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Have we no principles?

01/22/23 by Joshua Pawelek


Note: Rev. Josh offered this sermon in response to UUA Article 2 Commission’s rough draft report released in the fall of 2022. It does not take into account the final version of the report, which incorporates more of the seven principles language from the current (1985) Article 2.

Friends: our ministry theme for January is finding our center. Two weeks ago I spoke about shared ministry—a collective practice, a way of being church together—which lives at the center of our congregational life. Last Sunday, in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, we named the work of racial justice and also lifted up women’s rights and reproductive justice, GLBTQ justice, and environmental justice among many others avenues for social justice that are central to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. There are many other aspects of our center we can name. Last night we had a wonderful, all-congregation game night. Community—beloved community—being together—having fun together—playing together—all reside at the center of who we are as a congregation. A commitment to religious freedom lives at our center. The use of reason in our spiritual and theological searching lives at our center. A celebration of religious pluralism lives at our center. And there’s more.

However, imagine that someone who is completely unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism asks you to tell them about your faith, asks What is it? Says, You don’t share a common set of beliefs, so what holds you UUs together? More than likely, your response will include something about our seven principles. Because we don’t gather ourselves around a common set of beliefs. We gather ourselves around a set of seven principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of democratic processes; the goal of world community; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. These principles are not beliefs. They are not confessions of faith. They are our covenant, our agreement with each other, and with Unitarian Universalists across the globe, about how we intend to live. They are guides to living here and now, living with each other, living in our wider community, in our nation, on our planet.

Our principles are aspirational. To live them well is difficult. We often miss the mark, so we keep trying. Here, on Sunday mornings, and as we engage in congregational through the week, we receive an invitation—the ongoing invitation—to understand, explore, and live these principles. They inhabit a prominent space at the center of our faith—both in the intangible and soul space of Unitarian Universalism, and, in a very tangible way, on paper. That is, the seven Unitarian Universalist principles, along with the six sources of our living tradition are written in Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) bylaws.[1] You might suddenly be thinking, Oh no, he’s preaching about bylaws. The last thing I want to hear on a Sunday morning is bylaws. This can’t be happening.

Oh, it’s happening.

Article I, by the way, tells us the name, Unitarian Universalist Association, and offers one sentence about the UUA’s history, that it is the successor organization to the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Then comes Article II, which is entitled, “Principles and Purposes.” Again, this is where we encounter the seven principles and the six sources of our living tradition. This is—on paper—the center of our faith.

The title of this sermon is “Have We No Principles?” It’s a rhetorical question, sort of. In the spring of 2020, the UUA Board of Trustees created the Article II Study Commission, and charged it “to review Article II of the UUA Bylaws, and propose any revisions that will enable our UUA, our member congregations, and our covenanted communities to be a relevant and powerful force for spiritual and moral growth, healing, and justice.” That’s the first sentence of the charge. The full charge is actually much longer, totaling 900 words.[2] This charge emerged after two years of dialogue and debate at the 2018 and 2019 UUA General Assemblies, and also after specific attempts to revise the principles going back more than a decade, including an effort to more clearly articulate the worth and dignity of non-human life, and including the movement to establish an 8th principle that calls us to conduct our congregational life and build beloved community in anti-racist, anti-oppressive ways.

The Commission has completed its work. It published its proposed new Article II this past fall. We’ve included it in our eblast a few times. We’ve had some online conversation about it with our Policy Board and Program Council leaders. We’ve included it as an insert in today’s printed order of service. If you’re following the online order of service, the proposed new Article II can be found there as well. I really like the proposal. Yes, there are some aspects of the language I might want to nitpick if I were in a nitpicky mood, but I will be happy and supportive if this proposal becomes the new Article II.

However, I do note two, somewhat glaring absences. First, the proposal lists no principles. Second, the proposal lists no sources of our living tradition. If the proposal becomes the new Article II, the seven principles we’ve come to know and love, the seven principles that have lived at the center of our faith for almost forty years, will go away. The same goes for the six sources. So, when I ask, “have we no principles?” it’s a rhetorical question, except that, on paper, we actually won’t have principles. Instead, the proposed new Article II names seven values at the heart of our covenant. Love is the central value, or as the proposal reads, “the enduring force that holds us together.” As we read further, “Love inspires and powers the passion with which we embody our values,” which include: justice, generosity, evolution, pluralism, equity and interdependence.

If you’re curious about the process that this proposal needs to go through in order to be adopted, it’s pretty simple. First, the UUA Board has the opportunity to amend the proposal this winter. Then in June, the UUA General Assembly, meeting in Pittsburgh, will have the opportunity to amend the Board’s version and then vote to accept or reject it. In order to be accepted, it needs a simple majority vote. If accepted, there will be a year of further study, some final edits, and a final vote at the 2024 General Assembly. At that point it will need a two thirds majority to be adopted as the new Article II of the UUA bylaws.

