The Principles and Purposes all over again

I was going to write about the UUA Board of Trustees’ revisiting the Principles and Purposes by means of a review committee, as required by the Bylaws and now overdue. The I got sick — better now — but Philocrites picked up the theme and a number of people have commented there.

I get the feeling it isn’t going to be pretty. Many or most Unitarian Universalists have become very invested in them as-is, and forget (or never knew) they were hotly contested then. By means of a process piece, I think it would be helpful if the UUCF (and other organizations) would reprint online the various papers and debates that rocked the early 80s. On the whole, they were models of civility and cool-headedness. Recall, it was touch and go there if a good portion of the Christian cohort would have left the UUA over the matter, or so I’ve heard.

That said, if the Bylaws require them, the process is overdue. The addition of the “sixth source” wasn’t a review — as others have noted — and a fifteen year time frame is  about right lest they “develop their own weather” and resist any capacity to change.  Despite the anti-creed bylaw plank, I have read UU congregational bylaws (who doesn’t? all the kids are doing it) online a few use it as the basis — in full or part — for bounding membership. (I made a mental note because if they did it, and it was allowed, then a new Christian church ought to have some latitude in deciding where its theological boundaries are. That’s back when I had hope that a Christian church would be welcomed to the UUA on parity, or that new churches of any stripe were a vital concern of the Association.)

I wonder if this will be the buzz at GA this year.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

5 thoughts on “The Principles and Purposes all over again”

  1. A big buzz indeed! I’ve encountered a number of UU’s who employ the Principles and Purposes as a creed, all the while claiming that they are non-creedal. In my life I’ve been part of 2 UU churches that were heavily criticized by outside UU’s because they did not bound membership on the basis of the PP’s. Each church was called “untrue to UUism”. One church was openly Christian, and criticized for not also being a mish-mash of Christianity plus Buddhism, Paganism, Humanism, etc.. The second church was a dyed-in-the-wool Universalist church that used the Washington Avowal of Faith (that funky union of Christianity and Humanism), and taken to task for not being “part of today” (as if the present day is always superior to everything that past religious liberals could think of).

    In much of our faith formation we’ve leaned way too heavily on the PP’s, so that few have a broader and deeper understanding of the living traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. But that is an RE issue I would need much more time to discuss.

  2. Derek — Since you wouldn’t, I’ll put in my $.02 on the religious education issue. Teaching a section of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association to anyone under the age of 14 (that’s the age where most humans in our Western society are able to do fully abstract cognitive thinking) is mostly a waste of time. The “principles and purposes” as usually quoted (though people always seem to leave out the non-creedalism clause and the non-dsicrimination clause of Article 2) are too abstract for children. And no, the “children’s version” of the principles and purposes doesn’t work either, primarily because that “children’s version” often says something quite quite different from the actual “principles and purposes.”

    Since contemporary Unitarian Universalist religious education is largely without clear direction, and largely without theological grounding, many practioners of religious education feel forced to fall back on teaching the “principles and purposes” to children. A contributing factor here is that we are perfectly willing to entrust the supervision of children’s religious education in large part to people with little or no theological training; which is perfectly acceptable as long as *someone* takes charge of the theological side of Sunday school. But most UU ministers refuse to have anything to do with children’s education, what’s a poor DRE to do?

    I blame a lot of this on a theological education for ministers that usually lacks any deep consideration fo the importance of religious education for young people. I blame more on congregations and a wider religious movement that dismissively allow children to be a low priority for ministers. Oh, and when we rewrite the “purposes and principles” (which we really must do, and soon!), I propose that we add a section to article 2 that reads: “Anyone who forces children to memorize or otherwise learn any part of this Article, shall be himself or herself forced to memorize this entire article word-for-word, and then made to learn how to recite it backwards, and then made to learn how to recite it backwards with each word being pronounced backwards (e.g., “sdrawkcab”) whilst standing naked in front of his or her entire congregation during regular Sunday worship.”

    Oh, it felt good to say that.

  3. In terms of faith formation I was thinking more about the problem of adult RE for new members. In a new UU class, inevitably UU identity issues pop up. In a healthy RE program, I’ve seen teachers use the local church’s covenant, with a discussion of covenant theology versus creedal theology. But such healthy adult RE programs are few and far between.

    More often the conversation boils down to the question “What do UU’s believe?”, and the answer involves trotting out the Principles and listing them like articles of a creed. The result becomes new UU’s who see the Principles as a list of things good/real UU’s believe. And when they encounter something that does not conform to that list (say Kings Chapel on the Christian side, or First Unitarian Minneapolis on the Humanist side) there is first shock, and then confusion, and then the pronouncement “But that can’t be a reall UU church!”

    Never mind that the Principles and Purposes were meant to be a bit of a diversity statement, plus a purpose statement for the Association as an organizational entity. This is not the same thing as being a definitive definition of the faith, nor a definitive statement on the practice or manifestation of that faith at the level of local congregations. Correct me if I’m wrong about this Peace Bang. I recall having an e-mail conversation with you about this, when a district extension committee defined my church as un-true to UUism because it was Christian in its definition of Unitarianism and Universalism. The Principles were brought up by the extension person, and used to define what was real UUism, and how our church did not fit in.

    I think many adult “converts” nurtured on the Principles will find it challenging to cope with an evolving sense of who we are. Covenants and identities change, and I fear that many will have an idolatrous attachment to the Principles as some kind of orthodoxy that should not be questioned.

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