Minister’s Musings: The Joy of Rethinking the Seven Principles

In November, I attended a minister retreat at The Mountain in Highland, North Carolina. The bulk of our programming was centered around processing and discussing proposed changes to article II of the UUA’s bylaws, which are where the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism were established. The release of this draft has been met with a lot of emotions, ranging from full embrace to full rejection. It really shows how important these principles have come to mean to our tradition.

The interesting thing, though, is that, for a tradition that often expresses pride at having no creed, many of the resulting comments have made it clear that, for many in Unitarian Universalism, the seven principles have become a sort of creed, something that is rigid and cannot be radically changed. The new proposal from the UUA’s Article II Commission would eliminate all seven principles in favor of emphasizing our shared values.

I’ve never thought that “because we’ve always done it that way” is a good excuse to do or not do something, but it’s clear that, for many, the seven principles have provided a sort of grounding in their tradition.

I plan on doing a service on this topic next month, but suffice it to say that the original intent of the principles was that they would be reinterpreted every generation, about every twenty years. For me, this is important because the history of Unitarian Universalism shows that it is an evolving tradition; William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou might be hard pressed to recognize us as the descendants of their traditions. Because we are an ever-evolving tradition, it is important that each generation have an opportunity to redefine what Unitarian Universalism means for the new age.

At this point, though, it’s been nearly forty years since the principles were last revised; three generations have come of age under the current version. An attempt to revise the principles in 2008 failed, and progress has stalled since then.

What the article II commission is telling us is that, after listening to hundreds of Unitarian Universalists from all over the country, what might be the most relevant course of action is to talk more about what values we share in common rather than principles that may or may not be relevant to our current reality. Values are more interpretable. Whereas many believe we need an eighth principle to make our commitment to anti-racism completely transparent, the shared values in the article II draft make this commitment completely apparent.

I’m not saying you have to like the current draft or the chosen values. In fact, if you don’t, they would like to hear from you. What’s important is that we stay in the conversation as a way of helping to define our way of being religious for the next generation. If we hope to adapt to the changing religious landscape, it’s important that we remain relevant to what people are looking for.

More than this, though, there can be a sort of joy in this process if we engage it. After all, how many religious organizations afford their members the opportunity to shape our values.