Covenant through the Ages
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 24, 2013


You are perhaps familiar with the aphorism of Lord Acton that claims, “Every institution finally perishes by an excess of its own first principle.” (Lifecraft, by Forest Church, p 70) The concept goes all the back to the classic Greek philosophers, it was either Plato or Socrates who said, “All forms of Government fall from an excess of their best principles.”

This concept always pulls me up short; because what is the first principle of Unitarian Universalism? Well, literally, the first of our Seven Principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” But the less literal point fits as well for us. Our primary principle – the top attribute of our institution – is the same as the first of the Seven Principles of our Association.  The chief organizing concept for Unitarian Universalism is arguably our deep commitment to individual conscience and experience as the arbiter of truth and meaning.

As Unitarian Universalists we do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a commitment to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. Witness these past two sermons on atheism and theism I delivered this month. And some might be wondering where my sermon on neo-paganism is, and why I haven’t done a sermon on agnosticism lately. We’re all over the map theologically.

So do you think there is some danger in this first principle of ours? Can you imagine, or have you experienced any trouble due to an excess of our first principle?

In an article (“The end of iChurch”) from this past UU World magazine, (Winter 2012) Rev. Fred Muir raises this question through a reflection on the work of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” Emerson proclaimed. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emersonian individualism has become part of the American story, of course. Many of us were drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it seemed to be the church of Emersonian individualism. My thirty-seven years in the UU ministry have convinced me that historian Conrad Wright is correct: “One cannot build a church on Emerson’s dicta: ‘men are less together than alone,’ or ‘men descend to meet.’”

Muir goes on to articulate that such an ideology and theology of individualism cannot encourage people to work together “to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles.” The inherent worth and dignity of every person is certainly our defining principle as Unitarian Universalists. And if we were to leave it without a counterbalance we would surely perish, isolated each in our private, though beloved, encounters with the holy.

Blessedly, there is a frequently overlooked context that holds all the Seven Principles including this first one. The language of our Association’s Principles and Purposes is written as a covenant. This covenant states that as free congregations we promise to one another our mutual trust and support.

We are seekers first; always open to new learning, to new insight, to new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.

In many ways, Covenant is as old an idea as ‘individual freedom of conscience.’ Indeed, they have gone together in most cases. To track the idea of covenant back to the Bible, we can talk about Noah and Abraham, Moses and David. In each of those cases, however, the specifics of the concept, the details of how it worked are not all that applicable to how covenant works for us. In the Biblical stories, God was a character in the events with whom the Israelites would enter into covenant. God would make a promise: to not destroy the inhabitants of the earth in Noah’s example, to bring forth a great nation in Abraham’s example. God made certain promises to the people if the people would agree to abide by God’s law.

That’s not what we mean when we speak of covenant in our Unitarian Universalist context. We mean it closer to the legal concept in government; or more accurately, as the puritans meant it following the lead of Robert Browne. Browne was an English separatist from the late 1500’s who is considered by some to be the founder of modern day Congregationalism. He gave up on the Church of England and attempted to create a new model the ecclesiology, or rather in his mind to recreate a very old model based on the early church house gatherings.

Following his model of congregationalism, many of the early English settlers in New England created churches with Congregational polity and Covenantal theology. Conrad Wright, noted Harvard Divinity School professor and historian emphasizes the role of the Cambridge Platform from 1648 as the seminal document from which we find these concepts. In the Cambridge Platform we find statements such as: “There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place.” It further insisted that the congregation itself is the highest level of ecclesiastical authority.

Another aspect stands out particularly and may seem odd against the backdrop of modern day Unitarian Universalism, the church is defined in Chapter 2, Article 5 as: “a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant.” A company of saints, it said. But notice that it didn’t say ‘a company of believers.’ What was required was not a statement of belief but evidence of righteous living. Now, it did still focus on your righteousness with God more than your righteousness with humanity. To be invited into membership required “a personal and public confession and declaring of God’s manner of working upon the soul.”

