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.


(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.

William Jackson and the Autumnal Convention

A sermon preached at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts. A revised version of this sermon was published as “A Cold Shoulder for William Jackson,” in Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Unviersalism, ed. Mark Morrison-Reed (Boston: Skinner House, 2011). An earlier version of this sermon was given at First Unitarian in New Bedford on 31 May 2009.

Flower celebration

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Story — The Flower Celebration

86 years ago, Norbert and Maja Capek were the ministers of a Unitarian congregation in Europe, in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Most members of their congregation had left other religions to become Unitarians, and many of these people did not want to be reminded of the religions they had left behind. So Norbert and Maja Capek decided to create a new ritual for their congregation — a Flower Celebration.

One Sunday in June, they asked everyone in the congregation to bring a flower to the worship service. There were more than two thousand people in the church, so the church rented a big concert hall for their worship services. When people arrived on Sunday morning, all the flowers were gathered together in vases — hundreds of colorful flowers all over the front of the church. Norbert Capek told the congregation that the flowers were symbols of what it means to be a human being: every flower was different, every flower was beautiful in its own way. And at the end of the worship service, everyone went up and took a flower, a different flower from the one that they had brought, took that flower home with them as a symbol of their connection to everyone else in the congregation.

Iva Fiserova grew up in the Prague Unitarian church, and she shared some of her memories of the Flower Celebration:

“Sunny morning… a granny walking holds a grandchild’s hand… carrying the most beautiful flowers from the garden, entire families enter a big house… there are floods of flowers on the stage of one of the biggest concert halls in the city… a vivid community sharing the mutual happiness of the gathering… thousands of people giving each other friendly greetings… a warm and festive atmosphere… the personal joy of belonging to this community… These are tiny fragments of childhood memories that influenced my life deeply and that have been treasured since those days.”

That’s how Isa Fiserova remembers the Flowers Celebration from when she was a little girl.

Our church has a special connection to the Flower Celebration. Maja Capek, one of the ministers of the Prague Unitarian Church, came to New Bedford during the Second World War, and was the minister of the North Unitarian Church. A few of our church members still remember Maja Capek from when they were children. While she was here in New Bedford, she conducted the Flower Celebration each spring. And so we still have a Flower Celebration each year, partly to keep alive the memory of Maja Capek.


The first reading was a prayer by Norbert Capek, written while he was imprisoned by the Nazis:

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals.
Oh blow ye evil winds into my body’s fire; my soul you’ll never unravel.
Even though disappointed a thousand times or fallen in the fight and everything would worthless seem,
I have lived amidst eternity.
Be grateful, my soul,
My life was worth living.
He who was pressed from all sides but remained victorious in spirit is welcomed into the choir of heroes.
He who overcame the fetters giving wing to the mind is entering into the golden age of the victorious.

[Second reading not included.]


Each year, we hold a Flower Celebration in the second week of June. I would like to speak to you this morning about the religious symbolism of the Flower Celebration. This is the last time I will preach to you as your settled minister, and the religious symbolism of the Flower Celebration offers me a perfect chance to sum up the main theological notions about which I have been preaching for the past four years.

The Flower Celebration as we know it today had its origins in a post-Christian religious ritual developed in the 1920s by Norbert and Maja Capek for the Unitarian church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Most North American Unitarian Universalists call this religious ritual a “Flower Communion,” but I consider that name to be misleading; the Capeks wanted a ritual that was not based on old Christian rituals, and I feel calling this ritual “communion” when it has nothing to do with the Christian ritual of the eucharist is incorrect.

The Flower Celebration begins before the worship service, and outside the church building. Individuals and families find flowers to bring to church. Those who have gardens might pick flowers from their gardens; others might buy flowers from a florist; and others might find flowers growing by the side of the road or growing in a field. Then everyone brings their flowers to the church, each individual carrying a flower that looks like no other flower in the world. At the beginning of the Flower Celebration, everyone in the congregation brings their flowers to the front of the church, and places them in one of the vases there. The vases of flowers remain at the front of the church until the end of the worship service, the massed flowers serving as bright spots of color that enliven the worship space. Then at the end of the worship service, each person takes a flower home; not the flower they brought, but a flower that someone else brought.

First Unitarian Church has a special connection to the Flower Celebration. In 1939, as the Second World War was heating up, Maja Capek came to the United States to promote relief efforts in central Europe. She was unable to return to Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia, and spent the remainder of the war in this country. From 1940 to 1943, she served as the minister of one of our antecedent congregations, North Unitarian Church. So it was Maja Capek herself who introduced this ritual to us Unitarians here in New Bedford.

The Flower Celebration is a simple ritual. It is also a powerful ritual with several layers of meaning.

