Regular readers of this space (all five of you) will be aware that I’m concerned about some of the changes that have transpired in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) during the last few years. In 2020, the UUA charged a Study Commission to recommend some changes to the UUA Bylaws, specifically to Article II of the Bylaws, which defines both the UUA itself and the nature of Unitarian Universalism.
Somehow I got on a UUA email list. Yesterday I received a download link for a PDF called “Article II Study Report,” in which the Study Commission both explains its working process and provides a final text of its proposed changes. Naturally, I downloaded it and had a read.
To the casual reader, the changes in Article II proposed by the Study Commission may seem to be innocent rewordings with much the same underlying content. But a closer reading makes clear that the proposed changes are transformational. A new and far-reaching definition is being proposed of what it means to be Unitarian-Universalist, and for how the member congregations are to relate to one another and to the parent organization.
And by the way, in case anyone is wondering, what follows are my own personal views, not those of the North American Unitarian Association or any other group.
Got it? Okay, let’s have a look.
In its current form, Article II begins with a statement of the Seven Principles and Six Sources. That is, it begins by defining what UUism is. The Unitarian Universalist Association is then defined in the second section. The proposed changes invert these two sections. The UUA is defined first, and the “values and covenant” (the word “principles” is no longer used) are in the second section. This reordering is merely symbolic, but it reflects the view of the Study Commission. The Study Commission set out to serve and validate the purposes of the UUA as the Commission members understood those purposes. The values that are proposed as definitions of the UU faith are of secondary importance — and not well defined, as we’ll see.
In the current version of Article II, the version that is in force, the word “we” clearly refers to the member congregations of the UUA. The text of Article II begins, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association….” In the proposed revisions, the word “we” is no longer clearly defined. Sometimes it seems to refer to congregations, sometimes to individual UU members, and in one passage to the UUA itself. This is not just sloppy writing, though it is certainly that. The ambiguity reflects an underlying notion of uniformity. We as individuals are to be expected to conform to the practices of our congregations, and the congregations are to be expected to conform to the expectations of the UUA. “We” are all to adhere to the same set of values. This change in the text may not have been a conscious choice made by the Study Commission, but it clearly reflects the prevailing view of the new UUA organization.
In the current version, the aspirations are quite mild. “We [congregations] … covenant to affirm and promote….” The word “promote” is a call to action. In the second section we find, “The primary purpose of the Association is to … extend and strengthen….” This is another call to action. Section 2.3, “Inclusion,” is definitely aspirational: “We pledge to replace such barriers with ever-widening circles of solidarity and mutual respect.” The terms “replace” and “ever-widening” are calls to action.
But that’s about it in the aspiration department. The proposed changes to Article II are aspirational in a much more sweeping way. The calls to action are strident. Here is Section 2.1, the opening of the proposed new text, in full:
The Unitarian Universalist Association will devote its resources to and use its organizational powers for religious, educational, and humanitarian purposes. Its primary purposes are to assist congregations in their vital ministries, support and train leaders both lay and professional, to foster lifelong faith formation, to heal historic injustices, and to advance our Unitarian Universalist values in the world.
“The purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to actively engage its members in the transformation of the world through liberating Love.
Note the words and phrases “vital,” “train,” “foster lifelong,” “heal,” “advance,” “actively engage,” “transformation,” and “liberating.” This is a manifesto.
The UUA Board fed the word “love” to the Study Commission. In the Charge to the Commission, the Board said, “The Board believes that one core theological value, shared widely among UUs, is love.” The proposed changes are full of “love.” The term is not, however, defined. We are not told how to ask whether our own actions or those of our congregations are loving. You may feel this is a non-issue; you may think you know what love is. But we live in a world in which conservative Christian parents can eject a gay or trans teenage child from their home, leaving him or her homeless, in the belief that they’re motivated by God’s love. It would be an awful stretch to suggest that some of the recent actions taken by the UUA Board and the organizations identified in the Report as stakeholders were taken out of love, so we need to be careful not to go flinging the word around without being clear what we mean by it.
“We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love,” states the text of the proposed changes. I’m a little worried about how love can be a discipline; there’s a hint of B&D in there. You may think I’m nitpicking, but I would suggest that love and discipline are, in some ways, antithetical. As are “love” and “work.” Love is free-flowing, while work is structured. This is one of the places, by the way, where “we” seems to refer to individual UUs, not to congregations.
This sentence is part of the manifesto. It calls UUs to take action. And not only to take action through the discipline of love, but to police one another! That’s what “accountable to one another” means. We’re called upon to keep an eye on our fellow UUs to make sure they’re doing the work.
Accountability has become something of a rallying cry in the new UUA. But what actions or inactions are to be taken into account? What will be the consequences if an individual or congregation is found to have fallen short in doing the work? Will the person or congregation be entitled to have competent representation during the proceedings of the accountants? Will there be an appeal process if the accountants are felt to have made an error?
The proposed changes do not address these questions in any way. A call for accountability that lacks these and other specifics is, frankly, Kafkaesque. You have sinned against love, and there will be consequences. We, the loving, will decide on the consequences.
