Let’s get rid of covenant, part two

Following up on yesterday’s post on covenant, here are two more reasons to get rid of covenant as an organizing principles of Unitarian Universalist congregations:

(5) Enforcement of covenant has become increasingly difficult in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Yahweh/God enforced covenants in the Bible, and he would send plagues, dissension, etc., etc., if his covenant was violated. The Bible stories about covenant served as models for Puritan covenants, although the ultimate enforcer would more probably have been understood to be Christ/God or Trinity/God. For the Puritans, enforcement by a deity was not enough, and covenants were also enforced by human theocracies with power to tax, fine, and/or imprison.

In the absence of general belief in an enforcing god, and in the absence of theocracies (no, the Unitarian Universalist Association is not a theocracy, not by any stretch of imagination), there really is nothing left to enforce the provisions of a covenant except the good will of the people involved. Therefore, it would seem to me that contemporary Unitarian Universalist covenants at best have no more power and authority than bylaws, annual meetings, minutes, all the familiar trappings of associationism; at worst, covenants have significantly less power and authority than does associationism because at least most bylaws have distinct rules for disciplining members by removing them from membership.

In short, most Unitarian Universalist covenants are unenforceable, given our current theological situation.

(6) Covenant as currently constituted in United States Unitarian Universalism is less flexible and more hierarchical than associationism.

Covenantalism has evolved in a hierarchical direction in U.S. Unitarian Universalism. I think many people believe that the covenant embodied by Article 2, “Principles and Purposes,” of the Unitarian Universalist Association takes precedence over the covenants of local congregations; and that the covenants of local congregations must explicitly include the “Principles and Purposes.” Yet at the same time, probably many Unitarian Universalists, if they stopped to think about it, would feel uncomfortable with this kind of hierarchy.

Mind you, hierarchy is not necessarily bad; from an organizational standpoint, hierarchy makes a great deal of sense, and it makes more sense the larger an organization gets. But a hierarchical organization must also retain a great deal of flexibility, and this is where I believe current hierarchical covenantalism breaks down. Our hierarchical covanentalism requires that any new congregations reach certain standards. Hierarchical covenantalism also requires that for a person to be considered a Unitarian Universalist, that person must belong to a local congregation that meets those standards (i.e., must sign on to the covenant of a local congregation that properly adheres to the covenant in Article 2 of the UUA bylaws). Our present organizational structure rules out new-fangled “house churches” and old-style fellowships; this structure tends to rule out storefront congregations operating outside the implicit “franchise system” of the UUA; and this structure has little provision for online religion, congregations that don’t meet weekly, etc. There is a methodological rigidity built in to our current hierarchical covenantalism; associationism is inherently more flexible.

Second in a series on covenant. Part one. Part three.

One final point of interest: If we are going to build a world-wide movement of religious liberalism — and some of us are still committed to such a movement — then associationism, not covenantalism, will continue to be the means of doing so. Associationism is designed to allow the sharing of information and resources while allowing a great deal of local autonomy; the local congregation, and the local association, find the best way of running their organizations given the current local circumstances, yet they also commit to regular communication and sharing with national and international associations. Under associationism, the Transylvanian Unitarians maintain their hierarchical system of bishops, the Phillippino Universalists maintain their unique form of polity (which I don’t quite understand), United States Unitarian Universalists can continue with their hierarchical covenantalism, and each of these groups can participate as equals in the world-wide association of religious liberals. Sometimes I do worry that United States Unitarian Universalists (U.S. UUs) will try to impose their covenantalism on other religious liberals; we are a fairly smug lot, we U.S. UUs, with paternalistic tendencies. If we must continue with covenantalism in the United States, let’s not try to export it overseas.

6 thoughts on “Let’s get rid of covenant, part two

  1. Philocrites

    God has never enforced covenants: Human beings, invoking divine authority, have enforced them. The issue is not whether, in biblical times, God enforced human compliance; prophets, priests, kings, and other human authorities cajoled, coerced, or encouraged compliance by invoking divine authority.

    In the liberal tradition, persuasion has to bear the largest burden in preserving the authority of a covenant, not coercion. And you point to this in arguing that ministers and other theologically sophisticated people in our congregations would have to continually make a covenant central and relevant to the congregation’s life. But to the extent that a covenant would also require enforcement, well, that has always required human enforcement through human systems of some sort, in biblical times as much as today.

  2. Bill Baar

    Yahweh/God enforced covenants in the Bible, and he would send plagues….

    Sounds like God’s hand, not a Human being’s, to me.

  3. Dan

    Philocrites @ 1 — You write: “God has never enforced covenants: Human beings, invoking divine authority, have enforced them.”

