Revising the UU principles and purposes

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

First reading

The first reading is the Principles from the bylaws 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.

Second reading

The second reading is the draft version of the revised Principles, Article II Study Commission:

Values and Covenant.

Love is the enduring force that holds us together. As Unitarian Universalists in religious community, we covenant, congregation-to-congregation and through our association, to support and assist each other in engaging our ministries. We draw from our heritages of freedom and reason, hope and courage, building on the foundation of love. Love inspires and powers the passion with which we embody our values. Inseparable from one another, these shared values are:

Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all people thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of oppression within individuals and our institutions. We are accountable to each other for this work.

Generosity. We cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope. We covenant to freely share our faith, presence, and resources. Compassionate generosity connects us one to another in relationships of mutuality.

Evolution. We adapt to the changing world. We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Evolution is fundamental to life and to our Unitarian Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect.

Pluralism. We celebrate that we are all sacred beings diverse in culture, theology, and experience. We covenant to learn from one another and openly explore the depth and breadth of our many wisdoms. We embrace our differences and commonalities with love, curiosity, and respect.

Equity. We declare that every person has the right to flourish with dignity and worthiness. We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain a fully inclusive and accessible community of communities.

Interdependence. We honor the sacred interdependent web of all existence. With humility we understand our place in the web. We covenant to care for and respect the earth and all beings by fostering relationships of mutuality. We work to repair the bonds we have broken.

[The full text of the draft revision of Article II, including the “liberty clause” and other material, may be found here.]

Sermon: “Revising the UU principles and purposes”

This morning I’m going to talk with you about the organizational bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of congregations of which we are a part. Now talking about bylaws is not everyone’s idea of an interesting sermon topic. But before you check out mentally, or decide to take a nap, I’m going to try to convince you that these bylaws can have a direct effect on your personal spiritual life.

Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association outline the principles and purposes of the Association. Since our congregation is a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that means that our congregation affirms those principles and purposes. And since each one of us is an individual member of this congregation, there’s a sense in which each of us affirms these principles and purposes.

And I hear people in this congregation frequently referring to one one section of Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. That’s the section known as the “Seven Principles.” For many people, the “Seven Principles” help give shape to their ethical commitments in the world. For example, I have heard people in this congregation talking about the inherent worth and dignity of all people — a phrase that comes from the Seven Principles — and using that phrase to justify an ethical decision that they’re making. Since Unitarian Universalism is a practical religion, our ethics tend to be at the center of our spirituality, so this is an excellent example of how the Seven Principles might have a direct effect on your individual spiritual life.

For another example, my own spiritual life has as one of its centers “the Web of Life,” which the Unitarian Universalist theologian Bernard Loomer defined as follow: “the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality.” The Seven Principles neatly summarize Loomer’s philosophical jargon in a more memorable phrase: “respect for the interdependent web of life.” So for my own individual spirituality, that memorable phrase helps me with my relationships with other people, and with my environmental commitments.

So it is that these Seven Principles, this section of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, actually have real-world effects. These Seven Principles actually help us with our spiritual lives, they help us shape our ethical commitments.

These Seven Principles have served as touchstones for many Unitarian Universalists since 1987. The current wording of Article II was approved by a unanimous vote at General Assembly, the annual business meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Article II was then revised slightly in 1987. Those votes in 1985 and 1987 were the culmination of a years-long process to revise the original wording of Article which had been voted in place way back in 1961. That old version of Article II contained six principles, and they had to be revised for a number of reasons. Those old Six Principles used gender-specific language, such as using the word “man” to refer to all human beings of whatever gender. Those old Six Principles also referred to the (and I quote) “Judeo-Christian heritage,” a phrase that annoys Jews because Judaism is not some modifier of Christianity, it is a separate religious tradition on its own. (1) By the 1980s, it was clear to everyone that we needed to get rid of the sexist language, and we needed to be more respectful of other cultures and religions which were our close neighbors. (2)

It took about fifteen years for the weaknesses of the original Six Principles to become obvious. If we consider one generation to be about twenty years, that’s a little less than one generation. And there is a provision in the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws that says that we shall review Article II, review our principles and purposes, at least every fifteen years — that is, we need to review our principles and purposes more frequently than once a generation. (This, by the way, is good advice for all of us; we should all review our individual principles and purposes on a regular basis.)

The last time we revised the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association was in 1987. That was 35 years ago. There have been quite a few changes in the world since 1987. While the Seven Principles have held up remarkably well, it does seem like it is time to review them carefully, to see if we can still fully affirm them.

