Memorizing bylaws?

For those of us who do religious education and church administration, this is the time of year when we’re deep into planning for the coming church year. As a result, I’ve been reviewing lots of church school curriculum books so I can make some recommendations to the Lifespan Religious Education Committee. And one small thing has begun to bug me.

I’ve noticed that a number of Unitarian Universalist church school curriculum books spend a lot of time on the “seven principles.” For example, Free To Believe, a newish curriculum book for second graders, has this sample dialogue:

“Do you remember our third principle? (Show the third principle page from the ‘What Do We Believe?’ coloring book. Have the children say the third principle together: ‘We believe that we should accept each other and learn together..’)…”

Notice that what the children are asked to repeat is actually a watered-down version of the seven principles, that ultimately means something rather different than the original. Other church school programs are worse, and even try to get children to memorize the seven principles.

As always, I think this is basically misguided. The “seven principles” are a fairly short section of a much longer section of the UUA bylaws, Article II, the “Principles and Purposes.” But if you read the entire section, the really interesting stuff comes after the “seven principles” — I’m particularly fond of this subsection of the complete “Principles and Purposes”:

“The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations 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, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.”

That’s the kind of thing I want children to know about our church. I want them to know that they are actually expected to change their behavior because of their faith. But do I want them to memorize it, as if it’s a kind of holy scripture? Well, no, I really don’t.

Long-time DRE Ginny Steel used to say that it’s good to ask children to memorize things — they’re already memorizingdialog from TV showsand bits of video games, so we should get them to memorize more important things. I have asked children to memorize short poems by Unitarian poet William Carlos Williams (some of the kids I knew in Lexington, Mass., still remember “This Is Just To Say”). Occasionally, I’ve had older children memorize bits from various sacred texts — the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Christian scriptures.

Here in our church, we definitely want children to memorize our covenant (but never in some watered-down version) and the words to the song of praise and the doxology. This way, children can participate more easily in the first part of the worship service, even if they’re not yet fluent readers.

But memorize or discuss excerpts from the UUA bylaws? That’s pretty low on my list of priorities for children. And if I did ask them to memorize such material, I would have them memorize the original text if I did it at all. And if I had them memorize anything from the UUA bylaws, I would have them memorize the following section of the principles and purposes first:

“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 congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.”