Covenant

Covenant
9-18-11
Rev. Douglas Taylor

The first time I entered this building there was a small framed letter board hanging on the hallway wall next to the entrance of the sanctuary. It was there for a few years before some remodeling, taken down temporarily but never replaced. I spent a few minutes this week looking around in the church closets but I could locate it, but then I’m not sure what I would have done with it if I had located it.

The framed letter board had the words of the Blake covenant inside:

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

The words of this covenant were not used in the regular weekly liturgy on Sunday mornings. (*I later learned that it was a regular worship element, at least in the 1960s and probably into the 1970s) I had asked and discovered that the words were not our official or formal congregation covenant. No one was able to express to me why we had that covenant hanging there in such a nice framed letter board. As best I could learn some one had thought they were pretty good words and had set them up there – and no one had seen fit to contradict them so they remained. Until the remodeling when they were removed – and no one had seen fit to complain at their removal so they remained.

And this week as I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘covenant’ and considering what I would say, I remembered that framed covenant and how it had been featured prominently on our hallway wall next to the entrance of the sanctuary several years ago. I wish I had been paying more attention to their presence when they were here for I find I miss them now. I find myself wanting a congregational covenant, one that has some history with us, one that’s been here for a while – especially as we are bumping along with writing up a new mission statement. I wonder if perhaps we avoid being specific about these important foundational pieces of our religious identity as a way to avoid having to follow through with the consequences implied in them.

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

That really does sum up fairly well what binds us as a community. We gather in peace. We’re looking to know more truth. We’re here to help each other. To do this we have love and service at our center. This is our promise, our bond with one another.

Unitarian Universalism is a covenanting faith. We do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a shared process of discovery. We promise to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. We are a church where you can believe as you must, as your conscience demands. We travel different theological paths, but our covenant leads us to support, challenge, and encourage those around us to each travel our different paths well.

We are seekers first; always open to new learning to new insight, to new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.

Covenants are thread throughout much of the life of our church. Yesterday our Sunday school teachers had a training session and one of the things they talked about is making classroom covenants with the children. Most of our children and our Sunday school teachers are very familiar with the idea of covenants. Another prominent area where covenants show up is in our Small Group Ministry program. Each Small Group makes a covenant for how they will be together. A few of the groups do not have formal covenants written down, but even those talk about the meaning of covenant and how it helps the groups to work.

Typically the classroom covenants and the Small Group covenants say things like: we will respect each person in the group. The adults add things like: we will begin and end on time, we will keep conversation confidential. The children add things like: no name-calling, one person talks at a time. Some of it is just details but much of it traces back to the essence: we will treat each person in the group respectfully. “To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”

Covenants come up in other places as well. The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism are written as a covenant among the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. When I was called by the congregation to serve this community we had an installation service in which we covenanted together. Earlier in the service this morning we did a ‘teacher dedication,’ which is a form of a covenant we the congregation make with the teachers. When a person joins the church and signs the membership book, we recite a covenant together. The one we read as a congregation when a new member joins is a composite by Napoleon Lovely:

Though our knowledge is incomplete, our truth partial, and our love uneven, We believe that new light is ever waiting to break through individual hearts and minds to enlighten our ways, that there is mutual strength in willing cooperation, and that the bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom. (N. W. Lovely)

But this begs the question for me: do we as a congregation actually have a specific covenant? Is it the old Blake covenant, or perhaps the Lovely version we use in our New Member liturgy, or something else still?

A few years ago a group did a study in which they asked congregations whether they had a covenant, if they recited it on Sunday mornings and if so – what was it? This was part of the Commission on Appraisal’s report entitled “Engaging Our Theological Diversity” from 2005. As a part of their search to articulate our Unitarian Universalist theological identity, they asked about the use of covenant in our congregations’ worship. They found that about half of the responding congregations recite a covenant in worship each Sunday and the most commonly used statement is the Williams Covenant.

If you look in your hymnals in the back at #471, you’ll find it. It says:

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with each other and with God. (J. Griswold Williams)
The Williams covenant is from the Universalist side of our family, the Blake, which you will see on the same page of the hymnal (#473) is from the Unitarian side. The Williams covenant, often with some variation in the text, was the most popular covenant and the Blake, the second.

I think I am going to bring the Blake covenant into our regular worship liturgy, just to try it on for a while, see how it feels. I still think it is the congregation’s work to name and own a covenant, not the minister’s work; but as the minister I can suggest and present, and even persuade – so I will. But ultimately, this is ours, not mine. And that’s kind of the point of covenantal theology! If we had a creed I could just tell you all what it is. But a covenant must be an authentic part of the community – there is no covenant independent of a community. A covenant arises from the relationships.