Personally, I think it is past time to revise the Seven Principles. I feel the Seven Principles had problems from the very beginning. Back in 1995, I was teaching a Sunday school class of fourth and fifth graders, and we spent one class looking at the Seven Principles. As we went over each principle, talking about what it meant and what it implied, the children began to notice that there were some seeming contradictions between several of the principles. I remember a child named Will — who was, to be honest, a bit of a troublemaker, because he was very bright and a good thinker and willing to say what he thought — Will pointed to the first principle, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the fourth principle, “the use of democratic process in our congregations,” and said these two principles could get in the way of each other. If there’s a close majority vote on an important issue, are we sure we’re respecting the inherent worth and dignity of those on the losing side? Will’s comment got at two important points: What do we mean by “democratic process”? and How do we reconcile the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals when one person’s needs or desires might directly conflict with another person’s needs?

I remembered Will’s questions many years later when a level three sex offender, someone considered to be at high risk of re-offending, wanted to join the Unitarian Universalist congregation I was then serving. We made a rapid decision that we were not going to accept him in our congregation, because all the parents of children in the congregation said if he came, they would leave. The Seven Principles did not give us much guidance in this difficult situation.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about unspoken assumptions that underlie parts of the Seven Principles. Take, for example, the principle that says we affirm “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Of course we all support that general notion. But in recent years I’ve become increasingly aware of how this kind of principle can be perverted by ideologues. An ideologue can say that they’re simply engaging in a free and responsible search for truth, that they’ve found the truth, and that they refuse to work with anyone who believes differently than they do. That is what has been happening in the House of Representatives this past week, where a small group of ideologues, certain that they have found the truth, stalled the vote for a new Speaker of the House. So we might want to revise the notion of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to make it less individualistic, to make it more relational. You really have to be a good listener, you have to engage with other people, before you engage in a personal search for truth and meaning. I’ll go further and say that your search should be for truth and meaning and goodness. Any search for truth and meaning should include ethical commitment, it should take into consideration all of humankind. If it’s just a personal, private search for truth, we are now seeing how that can create ideologues.

In recent years, I’ve also become aware that the Seven Principles don’t really take into account the multicultural reality of the United States in the present day. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fifth principle, which affirms (in part) “the use of the democratic process … in society at large.” There is no question in my mind but that I support democratic process. But which kind of democracy? The largest democracy in the world is India, and India has a significantly different form of democracy than we do here in the United States. This becomes an important question because the sixth principle says that we affirm “the goal of world community.” Personally, I would assume that our goal of world community does not mean that we’re going to try to impose American-style democracy on India — but the Seven Principles don’t say one way or the other.

That’s an example of an unexamined assumption in the Seven Principles. I’ve come to feel that there are many such unexamined assumptions in the Seven Principles. It is time we examined them.

I trust you can see how all this has an impact on our personal spiritual lives. For starters, I certainly don’t want my personal search for truth and meaning to make me look like an ideologue — which makes me wonder whether my search for truth and meaning supports the greater good, or whether it can be divisive.

So now you know why I, and quite a few other people, feel that we need to think about revising the Seven Principles. And that brings us to the Article II Study Commission, and their rough draft of a new set of Unitarian Universalist principles.

The Article II Study Commission was established by the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association back in 2017. The bylaws require the Board to do this. Section C-15.1.c.6 of the bylaws states, “If no study process of Article II has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to study Article II for not more than two years and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees for inclusion on the agenda of the next regular General Assembly.” (3)

Back in 2017, the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association did what the bylaws required them to do, and appointed a study commission to examine Article II. As a part of their charge to the Article II Study Commission, the Board asked for a specific focus. I quote: “We [the Board] therefore charge this commission to root its work in Love [that’s with a capital “L”] as a principal guide in its work; attending particularly to the ways that we (and our root traditions) have understood and articulated Love, and how we have acted out of Love.” We heard the new proposed draft of Article II as our second reading this morning, and clearly the Commissioners listened when the Board said to make Love-with-a-capital-“L” the focus of the draft revision.

Now at this point I suppose I could offer some my personal opinions about the draft revision of Article II. But I don’t think I should do that. I’m going to follow the lead of one of my predecessors in this respect. Back in 1959, Roscoe Trueblood, then minister of this congregation, gave a sermon on the proposed merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists, which were separate denominations in those days. Roscoe Trueblood was very careful not to express his opinion on that subject, saying that he thought it best to present the issue and let the congregation decide for itself how to vote. So instead of offering my personal opinion, I’ll summarize arguments for and against adopting the draft revision.

The reasons why we should revise Article II are fairly straightforward, and I outlined some of those reasons earlier. The current Seven Principles haven’t been revised since 1987, and they have begun to sound a bit dated. Most importantly, the Seven Principles do not take into account the new multicultural realities of the United States.

