Covenant, overplayed

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Minister and blogger Dan Harper thinks we should "get rid of covenant as an organizing principle."

I think he's right and lays out a good case, particularly about how covenantalism -- as now extolled -- was not what Universalists had. Consider the Gloucester, Massachusetts 1786 Charter of Compact -- this was John Murray's pastorate -- and in a day when the church-parish split was well understood, and public worship was state supported. They could have had a classically covenantal church should they have chosen. (Read Dan's blog post if you're more convinced by Unitarian models.)

But I think the appeal of neo-covenantalism is that it dignifies and gives form to Unitarian Universalist theological libertarianism (and decorates its decent into bald sectarianism.) I've long been bothered by what institutional Unitarian Universalism has been unwilling and unable to celebrate with me an affirmation of universal salvation in Christ -- even as one option among many -- as a present reality. What's the likelyhood such a church organized as Murray's would be admitted to the UUA today? The Universalists turned to their professions -- principally the Winchester Profession -- for order and unity, for strength in this life and a guide to the next.

Spread them.

13 Replies to “Covenant, overplayed”

  1. I agree that the way we use the term “covenant” has a lot of different meanings, and that they create problems when those meanings end up in conflict with one another. The trouble with “compact” is likely to be similar, especially since it is used as a synonym with “covenant”.
    I’m more interested in resacralizing both terms, so that we’re talking about organizing ourselves and being bound together by something more than personal interest. If there is nothing more sacred than our own personal individual interests, and neither compact nor covenant references anything but a legal associationalism, then they’ll both have very limited meanings prone to reduction as behavioral promises and guidelines. Whether using the terms “compact”, “covenant”, or “understanding”, we’re in need of articulating our religious and spiritual callings as institutions owning that name.

  2. Let me be clear: what would make a church organized on this basis structurally impossible today is the level of theological direction — quick, someone cry “credalism!” — in the compact.

    At this point, I’d prefer a creed: to share with other believers, or as a sign to leave. The current situation — we welcome you, so long as you’re not too distinct; now play by these narrow set of organizational rules — is stifling.

  3. Note Dan found one UU Society (mine) that “…came by its covenant naturally, and continues to support its covenant theologically.”

    Some of us still get it right.

  4. The problem with dismissing the concept of covenant is that nothing has been viably presented to replace it. One of the best reasons for each congregation to have a covenant is that without one all the local congregation has is the Principles and Purposes of the UUA. Yes, it might be argued that many congregations have placed those in their covenants and that such is a symptom of bad covenanting process.

    The positive side of a covenant is that it removes the congregation from the path of “denomination-think” and asks the members of the local congregation to think, pray and meditate upon what they truly believe.

    As far as behavioral covenants go, the original covenants in the Bible were behavioral covenants. God made promises to be fulfilled if humanity did and/or did not do something. This goes back though to PB’s argument that covenants can only be derived from God’s revelation. If Unitarian Universalists believe that the Holy Spirit is among them, even in a Humanist sense, then a covenant can be written that expresses their expresses that Holy Spirit and calls them to be accountable to their faith through specific behaviors.

  5. I’ll take a creed, profession or avowal. The exclusion of such, from the Unitarians to the Universalist, has been a terrible blow since 1961.

    Provided you’re a team player.

  6. Scott @ 2 and 5 — Yes, how about a profession of faith? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just say that the Principles and Purposes are, in fact, a profession of faith (though not nearly as beautiful as the Winchester Profession)? Wouldn’t it be nice if, when we use the Principles and Purposes as a profession of faith, we actually included the liberty clause (see UUA Bylaws, Article C2.4)?

    Larry Smith @ 4 — You write: “The problem with dismissing the concept of covenant is that nothing has been viably presented to replace it.”

    Sure there has: associationism. Works for groups ranging from the Southern Baptists to the Quakers. Worked with varying amounts of success for Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists up until about 15 years ago, or whenever Alice Blair Wesley started writing about covenant.

    You write: “The positive side of a covenant is that it removes the congregation from the path of ‘denomination-think’ and asks the members of the local congregation to think, pray and meditate upon what they truly believe.”

