Deconstructing “covenant,” pt. 2

…My point in the previous post was to deconstruct “covenant.” But why do we need to deconstruct “covenant”?

Unitarian Universalists today love to talk about covenant as if it has a long history. I’m arguing that covenant was a mid-twentieth century invention by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams. It does not have a long history. And that’s a good thing. The history that Conrad Wright invented for covenant has too many negatives for me to feel comfortable.

When we deconstruct in the Conrad Wright conception of covenant, here are some of the things that we begin to understand:
— Historically, covenant was designed to promote theocracy;
— it was dependent on patriarchy;
— it was rooted in enslavement of Africans and Natives;
— and it supported British imperialism and colonialism.
Plus the Wrightian history of covenant ignores our Universalist heritage.

These are some of the things that Wright either wasn’t aware of or ignored. I don’t think we can remain unaware of these things, or ignore them, any longer. We have to deconstruct “covenant” so we can reconstruct it without quite so many negative aspects.

Since the time of Wright and Adams, others have tried to articulate a vision for Unitarian Universalist covenant, most notably Alice Blair Wesley in her Minns Lectures from the year 2000. But all these visions for covenant start with the assumptions laid out by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams, and don’t really question those assumptions. I feel that none of these new visions for covenant adequately addresses theocracy, patriarchy, enslavement, or colonialism. And in my opinion, none of the visions for covenant takes Universalism seriously enough. To put it succinctly — none of these new visions of covenant adequately deconstructs the underlying assumptions of “covenant.”

Deconstructing “covenant” in this way has helped me to understand why I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable when Unitarian Universalists talk about “covenant.” When we talk about “being in covenant,” we have to start listening for echoes of patriarchy, colonialism, enslavement, and so on. When we accuse others of “breaking covenant,” we have to start have to listening for echoes of the old Puritan practice of public shaming of church members. When we think of covenant as an organizing principle, we have to ask ourselves why we are ignoring the Universalist tradition.

If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to reconstruct “covenant” to remove the lingering taint of sexism, enslavement, anti-democratic theocracy, and colonialism? Perhaps deconstructing and then reconstructing “covenant” would allow us to make some much-needed progress in our anti-racism work, our ongoing efforts to get rid of patriarchal structures, and our beginning efforts to understand the role of religion in colonialism

If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to include Universalism once again in our central organizing principles? I’m afraid the answer here might well be that most of us don’t care about Universalism any more. Perhaps it would be better if we’d openly acknowledge this, because we’re “sitting on the franchise,” getting in the way of other groups trying to spread the happy religion of universal salvation. Or perhaps it would be best if we re-engaged with our Universalist heritage, with its incredible diversity of belief and practice; perhaps that would help us more than an attempt to unify ourselves with a tainted vision of “covenant.”

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing “covenant,” pt. 2”

  1. Dan, Thanks for these two posts. I have a couple of questions.

    1) Can only individuals enter a covenant, or can a congregation enter a covenant with a collective of congregations? I’ve always thought signing a book meant entering into a covenant with a congregation. I didn’t think congregations participating with UUA where in covenant at all.

    2) I know the Geneva Illinois society had records of members excommunicated in the 19th century. Excommunicated for lack of a better word, but their names were stricken from the membership book. Presumably the offenses were alcohol related but no one knows, and presumably these members were no longer in covenant. This may not have been an important distinction at UUSG either, because as you write, the covenant was not a central to the congregation as it later became.

    3) I’ve never felt the old principles were a covenant of any sorts. They were a legalism needed for incorporation, and a cheat sheet of sorts to respond to people asking what UUs believed. You really need not believe in much to be a UU, but just behave in a covenantal way with the rest of the congregation; not necessarily the rest of the world btw, but just with the congregation.

    4) Finally, this sort of leads up to the “welcoming” Church notion. I’ve never liked it because I’ve seen the exceptions with individuals a UU Church / Society would not allow on the property without escort; and with very good reason.

    Your thoughts appreciated as always.

  2. Bill, as usual you ask some interesting questions. I’ll do my best to answer.

    (1) Here’s what I know, but let me preface my answer by saying that I’m not an expert on mid-17th century Puritan ecclesiology…. Unitarians belong to the tradition of covenant that goes back to the Cambridge Platform, a document produced in the mid-17th century by Massachusetts Bay Puritan churches. They wanted to organize their churches on Biblical grounds. It’s pretty clear that the Cambridge Platform was meant to create some kind of wider consortium of congregations, as was the case with the early church, as described in many places in Acts and elsewhere. So in mid-17th century Mass. Bay, individuals could “own the covenant” of their local congregation, and that was the act of individuals. Then the congregation as a whole was linked with other congregations, and I suppose the Cambridge Platform and other similar documents provided the documents to lay out how those wider links would work. All of these links (connections, whatever you want to call them) depended on a connection with the Puritan God. — Anyway, that’s a sort of thumbnail description. But I think it requires a lot more detail to really answer your question, and I’m not competent to do that.

    (2) Covenants always have mechanisms for excluding people from them. Getting disciplined under the covenant was A Big Deal. If you got caught, you’d have to stand up in front of the church and repudiate your sins. That’s why in early New England, many people put off signing the covenant until not long before they died. I think we still want mechanisms for getting rid of extreme cases. For example, I remember this person who was sexually harassing people in one UU congregation, and the congregation had to get rid of them, which they were able to do under the terms of a behavioral covenant — a behavioral covenant isn’t exactly the same thing as a theological covenant, but it’s a similar process.

    (3) You make an interesting point. The UUA bylaws are a sort of mash-up between a corporate document, meant to set out how a nonprofit organization is run, and a covenant. Things might be easier if those were two separate documents. I never really thought about that before.

    (4) Depends on what you mean by the term “welcoming church.” In UU circles, I’ve usually understood that phrase to mean “we got a certificate from the UUA saying we checked off a bunch of boxes that hopefully are going to make us more accepting of LBTQ+ persons.” (I have a slight preference for the jargon used in the United Church of Christ, where a similar program refers to an “open and affirming church,” meaning one that’s open to, and affirming of, LGBTQ+ people.) …And yes, I too have seen the exceptions, those individuals whom we really don’t want to have on our properties. But that’s a very different thing from the formal “Welcoming Congregations” program of the UUA.

    Thanks for the thoughtful questions.

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