The reasons why we should not undertake a major revision of Article II are also fairly straightforward. The Seven Principles have served us well for 35 years, and they continue to serve us well. Rather than the major revision proposed by the Article II Study Commission, incremental revision, or even no revision, makes the most sense.

There are also reasons why some of us may not worry too much about this one way or the other. If you have been a Unitarian Universalist since before 1985, you may remember the old Six Principles, and you may remember that even though not everyone completely agreed with the new principles, the transition went pretty smoothly overall. If you’ve been a Unitarian or a Universalist for a really long time — longer than I have — you might even remember the old five points of Unitarianism, or the old Winchester Profession of Universalism, or one of the other affirmations of faith we used to have. Over the centuries, we have changed our statements of our religious principles a number of times. And each time, we seem to have survived pretty well.

This brings me to my second-to-last point. None of our historic statements of religious principles has been perfect. Each of them has had some flaw, or several flaws. We should expect that of anything developed by human beings. We humans are limited, fallible beings; we can never make anything that’s perfect or permanent. Rather than expecting perfection, the best we can ever hope for is to make something that’s good enough.

Since that is the case, whatever revisions we make of the principles of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association only need to be good enough. Or we may look at proposed revisions and decide that the old Seven Principles are good enough. I hope this makes the revision of Article II seem more manageable.

The next steps are up to the members of this congregation. You may decide that some or all of the members of this congregation should learn more about the proposed revisions to Article II. Perhaps you’ll decide the members should vote on the issue at our congregation’s annual meeting. On the other hand, you may decide that the members of this congregation do not have a strong opinion about revising the Principles and Purposes of the denomination’s bylaws. If that’s the case, then you really don’t have to do anything — although remember that taking no action is a kind of decision.

Now let me come to my final point. I would like to suggest to you that democracy and the democratic process are actually central to the spiritual lives of all Unitarian Universalists. We are committed to democratic principles precisely because we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each and every individual; or, to use the terms of the draft revision, precisely because of how we understand love, because of how we act out of love.

Democracy is central to our spiritual lives because the ideals of democracy show us how we might live in a more perfect world. Yet like most everything that has to do with our spiritual lives, democracy is not easy. It is not easy to act like everyone matters. Democracy is not neat and tidy. It is not neat and tidy to work with other human beings to try to live up to our ideals. Democracy is really all about learning how to be together with other human beings, how to work together even with the people we don’t like all that much, to live up to our shared ideals.

Democracy can be one of the most difficult of all spiritual tasks, and also one of the most rewarding — because if we get it right, if we really are able to work together and co-exist together, we can actually create a better world. That’s sort of the ultimate goal in any spiritual practice, isn’t it? — not just to make our selves better, but to make the whole world better.

Tons more information from the Article II Study Commission can be found here.

Notes

(1) For reference, I’m including the six principles from the 1961 UUA bylaws as an end note (outdated language is unchanged):

“In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:
1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice, and peace;
5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.”

(2) The Article II Study Commission offers their summary of Article II history here.

(3) The full text of the UUA bylaws are online here.

Early Education and Unitarian Universalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Readings

(Read by Mary Parker, chair of the Carriage House Nursery School Advisory Board)

The first reading is a draft of the revised mission statement of Carriage House Nursery School, which is operated by First Parish.

Carriage House Nursery School encourages learning and growth, curiosity and enjoyment, self-esteem and respect for others.

Our commitment to children [is] to provide:
Support for families through strong school partnerships;
Child-centered education;
Attention to the health, safety, and responsive care of all children;
Active, individualized, developmentally appropriate learning;
A culture of respect for one another and for all people and the world in which we live;
A culture of respect and awe for the natural environment, of which we are a small part.

The second reading comes from an article by Abigail Adams Eliot, titled “Nursery Schools Fifty Years Ago,” published in the April, 1972, issue of Young Children magazine:

“Day nurseries had been established for the sake of working mothers, mothers who needed somebody to take care of their children safely during the day…. Nursery schools had a new motivation — program. In fact the nursery school movement grew from a conviction that some definite educational plan is necessary before the age of five…. Nursery schools were no babysitting agencies, nor were they dedicated to the business of getting children ready for elementary school. Rather, they were interested in enrichment — in guiding children toward a more rewarding life….

“In addition to providing a rich program for children, nursery schools tried to educate adults. Contact with parents was an important phase of the work, as it is in good nursery schools today…. I myself told an early graduating class [of teachers] at the Ruggles Street Nursery School and Training Center, ‘If the nursery school movement does not result, ultimately, in better families, it will be a failure.”

Sermon: Early Education and Unitarian Universalism

Recently I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and early education recently. I should explain that “early education” is educational jargon for learning that happens before about age 8. Thus, early education includes first and second grades in school, kindergarten, and pre-primary school or nursery school.