And let me clarify the nature of a covenantal relationship in a congregation. A wise colleague of mine, Rev. Dr. Brent Smith, says that all covenants are always between two entities. One might assume the basis for this is the old marriage analogy. I exchange vows with my spouse – the two of us make a covenant together. But that is not what is happening. At least in Dr. Smith’s interpretation of the concept of covenant, that is not what is happening. It’s more like this: I am making a covenant with the “us” that is created by our marriage. There are three things here: there is me, there is my spouse, and now there is us. The “us” is the part I make my covenant with, the “us” is the part I offer my promise. My wedding vow is a promise to care for the “us” we are creating.

Draw that same interpretation to a congregational covenant and we see the elegance. You are not in covenant with each individual person, you are in covenant with the “us” that is the congregation. The covenant, therefore, calls you to consider and treat each individual member of the congregation as you any other member of the congregation. There are certain basic pieces that you shall automatically offer to every member – not because you like them all or even know them all – simply because all of them are under the same covenantal relationship. It is a theological system that creates a relational justice of equality. You treat people well not because you like them but because you have chosen to be in covenant with this congregation and what it stands for.

Thus we need to get clear and specific about our congregational covenant and our mission because otherwise, how do you know what you have signed up to stand for? As Paul Rasor wrote in our reading, (“Identity, Covenant, and Commitment” by Paul Rasor in A People so Bold) “Covenant helps clarify our religious identity if we take it seriously enough to specify its terms.” Let’s work with the Blake Covenant for now, if we find we need to tinker with it (which I assume we will) or consider a different one, then that is what we will do. But for now:

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

Each individual shall remain free to responsibly interpret the truths and meanings they find. This covenant should in no way impinge on your beliefs or your theology. It will, however, impinge on your practice here, on how you are with others. Covenant does carry obligations by which we each need to abide. At minimum, any covenant worth its salt will call you to treat others in the covenant with respect. And that is not a small thing. It means listening to someone when they disagree with you and seeking to resolve conflict productively. It means being in relationship with people not because you like them but because you are keeping the covenant with them.

But what do we do when it doesn’t work? What do we do when someone is not keeping the covenant? How do we respond when there is disrespect or disharmony? What do we do when the covenant is broken? Well, at our best we should offer correction and disciple to one among us who has broken the covenant. Correction and disciple are often heard as words of punishment and judgment, as something negative that we Unitarian Universalists avoid and have nothing to do with. If such was your gut reaction when I mentioned our need to correct and disciple each other at times then I gently suggest you should look at that. But the word ‘disciple’ in its original definition is ‘to teach’ or perhaps even more accurately, ‘to guide.’ Yet if there is no way for us to respond when the covenant is broken, then the covenant is not real. And if we are unwilling or unable to help each other through correction and disciple in non-judgmental and non-punitive ways then all our attempts to respond to disrespect and broken covenant in our community will be punitive and painful. That would be terrible.

We are a covenanting faith, a free faith. When you join our congregation you are under no obligation to say you believe this or that creed. You join, not because everyone here agrees with you on significant theological points, but because we agree to support each other in the search for truth and meaning. We have a bond, a covenant, freely entered into by each member who seeks after the truth in love.

If we take the concept of covenant seriously, then it does establish some boundaries in what too many see as an “anything goes” faith. We do have boundaries, not defined by agreement to beliefs but by agreement to behaviors of respect and support. They are passive boundaries – each individual is left free to choose to join or define when they are ready. But we ere to think we can be passive because of our boundaries are passive. Alice Blair Wesley writes in her Minns Lecture Series Our Covenant, “No member of a free church is ‘cast out’ for dissent on some proposition. Rather, a persistent refusal to engage with forbearance is the only proper cause to remove any member from the rolls.” The two elements Wesley calls for in her definition are “engagement” and “forbearance,” and by forbearance she means grace or tolerance.

We agree to “walk together.” That phrase “walking together” dates back a long way, it actually is a reflection from the book of Amos, but more recently in the 1600’s the pilgrims used that phrase in writing up their covenant: We do bind ourselves to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, they wrote. “Walking together” requires us to be engaged with each other and to offer ‘forbearance’ for each other.

We each are seekers first; always open to new learning and new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

That really does sum up fairly well what binds us as a community. We gather in peace. We’re looking to know more truth. We’re here to help each other. To do this we have love and service at our center. This is our promise. This is our bond.

In a world without end,
may it be so.