So what's a creedal test?

Unitarian Universalists have an outsided fear of creeds. Outsized because the expressed fear, for example, doesn’t match the reality of how throughly the “Principles and Purposes” of the Association have become the theological touchstone of the movement, and how theological eclectism, reinforced by middle-class tastes, has become the defacto majority theological view.

I know I’m a theological minority in Unitarian Universalist circles. I’m a Christian, a Universalist and a trinitarian to boot. But this is my home. I am as much an heir to this tradition as those who find themselves more comfortably placed in its mainline. And I think, plainly, that my end of the tradition — far from being dead or antiquarian — has more to offer the next generation than the last, and that its constellation of ethos, charisma (spiritual gifts), customs and theology can be healing, appealing and faithful to Christ and his gospel. (I have similar thoughts about Unitarian ‘biblical humanism’ or ‘lyrical theism’ but am not in a position to work on it. Perhaps someone else can.)

I’ll keep this short because I’ve written about this here, here, here and here; indeed, this concern goes back to the dawn of this blog.

My concern, in plain words, is that Second Universalist would not be allowed to join the UUA. The traditional Universalist way would be to have a member assent to the Winchester Profession, pledge to the financial welfare of the congregation and be bound by a compact or covenant (synonymous here). Member assent is to the Winchester Profession in general, and a congregation could come up with an alternative that, in a sense, embeds the meaning of the Winchester Profession. Some did, say the Rhode Island Catechism and the 1903 Creed, perhaps to make them more liturgically useful. (Indeed, the later “Five Principles” and Washington Avowal should be read this way.)

When I read church bylaws that require “sympathy” to the UUA Principles and Purposes, I see a parallel development which justifies rather than supersedes my reading of Universalist polity. And if a new church cannot do this (that is, gather in the traditional Universalist way) then what does it say about current Unitarian Universalist claims to continuity with its Universalist past? What does it say to the remaining Universalist Christian churches? That you’re good enough to stay, but not good enough to have heirs?

And, perhaps more importantly, would the powers-that-be agree with this read, or use it to keep Second Universalist out?

15 Replies to “So what's a creedal test?”

  1. Scott, you are a force to be reckoned with. You bring up excellent points and I’d be curious how the UUA would respond to a church like the one you have in mind. On another note, what about Rev. Ron Robinsons church, is it a UUA affiliated church, and can he or others speak to the situation you are in?

  2. I was a member of Epiphany Community Church in Michigan, from 1998, until the congregation disbanded in 2009. This was a decidedly Christian UU church, with a history of links to both Kings Chapel and the First Parish Church in Weston. There were often challenges to our right to be in the UUA, or assertions that we were not real Unitarians or Universalists. Interestingly, these challenges were often grounded in a Principles and Purposes assertion that a real UU church should practice all religions at the same time (that has always sounded like a creedal test to me). And that wasn’t what we were truly about. We were about practicing a Universalist and non-Trinitarian, liberal Christianity – without at any momment declaring that other religions were bad. We were simply religious liberals wanting a deeper practice of Christian rituals, prayers, and Bible study than most UU churches find relevant or can fairly accomodate within an inter-faith practice.

  3. Section C-2.4 in Article II: Principles and Purposes contains a “liberty clause”:

    “Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief.

    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.”

    Given this, I think you’d have a pretty strong argument that Second Universalist, with its Winchester Profession, must be admitted to the UUA.

  4. Dan – The problem rooted in the by-laws will be the words “unless such is used as a creedal test”. Durring my time at Epiphany we were routinely challenges that our UU Christian orientation was in itself a creedal test. We were also told that our use of the Ames Covenant was also a creed. The Ames Covenant reads, “In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God, and service to humanity.”

    At the root of the problem is a prevalent misunderstanding about what constitutes a creed. Many of our brothers and sisters think that any explicit theological statement or orientation constitutes a creed. But what that leaves us with are the implicit, subtle, and inarticulate creeds (for example, a real UU church practices all world religions simultaneously).

  5. Obviously there are whole varieties of “creedal tests” than then shade into “shared beliefs” and then into “shared covenants”.

    It strikes me that the “Winchester Profession” is a fairly severe creedal test. 95% of current UUs could not in good conscience agree to it. The “Ames Covenant” given above is far less extreme, as it seems to refer more to the practices of the church rather than the individual member’s personal beliefs.

    If you want to adopt a Universalist orientation for your church that avoids a creedal test, it would seem to me you could reframe the Winchester Profession in terms of the shared practices of the church rather than the specific beliefs of members. However, perhaps that is not your goal. Maybe your goal is to instead directly challenge the UUA standard that creedal tests are a problem.

  6. Well, Tim, obviously I think you’re wrong. But more than that, how can we speak meaningfully of freedom of belief if what is acceptable is based on what the majority desires. Indeed, it sounds like a contradiction in terms.