If you’ve ever been in our Parish House on weekday mornings, you’ll know why I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and early education. Each weekday our Parish House houses dozens of young children, ranging in age from two to five, who come to the Carriage House Nursery School. Carriage House Nursery School is owned and operated by First Parish; it’s by far the largest program we provide to the wider community.

Unitarian Universalists have been involved in early education for over a century and a half. I believe that our interest in early education springs directly from our religious commitments. And to explain what I mean, I’d like to tell you about two Unitarians who were innovators in early education, and how their work in education grew out of their Unitarian religion. Then I’m going to tell you a little bit about our own Carriage House Nursery School, and how that relates to our Unitarian Universalism.

I’ll begin with one of my heroines, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Elizabeth Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts, in 1804, and was raised in a Unitarian church by a Unitarian mother who was also a school teacher. It is no wonder, then, that Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became an educator who, like a good Unitarian, valued the individuality of each child in her care.

Elizabeth Peabody began her teaching career in and around Boston, and on Sundays she would attend services at the Federal Street Church. The minister there, William Ellery Channing, was the most prominent Unitarian minister of that time. Channing recognized that this young woman had unusual intellectual and spiritual gifts. William Channing so respected Elizabeth Peabody that he formed the habit of taking a walk with this twenty-something school teacher every Saturday so he could discuss that week’s sermon topic with her.

After teaching for a number of years, Elizabeth Peabody opened the West Street Bookstore in Boston. This bookstore became the center for Unitarians and Transcendentalists, and Elizabeth got to know most of the great Unitarians of her day, including: Ralph Waldo Emerson; the early feminist Margaret Fuller; and educational reformer Horace Mann. The bookstore was, in it own way, an educational institution.

But in the 1850s, Elizabeth Peabody returned to teaching school. She became one of the most important figures in the American kindergarten movement. The kindergarten movement was started in Germany by pioneering educator Friedrich Froebel. Elizabeth Peabody brought her own Unitarian beliefs to Froebel’s child-centered education. Here, for example, is how she defined “kindergarten” in her “Lecture No. 1 on Nursery and Kindergarten,” published in 1874:

“A kindergarten means a guarded company of children, who are to be treated as a gardener treats his plants; that is, in the first place, studied to see what they are, and what conditions they require for the fullest and most beautiful growth; in the second place, put into or supplied with these conditions, with as little handling of their individuality as possible, but with unceasing genial and provident care to remove all obstructions, and favor all the circumstances of growth. It is because they are living organisms that they are to be cultivated — not drilled (which is a process only appropriate to insensate stone).”

In Elizabeth Peabody’s day, “drilling” children meant forcing them to memorize and repeat facts and words; it was the main educational technique used in most schools back then. By contrast, Elizabeth Peabody favored a child-centered approach to education. For her, children had to be treated as individual human beings, and this was a direct result of her Unitarian beliefs. Today we might say she affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of every schoolchild.

Elizabeth Peabody also adhered to the Unitarian belief that education is one of the best ways to address social problems. She raised enough money to open a free kindergarten in a poor neighborhood in Boston. When that school proved to be a success, she traveled throughout the United states advocating for free public kindergartens. She also began training kindergarten teachers who could teach in those new schools. While there were others also promoting public kindergartens at this time, Elizabeth Peabody was perhaps the most important advocate, so I think of her as the mother of kindergartens in America.

The next Unitarian educator I’d like to tell you about is Abigail Adams Eliot. Born in Dorchester in 1892, Abby Eliot graduated from Radcliffe College in 1914, and became a social worker. But she quickly learned that social work was not the right career for her. Instead, around 1920 she found herself involved in the then-new nursery school movement. By the 1920s, kindergartens had become fairly widespread. But educators began to see that children under the age of five would also benefit from schooling. Yale professor of education Arnold Gesell put it this way: “The educational ladder of the American public school is a tall one and a stout one, but it does not reach the ground. It does not have a solid footing.” The nursery school movement aimed to bring the ladder of the American public school down to the ground, by providing schooling for children from age two to five.

Abby Eliot went to England to train at one of the first nursery schools, the McMillan Nursery School in London. She learned a great deal in her six months there. Sometimes she learned what not to do. She said: “One of the things I learned very well was never, never to put 32 two-year-olds together in one room. We came close to a panic about 4:30 one Friday afternoon when a think London fog rolled into the open-air shelter we used. The children got to fighting over toys or something, and the fog was so thick that my student helpers and I could not see the children. It was nip and tuck to quiet them before they hurt each other.” This is one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard for small class sizes for young children.

