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Commission outlines process for reviewing Principles and Purposes

Any changes to UUA's covenant will be presented to 2009 General Assembly.
By Warren R. Ross

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The Unitarian Universalist Association is currently engaged in a review of its Principles and Purposes, the covenant its congregations “affirm and promote.” The Rev. Barbara Child, a representative of the commission conducting the review, recently explained the review process that may bring a revised statement of Principles and Purposes to the 2009 General Assembly.

The UUA’s Principles and Purposes are set forth in Article II of the Association’s bylaws. The present wording was adopted in 1985, with one subsequent amendment in 1995, and includes the widely quoted Seven Principles, together with the Six Sources of Unitarian Universalism. The bylaws also provide that the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission every 15 years to review and study Article II to see whether it should be kept as is or revised, and if so, how.

Instead of appointing a new commission, the board asked the Commission on Appraisal to take on this project in 2006. The nine-member Commission, which is an elected body independent of both the UUA board and administration, took on the project and named Child, one of its members, to manage it. Child said the review process is “an enormous challenge.”

The Commission’s first decision was not to rely on an opinion poll but instead to launch a denomination-wide process of reflection on the essence of what Unitarian Universalism stands for. “We wanted people in their congregations to become engaged in meaningful conversations,” Child explained. The commission sent a resource packet entitled “Having Another Look at the Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes” to each congregation in January 2007, inviting congregations to hold anywhere from a single discussion to a series of five workshops. Additional materials encouraged activities for children and youth.

There followed a series of individual interviews, requests for input from denominational identity-based groups, hearings at district and other meetings, and a booth at last year’s General Assembly where delegates could record their suggestions. In all these efforts, the emphasis was not on soliciting off-the cuff comments, Child stressed, but on “getting opinions that grew out of thoughtful reflection and conversation.”

By January 2008, the Commission had received comments from 117 congregations in 20 districts and approximately 1,000 individuals.

“So now,” she said, “we have this huge collection of stuff.” The responses fall essentially into two groups, she concluded after reading all the submissions: those that deal with specific suggestions about wording, and those that raise more basic questions about the review process itself, such as the budgetary implications of changing Article II and whether the Commission should serve as “bean counters” or come up with its own conclusions.

At the Commission’s January meeting, the members found some of these procedural questions easy to answer. First of all, no bean counting: Commissioners will use their own judgment in arriving at their recommendations. Other issues will require further discussion, Child said.

In March, the Commission heard reports from two members who had read submissions received after the original deadline of October 2007. Another commissioner, who had attended the UUA’s Summit on Youth Ministry in July 2007, offered her assessment of young UUs’ opinions. The commissioners agreed to prepare a final report in addition to their proposal regarding Article II. Such a report is important, Child said, to convey the complexity of the thinking revealed by the Commission’s inquiries and to reflect the thoroughness of the process by which it is arriving at its conclusions.

At the 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale in June, the Commission’s chairperson, the Rev. Orlanda Brugnola, will deliver a report at a plenary session on the Commission’s process and progress. The Commission will also hold a hearing that will focus on process rather than any discussion of proposed wording.

In August, the Commission on Appraisal will tackle its main task: to decide whether Article II needs changing, and, if so, what it should say. A critical consideration, Child said, will be how to expedite this complicated task without short-circuiting it, and how to handle inevitable disagreements.

The Commission’s recommendations will be submitted to the UUA board in January 2009. If the board approves the recommendations, they will then go before the 2009 General Assembly for preliminary approval by majority vote. As required by the bylaws, this decision will have to be ratified at the 2010 GA by a two-thirds majority.

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