Most obviously, the Flower Celebration is a ritual that celebrates the connections between the individuals who make up the congregation. You come in to the Flower Celebration with one flower, and you leave carrying a flower that someone else brought. You may not know who that other person was, yet when you leave the worship service your life has been touched by him or her. Perhaps the person who brought your flower is one of the people who has been one of your spiritual guides or mentors in the church. For all you know, that other person is one of the people in the church whom you happen to dislike; yet your dislike of that person means nothing in the face of the transcendent meaning and beauty of the flower you carry. Equally likely, your flower was brought by someone whom you don’t know. Every person in a congregation is connected by the transcendent meaning and beauty of the religious community, which is made up of individuals who are each physical manifestations of transcendent human beauty. We may not always see the transcendent beauty that is in each individual, but the Flower Celebration reminds us that it is there, in each and every one of us. The Flower Celebration also reminds us that we are connected each to all through that transcendence.

This leads us to another meaning of the Flower Celebration. During the Flower Celebration, each flower is of value; there is no flower that will be discarded, or ignored, or rejected. Each flower is unique, each flower is different, yet all the flowers are welcome. This is an obvious metaphor for how we hope to treat each other as human beings. We aim to see the value in each human being. We try to live our lives so that no human being is discarded, or ignored, or discriminated against, or rejected. We also know perfectly well that it seems impossible to live our lives in that way. As an extreme example, while in a theoretical way we might be able to see the human value of a convicted child molester who is at great risk of being a repeat offender, in actual practice we don’t particularly want that person to be a member of our church. In real life, our highest values are sometimes brought down by unpleasant realities. Yet we want to hold on to those highest values, even if sometimes we can only hold on to them theoretically. So each year we have a Flower Celebration to remind us that one of our highest values is that each individual human being has all the beauty and value of a perfect flower.

Here in the United States, the Flower Celebration takes on a special meaning due to the history of our country. In the United States, we are still living with the moral problem of discrimination based on skin color. Racial discrimination, left over from the days of legal slavery, remains one of our most nettlesome moral problems. In the Flower Celebration, flowers of every color are valued equally, and here in the United States we almost can’t help but make the leap from flower color to skin color. The Flower Celebration reminds us, in this not-so-subtle way, that each individual human being has value and beauty regardless of skin color.

Another nettlesome moral problem that we face in today’s world is the problem of ecological sustainability, and here again the Flower Celebration reminds us of this vast moral problem. The flowers that we bring to a Flower Celebration are so fragile; they are easily crushed, they will wilt if we don’t care for them by keeping them in water. The very presence of flowers in the church reminds us of the fragility of the ecosystem. We also become aware that many different species of flowers are present during the Flower Celebration, and of course we value each different species equally. This serves to remind us that the ecosystem consists of many different species of plants and animals, each of which is equally valuable. Thus the Flower Celebration helps us to remember the importance of working towards an ecologically sustainable world.

And for me, the Flower Celebration illustrates one final theological point. Flowers come into bloom, fade, go to seed, and the seeds may germinate next spring while the flower itself with wither and rot and turn into compost that will nurture next year’s plants. The world is an endless cycle of change and transformation. This reminds me of the tenets of process theology: that nothing stays the same, and that we must be constantly ready to allow growth and change within ourselves, and constantly ready to transform ourselves in response to an always changing world. Stasis means death. Change means life, and growth, and hope. At the same time, change is never easy; to transform ourselves can require great courage. When I look at the flowers gathered for the Flower Celebration, I cannot help but think that they will all be faded and gone within a week or two; we cannot freeze these flowers so that they bloom forever. So these flowers will fade, but I also know that during next year’s Flower Celebration, people will bring flowers of equal beauty. Thus, change isn’t something to be avoided, it’s something to be embraced because change is the way of life; and for us human beings, change inevitably leads to growth and transformation.


So the Flower Celebration becomes a ritual which brings to a deeper awareness of our theology and of our moral values. The transience of flowers reminds us that change and transformation are the only things that will lead us to growth. The fragility of the flowers reminds us of the fragility of the ecosystem, and our moral responsibility to create an ecologically sustainable world. The uniqueness of each flower and the diversity of all the flowers reminds us of the uniqueness and diversity of human beings, and of our moral responsibility to end all forms of discrimination and racism. The exchange of flowers reminds us that each individual in this religious community is connected to every other individual, reminds us that we are not alone and that we cannot exist without community.

And assuming the Flower Celebration does bring us to a deeper awareness of our theology and of our moral values, may we then in turn continue to live out our theologies and our moral values in our day-to-day lives. We come to church each week to restore our connection to each other, to ourselves, and to something which is large than our selves; and having been restored, we go back out into the world, nurturing growth, embracing change, ever moving toward a world that will be transformed into a heaven on earth.