Abby Eliot also quickly discovered the importance of engaging the whole family, and even the wider community. When the school could engage the parents as well as the child, the result — so said Abby Eliot — was to strengthen families. And in one school that Abby Eliot ran, she invited high school students to come learn child development practices, so that when they eventually had children of their own, they would be better parents.

In 1921, Abby Eliot opened the Ruggles Street Nursery School in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Boston. Like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, she had the same Unitarian-influenced goal of strengthening democracy and addressing social ills through education. Abby Eliot quickly proved to have real talent working with young children, and her school became a center for training nursery school teachers. Eventually, Abby Eliot’s training efforts were incorporated into the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, part of the Department of Child Study at Tufts University. (A parenthetical note: Tufts is a Universalist college.) The Eliot-Pearson Children’s School remains a training site for teachers working with young children.

I will make one small critique of Abby Eliot, a critique that also applies to Elizabeth Peabody. Like many Unitarians, they saw their mission as helping the poor and disadvantaged. This they understood to mean helping other people, seeing other people as the recipient of their good works. While it is admirable to help others, sometimes Unitarians have forgotten that we have our own problems that need to be addressed. However, after she retired to Concord, Massachusetts, Abby Eliot addressed a social problem within her own family by founding the Community Mental Health Center. She started this clinic based on her experiences of her own relatives who had struggled with mental health issues.

Now that I’ve told you about Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Abigail Adams Eliot, I’d like to turn to the Carriage House Nursery School, a Unitarian Universalist educational project right here in Cohasset.

When I heard Mary Parker the educational goals of the Carriage House Nursery School in the first reading this morning, I could hear echoes of the Unitarian values of Elizabeth Peabody and Abigail Eliot. Carriage House provides child-centered education — that’s like Elizabeth Peabody studying children to see who they are, and then helping them attain “the fullest and most beautiful growth.” Carriage House provide support for families — just like Abigail Eliot engaged families in her nursery schools. Carriage House fosters a culture of respect for one another, and for all people — just as Elizabeth Peabody treated the children in her care with respect, and fostered a sense of the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And the mission statement of Carriage House Nursery School — to encourage learning and growth, curiosity and enjoyment, self-esteem and respect for others — sounds exactly like something both Elizabeth Peabody and Abigail Eliot might have said. So you can see that Carriage House Nursery School, even though it is a distinctly non-sectarian school, fosters values that are thoroughly aligned with Unitarian Universalism.

In fact, I’d say that Carriage House Nursery School is our congregation’s largest social justice project. It is clearly the largest community program we run, both in terms of the size of its budget and the number of people it serves. And I would call it a social justice project for several reasons. First, Carriage House aims to strengthen families. We often think that it’s only families in disadvantaged neighborhoods that need to be strengthened, but as a minister I can tell you that there are plenty of families in affluent neighborhoods that need support.

Second, Carriage House nurtures a culture of respect — as it says in the mission statement: “A culture of respect for one another and for all people and the world in which we live; [and] a culture of respect and awe for the natural environment of which we are a small part.” A culture of respect for all people is essential for a civil society essential for democracy. A culture of respect for the natural environment is absolutely critical to helping us address climate change and other ecological disasters.

We tend to forget that education can be a social justice project in itself. Social justice goes beyond providing direct services to those in need. Social justice goes beyond influencing policy makers. Social justice has to include education. When we influence young people, when we instill in them a respect for all human beings and a respect for the interdependent web of life, we are changing the world for the better. And the change that happens in education goes far deeper than providing direct services, or influencing policy makers: we are changing people’s souls.

And do not underestimate the power of early education to change people’s souls. A nursery school like Carriage House can do so much to influence a child’s character, to nurture their growth towards becoming more human, and more humane. Given that democracy is always fragile, we have a constant need to raise more children who are imbued with a respect for all people, and a respect for the web of life. This is why so many Unitarian Universalists over the centuries have gotten involved in education: education is one of the best ways for us to live out our religious values.

And maybe we can think together about how to make this social justice project have even more impact. Can we reduce the amount of money we draw from Carriage House so that we could offer more scholarships? Can we find ways to support the innovative outdoor classroom that was built over the summer? Can we get student teachers to come to Carriage House to experience our educational approach? How can we support the Carriage House Advisory Board, the group of people from First Parish who oversee the work of the school?

And finally — when you think about our First Parish social justice programs, I hope that the first social justice program you think of is Carriage House Nursery School. For Carriage House Nursery School is one of the most powerful ways we live out our values in the wider community: strengthening democracy, and helping children grow in respect for themselves, each other, and the whole world.

Marriage as a religious act

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California, at 11:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.

Reading:

Splendid to us and much sought after is the sweet smell of love, established in the time of the ancients, guided by the voices of the prophets, and sanctified by the words of the teachers: because of all beautiful things of the earth, love is the most excellent. (Same Sex Unions, John Boswell, p. 292)

The other reading was a copyrighted poem which cannot be reproduced here.

