We’ve gone from six to seven to a proposal for an 8th

By Bill Johnston

In 1985, our movement adopted the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism that we are all familiar with. Since then, a sixth source was added in 1995 and proposals were made, in both Canada and in the U.S., to improve the 1985 wording. Both were rejected.

It is basic to Unitarian Universalism that any statement of what we believe is provisional. We are open to new understandings. We keep learning and thus keep refining our statements of the principles. And circumstances change in ways that sometimes need to be recognized in our principles.

So that 1985 statement remains open to revision. And it in turn was the result of a push for change that came primarily from people who felt marginalized in our religious movement.

Our faith, Unitarian Universalism, exists as a result of the merger in 1961 of the American Unitarian Association, of which our congregation was a member, and the Universalist Church of America.

As part of defining this new denomination, the association’s bylaws included a statement of six principles. But the bylaws also said that the principles could be amended, by a two-thirds vote at the UUA’s annual General Assembly.

Today, the UUA bylaws require that the principles be reviewed at least every 15 years to ensure they continue to reflect who we are and what we are committed to.

When the Canadian Unitarian Council became largely independent of the UUA in 2002, it adopted the UUA principles (with Canadian spellings and a French version). But the 2003 annual meeting created a Statement of Principles Task Force to study whether the statement adequately expressed what Canadian Unitarians held in common at that time. After several years of discussion and consultation, a new set of principles was proposed but not adopted.

Pressure for change

It was pressure, from Unitarian Universalist women, that led to our principles being amended in the mid-1980s. At the time, UU women felt marginalized in their movement and by its structures and the language typically used, including in the statement of principles.

Although women were the majority among UU members, they were significantly underrepresented in positions of power and authority. Just seven of the 27 UUA trustees were women in 1977 and just one of 10 officers was a woman, and she was assistant secretary. Among 900 ministers, just 35 were women. Women’s power was largely exercised within Women’s Alliances and religious education.

Beyond underrepresentation for women, “patriarchy was pervasive in Unitarian Universalist institutions” in the 1960s and 1970s, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has written.

“Bluster and bravado, patriarchy’s companions, were in evidence at ministers’ meetings. Colleagues sat around in smoke-filled rooms bragging about their congregations’ attendance figures, growth in membership, endowment size, and latest building expansions. Posturing was commonplace, as were drinking copious amount of hard liquor and boasting about sexual liaisons.”

Only much later would evidence emerge of the extent of sexual abuse by UU ministers that the women experienced. It was both widespread and routinely covered up, in congregations and by denominational leaders.

Unitarian Universalist women were active participants in the second-wave of feminism that emerged in the 1960s and by the 1970s they had had enough. A grassroots effort led by Lucile Longview of Massachusetts brought the Women and Religion Resolution to the 1977 UUA annual meeting.

The resolution noted how religious teachings “create and perpetuate attitudes that cause women everywhere to be overlooked and undervalued.” It called, among other things, for the UUA and its leaders to “avoid sexist assumptions and language.” The effort was well organized and the resolution was approved unanimously.

Clearly, to fulfill that resolution, the 1961 principles statement would need amending. It talked of “the dignity of man,” “the ideals of brotherhood,” and “men of good will.” But the idea of changing language proved highly controversial, with vigorous debate, pro and con, in letters to the UUWorld for years. One man called those demanding gender-neutral language “psychotic women.” A minister felt gender neutral language for God would end up with “an utterly depersonalized, desacralized cosmos.” Others said gender neutral language was “simply accurate.”

Lucile Longview 1977 from Journal of UU HistoryIn 1979, Longview led a women’s discussion that asked if the UUA principles “affirm us as women.” The answer was an overwhelming no. And participants said the principles also failed to indicate respect for life and the planet at a time of rapidly growing awareness of the environmental crisis. Participants in the conference began preparing proposed new principles that they submitted to the 1981 General Assembly.

At right: Longview in 1977. From the cover of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 2016-17, provided by Longview’s daughter Linda J. Schuck

The draft ran into stiff opposition on an issue that had bedeviled discussions about the 1961 principles—whether and how they acknowledged our movement’s relationship to Christianity. It looked as if the proposed new principles would be defeated. To avoid that, the assembly instead voted to appoint a commission to tackle redrafting the principles. Some of those pushing for change felt they had been sidelined; some even left our movement.

The drafting commission did its work well. It came up with an ingenious solution to the problem of paying respect to our traditions—it separated sources of our faith from the statement of principles. Five sources were originally listed. The commission revised all of the principles and added a seventh, on the interdependent web of life. With small wording amendments, the new seven principles and five sources were approved and took effect in 1985.

Lucile Longview two years later wrote that “Because of the new Principles, we are at a new beginning… we labor in a new filed—in a new paradigm—a new reality construct. We must lift up and celebrate the fact that a phenomenal change in practice and ideology has been embraced by the Unitarian Universalist Association.”

