Worship & Celebrations
A Story of Changing Times
The Reverend Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn
A covenant is that it is a living document, open to change as the community changes and as the prevailing wisdom changes as well.
One of the important realizations I have made in my life is that virtually all that has happened well in my life and the world around me is the result of some sort of covenant. Whether it be a covenant with myself to be the best person I am able to be, or the covenant that we as Unitarian Universalists have created together as a community of faith, our Principles and Purposes, or the constitution of the United States of America a covenant that guides the laws and actions of this nation. A covenantal relationship is one in which people agree to work for a common benefit. It is not like a creed or doctrinal statement that tells you what to believe or how to act, rather a covenant is a guide to how we will treat others, ourselves and the world around us. An important aspect of a covenant is that it is a living document, open to change as the community changes and as the prevailing wisdom changes as well.
This is an important issue in the world in which we live today because things are changing at a rate faster than ever before known in human awareness. One of things that is changing is the understanding and the underlying agreements behind certain vital covenants. These changes are resulting in what many of us perceive to be a fundamental compromise of civil liberties. My intent this morning is not to say whether this is right or wrong, good or bad, but simply to raise the fact that change is occurring now and has occurred at other times. My focus will be those covenants which have changed within the context of Unitarian, Universalist and now Unitarian Universalist faith communities. Beginning briefly with the establishment of Unitarianism as a forming religious movement and ending with some of the thoughts on the current UUA Principles and Purposes which were adopted in 1985.
Setting the stage for this conversation, let me take you back to the development of Christianity as a formalized and institutionalized set of beliefs and understandings. The best brief account of this aspect of church history I have found is as follows: “In a technical sense, early Christianity was neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian. For nearly three centuries after Jesus’ death, no specific doctrine of this type was enforced as part of an official Christian creed. When doctrinal controversies became too heated to contain, the Roman Emperor Constantine summoned church leaders to a council at Nicaea where, in 325—almost three hundred years after the death of Jesus—the Nicene creed was voted into existence. The godhood of Jesus thus became the official orthodoxy of the Christian religion. The Nicene formula declared by a divided vote, that Jesus was the same essential substance as God…"
“A half-century later, at another gathering of church leaders, the General Council of Constantinople, the assembled dignitaries added the Holy Spirit to their formula, thus completing the Trinity.” At which point the author, Jack Mendelsohn writes, “I have simplified the history, but essentially this is the very human manner in which the Trinitarian dogma of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit came into being” . (pg 31 Our UU Story)
Very simply put, Unitarianism is not new nor was it originally something in opposition to the mainstream of the modern Christian church… but as humans tried to streamline theology, the Unitarian views lost out to the Trinitarian views. The need to have a set creed, a doctrine and dogma to tout won out over what many viewed as the more reasoned approaches. The protestant reformation brought the authority of the Pope being replaced for many by the authority of scripture. Leading eventually to the rebellion of a 19 year old named Michael Servetus. Servetus wrote a book titled On the Errors of the trinity denouncing the dogma of the church as it had come to be understood and represented by men like Luther and Calvin. Servetus’s statements were not well received and he was harshly treated and eventually was burned at the stake by Calvin…so what were his radical ideas?
Simply put, Unitarianism is not new nor was it originally something in opposition to the mainstream of the modern Christian church.
Servetus stated that God was indivisible. The Trinity was not taught and was no where to be found in the Bible. While more an anti-Trinitarian than a Unitarian, Servetus’s thoughts represent important rungs on the ladder of our Unitarian history. The first formalized Unitarian communities were in Poland and Transylvania, which today is a region of Romania, where many of early Unitarian churches still exist. This leads us to the only Unitarian King in history, King John Sigismund, who issued the western world’s first edict of religious freedom and toleration. Sigismund was heavily influenced by Francis David who along with his followers were the first to bear the actual name Unitarian, a name which was bestowed upon David and his followers by those who opposed their theology. Today the Transylvania Unitarians still carry the torch of liberal Christianity that has been passed down to them from David even after so many centuries of theological and political oppression.