Sermon — “Marriage as a Religious Act”

I’d like to speak with you this morning about marriage as a religious act. But in order to do that, I think I had better back up and first tell you a little bit about the sexual revolution as it occurred within Unitarian Universalism. I am not a historian, so this will not be history; rather, this will be the story of the sexual revolution as I happened to have heard other Unitarian Universalists tell it.

And I’ll begin with my mother and her twin sister. My mother’s family belonged to the Salem, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. In 1942, they went off to college in Boston, a women’s college that prepared young women to become teachers; in those days, young women could become teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, or housekeepers, though eventually they were expected to become wives. Being Unitarians, they went to First Church in Boston, not too far away. First Church was quite progressive for the day, and offered sex ed classes to college students. They were twins and split everything up, and my aunt was the one who went to the sex ed classes. She told me that the other students teased her when she went, but as soon as she came back they clustered into the room she shared with my mother, and wanted to know everything she had learned. This is the earliest example I know of sexuality education for unmarried persons within Unitarianism; that these classes took place outside the family, and long before marriage, represents a change in society’s understanding of sexuality.

Now we move forward to the 1950s, and turn to the Universalist side of our heritage (remember that the Unitarians and Universalists didn’t merge until 1961). I have heard it told that Kenneth Patton, the Universalist minister at the revolutionary Charles Street Meetinghouse in Boston, apparently conducted same sex union or marriage ceremonies there in the 1950s; but it was not the sort of thing that could be made public, not in those days, so we know little more than that such ceremonies probably took place. Obviously, this represents the beginnings of a change in the way we Unitarian Universalists understood marriage. (1)

Beginning in the 1960s, Unitarian Universalist women began seriously questioning the gender roles established for them. My family belonged to the Concord, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist church, and sometime in the early 1960s my father was invited to become an usher, which was considered a man’s job. My mother was invited to join the Flower Committee; and the way I remember her telling the story, she tried to remain polite but she made it clear she had no interest in arranging flowers. By the end of the decade, she was serving as an usher with my father — and I remember it was a big change when women became ushers. These small changes in gender roles at church helped us begin to question the larger gender roles associated with marriage.

As we moved into the later 1960s, there was a lot more sexual freedom in wider society; partly due to changing social values, but also due to the growing availability and legalization of inexpensive and effective contraception. In many ways the growth of sexual freedom was good, but it also had its dark side. Within Unitarian Universalism, there were too many ministers who decided that growing sexual freedom meant they could have sex with women in their congregation. I later heard stories about Unitarian Universalist ministers who allegedly had sex with women in their congregations during the 1960s; in one of these stories, the people in the congregation knew a woman’s marriage was going to break up when she went to pastoral counseling sessions with their minister. These are not pleasant stories to tell, but they help show how we Unitarian Universalists were questioning the meaning of marriage. And the way I have been told some of these stories, violation of trust by ministers helped galvanize some of the early feminists. So it is not surprising that some women who had witnessed clergy sexual misconduct in their congregations in the late 1960s became leaders in the Women and Religion movement in the 1970s.

During the 1960s, we Unitarian Universalists remained ambivalent on the subject of gay rights. In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots, James Stoll was the first Unitarian Universalist minister to come out as gay, but after coming out he never served in a Unitarian Universalist congregation again. At the same time, we published About Your Sexuality, a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for early adolescents, which taught that homosexuality was perfectly normal. So we accepted homosexuality as normal, but we weren’t quite ready to let openly gay men or lesbians serve as our ministers. Needless to say, it remained controversial through the 1960s for a congregation to endorse same sex marriages.

The sexual revolution seemed to me to accelerate in the 1970s, perhaps because I was in my teens in those years. You began to hear about Unitarian Universalist congregations sponsoring same sex union ceremonies. The feminist movement accelerated, and we began to sing hymns that had de-genderized language for the first time. These were all positive developments.

On the negative side, I later learned that during the 1970s many Unitarian Universalists experimented with so-called “open marriage,” where you could sleep with whomever you wanted and still stay married. Sometimes this was called “wife swapping” instead of “open marriage,” which gives you a sense of how sexist this was. In many congregations, there were even adult education classes in open marriage (at which the mind boggles). While I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and too many people got hurt by some of these 1970s-era experiments in redefining marriage.

