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“First Encounter”


If you have been a Unitarian Universalist for 45 or 50 years now, you probably remember these words taken from the Association’s bylaws at the time of the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism in 1961. If you have been one or the other for longer than that you likely remember other statements of belief! How many of you can claim membership that began somewhere in the first twenty years of our Association?


If you became a Unitarian Universalist in the mid-eighties or beyond, you are likely more familiar with what we refer to as the Principles and Purposes, which you can find at the beginning of our hymnal. It was a major overhaul preceded by much discussion about gender inclusiveness that began in the 1970’s and conversations about theological representation. It wasn’t until 1995 that earth centered traditions were added to our Sources statement.


There have been attempts since then to make further changes which have not passed muster. Back in 2017 a vote to change 1st Principle language from a reference to the “inherent worth and dignity of every person to all beings was rejected, although the 2nd Source was changed to make reference to prophetic people rather than “women and men.” Most recently, in 2020, the addition of an 8th Principle addressing the anti-oppressive, anti-racist multiculturalism which seems to have eluded us, even as it is implied in our current Principles, was put forth. Many congregations have adopted this Principle on their own apart from the larger Association. But instead of changing our Principles piecemeal, it was voted that we reconsider how we articulate our faith altogether. This is when the Article II Study Commission was created.

My first in depth encounter with Unitarian Universalism came at the turn of the century – I had dabbled previously, but found no local congregation to take part in. And with that encounter I had a sudden sense that I had come home – home to something that I believed was at the heart of most religious teachings, but so imperfectly put into practice. It was the Purposes and Principles that we know today, and the array of sources attached that grabbed me by the heart. Here was a place that was willing to put into words what I believed to be the values that might just be a source of salvation – of wholeness – for our world. Needless to say, I was all in, so much so that I realized a call to ministry that had been latent, waiting for a place of authenticity to arise from. So, to say that I am attached to our current Article II language might be an understatement!


The UUA bylaws require that every 15 years or so the language we use to govern our relationships be reviewed and even updated. This is important to note because we acknowledge ourselves to be an evolving tradition – revelation is not sealed – things change, as we well know. And to become so attached to a statement and its language that we cannot conceive of making changes is really a form of idolatry, something that humanity has been forewarned about for eons of time. Our world it seems is undergoing an accelerated pace of change in our times. It feels a little hard to keep up! It can feel as though we are being left behind.


So, the Study Commission has been working on changes to our bylaw language for a few years now, talking with the UUA Board, engaging in theological panel discussions and focus groups at General Assembly. A first draft was published, and feedback was sought. Some of you may remember that last summer I spoke about this and publicized opportunities for those of you interested to participate in the process. We have come to the time when a final proposal has been submitted and this summer at General Assembly folks will vote on whether to study it for the next year, asking the question, “Does this feel like the next articulation of our faith?” If half the delegates agree, a year of study will ensue with a final vote in 2024.


That’s a little history and explanation of a process – an evolution – that deserves more time, honestly, but here we are, faced with a proposal that has implications for our wider faith tradition and I’d like us to think about it, for sure, but also to take some time to listen more deeply to our bodies – our inner voices – about all this.


Here are some things I have noticed, along with other colleagues, about the proposed changes. The centering hub of the wheel is Love. The Rev. Dan Schatz did an interesting exercise. He put all the words in our hymnal – Singing the Living Tradition into a word art generator – one of those computer programs where everyone enters words in response to a question into the system and the program sorts them to determine what the most prevalent words are and shows them all in descending order. I was honestly surprised – pleasantly so given my personal reliance on the concept as a source, to see what happened. Michael – will you please put up the graphic? As you can see, the largest word is Love! I hadn’t realized its pervasiveness, but there it was. Of all the words that make up our hymns and readings, Love is a constant theme.

And for us here, too, Love is the Spirit of this place we say each week, the essence of all that we are and do, the thread woven into the fabric of this community.


The spokes of the wheel are made up of six themes, ultimately the values that undergird our faith. They are interdependence, equity, transformation, pluralism, generosity and justice. The language says that they are inseparable from one another, these shared values. One thing I noticed was that our mission reflects some of this – we say that we are seekers after equity and justice, two of the prongs illustrated. Our desire to nurture inclusivity is expressed in the concept of pluralism. Our encouragement of free minds and spirits is captured in transformation. Our foundation of service speaks to a generosity of presence and resources. In these ways I feel the intentions expressed in the proposed language to be aligned with who we say we are here at UUMH.


I’d like us to do a little exercise together to help us get a sense for how we feel about these proposed values, to gauge our initial reactions. We are in the midst of a thinking process, but also a spiritual one because we are tending to values which are very deep and personal to us as individuals. No matter when we arrived on the scene and which set of Article II bylaw language we encountered, each time there is a change, we feel it, whether we agree with the process or the language itself – and as we have been talking about this month – the whole thing can be a bit unsettling. Change is uncomfortable. We are in a vulnerable place here at the Meeting House as we undertake internal changes that will ensure our sustainability and now we see that there is this added layer of vulnerability at the Association level.


This exercise will allow us to pay attention to our emotional reactions to the changes, and to attend also to any contrary opinion that might be rooted in grief over losing something familiar. We are going to pay attention in three ways: first to what we are feeling, then to what we are feeling, and then to any opinions forming.


We will enter into a time of deeper reflection on these objects of our attention. During this practice you can feel free to speak out loud words and phrases that catch your attention or to just make note of them within. The text will be presented on the monitors – each piece of the language for about 40 seconds, which is longer than you might think! Read through while they are on the screens and begin to let them speak to you. Listen for what you are feeling and thinking. Let’s get comfortable and Michael will play the video for us.[i]


How was that? Let’s take a deep cleansing breath. What did you notice? Does anyone want to share a feeling that bubbled up? We will have a chance to talk more about this after the service and bit of coffee, but are there initial words or phrases that come to mind?


Even if you are not ready yet to talk about all this and want to mull it over, I hope you will spend sometime considering these changes over the next couple of months, talking to one another about them, talking to me about what you discover. Maybe we will make a second time for conversation. There are handouts available, too.


This has been an interesting process for me and I certainly have my own opinions which I won’t be sharing today! I want you to have your own opportunities to reflect unencumbered by your minister’s inner work! But I will say that it has been inner work. This is the faith tradition that I love and a certain brand of it was what called to me – body, mind and spirit – and now I am being asked to reframe that. Not exactly to let go of it. It is about values as I see it, so are these representative of what I value; what we value? And it has always been about covenant. We have no creedal test here in Unitarian Universalism. We are a covenantal faith, always have been. Does this explicit covenantal language suit us? Can we be comfortable with the promises we are making to one another in this version of Article II? If these were our stated values and actions when you first encountered Unitarian Universalism, would you have felt a connection?


Lots of questions! Always, I am, with the questions for you! I encourage you to take the deeper dive into this process, to explore what this faith means to you and to consider this evolutionary step. Together we know we are rooted in Love. May that love sustain us through this time of change into a bright future nourished by this incredible faith.


Blessed be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, March 12, 2023

[i] With gratitude to the Rev. Karen G. Johnston for the video production.

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
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