A Covenantal People, part 1

In our UU Minute #53 and UU Minute #54, we learned about the Puritans who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, and about the Cambridge Platform they adopted in 1648. These Puritans didn’t have a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant. They felt need for neither a creed nor a specific structure of church governance – after all, they were God’s people bound together by covenant, and that was enough.

We don’t agree with those Puritans on much. But we are their descendants. Two hundred years after the Plymouth landing – or, invasion – the Unitarian denomination formed consisting of New England congregations that split from their Congregationalist Puritan past. We’ve left behind the focus on sin, the doctrine of total depravity, and of predestination. We’ve sought – and still seek – to correct the way covenant was used to dismiss, disrespect, and oppress people, such as indigenous peoples, deemed not to be in the covenant.

One thing that we’ve kept from our Puritan forebears is this sense of being a people of Covenant. We are not bound together by creed. Unitarians today aren’t even bound together, as the Puritans were, by a common scripture: the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. We are bound by covenant – by our promise to each other to walk together on this long, strange journey called life, to have each other’s backs – to care for one another.

Covenant. We are a people of covenant. By 1648, a generation after the Plymouth colony began, the Puritans decided that, after all, they did need to have a polity – an articulation of the principles by which their churches would be run. The Presbyterians had been criticizing them for not having a polity, so they decided to form one. Back home in England, the Church of England had Episcopal polity – rule by the bishops. The dissenting churches – that dissented, that is, from the Church of England – had Presbyterian polity – governance by groups of elders called Presbyters. The Puritans would also have been aware of the Catholic church’s structure of governance, but that was definitely out of the question for them.

They decided, in 1648, to create a polity that was none of the above. It would be a new polity, one based on covenant. They called it Congregational polity, and The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spelled out what this “Congregational Polity” meant.

They laid out a basic form for congregations to have: a role for pastors, for teachers, and for ruling elders who oversaw church administration. They authorized a few ways that congregations had responsibilities to each other. They were to:
  • Take thought for each other's welfare;
  • consult and advise each other;
  • admonish congregations that erred;
  • allow members of one church to receive communion in other churches;
  • send letters of recommendation when a member goes to a new church; and
  • financially assist poor churches.
Beyond these, each congregation was autonomous.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is the foundational document of Congregational Polity – the polity we still follow today. As Kim pointed out when she introduced the offering today: We stand under no rule of bishops or denominational hierarchy. Along with our free search for truth and meaning comes free self-governance. We make our own bylaws, elect our own board, hire our own staff, call our own minister, buy and own and maintain our own building and grounds. It is up to us alone to fund the maintenance of our home, the programs, the ministry, through which we nurture our spirits and help heal our world. Thus, truly the offering is indeed a sacrament of Free Congregations.

Here at this congregation, we’ve been using those words, about once a quarter ever since I got here, as a recurrent reminder of our heritage of congregational polity that goes back to 1648 and the Cambridge Platform. There is no higher authority than us: the members of this congregation. We have denominational headquarters in Boston, and each of the five regions of the US have regional staff but all they can do is make recommendations and advice as to what they have determined is best practices. They have no authority to compel a congregation to do anything. They give assistance and advice only to congregations that ask for it.

Critics of congregational polity call it a type of religious anarchism – and there’s some truth to that. The United Church of Christ – formerly known as the Congregationalist Church – also descends from those New England Puritan churches – namely, the ones that didn’t break away to become Unitarian. They also have congregational polity. Baptists and various forms of nondominational Christianity have congregational polity, as do Quakers, Disciples of Christ, most Jewish synagogues, many Sikh Gurdwaras, and most Islamic mosques in the US. Some of these are also officially creedless, though they all have a shared scripture.

Unitarian Universalists are, to the best of my knowledge, alone in being held together neither by the authority of a creed, nor by the authority of a common scripture, nor under the authority of a bishop, synod, diocese, presbytery, or conciliarity. Which raises the question: What does hold us together?

Sometimes, sadly, the answer is: nothing, and we come apart. Congregations acrimoniously split, or dissolve.

When we are held together, the name for our sticking by each other is covenant. The other covenant that’s most familiar to most of us is the marriage covenant. That’s also a promise to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support. The words of the vow can be highly variable, but at base it comes down to promising to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support.

It is a committing of our lives that is ultimately beyond what any set of words can capture, whether those words are the vows spoken at a marriage ceremony or the words of a congregation’s covenant. Yes, you can make a promise without signing a piece of paper – whether that paper is a marriage certificate or our membership book. You don’t have to sign anything to make a promise. It’s just that signing makes the promise public, makes the relationship public. Signing that paper tells the world that you have entered into a sacred relationship – with a spouse, in one case -- with a congregation, in the other.

Ultimately the covenant is beyond language, beyond what words can say. It is the embodied commitment to keep on being together in love. Yet giving it some words, inevitably imperfect and regularly revised, to express and articulate our commitment to each other can helpfully provide guidance about how we shall be together.

Toward this end, congregations need two kinds of language: There is the language of aspirational covenant, and the language of behavioral covenant. That's what we'll look into in part 2.

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