Not surprisingly, this strand of the sexual revolution played out in parts of our youth movement as well. My own Unitarian Universalist youth group was pretty much squeaky clean. But in some youth groups and in some district youth programs there was a good deal of sexual activity, which mostly followed the sexual example being set by some Unitarian Universalist adults. Thus I have heard about adult youth advisors who were sleeping with teens (and of course this was mostly male advisors sleeping with girls), just like ministers were doing with congregants. And I’ve heard about teenagers having lots of sex with each other at youth events, though when you talk with women who went through this as girls, they may tell you that it was rooted in sexist assumptions and sometimes it felt like sexual harassment and/or date rape. Again, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but too many people, especially girls, got hurt.

Yet despite all this, in other ways we Unitarian Universalists made positive progress in rethinking marriage. One of the most important things we did was to change our thinking about gender roles in marriage. By the 1980s, I would say all Unitarian Universalists understood women and men to be equal partners in a marriage, and while plenty of marriages stuck with the old gender roles to a greater or lesser degree, we held up equality as an ideal. Also by the 1980s, we recognized that you could have committed, serious, long-term relationships without getting married; my current partner and I got together in 1989, and I felt no stigma from anyone in my Unitarian Universalist church because we were not married.

The 1980s was also the decade when I would say we had the most conflict about same sex unions and same sex marriages in our congregations. I know several ministers who got into real trouble in that decade for officiating at same sex marriages, and more than one Unitarian Universalist congregation got embroiled in serious internal conflict about whether or not they should affirm same sex marriages. By the end of the 1980s, I think the tide had turned. The conflicts continued — I myself witnessed one particularly nasty little conflict as late as 2002 — but increasingly we became comfortable with same sex marriages. Indeed many of us became active in advocating for the legalization of same sex marriages outside our own faith communities.

So that’s a very subjective telling of the story of how the sexual revolution moved through Unitarian Universalism, told from a very subjective perspective. This sexual revolution changed our views on a great many things, including sexuality, gender roles, and (of course) marriage. And I would like to point out three major consequences of this sexual revolution:

First major consequence: Feminism has become the norm for Unitarian Universalists. We firmly believe that women and girls are just as good as men and boys, and if you don’t feel that way, you are probably not going to feel comfortable among us. Because we believe that women are the equals of men, we have fundamentally changed the way we think of marriage between a man and a woman. In the bad old days, when a woman got married, she knew she was going to be subservient to the man; she would even give up her own name, and she would become, for example, Mrs. John Smith.

But once we figured out that women and men are equal, that did away with the old gender roles, and we no longer thought there had to be one dominant partner in a marriage, and that dominant partner was going to be a man. And that helped open up the possibility that a marriage didn’t always have to consist of a man and a woman.

Second major consequence: We Unitarian Universalists now openly affirm that sex is pleasurable. We know that sex is an important part of human experience. We emphatically do not believe that sex is bad, or “dirty.” Furthermore, we have no problems accepting new scientific advances, and so we have been perfectly willing to adopt new advances like oral contraceptives, and other new and more effective contraceptives. And the new contraceptives have meant that we don’t have to worry nearly as much as we used to about unintended pregnancies, which means that we have come of the purely pleasurable aspects of sex and sexuality. In these views, we are quite different from some other religious traditions.

Because of this, we don’t believe that marriage is primarily for the sake of reproduction. We think sex within marriage can serve to strengthen the relationship between the two partners. And that has opened us up to the possibility that a marriage does not have to be defined as a biological man and a biological woman whose main purpose is to have biological children together.

The third major consequence of the sexual revolution for Unitarian Universalists: We discovered that stable partnerships are best. During the 1970s, many Unitarian Universalists experimented with various kinds of open marriages, partner swapping, and the like. Viewed from a purely pragmatic vantage point, these experiments had more negative consequences than positive consequences; too many people got hurt (and too many of the people who got hurt were women, legal minors, and/or people in less powerful social positions). On this very pragmatic basis, we learned that stable partnerships generally cause fewer problems. At the same time, we are also quite clear that it is a good idea to end partnerships that are going badly; but we now know that we don’t want to end relationships on a whim, and that we have to consider how ending a relationships will affect children, partners, relatives, and others.

Another way of stating all this is that we know that sexual relationships have can have lasting consequences. This makes us more likely to believe same sex marriage is a good thing: we think it’s a good idea to have public ceremonies in which the partners express their commitment to each other, no matter what the gender of the partners may be.

 

To review these three results of the sexual revolution in Unitarian Universalism: (I) Feminism is the norm for Unitarian Universalism, and that means we don’t put people into strict gender roles. (II) Sex is good and pleasant parts of the human experience, and it exists for more than the purposes of reproduction. (III) We have come to find out that stable partnerships are best. Thus it is not at all surprising that we Unitarian Universalists are more willing to accept same sex marriage than quite a few other religious groups in the United States.

