Whenever there is a lot of blog chatter about UU identity, and most recently about congregational polity, there is an 800-pound elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about; the seven Principles and the almost creedal status that they have amongst some in our midst.
Now I know that the second that I said “Principles” and “creedal” in the same sentence, there are going to be some who will say that I am overstretching the definition of the word “creed”. So let me be plain; I am NOT saying they are a creed (although I think I could make an argument that they are). I am saying that they are, and are being treated as, a pseudo-creed and as such the UUA needs to take them out of the by-laws and put them out to pasture.
Why do I call them a pseudo-creed? Because we have all heard stories of people who have been beaten over the head with them because of honest disagreement they may have with a church policy. Or of somebody being told that they aren’t “UU enough” because they have the audacity to critique the Principles. And G-d forbid somebody say they don’t find inspiration in them.
If the UUA rid itself of the Principles then congregations would actually have to do the hard work of coming up with their own, original, and local theology-based congregational covenants. Then who knows, maybe members of congregations would understand what congregational polity really means and what their rights and responsibilities are as members of that congregation and the rights and responsibilities congregations have as members of the Association.
As an Association of Congregations, the UUA would function just fine with only the Purposes and Sources talked about in the by-laws. If we rid ourselves of our pseudo-creed, then congregations (and the members thereof) would actually have to articulate what they believe to the wider community in a community-relevant way. Ridding ourselves of the Principles would mean that UU congregations could no longer avoid that thing which many of them have been so adept at avoiding; talking theology.
Yet I know that some will continue to clamor for something to rally around. If not the Principles, then what? Might I suggest that we go into the “everything old is new again” file. These are just suggestions; I am not advocating that these replace the Principles in the UUA by-laws as that would create the same problem we have now.
The following was presented by William Channing Gannett in 1887 to the Western Unitarian Conference. It is more progressive than the Principles and has the added advantage of being called “Things Most Commonly Believed Among Us”
Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us
- We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion;
- We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief;
- We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new;
- We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught men truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion;
- We believe in the growing nobility of Man; We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life;
- We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good man in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of the Good;
- We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all;
- We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in man the sense of union here and now with things eternal—the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of the life to come;
- We worship One-in-All — that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of man its Ought, — that Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the sons of God, — that Love with which our souls commune.
The word “man/men” could be changed to reflect the fact that we are using it in the 21st century, but it combines the best of Unitarian and Universalist thought and with the title “Things Most Commonly Believed” it’s much easier to change than the Principles seem to be.
So this is a call-to-arms. It is time for us to rid ourselves of the albatross of the Principles and enter the world of true congregational covenant. We don’t need a pseudo-creed.