Unitarian Universalists to vote on updated covenant, values at 2024 General Assembly

(RNS) — Unitarian Universalists’ dogma-free approach to spirituality isn’t all that sets them apart from other American denominations. As the faith group gathers online this week for its 2024 General Assembly, the most pressing item on the docket isn’t women’s ordination or LGBTQ+ inclusion, but whether to adopt a revised version of the denomination’s covenant clause, otherwise known as Article II.

To an outsider, the differences between the current Article II, which includes a list of seven principles, and the proposed version may seem subtle: Both celebrate values like justice, interdependence, pluralism and inherent human dignity. But to Unitarian Universalists, the changes in emphasis, framing and wording are weighty, and occasionally fraught.

Known for its rejection of doctrine and spiritual litmus tests, Unitarian Universalism formed in 1961 with the merging of the Universalist Church of America and American Unitarian Association. Article II must be revisited at least every 15 years, per the bylaws, and was most recently updated in 1987. Still, many Unitarian Universalists have strong attachments to the current version, which can be found inscribed on church walls and in hymnals across the denomination’s roughly 1,000 congregations.

“What I’m excited about is the tens of thousands of Unitarian Universalists dedicating four years’ worth of time to expressing the values of this faith,” the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, told Religion News Service about the process for revising Article II. “We understand ourselves as a living tradition in the line of the free church tradition, and having our congregations represented by their leaders and members and in articulating what we hold most dear, to me is really, really powerful.”

The Article II Study Commission first convened in 2020 before engaging in the yearslong process of developing their proposal. Over 10,000 UUs participated in the group’s surveys, and more than 4,000 engaged in the 45 feedback sessions hosted by the commission, an effort that resulted in a proposed revision that replaces the principles with a list of interconnected values (justice, interdependence, equity, transformation, pluralism, generosity) with love at the center. Each value has a corresponding covenant outlining how those values are to be lived out.  

“The update brings the covenant more clearly into the center of UU life,” Paula Cole Jones, who served on the Article II Study Commission, told RNS via email. “Our previous principles were wonderful statements, and there were no verbs. The new statement has verbs that speak to how we actively support our values.”

The Rev. Kate Walker lights the chalice during the General Assembly Opening Celebration on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo © 2023 Nancy Pierce/UUA

The Rev. Kate Walker lights the chalice during the General Assembly Opening Celebration on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo © 2023 Nancy Pierce/UUA)

Jones and other organizers have long advocated for UU congregations to adopt the 8th Principle, a covenant to “accountably dismantle racism and other oppression in ourselves and our institutions.” That commitment, which has been individually adopted by over 280 UU congregations, is also reflected in the new revisions.

In 2023, more than 86% of delegates voted to advance the proposed changes to Article II. This year, once additional amendments are voted on, the final Article II proposal will require approval from two-thirds of the General Assembly to be adopted. The final vote will be announced Sunday (June 23), and if the new version passes, it will immediately be incorporated into UUA bylaws.

Despite the broad support for the proposal at last year’s General Assembly, some UUs have vocally opposed the changes, forming grassroots groups like the Fifth Principle Project and Save the 7 Principles. These groups see the revisions as evidence of a broader shift toward a more restrictive, activist denomination that de-emphasizes logic and reason.

Though predominantly white — NPR reported in 2017 that over 80 percent of UUs were white folks — Unitarian Universalists have a historic commitment to combating racism. UUs are known for their active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and in 1997, their General Assembly adopted a business resolution explicitly prioritizing anti-racism. Still, the group’s anti-racist commitments have ramped up in recent years, in part in response to a 2017 controversy that led then-Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales to resign over racial disparities in Unitarian Universalist Association hiring practices. In 2020, a commission published a report called Widening the Circle of Concern, which declared anti-racism to be at the heart of the UU faith tradition.

Some believe this focus has been at the expense of historic UU values like individualism, personal freedom and free speech.

“The bigger picture is that the entire legacy upon which the Unitarian Church is founded has been deemed to be historically white supremacist. All our liberal principles, all our sources, they are now white supremacist, and that stands as the fundamental reason why they are trying to remove them,” said Frank Casper, a co-founder of the Fifth Principle. “I keep asking the question, have you told people who have been practicing UU-ism for the last 50 years, that what they’ve been doing is white supremacy?”

The Rev. Sofía Betancourt, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, addresses the virtual General Assembly in June 2024. (Video screen grab)

The Rev. Sofía Betancourt, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, addresses the virtual General Assembly in June 2024. (Video screen grab)

Susan McWethy, a UU who helped form the Seven Principles Project, expressed concerns about the process for considering amendments to Article II as well: She noted that the Unitarian Universalist Association is adopting a technique called the “progressive stack” at General Assembly this year, which ensures that people with marginalized identities (including delegates who are people of color, Indigenous, disabled, fat, transgender or non-binary), are the first to give input during discussions.

Betancourt told RNS she viewed debates around Article II as a reaction to change more than anything else. But, she noted, just because the Principles and Purposes may be updated does not mean they will disappear. “Do we trust that words that have been really powerful and meaningful for us can continue on? Our history shows us that they can,” said Betancourt, pointing out that some historic affirmations, though not in official bylaws, are still treasured by many congregations.

Carey McDonald, executive vice president of the UUA, noted that the proposals were formed by what UUs themselves prioritized in feedback. “It reflects the broad and continuously reaffirmed direction of Unitarian Universalism toward greater equity, justice, anti-oppression and liberation,” McDonald said of the proposal. “That is absolutely reflected in this draft.”

General Assembly will also be voting on a new business proposal that says embracing transgender, nonbinary, intersex and gender diverse people is a fundamental expression of UU religious values and commits to condemning anti-transgender legislation. If passed, the resolution would reaffirm the work UUs have already been doing in this area, according to Betancourt, and would hold the UUA’s national staff and board accountable to those commitments.   

Delegates also voted Thursday on whether to add a proposal to the agenda that calls UUs to demand an immediate and permanent cease-fire and an end to the apartheid in Palestine. The result of Thursday’s vote will be announced later Friday, and, if added to the agenda, the proposal will be discussed Saturday and votes will be announced Sunday.

As the process for proposing changes to Article II comes to a close, the UUA is looking toward other initiatives, including UU the Vote 2024, the group’s nonpartisan civic engagement effort, and a September Climate Justice Revival that will combine worship and activism across UU congregations. Still, UUA leaders hope delegates and UUs across the denomination will pause to celebrate their efforts over the last four years.

“Having a faith community that is grounded in an historic tradition, but is open to what you bring to it, is really powerful and needed in this time,” said McDonald.

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