So far, I have looked at how our Unitarian Universalist views on sex, sexuality, and gender have changed as a result of the sexual revolution; and I’ve looked at three consequences of the sexual revolution. To wind up this discussion on Unitarian Universalist views of marriage, let’s take a look at what happens when two people get married in our tradition.

When you have a Unitarian Universalist wedding, there are three essential parts which are required: the intention, the vows, and the proclamation; that is, there is a statement that the people getting married really do mean to get married, then the people getting married exchange promises to one another, and finally, there is a statement that these two are now married. Everything else can get dropped from a Unitarian Universalist wedding ceremony.

Why are these three parts essential? They are essential because from our point of view, a marriage is a covenant between the partners in the marriage. In order to have a covenant, the parties to the covenant have to go into it freely and willingly — this is why we have the intention, to show that the parties to the marriage are entering into it freely and willingly. And in order to have a covenant, the parties involved have to exchange promises to one another — this is why we have the vows, for they are the exchange of promises between the people getting married. Finally, in our tradition a covenant should be witnessed by others in the wider community, and the wider community recognizes that you are married — this is why we have the proclamation.

Interestingly, a marriage ceremony in our tradition is not absolutely required; marriage is not a sacrament, nor is it mandated by religious law. In this, our tradition has some small similarity to the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, insofar as during the first thousand years of Christianity there was no religious imperative to get married, and marriage was a flexible matter; indeed, there were even same-sex Christian marriages throughout the medieval period. (2)

But the institution of marriage has changed enormously over the centuries: medieval marriage was very different from Renaissance marriage, which was in turn different from Victorian marriage, which is turn was different from mid-twentieth century marriage, which in its turn is quite different from marriage today. Marriage has always been an evolving institution; it continues to evolve today; and our great grandchildren may look back on what we consider progressive and think of us as quaint, alien, and old-fashioned.

To conclude, then, when we look at what UU religious marriages are today, we find that marriage is a covenant into which two people enter, promising each other their love and support. That covenant is recognized by a wider community, and ideally we hope that marriages will remain stable for as long as possible. We believe that sex is good and pleasurable and need not be limited to biological reproduction. And we do not think married couples should be restricted to mid-twentieth century gender roles.

Now let me leave you with this final important reminder: I have only been talking about religious marriage as it exists within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have not been talking about legal marriage, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. And the sad truth is that while we Unitarian Universalists recognize religious marriages for same sex couples, in the state of California those religious ceremonies do not result in legal marriages; whereas when we recognize opposite-sex religious marriages, those marriages are recognized as legal by the state. But I have done what I set out to do, which was to talk with you about marriage as a religious act.

 

NOTES:

Update, August, 2013: It should be noted that this sermon was written and preached at a time when two key cases were before the U.S. Supreme Court — Hollingsworth v. Perry, in which the plaintiffs sought to require the state of California to enforce Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage; and U.S. v. Winsor, in which the plaintiff challenged the legality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided both these cases in favor of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court opinions for Hollingsworth v. Perry may be found here; that for U.S. v. Winsor may be found here. Same sex marriage became legal in California almost immediately after the Hollingsworth v. Perry decision; and and it appears that the effect of the decision on U.S. v. Winsor will be to extend federal marriage benefits to all legally married same sex couples, although this is a complex matter that is still being worked out in practice.

(1) Jeff Wilson has documented Unitarian ministers who were performing same-sex unions in the 1950s; see the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, 2011.

(2) John Boswell, Same Sex Unions (Vintage Books, 1995).

Additional notes:

The sexual revolution: My telling of this history has been shaped by a published history of the sexual revolution, Davis Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (Little Brown, 2000). Despite the rather lurid title, this is a serious attempt at history, and is to my knowledge the only book-length history of the sexual revolution. The bibliography is especially useful for those who wish to study the history of the sexual revolution in more depth.

Unitarian Universalist history: Except where I have permission to retell someone’s recollections of the sexual revolution, or where I heard stories told in public, I have changed details to protect anonymity; these stories come from Unitarian Universalists who lived in the Northeast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast. (As an aside, regarding legalization of contraception, it is worth noting that at least through 2012 it remained technically illegal to sell contraceptives to unmarried persons in Massachusetts, the state in which I was raised as a UU.)

History of marriage: For same sex marriages in the Western world prior to the Renaissance, see Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell (New York: Willard Books, 1994); for a brief look at the history of marriage from the Reformation through the Enlightenment, see “Reformed and Enlightened Church” by Jane Shaw, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

Theological grounding: Part of the theological grounding of this sermon comes from “Sex and Secularization” by Linda Woodhead, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, in its description of how Christian denominations try to regulate private life in a secularized world. Also useful in understanding how religions react to the secularization of society is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (Abingdon, 1989), though I should say that I have serious disagreements with Hauerwas and Willimon.