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Emphasis on Covenant

the Rev. Josh Pawelek

Unitarian Universalist Society East

Manchester, CT

July 23, 2023


I’m going to share my reflections on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s recent General Assembly—GA; specifically my evolving impressions of the similarly evolving proposed revision of Article 2 of the UUA’s bylaws. I rarely talk about GA because its impact on local congregations is usually quite minimal. This year is different because of the proposed Article 2 revision which, if you haven’t heard, was amended five times and passed with 83.6 percent of the delegates supporting it. As a reminder, Article 2 is the section of the UUA bylaws that names the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism and the six sources of our living tradition. The proposed revision would replace the seven principles with seven values—love, interdependence, pluralism, justice, equity, generosity, and transformation, along with covenantal commitments for living each of these values in the world. The six sources would be replaced by a brief paragraph entitled “Inspirations.” Because so many of us, myself included, have built our Unitarian Universalist identity and faith around the principles and sources (originally adopted in 1985), this is a big change. This year what happened at GA definitely impacts local congregations.

Thanks to Ellen Williams, Anne Carr, Jean Knapp, Rhona Cohen and Carrie Kocher, who served as delegates from our congregation. Ellen and Ann were present in Pittsburgh, as was the Rev. Jean Wahlstrom who wasn’t a UUSE delegate. Jean, Rhona and Carrie were serving as remote delegates.

There are two things I love about General Assembly that have nothing directly to do with Article 2. First, in all the years I’ve been attending GA—my first was in 1992—the collection of people who gather are far more diverse than what we find in most local congregations. Yes, the majority of GA attendees are older, white, cisgender people, mostly heterosexual; but there are significant numbers of Black, Indigenous and People of Color attendees, people with disabilities, transgender and non-binary people, gay and lesbian people. There are huge numbers of youth and young adults, hair dyed in all sorts of colors, and thousands of t-shirts with a wide array of messages: spiritual, social, political, cultural, humorous, serious, etc. We often talk about building an antiracist, multicultural, beloved spiritual community in Unitarian Universalism. In my experience, GA is the closet we come to that vision.

Second, worship happens every day, and the worship music is phenomenal. No shade on Mary or any other local UU music director. GA has the resources to bring amazing and diverse music leaders, choir directors, singers and instrumentalists. The music is consistently compelling and inspirational, a reason in itself to attend in person.

This year we elected the Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt as UUA president for a six-year term. This is exciting to me. I’ve known and admired Sofia for more than 20 years since we both worked at the UUA in the early 2000s. She has experience as a parish minister, a scholar, a writer, a seminary professor and dean, a UUA department director, a UUA interim president for three months in 2017, and recently as Resident Scholar and Special Advisor on Justice and Equity at the UU Service Committee. Her three priorities campaign priorities were communal care, collaborative leadership, and “facing the unknown together.” I want to pause on communal care briefly. During a meeting with clergy she was asked why church growth wasn’t one of her priorities. She responded—I’m paraphrasing—that Unitarian Universalism, like all organized religions, is still adapting to the disruptions of the pandemic. Right now we need to prioritize love and care for one another. Congregations that know how to do this are adapting well to the disruptions and growing. Congregations that don’t do this well are struggling. I needed to hear this. I felt she was affirming our reality here at UUSE. All through the pandemic we kept saying “Community, community, community.” It doesn’t matter exactly how we do worship during lockdown, focus on community. It doesn’t matter exactly how we do religious education for children during lockdown, focus on community. Community care mattered above all else for us. I continue to believe that’s why we are coming out of the pandemic in a really healthy position. It was good to hear our new president share that same insight.

My reflections on Article 2 fall into three categories: language, process, and content.

Regarding language, one of the primary concerns I heard at our Article 2 forums in May was that at least some of you don’t like the way the revision is written. Malcolm Barlow summed up this critique when he referred to the revision as “mush.” What he meant by that, if I understand correctly, is that the language of the current seven principles and six sources is simple and clear. The language of the proposed seven values and their covenantal commitments is not as simple, not as clear, not as memorable, and therefore doesn’t feel as powerful.

The GA delegates amended the Article 2 revision in five places, but none of the amendments address this concern about the simplicity and clarity of the language. If you didn’t like the language of the proposed revision before GA because it lacks simplicity and clarity, you will likely still feel that way when you read the amended version which will be published soon. While I still balk at some of the language in the proposed revision—and while I still wish the language could be simpler and more poetic—I acknowledge it is growing on me as I spend more time with it.

Regarding process, I’m not sure anyone, including UUA leadership, was satisfied with the process. I went to GA imagining the proposed revision would look significantly different by the time the delegates voted on a final version. I understood that the UUA Board and other denominational officials had the responsibility for sifting through the hundreds of proposed amendments and narrowing them down into broad categories. But I thought delegates would have more input into the final selection of amendments to be debated. We didn’t, and I still don’t understand how we got to the final 15 amendments. I know there was an official selection process; that it involved the UUA board, the Article 2 Commission, UUA lawyers and the parliamentarian; that it took into account delegate input from three online mini-assemblies in May; and that it was bylaw-driven, i.e., it was legal. I take our leaders at face value when they tell us this. I trust our leaders. I’m just not clear how they made their decisions about which amendments would be debated. I would have appreciated a more detailed explanation.

