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.