Let’s get rid of covenant as something that is supposedly at the center of Unitarian Universalism. Here’s why:
(1) In the past 15 or 20 years, various writers have conflated two different organizational principles under the rubric “covenant.” Unitarian churches which began their existence as Puritan churches of the Standing Order did indeed have covenants, that is, documents around which the congregation was organized. However, Universalist congregations and congregations founded well after the Puritan era are far less likely to have been organized as covenantal congregations; instead, the organizational principle was what is best called “associationism”; James Luther Adams studied this organizational principle in his work on voluntary associations. Although the two are often confused, associationism as an organizing principle can be looser and less formal than a covenant; we might consider a covenantalism as a subtype of associationism.
(2) Historically, those congregations that used covenants understood them quite differently than we do now. Congregations of the New England Standing Order consisted of two separate organizational structures. There was the society or the parish, which oversaw the finances, physical plant, etc., and which was organized around the concept of associationism; until those congregations were disestablished, the political structure of the town meeting took care of some of these responsibilities; after disestablishment, this half of a congregation might have been run by a meeting of pew owners, or other meeting, or elected officials, and such meetings were run along the lines of political business meetings. Then there was the church, which oversaw the religious lives of people, and oversaw who got to participate in the eucharist; the church was organized around the covenant; often, members had to make a public declaration of their adherence to the covenant, and a public declaration of adherence to doctrine or creed, before they were allowed as members of the church. Creedal statements, which we now find quite problematic, were often included in covenants.
(3) The concept of covenant has an unfortunate mental associations for people living in the United States: for most people, covenant is most often understood in its legal sense. Legal covenants include restrictive real estate covenants that enforced racial segregation in the past; today, restrictive real estate covenants enforce ecologically unsound behavior by, for example, requiring front lawns or preventing laundry from being hung outside to dry. Therefore, in order for a congregation to organize around a covenant, there needs to be constant education of newcomers as to the religious meaning of covenant, and how it is different from legal covenants.
(4) The concept of covenant has another unfortunate mental association for many people: many people associate covenants with behavioral covenants, documents or agreements which try to alter people’s behavior in specific ways. Indeed, many so-called religious covenants in today’s congregations are actually behavioral covenants. While good behavior is necessary in a congregation, it is not a sufficient principle around which to organize a religious institution.
To sum up, trying to impose a covenant on Unitarian Universalist congregations too often means imposing an alien concept; a concept, furthermore, which is too easily confused with other, non-religious, uses of covenant.1 I have come to believe that instead of imposing this alien concept on our congregations, we would be better off extending the work of James Luther Adams and others on understanding associationism.
Now I am sure you will tell me what you think about covenant….
1 I can think of a few congregations which use covenant well. The paradigmatic example is the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois (UUSG): the congregation wrote its first covenant in 1843 based on its members’ having lived in covenantal congregations in New England Standing Order churches prior to disestablishment; the congregation revised the covenant slightly in the 1880s, the covenant received strong theological support through the 50 year ministry of Charles Lyttle in the early 20th century, which support continues in the 30+ year ministry of Lindsay Bates today. UUSG came by its covenant naturally, and continues to support its covenant theologically.