In 1995, a sixth source of our faith was proposed, largely through the efforts of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. It recognized the contribution of “earth-centred traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life.” This too was controversial. Many felt it was already covered in our seventh principle. Some dismissed the proponents as witches. It just barely achieved the required two-thirds majority to become part of our statement of principles and sources.

The place of women in the UUA has certainly changed since the 1970s. In 1993, 12 of 20 trustees were women and four of nine officers. By 1999, half our settled ministers were women, a first for any denomination. It did take until 2017 to elect a woman as UUA president. (The Canadian Unitarian Council, formed in 1961 when the UUA was created, elected a woman president, Mary Lu MacDonald, in 1970.) The growing power of women in our movement in turn reshaped various aspects of congregational life including worship. And the seventh principle has been regularly called the most popular of our seven principles and led to the popular Green Sanctuary program.

From 6 to 7 to 8?

Another issue that dominated the 1960s—racism, civil rights and Black empowerment—had no impact on discussions in the mid-1980s about a new set of principles. But the issue certainly dominated the work of the new Unitarian Universalist Association, with its Canadian and American members.

The first two UUA General Assemblies passed motions on civil rights, school integration and freedom of residence. Then in 1963, we debated for hours over whether to ban discrimination on the basis of race or colour when congregations admit new members. Process clashed with principle—congregational independence versus the right of the association to set standards. We eventually found a way to support non-discrimination and also created a Commission on Religion and Race. That commission supported the March on Washington in August 1963—where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech—and the UU president marched with a group of 1,600 UUs—1 per cent of our members.

Significant numbers of UUs joined King’s 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama. James Reeb, a white UU minister, who was among the first UUs to go to Selma, was killed there. UUs poured into the city and the UUA board adjourned a meeting in Boston and moved it to Selma. At least one Black UU wondered if UUs went to Selma to support Black voting rights or to support a fallen, white comrade. The earlier death of a young, non-UU Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, had drawn no such response.

In 1967, a Black caucus formed within the UUA and demanded, not asked, that the UUA to provide $1 million over four years to support projects to help develop Black communities. The money would be controlled by Black UUs.

This was divisive. A Blacks-only caucus was said to violate our commitment to integration. Demands were said to violate our commitment to democratic debate. Other white UUs were just as adamant in their pride that we were supporting Black empowerment and they formed a support group. At the 1968 General Assembly, amid much rancour, the $1 million was approved. At the time, the UU fund that was created was the only Black-led source of community development funds in the U.S.

Then it got really messy. The UUA faced a budget crisis and as the board cut budgets left and right, it also proposed stretching the payments over five, not four, years. Those committed to integration created an alternate group seeking funds. There was a walkout by Blacks and their white supporters at the 1969 General Assembly. Not all of the money was paid out. There was fighting within and between groups. There were claims that the UUA had betrayed Black UUs and assertions that the UUA was racist. The details, context and nuances are brilliantly explored in Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy.

The upshot was bitterness, mutual recriminations and broken relationships—and a decade and more in which Unitarian Universalists, once in the forefront of struggling with racism, ignored the issue almost completely as just too sensitive. One result was that there was no discussion of racism when we were amending the principles in the 1980s. By the time UUs returned to the issue, which we did in a significant way starting in the 1990s, the new principles were already in place.

Paula Cole JonesThe idea of revisiting our principles to deal with race came from Paula Cole Jones, a longtime UU and a consultant on multicultural competencies. After working for 15 years with UU congregations on racial and social justice issues, and despite continued efforts by the UUA to tackle racism, Jones realized that a person could believe they were being a good UU and following the Seven Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism or other systemic oppressions.

At left: Paula Cole Jones

In 2013, she and Bruce Pollack-Johnson created a draft of an 8th principle based on “a feeling that we need something to renew our commitment to this work, to hold ourselves accountable, and to fulfill the potential of our existing principles.” As UU women did in the 1970s, UU people of colour are now asking that we change our principles to more accurately reflect who we are and what we stand for.

The Canadian Dismantling Racism Study Group, formed in 2019, supports adopting the 8th principle in Canada. A spontaneous vote at the CUC annual meeting last May approved by a 61-22 margin adding to our principles that the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council covenant to affirm and promote “Individual and communal action that accountably dismantles racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions.” However, that vote was ruled out of order. Recognizing the desire expressed in May, however, the CUC Board has called a special meeting for November 27 to properly conduct the vote on whether to again change our principles, by adding the 8th.

 
Appendix: the six principles of 1961, the seven principles of 1985, and the proposed 8th principle

The 1961 statement of principles

In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:

    1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
    2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
    3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
    4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace;
    5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
    6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

Unitarian Universalist Principles (1985)

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • (Added in 1995) Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The proposed 8th principle of the Canadian Unitarian Council

We, the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council, covenant to affirm and promote: … Individual and communal action that accountably dismantles racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions.

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