We’re told that UU is a non-creedal religion. But if individual UUs are to be held accountable, how is a UU covenant any different from a creed? I don’t know.
In the proposed changes, the Seven Principles have been tossed overboard. Some of the phrases from the Principles have been retained, but the Seven Principles are gone. A lot of people are fond of the Seven Principles, and I’m one of them. Here is what the Study Commission said about their feeling that the Seven Principles needed to be revisited:
The principles express a shared ethic and imply a certain theology — one that values the individual, growth, the natural world, and diversity. But it [sic] does not name these values explicitly, nor does it name many other values important to us collectively. It also gives no guidance on how we might approach living out these values in our congregations and the world. It declares itself to be a covenant, but the only actions it asks of congregations are to ‘affirm and promote’ certain concepts. We believe we should expect more from a covenant. For some, the current Principles also serve as a theological statement, a personal code of ethics and a way to evangelize by explaining who we are. For all these reasons, we felt we would be better served by a structure in which we articulate our shared values and then use these values as the ground for aspirational statements of action.
Here again, we see the manifesto mindset. In the Study Commission’s view, it’s not enough to have principles and to be expected to “affirm and promote” those principles. The “shared values” should be “the ground for … action.” Rather than leave it up to the individual UU to decide how to affirm and promote the principles, the Study Commission felt it was important to guide, or perhaps goad, individuals and congregations to take action. This agenda is in direct opposition to the traditional view of liberal religion, which is that each of us is entitled to decide for ourselves how to inject the Principles into our lives.
In place of the Principles, the revised text offers seven “single-word values.” Why? Because they’re “easier to remember and use as touchstones in our conversations, in congregational governance, and in education settings.” That is, the Study Commission has explicitly and by design dumbed down the Principles.
The seven single-word values are interdependence, pluralism, justice, transformation, generosity, equity, and love. It’s hard to argue with those words as stated, though some of us may feel that we’re not in need of transformation, or that the transformation we’re seeking has little to do with Unitarian Universalism.
Let’s take a closer look at the single-word values and how they’re explained in the proposed revision of Article II. Each text block (there are only six; love is not explained) starts with a line of explanation, followed by an additional sentence or two beginning with the phrase “we covenant.” The “we” is not defined here, and that’s a problem. Who is entering into covenant, individuals or congregations? I don’t know.
Interdependence. We honor the interdependent web of all existence.
We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with that, although “all beings” would include invasive species and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I do hope my doctor doesn’t cherish antibiotic-resistant bacteria! I’m more worried about “we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.” The harm caused to the environment by human activity is so massive as to beggar description. Suggesting that “we” (individuals? congregations?) covenant to work to repair some of the harm is noble, but Unitarian Universalism is not a large denomination. Nothing we do is likely to stop the environmental destruction caused by a single large corporation. The kicker, though, is “damaged relationships.” What relationships are being referred to here, and what damage? I have no idea. The word “work” is a call to action, but the nature of the action is undefined.
Pluralism. We celebrate that we are all sacred beings diverse in culture, experience, and theology.
We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.
What does the word “sacred” mean? As an atheist, I have no clue. I know what culture and experience are, and I’m quite certain that the word “theology” refers only to fairy stories, not to anything real. I take it that the idea being groped at in this text is that we’re different from one another, and that it’s okay to be different. At this point, “we” clearly refers to individuals.
The phrase “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” looks shoehorned in, doesn’t it? Do we have to learn from one another in order to do that? Aren’t we allowed to think for ourselves? This is not an idle question, because the thrust of the UUA has been, in recent years, in the direction of group-think. Apparently the Study Commission wanted to use that phrase, but “truth” was a little too alarming or confrontational to be used as one of the Seven Buzzwords.
Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive.
We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression. We support the use of inclusive democratic processes to make decisions.
Here, “we” evidently refers to congregations or other groups, not to individuals. An individual can’t be a community, after all. But what does working to be a multicultural community have to do with justice? I don’t know. I do know that clearly structured identity communities, such as perhaps gay men, ex-felons, Muslims, or even symphony orchestras, have value. I don’t think all communities have to be multicultural — and in fact I’ve heard that there are segregated caucuses at General Assembly, temporary gatherings (that is, communities) that exclude white people. If you’re a white person and try to barge into that room, you’re not going to thrive.
Dismantling racism is a battle-cry of the anti-racists, and getting rid of racism is a fine and noble goal, one that I would never dream of arguing with. But I’m not sure “dismantling” is the right way to look at it. If I had a magic wand with which to address the goal of ending racism, I would start by getting rid of our punitive and antiquated drug laws. I would insist on community policing: Police officers should always be drawn from the communities (and indeed the neighborhoods) that they serve. I would change the basis of education funding, so that K-12 schools in this country were funded at exactly the same dollar value per student whether the school was in a ghetto or an affluent suburb. I would make college education in this country free. I would establish free universal health care and require parental leave with pay, so that poor single mothers could take their children to the doctor. I would create a jobs program for young men and women, so that they had good-paying, meaningful work in their community as an alternative to joining a gang. And probably a few other things too. If you don’t do any of those things, you can natter about “dismantling” all day long, yet you’ll accomplish exactly nothing.
