Change for not believing in?

There’s news other than the presidential campaign: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Commission on Appraisal (COA) has issued a draft of the proposed bylaws revision, which if adopted will supersede the “Principles and Purposes” of the UUA. I wrote about their debut yesterday.

Let me start with what I liked.

  1. The COA did the work. They engaged in a process offering language to change a document that — more than any other, for better or worse — epitomizes Unitarian Universalism within and outside our general fellowship, and is very popular in its current form. The last time this happened, the process very nearly tore the Christian wing away. Their duty is to their credit; I wouldn’t want to have had the task.
  2. The new Sources section begins “Unitarianism and Universalism are grounded on more than two thousand years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences.” This is a great improvement over the current reductionism that makes the two traditions into its teachings, or rather one teaching: “respond[ing] to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves”
  3. The COA has started a Facebook group, which seems like a good way to attract interest in the process (if not a way to get responses.)

But I’m afraid my problems with the draft are far greater.

  1. It swims in jargon.
  2. It is long and unwieldy, making it hard to be memorable (which some may see as a plus). It also reads in a twee and sing-songy cadance.
  3. It mixes the vital with what is — to me anyway — incidental. Does fabric — yes, like cloth — deserve a place in the UUA bylaws? Or, as blogger and ministerial colleague Christine Robinson (iMinister) ponders, the plank on cultural appropriation.
  4. It is strikingly prescriptive in actions and attitude.

But the biggest problem I have with it is it leaps from defining the covenant among the congregations of the UUA to discussing the covenant reponsibilities of individual members. This is a major shift in the nature of the covenant relationship and muddles the meaning of covenant within a particular congregation.

I don’t think the COA members intended a centralizing of power, but neither is it over-reading to see that this new draft makes claims on church members that churches themselves may or may not have decided to make. And that’s a step too far.

8 Replies to “Change for not believing in?”

  1. Good post! I certainly don’t envy the COA’s thankless task, that’s for sure.

    I nevertheless agree with your assessment that the draft is unsatisfactory. There’s so much fluffy language, but here’s one example. “[The UUA] will empower the creation of just and diverse congregations that enact Unitarian Universalist Principles in the world.” Empower the creation? Enact . . . principles? Is that better than what Section 2 currently says (that the UUA will “extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement [the UUA’s] principles”). I don’t think so. This is a covenant. It’s ok if it sounds a little more, well, lawyerly. The words are important and should be used precisely.

    I think the revisions to the Sources section are particularly unappealing. The sentence about “wisdom and beauty” (and, as you point out, fabric!) is interesting, but it’s hard to relate to the rest of the text in the section.

    More problematically, I think the paragraph on our actual sources may be divisive, especially for Humanists. We absolutely want our Sources section to pay appropriate respect to *each* of our constituencies: Judeo-Christianity, Earth-centered traditions, world religions, Humanism, etc. The draft may currently suggest that UUism is primarily a Judeo-Christian religion, if one that “draws from” Paganism and “other world” religions. (At this point in our history, shouldn’t Buddhism get a specific mention?) Humanism isn’t even listed as something that UUism “draws from.” It, instead, is in a list of sundry perspectives that UUism has, along the way, “engage[d]” with. Much of this paragraph looks like something the UCC might be able to adopt; it might be read as describing an essentially Judeo-Christian tradition that has been influenced by other traditions. The paragraph doesn’t seem to me to describe a religion in which a significant percentage think of themselves as Humanists, anyway. I think I prefer the current Sources section, particularly the way it gives the six sources a completely different line.

    As you point out, the draft also confusingly mixes statements concerning congregational commitments with statements about the responsibilities of individual UUs.

    Our current P&P is popular with UUs for good reason, I think.

  2. I’m going to raise the larger scale meta-question… Do we even need a P&P’s statement? Unitarianism and Universalism got along very well without them for our first few hundred years. Many Unitarian congregations used a variety of covenants and bonds of union. Universalists had a series of avowals, many of which had the poetic advantage of being usefull in liturgy (some are still in use in local congregations). But since the advent of the P&P’s and official lists of Sources, we’ve seen them used in almost creedal fashions, and they’ve become the source for conflicts over denominational identity.

    To me, this draft smells a bit of identity crafting. The authors are suggesting an identity that the UUA is supposed to be. But is that what is really there? That is why I think Jay’s notes about the treatment of Humanism are valid criticism. But instead of trying to craft different balances, which will inevitably disappoint some and satisfy others; why don’t we just do without a P&P’s document entirely? When will we cease to yearn for a united religious identity that does not exist? Why do we insist on an official list of approved Sources? I think we need to admit that RIGHT NOW we are an interfaith federation of independent congregations, leave it at that, and live contructively into the reality that exists, instead of the illusions that we want UU denominational reality to conform to.

  3. I think that dealing with misappropriation has a point, and I am glad that this concern is involving higher instances in the Association and is no longer the quixotic defense of a few concerned individuals. There were (and are) too many ceremonies and rituals from other religious traditions that are too boldly reinterpreted, and performed in a way that totally subverts their original intention, cultural and spiritual context, and purpose. I welcome that rituals from other religions are performed in UU churches, but preserving their original meaning and intention, and we should approach them with utter respect. And we should also be careful with “invented traditions”, that the New Age movement is full of and that are accepted sometimes too happily, and about subverting historical facts and traditions just to make these traditions look “cooler” or more fun for Sunday “entertainment”.

  4. Derek, if you are so interested in having an interfaith federation, I suggest that you give a try to the interfaith movement, where you will meet people from different religious traditions, intensely living and practising those traditions in an authentic and committed way. I do it regularly and it is a very enriching experience, and it helps me to respect other traditions and also to understand and appreciate my own much better. The interfaith movement was invented long ago (and Unitarians and Universalists played an important role in that foundation) and it does not need to be reinvented again.

  5. Yes Jaume, I know there is an interfaith movement. And I know that it exists beyond UU-walls and history; just as there is a broader Body of Christ beyond (for example) the Catholic or Anglican communions. My concern is not to reinvent an interfaith movement, but to pay attention to the reality of what the UUA is (right here and right now). The reality is that the UUA is made up of a majority of congregations that are effectively interfaith congregations; plus sizable minorities of congregations that self-identify as Pagan, Christian, or Humanist. The reality in the town I live in, is that the local UU church contains people of different religions, each trying to practice their different religion (or combinations of religions).

    Today the UUA is for all effective purposes, an interfaith collection of churches, with some churches themselves being interfaith, and other churches being rooted in specific traditions. When we acknowledge this, accept it, and learn to live with it; we can leave behind the anxiety and conflicts over denominational identity (including the problematic issue of quasi-creedal P&P documents). Anything short of this is destined to prolong the painfull conflicts over the UUA being too Christian, too Humanist, too Pagan, etc..

    PS – My personal preference is to worship with Christian churches that are part of the UUA. It gives me a solid practice, combined with a larger liberal network.

  6. Will there be a published guide about avoiding misappropriation?

    Who in Boston determines what is misappropriation?

  7. Derek, I do not believe in historical determinism. The UUA, and the rest of the Unitarian (Universalist) movement, will be what we want it to be. 30 years ago, the UUA was mostly Humanist. In the next 30 years, UU will be as most of us want. And I, being a firm supporter of the interfaith movement as an honest and truly diverse meeting place of committed and tolerant religious people, strongly dislike the idea of seeing UU become a sort of “interfaith church” with a vaguely humanistic and new-agey message that is soft and flexible enough in order not to disturb any of the religious constituencies that would compose it.

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