But by linking it to a covenant rather than a belief, the church was able to stay truer to the promptings of the spirit, as they would have worded it back then. And most importantly, each church was free to govern itself. They were in association with each other, the document talks about being in communion with other churches, but that was meant as an ecclesiological concept.

But here is the interesting stuff that carries forward for us from this history: We have taken the Congregational Polity pieces to heart and have established our congregations in keeping with the basic tenets of Congregationalism from 400 years back. It radically relocated religious authority from the hierarchy of bishops and priests to the people in the pews. Throughout the theological shifting our Unitarianism history, this aspect of governance never wavered.

But something did get unsettled or uneven over the years. The concept of covenant wavered. Congregational Polity and Covenantal Theology go hand in hand. But our independent urge encouraged by the individualistic society around us had left us un-tethered and isolated. The interdependence of our congregations and of our individual selves had atrophied somewhat until recent times. The concept of covenant has had a resurgence over the past decade or so.

We are actively in the process of drafting a Behavioral Covenant for our congregation. You may have heard about it at the Matters of Our Lives segment in January, or from the Beacon newsletter article, or from the conversation meetings hosted over the past month. The Committee on Ministry is taking a five step process: Dialogue, Discernment, Development, Democratic process, and Deepening. Dialogue, step one, is the step we are still in. The Committee on Ministry is asking questions like: What are some of the things you need from your fellow congregants when you are here? What does it look like when we treat each other with justice, equity, and compassion?

There are index cards in the pews, take a moment to consider the questions, offer an answer or two. We’ll even set some time immediately after the sermon for a congregational response where you can speak some of your answers.

We’re working on crafting a covenant. You may be saying, what about the Blake covenant here in our Order of Service? There are two things I can say about that. First, that’s a liturgical covenant in the sense that I picked it a year and a half ago to include in the service. No one voted to accept it. The little bit of amending I have tried to do, the adjusting of the word “law” has really been an exercise in futility. I think that no one is really happy with the thing at the moment. I suspect a significant number of us would breathe a sigh of relief if I just dropped the thing from the regular order of service all together. And two, it is an old covenant. We ought to develop our own that speaks to us today. We will likely develop a long wordy thing for a Behavioral Covenant, but we can distill a short, poetic liturgical form from it.

We’re working on this. It’s like coming into the middle of a “Simon Says” game. It would be good for us to agree to the game we are playing before quibbling over the exact rules and who has to follow them. I actually have a rather high opinion of the way we are treating each other in this congregation. In many ways I think what we will be doing is naming the magic that already exists among us.

But covenants do not talk strictly about the relationship between individuals; covenant in the way we are talking about it here is about the individual’s relationship with the community. It is like a marriage covenant in which the two partners make a vow to the marriage, to the “us” that is created by the wedding.

And so it is with a congregational covenant. You are not in covenant with each individual person, you are in covenant with the “us” that is the congregation. The covenant, therefore, calls you to consider and treat each individual member of the congregation as you would any other member of the congregation. There are certain basic pieces that you automatically offer to every member – not because you like them all or even know them all – simply because we all are covered under the same covenantal relationship. It is a theological system that creates a relational equality. You treat people well not because you like them but because you have chosen to be in covenant with this congregation and what it stands for. A covenant allows us to sustain a community by promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

Colleague Tom Owen-Towle wrote in one of his books (Growing a Beloved Community), “If we fail to be practitioners of right relations in our chosen tribes, then our admirable pronouncements and contributions in the larger society are bogus.” In actuality, it may be far tougher to practice our Unitarian Universalist Principles of ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations’ in our families and congregations than anywhere else.

What does it look like when we treat each other with justice, equity, and compassion? We need to work that balancing act between independence and interdependence. We need to acknowledge the ways in which our personal needs and the communities needs can fit together and where they might rub a little. What are the specific promises we are going to make to each other about being in right relation, about being in covenant? What do you need in such a covenant?

Let us take some time to consider these questions and to seek some answers together.