    In my experience of covenant as currently used in the UUA, it more often promotes what you call “denomination-think.” Further, in my experience, there is little theological reflection on the part of the local congregation, or what theological reflection does happen takes place only in the formation of the covenant. There are exceptions — Bill Baar’s church is one — but they are, I believe, exceptions, not the rule.

    I don’t quite know what to make of your last paragraph. “Behavioral covenant” was not a term used in the Hebrew Bible, and would only be applied to the Hebrew Bible retrospectively, from a late-20th or early 21st century perspective. Citing PB (Peter Bowden? PeaceBang?), you state that “covenants can only be derived from God’s revelation”; this is true for a certain specific meaning of covenant, but there are other forms of covenant, including legal covenants, covenants in business, educational settings (classroom management covenants), etc., that do not require a revelation from God. Your statement about “Holy Spirit” in a Unitarian Universalist context offers at least two challenges: unitarians might challenge the notion that God could be split into such an entity; many, probably most, humanists would deny that there could be a humanist sense of the term.

  7. Scott asks “What’s the likelyhood such a church organized as Murray’s would be admitted to the UUA today?” Hmm. How many congregations has the UUA turned away? When was the last time there was a congregation that wanted into the UUA but was refused?

    The bigger question is “What’s the likelyhood such a church organized as Murray’s would have any interest in being admitted to the UUA today? “

  8. Universalists also used their creeds as a way to remain in the faith while not living near others of the same persuasion. Alan Seaberg used to tell me over and over, with Conrad Wright for an echo chamber –although if Conrad brought it up, Alan would provide the echo — that the Universalists were too open to individualism, both for the believer him/herself and for the congregation.

    Now that I live in northern New England, I can see why a strong creed helps: it’s even more portable and durable than a tiny book of prayers and hymns, and it doesn’t take time from the exhausting duties of keeping yourself alive. And these detached and challenged situations are exactly the ones where UUism, with its emphasis on self-empowerment and community action, have failed to thrive.

    Samuel Atkins Eliot, a century ago, looked at all this territory and pronounced it worthless. If churches were too small and too non-businesslike, let them fail. We still have not recovered from that attitude.

  9. @Dan. The day the principles and purposes are made into a profession for the UUA, I’ll resign my fellowship. It would be a slo-mo bait and switch. (The Winchester Profession knew what it was.) Of course, it also speaks to the value of associationalism you extol. But I think a particular church ought to be able to make a profession. That’s the Universalist in me.

    @David. How many Christian churches were blasted before conception by a “that’s not UU” edict? That’s the question I’d ask before yours (or my earlier one.) I’ve heard enough of the back-channel sniping to not trust this process.

    @Elz. Thanks. You reminded me of something the (creedless) Disciples — I went to a Disciples seminary — had “the five finger exercise “. A similar phenomenon, I bet.

  10. Scott @ 9 — You write: “The day the principles and purposes are made into a profession for the UUA, I’ll resign my fellowship.”

    Me, too. Better yet, I’d refuse to accept the Principles and Purposes as a profession of faith and make them expel me — far more satisfying.

    You write: “(The Winchester Profession knew what it was.)”

    And the Winchester Profession was well-written and even poetic, and it was worth affirming, and it has a liberty clause. Unlike the P&P.

    Elz @ 8 — I just don’t want to call something like the Winchester Profession a creed. Mostly because of the liberty clause. Aside from that quibble, yes to everything you say.

  11. Dan @ 10 — “And the Winchester Profession was well-written and even poetic, and it was worth affirming, and it has a liberty clause. Unlike the P&P.”

    I thought there was a “liberty clause” in the current Article II section of the UUA bylaws (“Principles and Purposes”):

    “Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief.
    Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.”

  12. As I am working on my dissertation on COVENANT tonight (I really am!), I can’t comment at length. But say, it gets me all excited when folks talk about covenant like this. And I agree with Scott. Give me a Profession of Faith over “covenant” in the humanist church any day. A religious covenant must have a vertical dimension (a transcendent referent, a revelation of God) to be properly considered a covenant, which is ostensibly how congregations are using/appropriating it. Of course “covenant” has different usages (contract, etc.), but in the congregational or religious setting, a covenant without God or the Holy is illegitimate at best. I got the sh** kicked out of me for saying so on the PB blog back in September but I’m sticking to that bottom line.

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