One thing is apparent: they heard loudly and clearly that a significant number of delegates wanted a chance to vote on re-inserting the seven principles and the six sources into the Article 2 revision. Both of those amendments were included in the final set of 15. Both lost by significant margins.

And this brings me to content. Even though I don’t love all the language of the revision; even though I didn’t love the process that led to the final version; I voted for it. I didn’t vote for it, as I some did, for the sake of keeping the conversation going for another year. I voted for it because I feel strongly that its content is the right content for Unitarian Universalism at this moment in our history.

When I began my ministry in the late 1990s, I was concerned that Unitarian Universalism put too much emphasis on the individual and individuality, and not enough emphasis on community and the relational dimensions of our lives. I was trained to understand Unitarian Universalism as a covenantal faith, meaning that as we join together in spiritual community, we make commitments to each other, we make promises to each other, we are accountable to each other, we are obligated to care for each other. These things are central to our centuries-old tradition, and central to the practice of our faith today. Yes, we celebrate each individual’s uniqueness, gifts, creativity, experience and wisdom—that will not change. But we do that best in the embrace of a strong, healthy, vibrant community. I have been preaching some version of this message my entire career. The proposed Article 2 revision, in articulating—however poorly—our covenantal commitments to each other—by putting the emphasis on covenant—not only reclaims this essential part of our tradition (which was de-emphasized for much of the 20th century), but positions us to remain strong, vibrant and cohesive in the coming years which, we can predict, will be chaotic. This emphasis on covenant is an explicit reminder that our faith is more than a collection of unique individuals, that our faith gains power from the relational dimension of our lives; and that we are called to tend and nurture relationships within our congregations, among our congregations, with our friends and partners in the wider community, and with the Earth and all its creatures. I welcome the Article 2 revision’s emphasis on covenant.

During Ministry Days prior to GA, the Rev. Ceclia Kingman delivered the latest Barry Street Essay, a long-standing, prestigious address to clergy. Her essay, “My Little Pony Was Right: Reflections on Fascisms Without and Within,” was a chilling report on the rise of fascism in the United States and a humbling reminder that here in little, blue, coastal Connecticut we are shielded from the worst manifestations of fascist trends in our nation. One of Rev. Kingman’s responders was the Rev. Elizabeth Stephens, minister of the UU Church of the Palouse in Moscow, Idaho. Rev. Stephens described her remarks as “a dispatch from behind enemy lines.” She said that at this point the state of Idaho is essentially under the control of fascist extremists. She talked about the criminalization of abortion, the criminalization of gender affirming care, legislative attacks on funding for anti-bullying programs, on libraries, on health care workers, on university faculties, and more. Idaho is also home to more right wing militias than any other state. She described one of their neighbors as a Dominionist cult. Their church, I’m sure, is a lot like our church. Moscow, ID, I’m sure, is a lot like Manchester, CT. But the social and political context is radically different. As she described the white truck that stalked her for weeks after she led the local women’s march, I feared for her life; and then wondered, could I do ministry there? Would I have the courage to say out loud in Idaho the things I say out loud in Connecticut?

The proposed revision to Article 2 highlights and appropriately balances a tension in Unitarian Universalism between liberal religion and liberationist religion. If I may generalize, liberal religion supports the individual’s free and responsible spiritual search, interacts with the larger culture, takes seriously the results of scientific inquiry, promotes religious pluralism, and stays open to the emergence of new truths. Liberationist religion critiques power structures, challenges oppression, works for justice for all people. Since the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961, UUs have been comfortable identifying as a liberal religion, less comfortable as a liberationist religion, though the latter is part of our spiritual inheritance. When I hear Rev. Stephen’s description of the social and political context in which she is doing ministry; and when I hear again and again from UUs and non-UUs here and around the country who are people of color, black, indigenous, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary, immigrants, non-Christian religious minorities, people with disabilities, and women about how extremist powers are slowly chipping away at their rights, their freedoms, their well-being, their mental health, their sense of safety, their community cohesion, I realize we need not only the bedrock of our liberal religious heritage, which is clearly articulated in the Article 2 revision; we also need a clear call to ministries of liberation.

In my view, the proposed Article 2 revision gets the balance right. It does not signify, as some critics allege, a pivot to more social justice work, which by itself would be an evasion of both the liberal and liberationist traditions. Rather, it positions Unitarian Universalism as both a liberal and liberating faith able to minister with inclusive, caring and courageous love in a context of rising fascism and climate catastrophe in the United States and globally. For me, such ministry includes opportunities for rest and renewal, prayer and study, grieving and mourning, individual and collective spiritual practice, cultural celebration and exploration, remembering and honoring ancestors, artistry and creativity, nurturing resilience, practicing communal care and deepening relationships within the embrace of our sacred covenants however imperfectly articulated they may be.

And love lives at the center.

I preached in February on my great joy that the Article 2 revision puts love at the center of Unitarian Universalism. That joy has deepened since GA. Whether we’re talking about community care, confronting fascism, teaching religious education to kids, supporting immigrant families, ensuring everyone gets to share their point of view at the book discussion, promoting progressive legislation with the interfaith coalition, welcoming visitors on Sunday morning, or offering a safe place for people to be their whole and true selves, love is what enables the liberal and the liberation traditions to succeed as religious traditions. The love with which we engage matters. The love with which we speak matters. The love that guides us matters. And it matters that Article 2 locates that love at the heart of Unitarian Universalism.

Amen and blessed be.


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