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Unitarian Universalism Overview

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Unitarian Universalism Overview

Principles and Purposes

Although they do not have an official creed or dogma, the members of Unitarian Universalism operate from a set of base principles and purposes. The modern form of those principles and purposes was adopted in 1984 and this section presents an exact copy of the current principles and purposes, as published in church literature and on its website. Official permission was granted by the UUA to include them here:

The Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"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.
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 Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member societies and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any society unless such is used as a creedal test.
Unitarian Universalism is often referred to by its adherents as a living tradition, and the principles and purposes have been modified over time to reflect changes in spiritual beliefs among the membership. Most recently, the last principle (adopted in 1985), "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" and the last source (adopted 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" were added to explicitly include members with Neopagan, Native American and other Nature-centered spiritualities. This principle is often referred to as the "seventh principle."

Traditionally, Unitarianism was a heretical doctrine emerging out of Christianity that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Although this belief was rejected by orthodox Christians, it did have a following in Transylvania in the sixteenth century. Michael Servetus, a Spanish Unitarian, was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland in 1553 on the orders of John Calvin. In the United States, Unitarian churches were formed after a split in the Congregationalist church in New England. Each small town in the region typically had a congregationalist church at the town square. After the split, some of those churches remained congregationalist, while others became Unitarian.

Universalism was traditionally a doctrine emerging out of Christianity that rejected the doctrine of hell; instead, it believed that salvation was universal.

These two religious bodies always had a great deal of commonality and communication between them, and were often associated in the public eye. One observation made years ago about Unitarianism and Universalism, long before their merger, was that (paraphrase) "Universalists believe that God is too good to condemn man, while Unitarians believe that man is too good to be condemned by God."

Both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved over time into inclusive, tolerant religions, without strict dogmas. In 1961, American Unitarian Association (AUA) merged with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Unitarian Universalist Services
Religious services are usually held on Sundays and resemble, to a certain extent, the form and format of Protestant worship. There is usually a structured service that includes the singing of hymns and a sermon by the minister of the congregation.

However, most UU churches do not perform the traditional Christian rites, such as baptism or communion. Other rituals replace these traditions, including Water Communion, Flower Communion, and blessings of children and babies. Music is not limited to traditional hymns, but often includes instrumental music or singing songs from other traditions.

Some congregations are explicitly known not as churches but as fellowships. These congregations are more likely to display unusual service forms than the traditional churches.

The symbol of Unitarian Universalism is a flaming chalice. Some churches light a chalice while saying opening words at the beginning of each service. Many of these "chalice lightings" vary, here is one example:

We light this chalice
to remind ourselves
to treat all people kindly
because they are our brothers and sisters
to take good care of the earth,
because it is our home
and to try to live lives,
filled with goodness and love
because that is how we will become,
the best men an women we can be.

One UU service that was held the week after the September 11 attack is posted online. While the circumstances of this service were not ordinary, it is an excellent example of a Unitarian Universalist service in many ways. In his sermon Rev. Paul Beedle, minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside, discusses the foundations of the faith, quoting a common Unitarian Universalist affirmation:

Love is the Doctrine of this Church
The quest for Truth is its Sacrament
And Service is its Prayer
To dwell together in Peace;
To seek knowledge in Freedom;
To serve humanity in fellowship

Thus do we covenant.
Another common covenant is as follows:

Love is the Spirit of this Church
And Service is its Law
To dwell together in Peace
To speak the truth in Love
And to help one another
This is our covenant.
Recently, the UU World asked for contributions of "elevator speeches" explaining UUism. These are short speeches that could be made in the course of an elevator ride. Here are three of the ones submitted:

In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we gather in community to support our individual spiritual journeys. We trust that openness to one another's experiences will enhance our understanding of our own links with the divine, with our history, and with one another. --Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, Okalahoma City, OK

We believe that your spiritual life is personal -- a relationship between the individual and deity, however you define it. Rather than choose your path for you, we provide a safe place for your to discover and pursue your own path. --Lyn Worthen, Salt Lake City, UT

Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred, all existence is interconnected, and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds. -- Ann Creech, Roswell, GA

Unitarian Universalists are very active in liberal political activism, notably the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement.

UUs were very involved in the fight to end slavery in the US and to end racism. James J. Reeb, a minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was clubbed in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1965, and died two days later of massive head trauma. He and approximately 20% of UU ministers marched with Martin Luther King in the three marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. The Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights are best known as Bloody Sunday, although technically that refers only to September 7, the most violent day of the three.

The current head of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. William Sinkford, is African-American, making Unitarian Universalism the first traditionally white religion to be headed by an ethnic minority.

Most Unitarian Universalists oppose the death penalty and many are active in political movements to end it in the US. Some work for causes such as environmental protection, peace, feminism, gun control, free speech, safe and legal abortion, and animal rights. Others work to end homelessness, racism, domestic violence, homophobia, sexual assault, and HIV/AIDS. This is not to say that the politics of UUs are uniform. Like the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, their politics are decided by individuals. But the principles of compassion, respect, justice, and diversity are the foundation of all UU politics.

Unitarians and Universalists were also very active in the women's suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony was a Unitarian and Quaker, and was extremely influential in the suffrage movement. UUs and Quakers share certain principles, notably that they are creedless religions with a long-standing commitment to social justice.

Many UU congregations have undertaken a series of organizational and practical steps to be acknowledged as a "Welcoming Congregation", a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay and lesbian members. Gays and lesbians are regularly ordained as UU ministers, and services are performed recognizing committed same-sex relationships.

Many congregations are heavily involved in projects and efforts aimed at supporting environmental causes and sustainability. These are often termed "seventh principle" activities because of the seventh principle quoted above.

A comprehensive discussion of Unitarian Universalism can be found in the book Challenge of a Liberal Faith by George N. Marshall (ISBN 0933840314).

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