There’s a lot I can say about why I like the proposed new Article II. But I don’t think any of it actually matters until we acknowledge, reflect on and live with the grief that many of us will feel if this change goes through. The UUA adopted the current seven principles in June of 1985, the same month I graduated from high school. I’m not sure when, exactly, I became aware of the seven principles. It might have been during college. It might have been when I moved to Boston in 1989. At some point I became aware of them, and they have been the center of my faith ever since. They have been my response to the question, What is Unitarian Universalism? For better or for worse, they are in my bones. They are in my heart, my spirit, my soul. The rabbi preaches in response to the Torah. The Christian minister or priest preaches in response to the Christian New Testament. The Imam preaches in response to the Koran. I preach in response to the principles. I anticipate experiencing grief and a sense of loss if they go away.

I’m mindful that a majority of you became Unitarian Universalists after 1985. For you, the seven principles have been the only center of this faith you’ve ever known. And even for those of you who were Unitarian Universalists prior to 1985, like me, you’ve lived with the seven principles for nearly 40 years. They have lived in us. So yes, we will experience grief and loss if they go away. It will feel strange learning the new language of our center. It will feel strange referring to values, rather than principles. It will feel strange referring to inspirations rather than sources. It will take time to change.

I invite us to breathe together. Breathe deeply, mindful that this conversation about Article II, especially in its early stages, is as much about grief and loss as it is about embracing a new articulation of our center. Breathe. As we breathe, I’d like to share four, broad reflections on what I am thinking and feeling as I contemplate the loss of the seven principles.

First Reflection: Confidence

It has been my experience over the years that when I share the seven principles with people who are interested in Unitarian Universalism, the principles invariably resonate with them. The principles inspire them. People say Yes to them. People say some version of, these are my principles. People say some version of, I didn’t know religion could be like this. I’ve tried to read the proposed Article II as if I were very interested in Unitarian Universalism, but also brand new to the faith, visiting for the first time. When I read it that way, I feel confident that if the UUA adopts the new language, the same thing will happen. People will read the statement of values, and the values will resonate with them. People will be inspired. People will say: Yes, these are my values. People will say, I didn’t know religion could be like this. I feel confident.

Second Reflection: Change Alone is Unchanging

The seven principles were never intended to last forever. As the charge to the commission noted: “There is nothing sacred about the number of principles or sources, nor their specific wordings.” In the UUA bylaws there is an expectation that Article II will be revised on a regular basis. It has always been true of liberal religion that it embraces change, re-invents itself, adapts to better respond to the unique circumstances of its historical era. Liberal religion lets itself evolve. As much as it honors ancient revelations, it doesn’t cling to them. There is wisdom in our willingness and ability to change. When we are not willing or able to change, we risk becoming mired in outdated language, let alone outdate theological, social and cultural norms. Our willingness and ability to change is what keeps us healthy, vibrant and fresh as a religious movement over the long run. Our willingness and ability to change is what keeps us open to the reality that revelation is never sealed, that there are always new truths to be discovered, new relationships to build, new insights to gain, new hallelujahs to cry out. Change is good.

Third Reflection: Love, The Enduring Force

The seven principles have some glaring absences too. Perhaps their most glaring absence is their failure to mention love in any way. I am planning to preach more about this in February. The bottom line for me is that religion at its best promotes love. Religion at its best puts love into action. When I read in the Article II proposal that “love is the enduring force that holds us together,” my heart sings. Finally, that center of our faith that has been missing from the seven principles, has been found. I am filled with joy.

Final Reflection: Words Ultimately Fail Us

Anytime we ask language to articulate our center, our deepest-held beliefs, our purpose, the things that matter most, we confront a dilemma. No words can ever truly capture what we really mean. Yet words are all we have. So we do our best with the words we have, knowing, ultimately, that our words are inadequate. When I read the proposed new Article II, I feel like so much of it already lives in an unspoken form in the current Article II. And when I read the current Article II, I recognize that much of it will live on in the future, even if its specific words go away. This is because there is something deeper and more enduring to our faith than the limited and very human words we use to describe it. That something is, in fact, eternal, though our words are finite. The question for me is not whether we have the uniquely right words, but whether the words we have serve as good guides for our covenant, our living together. Future generations will gather at their proverbial rivers and call out our names. They likely won’t remember the words we used to describe the center of our faith. They’ll surely be using different words by then. But they will remember something of how we lived. My prayer is that whatever words we end up using, they will be the right words to guide us into lives of compassion, healing, justice and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[2] You can read the full charge to the UUA’s Article II Commission starting on page 6 of its fall, 2022 report: https://www.uua.org/files/2023-01/a2sc_rpt_01172023.pdf.

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