  7. Maybe I was unclear. I don’t see why you can’t rewrite the Winchester Profession as follows:

    Article I. This church follows the practice of using the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of humankind.
    Article II. This church is guided by the principle 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 humankind to holiness and happiness.
    Article III. This church rests on the proposition 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 human beings.

    I think a humanist can at least imagine joining a church that follows these practices, whereas the original Winchester Profession requires an individual joining to actually completely agree with some fairly detailed theology.

    It’s not just humanists; the Winchester Profession if taken literally seems to rule out Deists, traditional Unitarian Christians, etc. You’re ruling out a lot of folks who may want a more traditional religious experience than many UU churches provide.

    Now, maybe you’re not interested in attracting any such folks to your new church. But what if the shoe was on the other foot? Do you think the UUA should allow churches to join that require members to state some belief such as “We believe that God does not exist.” ? Or how about churches that require members to affirm that without belief in Jesus, they are going to hell? Where do you draw the line here?

  8. Three things.

    1. The profession is a standard that has different levels acceptance assumed. A general assent is all that’s asked members, not swearing chapter and verse. The second you start loosening the basis and allow that freedom, the profession is effectively meaningless. We’ve been through this before.

    2. The one thing the founders of the Winchester Profession asked future generations to do was to not change it, even as they added the liberty clause. Thus my read in #1. Making what must seem modest changes to effect a change in its application cuts right to their request.

    3. The last two generations has been about forming and supporting Unitarian Universalist churches that have little or no interest in Christianity, or when they do might, only as an impotent minority, so I’m not sympathetic to the plight of undeserved humanists. There are more options in my area for non-theistic and non-Christian Unitarian Universalists than have ever been available for Christians. There’s nothing inherent in Unitarian Universalism that every church should be suitable for every member.

    As said before, freedom of belief cuts both ways. Actually, humanists and free-thinkers are the clearest here. Freedom of religion is not simply a choice between the available options; it is a freedom to accept or reject. And I accept a particular version of this religion.

  9. I think there are two important questions:

    1. How would the local district leadership and UUA Board interpret the church’s profession? The fact that many UUs shout “creed!” isn’t a good indication of what actual leadership groups would do.

    2. The real issue is creedal *test.* A profession of faith or covenant isn’t a creedal test unless the church also has mechanisms for enforcing assent and punishing dissent from its beliefs. Freedom of belief and a corporate profession of faith can coexist, as Universalist practice showed over many generations.

  10. It’s my sincere hope and prayer that Second Universalist gets admitted into the UUA. Based on the liberty clause of the Principles and autonomy of the local church, the admissions process should not be a problem. However, I have a sick feeling that the application may be rejected in respect to the UUA’s Christophobia, the religiously generic-bland character of mainline UUism, the mistaken assumption that to be non-creedal they must be non-doctrinal and their appalling ignorance or neglect of Universalist or Unitarian tradition. Hopefully after graduating with my Masters in Education and my teaching experience, I can enter seminary to pursue ordination in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Christian Universalist Association (CUA) so I can plant some new Christian Universalist churches around Southern California.

  11. Tim – What I find interesting, is that there are some UU churches where there IS an implicit creed that “God does not exist”. According to the culture of the congregation, the G-word can not be said from the pulpit, and prayer is a spiritual practice that can not extend beyond what individuals do on their own in private. To be accepted in such a context, once must either agree with the creed, or at least closet your theistic experiences and convictions.

    But I, in fact, would prefer that such congregations clearly articulate such an anti-theistic or non-theistic stance. I think it would be more honest and healthier for everybody involved, than to have an implicit theological conviction for membership, while at the same time insisting that the congregation does not have a theological orientation. And while such a non-theistic congregation may be irrelevant to my experience of Liberal Religion, I could still recognize such a congregation as being in some sense Unitarian and/or Universalist. And I would say that they should be part of the UUA.

  12. 1, In response to Philocrites, I don’t see how requiring as a condition for membership that a person agree that they “believe” certain specific theological doctrines is anything other than a creedal test. What else would you call it?

    2. In response to Derek, I think that there is less coercion involved in a “culture” of a church leading to certain expectations then there is in an official creed that all members must say they believe in. Having said that, I am not in favor of a culture of the church that restricts the freedom of the pulpit. I would view a church as more welcoming if it did not have an official creed, and if it offered freedom of the pulpit.

  13. I think this recent post by Ron Robinson is relevant to this discussion:
    http://progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com/2010/12/some-things-that-set-us-apart-from.html

    About his church, he states “… we are non-creedal. We don’t give theological tests for admission….” He goes on to state “We are a Christian church where you don’t have to be Christian to be welcome and affirmed.”

    So, if I understand Ron Robinson correctly, he believes he can run a Universalist Christian church without requring that members state their belief in the Winchester Profession or any other specific creed.

  14. First, I think that any mode of membership definition used by Unitarians or Universalists should be acceptable for a new church, even if it causes some people heartburn. What I described is authentically Universalist.

    Second, I don’t agree with Ron Robinson’s particular churchmanship. And I need not.

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