Tag Archives: covenant

When covenants do make sense

As I continue to think out loud about covenant in liberal religious congregations, I can think of three cases where having a covenant makes a lot of sense:

(a) Congregations that can trace their institutional roots back to churches that historically had covenants as their central organizing principle. For Unitarian Universalist congregations, this probably means tracing institutional roots back to the mid-19th century or earlier, to churches of the New England Standing Order. The concept of covenant would have to have been kept alive in some form since then; e.g., the New Bedford, Mass., Unitarian church grew out of a Puritan church that had a covenant up through the 19th century, and later maintained that covenant in the way in which newcomers were allowed to join the church as full members (i.e., newcomers have always had to sign a statement stating they would uphold certain moral standards).

(b) Congregations that otherwise derive from churches of the old New England Standing Order, e.g., the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois (see first post in this series for details).

(c) Congregations that were not originally Puritan, but were nevertheless initially organized around covenant as a central organizing principle. I believe some of our newest congregations were intentionally formed around covenants.

In each of these three cases, in order for covenant to remain viable as a central organizing principle, the covenant must:— be kept theologically fresh by the minister(s) or other theologically sophisticated persons; be constantly presented to new members; and be a part of the day-to-day life of the congregation. That is, in order to be viable, a covenant must be a living document.

Third in a series on covenant. Part one.

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.

Let’s get rid of covenant as an organizing principle. No, really.

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….

First in a series on covenant. Part two. Part three.

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.

More than you wanted to know about covenants

New Bedford, Mass.

In preparation for the sermon I’m giving here on Sunday, just before this congregation votes whether to call me or not, I’ve been researching covenant. I think of covenants as the promises as religious group makes to one another, and to the wider world. Thus covenants have practical theological implications. So I’ve been searching the Web for examples of covenants used by Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America. Here are some that I particularly liked:

Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist church in Saco/Biddeford, Maine:

In the freedom of truth and in the spirit of Love, we unite for the worship of God and the service of all.

Commentary: A hold-over from a classic late 19th C. Unitarian covenant. Simple, straightforward, and easy to remember, it includes a few key words: “freedom,” “love,” and “service.” Nice that this covenant recognizes that worship services are at the center of congregational life, though these days some Unitarian Universalists might prefer to find another word besides “God.”

Covenant of Second Unitarian in Chicago, Illinois:

We covenant to build a community that challenges us to grow and empowers us to hold faithful to the truth within ourselves. — We will be generous with our gifts and honest in our communication, holding faithful to a love that embraces both diversity and conflict. — Called by our living tradition, we will nurture spirituality within a vision of the eternal, living out our inner convictions through struggles for justice and acts of compassion.

Commentary: The language is a little trendy and middle class (“empowers,” “communication”), but overall reasonably memorable and suitable for reading out loud. For an article on the process used to develop this covenant, see http://www.uua.org/archive/promise/stories3.html

Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Ill.

Being desirous of promoting practical goodness in the world, and of aiding each other in our moral and religious improvement, we have associated ourselves together — not as agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character — but as seekers after truth and goodness.

Commentary: In spite of the 19th C. language (this was written in 1842), this is simple, direct, and to the point. The phrase “not as agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character” serves as an excellent reminder that we are all fallible as individuals. Would be better if it mentioned love, but aside for that an excellent covenant.

The Web site of the Unitarian Universalist Association has a small collection of historic and contemporary covenants at http://www.uua.org/archive/promise/covenants.html