    Chronicles has repeated instances of Israel not walking in the ways of the Lord, and the Lord disciplining them with various nasty consequences; I open Chronicles at random to 2 Chronicles 21.11-18, where Elijah tells Jehoram, “Because you have not walked in the ways of your father… but have… led Judah and the inhabitants of Israel into unfaithfulness… see, the Lord will bring a great plague on your people… and you yourself will have a severe sickness…” And indeed, Elohim inflicts a severe illness soon thereafter on Jehoram which kills him (so yes I should have said Yahweh/God and Elohim/God, if you want to make that distinction). Anyway, I would argue that covenant was understood at some point to be enforced by a deity.

    Historically, the covenant tradition out of which UUism springs enforced covenant through the threat of damnation; indeed, the reason why many 17th and 18th century New Englanders didn’t sign onto the covenant was that the consequences of breaking the covenant were more severe than if you engaged in the same behavior without having signed the covenant. I would again attribute this enforcement power to a deity.

    You also write: “In the liberal tradition, persuasion has to bear the largest burden in preserving the authority of a covenant, not coercion.”

    Your statement is true now, but is not entirely accurate in the past. I’d argue that what mostly happened was that instead of persuasion, covenants were simply dropped. As some New England Standing Order churches became more theologically liberal, their covenants were often seriously modified, and over two or more generations eventually forgotten. The first part of this process has been nicely documented in Robert Gross’s recent article in the UU Historical Society journal, where he documents how Ezra Ripley greatly modified the terms of covenant and membership over a 63 year pastorate in Concord, Mass. The forgetting came later: I grew up in that same church 150 years after Ripley died, and when I became a member in 1974, I was not required to sign a covenant, nor was there, to the best of my knowledge, a covenant remaining in that church at that time.

    Most covenants disappeared over time, with a few exceptions; some congregations have been trying to reinstitute them over the past couple of decades; and yes, now we have to persuade people. While I’m willing to retain an open mind, I am not yet convinced that persuasion will be any more effective now than it was in Ripley’s time.

  4. Philocrites

    Dan, unless you are inclined to argue that God used to intervene in history by causing plagues, earthquakes, etc., but doesn’t now, I stand by my claim that God was never the actual enforcer of the covenant but was instead the divine authority by which human beings justified their actions or explained and interpreted natural phenomena. It is exceedingly rare for a UU to argue that God is an actor who intervenes (or used to intervene) in the world by causing disasters or motivating an invading army.

    There are many very fine ways to read the Bible, but it’s always a misreading to take its theological interpretations for anything like a description of historical actions.

    My point about coercion is that there’s an important difference between the rhetoric of ultimate consequences and the way human systems actually police their own boundaries. Damnation is rhetorical—an interpretation, offered by the church, of a person’s ultimate fate—but teaching about damnation is not coercive in and of itself. (UUs still occasionally use extreme rhetoric to persuade each other, but saying that the entire ecosystem will collapse if we don’t halt population growth by tomorrow, for example, is an attempt at persuasion via fear.) I’m thinking of coercion instead as the way a community metes out more direct punishments or consequences for deviation: disfellowship, loss of a vote, loss of citizenship, imprisonment, torture, death.

    Any community has, by necessity, a coercive dimension, but liberal communities work toward minimizing those or putting extremely tight limits on how they may be applied. (There are still actions that can cost a minister their status, and there are still actions that can cost a church member their membership, for example.)

    My basic point is that it’s good to distinguish between the theological interpretation and ultimate justifications for a community’s rules—the divine dimension of a covenant, including its promises of ultimate rewards and punishments—and the mundane/historical/social systems in which the covenants take shape as. I think you’re mixing them together too freely.

  5. Dan

    But Chris, my point is that earlier understandings of covenant were in fact informed by a belief that a deity would enforce the provisions of the covenant. We inherited an understanding of covenant that has coercion at its core. Now that we have removed the coercion, as I say at the beginning of the post, “Enforcement of covenant has become increasingly difficult”; and, as I say at the end of the post, “most Unitarian Universalist covenants are unenforceable, given our current theological situation.”

    In fact, I’d argue that we have gotten ourselves into a position where we don’t even have mutual accountability in our covenants — in most UU congregations, if someone acts up, it’s not the covenant that holds them accountable, it’s typically the actions of a few brave individuals, and/or legal and insurance implications. In an ideal world, perhaps a covenant could help us hold each other mutually accountable, but I don’t see that happening; nor do I see anyone working on the theological implications of all this.

    If covenants aren’t enforceable, it seems to me what we really have is associationism. So I guess what I need to do is write a post on how associationism works.

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