Sigismund’s edict of religious freedom and toleration read in part, “Preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere, each according to his own understanding of it. If the community wishes to accept such preaching, well and good; if not, they shall not be compelled, but shall be allowed to keep the preachers they prefer. No one shall be made to suffer on account of religion, since faith is the gift of God.” This statement was made in the 1540’s.
No formal statements or Unitarian covenants were made until, influenced by the Socinians of Poland and the Unitarians of Transylvania, Theophilus Lindsey organized those with Unitarian ideas in the 1770’s. Lindsey offered the following affirmation as the bond of the Unitarian Church in England.
“There is One God, one single person, who is God, the sole creator and sovereign lord of all things;
“That the holy Jesus was a man of the jewish nation, the servant of this God, highly honored and distinguished by him; and,
“That the Spirit, or Holy Spirit was not a person, or intelligent being; but only the extraordinary power or gift of God, imparted, first (Acts1, 2) to our Lord Jesus Christ himself, in his life-time; and afterwards to the apostles, and many of the first Christians, to impower them to preach and propagate the gospel with success"; and
“That this was the doctrine concerning God, and Christ, and the holy Spirit, which was taught by the apostles, and preached to jews and heathens.”
These words may seem foreign to our contemporary views of Unitarianism but it is important to note that the ideas which influenced this early statement were informed by the ideas of the Socinians and Transylvanians, and that these ideas arrived in England as early as the 1550’s, while the British Unitarians did not form into an institution until 1825.
It is the 1770’s that brought the early institutional stirrings of Unitarians and Universalists in America, following the immigration of both Theophilous Lindsey and John Murray. In 1790 the and 1793 Universalists gathered and again created a covenant of sorts to declare their faith. Followed in 1803 by the Winchester Profession, probably the most important statement of Universalist faith, named for Winchester, New Hampshire, the site of the convention at which it was adopted. The Winchester Profession reads:
Winchester Profession -1803
We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
revelation of God, and the duty, interest and destiny of man
During my sabbatical coming this January I will be looking at the covenants of this church, as reflected in our changing by-laws and archival materials, and helping to create a history of our own changing faith beginning in 1836 and continuing to the present day. In 1903 a document known as the Boston Principles was accepted and it reads:
"I believe in God, the Father Almighty and Universal;
and in Jesus Christ his Son, the true teacher, example, and Savior of the world.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the quickener and comforter of men.
I believe in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as a revelation of righteousness, truth and love.
I believe in the Holy Church Universal;
in the communion of saints;
in the certainty of punishment for transgression;
in the forgiveness of sins;
in the life immortal;
in the final triumph of goodness and mercy;
and in the union and harmony, at last, of all souls with God."
Other statements of faith were written and accepted over the years, including ones in 1917 and 1935. The document in 1935 was known as the Washington Declaration. The Washington declaration interestingly includes both the Winchester Profession and the Declaration of five principles, another name for the Boston Principles, which are accompanied by what is probably the most important and telling line about our Unitarian Universalist beliefs “Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test, provided that the faith thus indicated be professed.” The reason this statement is so important is because it echoes the words of Sigismund in his edict of religious freedom and toleration… there is no creed which must be adhered to in order to be part of this community of faith.
The critical thing about all these covenants is that they, like our faith, change with those who live it out in this ever changing world.
Which brings us forward in history to our current statement of the Principles and Purposes, which form the cornerstone of most UU’s description and understanding of this faith even though it is not a creed. And with this, it is important to note that they were voted on at both the General Assemblies of 1984 and 1985. The critical thing about all these covenants is that they, like our faith, change with those who live it out in this ever changing world. And while we are fond of our principles and purposes for what they say to us, and to others about our religious community, they are not set in stone. The principles are open to change both in language and in content.
When I think about what is at the core of our faith and look carefully at our existing principles and purposes, I realize that while they reflect what we believe today in time they too will change, and as a covenant between people, human beings who live in a world of change, of constant flux, it is ok to look at these statements repeatedly to make sure they still stand for what we hold dear. While they stand for what we hold dear, they give us room to learn, explore and deepen our own personal religious understandings and practices.
I hope you will take time to study the principles and purposes and see how they ground your own Unitarian Universalist faith and help you to be a better person, co-religionist, and person of faith in the world remembering always that ours is a story of changing times…Shalom, Salaam, Amen and so may it be------