Inclusive democratic processes are a wonderful thing, but it’s important to note that the vote on the revisions to Article II will be taken by the UU General Assembly, which is neither inclusive nor democratic. Attendance at the GA reflects only a tiny minority of Unitarian Universalists. The changes in the Bylaws ought to be voted on by all members, and the vote should be taken only after a free and open debate. I have heard (anecdotally) that some congregations are now screening new members, admitting to membership only those who are on-board with the revisions to Article II. If such congregations are allowed to send delegates to the GA, the process of voting on Article II is by definition not democratic.
Transformation. We adapt to the changing world.
We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Openness to change is fundamental to our Unitarian and Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect.
How exactly can “we” “collectively transform”? I don’t know what that means. The “we” here may be congregations or individual UUs, but if it’s individuals, they’re being asked to give up their individuality in order to transform collectively. In either event, different sorts of transformation might be felt appropriate, necessary, or just plain fun by different individuals or congregations. The term “collectively” seems to suggest that we will be transforming in lockstep with one another, and I don’t care for that. It doesn’t seem very Unitarian to me.
The phrase “never complete and never perfect” is a dangling modifier. What noun do these adjectives modify? Openness? Change? Heritages? No heritage is perfect, certainly, but a heritage is in the past, so by definition it’s complete. It’s what it is.
Reading between the lines, I suspect the point of this passage is to imply that Unitarian Universalism itself needs to change. That may or may not be true, but in any case the nature of the proposed changes would need to be debated in a free and open forum.
Generosity. We cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope.
We covenant to freely and compassionately share our faith, presence, and resources. Our generosity connects us to one another in relationships of interdependence and mutuality.
Is it to be a principle of UU that, as Jesus supposedly admonished, we sell all we have and give to the poor? That’s what “freely … share our … resources” means. I’m not sure how generosity got enshrined as one of the Seven Buzzwords. Also, to paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s hope got to do with it? What do hope and gratitude have to do with generosity? One can hope for all sorts of things without being generous or feeling an ounce of gratitude. This language is just hand-waving. It was crafted by a committee, not by anyone who knows how to write meaningful sentences.
Equity. We declare that every person has the right to flourish with inherent dignity and worthiness.
We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain fully accessible and inclusive communities.
Worthiness? How about “worth”? Simple one-syllable word, means the same thing. On the other hand, what does it mean “to flourish with … worth(iness)”? I have no idea. This is another bit that was written by a committee. The idea toward which the Study Commission was groping here is that every person has inherent dignity and worth, and therefore has the right to flourish. That’s true, but the passage is badly written. Nor am I sure what the word “attention” is doing there.
Full accessibility is of course a necessity; nobody denies that, although I would question whether a small congregation ought to be required to hire an ASL translator if one deaf person joins the congregation. Inclusiveness is a bit trickier. Does “fully inclusive” mean that a congregation is required to include overt racists, people who carry firearms, people who proselytize for Mormonism or Islam, or people who constantly interrupt the sermon by shouting? Probably not. No, the word “inclusive” here is code. It refers to LGBTQ+ people, to the neurodivergent and disabled, and to people of various ethnic groups. I have no problem with this as a concept, but I find the use of code words that don’t say what they mean distasteful.
I’m not sure how money will help include anybody other than the disabled, but the Study Commission was trying to shoehorn a lot of ideas into a narrow space, so we can cut them a little slack. I do think it’s odd that “resources” and “money” come up in an explanation of basic spiritual principles, but maybe I’m just nitpicking.
Section C-2.4, titled “Inclusion,” is basically the same as what we have now, but the words “persons” has been modified by adding “who share our values,” and the words “especially those with historically marginalized identities” have been tacked onto the end. The second addition was not logically necessary; “all persons” covers everybody. The use of logic might also lead us to wonder whether a congregation can be “fully inclusive,” per the value of equity as described, while also being restricted to people who share the stated values. But maybe “fully” only modifies “accessible.” Maybe equity means being fully accessible and only partially inclusive. Some clarification of the text would have been helpful.
The section on “Freedom of Belief” has been significantly edited. In its current form, it guarantees the individual freedom of belief: “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages….” In the proposed revision, we find this: “Congregational freedom and the individual’s right of conscience are central to our Unitarian Universalist heritage.” Yes, you read it right. The individual’s freedom of belief is gone. Instead, congregations have the freedom. (Or do they?) The individual’s right of conscience is deemed “central to our … heritage,” but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been or can’t be abrogated. It’s just part of the heritage. You know, that old dusty stuff we don’t care about anymore. A casual reading might suggest that UU individuals will still enjoy a right of conscience, but that’s not what the document says.
I may have more to say about this later, after I’ve digested some of the nuances. For now, I only want to make it clear that the UUA has an activist agenda, and that agenda has guided the proposed changes in Article II. You may approve of their agenda, or you may not. What’s in the agenda is a subject for another time. But if you think that Unitarian Universalism is pretty much fine the way it is, I hope this analysis will show you that the proposed changes in Article II are not trivial or irrelevant to your religious practice, whatever that happens to be.