying to live out in those words.”

When Article II was reviewed in the early 1980s, significant changes included recasting the original Principles in gender-neutral language and adding the Purposes and seventh Principle. GA delegates gave preliminary approval to the changes in 1984 and final approval in 1985. The process took from 1981 to 1985, although discussions of eliminating sexist language had begun in the 1970s.

The Rev. Walter Royal Jones, chair of the 1980s review panel, said he continues to be satisfied with the Principles and Sources that his group drafted, “although a case might be made for some rethinking and reshaping.” When asked if there is one thing he would add now, he responded: “The condition we never spelled out is that we, as Unitarian Universalists, believe that none of the historic religious traditions has the full truth, but many religions have valid insights. We often say that today as a way of explaining who we are, but it’s not part of the Principles. Maybe it’s time to write that into them.”

Jones, who is retired and lives in Fort Collins, Colo., said the revision process worked well in the 1980s because “when we sat down we knew we had different points of view. We didn’t lecture to each other, we listened. And we didn’t do it alone. Congregations from all over were involved, and we had very adequate staff assistance. Without each of those parts the whole activity would have been meaningless.”

If the Commission recommends changes when its review is completed, they will not take effect unless approved by delegates to two consecutive General Assemblies. Preliminary approval requires a simple majority and final adoption requires a two-thirds vote. The requirement to periodically review Article II is in Article XV, Section C-15.1.

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