Being a People of Covenant


Imagine a religion where people of different beliefs worship as one faith. Back in the aughts, a Unitarian Universalist ad campaign promoted this slogan. "Imagine a religion where people of different beliefs worship as one faith." How could that be? One faith – one religion – many beliefs?

That’s possible because religion isn’t really about belief. So when I’m asked, "What do Unitarian Universalists believe?" I usually answer: What Unitarian Universalists believe is that your religion isn’t about what you believe.

So what is religion about? I’m so glad you asked. Three things. One, it’s about how you live – that is, the ethics and values that guide your life. Two, it’s about community – the people you come together with to share in rituals that affirm your community bond. Three, it’s about a certain kind of experience – the experiences we call religious experience, or spiritual experience: moments of transcendence and awe, of apprehending the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things.

Those are three rather different things. Yet a faith institution exists to weave them together so that each one supports and reinforces the other two. The ethics and values that guide your life facilitate your community belonging, and prepare you to be open to transcendent experience. Your faith community helps reinforce certain ethics and values, and also helps lay the ground for you to have transcendent experiences. Transcendent experiences expose you to a oneness that awakens compassion, which becomes part of your ethics and values, and also draws you closer to your community. In faith community, each strand of the braid is shaped and directed so that it can reinforce the other two.

The idea that religion is about believing goes back to St. Paul. When Paul invented the religion known as Christianity, his big innovation was to make believing central. When Islam came along 6 centuries later, it followed Paul’s model, so Islam is also belief-centric. But the other world religions are not belief-centric. The Asian religions have teachings, but if you happen to not accept a few of them, that’s fine. What makes a person Jewish isn’t what they believe, but what they practice and that they have a shared history and understanding of themselves as under the laws.

From our roots in Christianity, Unitarian Universalism has traveled a long road back from belief-centric religion, and it was a road of understanding ourselves more and more as being people of covenant – not creed, which is to say, not belief.

A key step on that road was the Cambridge Platform. I’d like you to know about the Cambridge Platform if you don’t. The Puritans who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, proceeded to adopt in 1648, the Cambridge Platform. These Puritans didn’t have a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant. At first, 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 today 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 canonical books of the Protestant Bible. We are noncreedal and noncanonical. 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.

By 1648, a generation after the Plymouth colony began, the Puritans, facing criticism from Presbyterians for not having a polity, decided that, after all, they did would adopt a polity. They didn’t want Episcopal Polity – rule by the bishops – which is what the Church of England had. They didn’t want Presbyterian Polity – governance by groups of elders called Presbyters – which is what, back in England, the dissenting churches (dissenting, that is, from the Church of England). The Puritans would also have been aware of the Catholic church’s structure of governance, and 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. The Platform laid out a basic form for congregations to have: a role for pastors, for teachers, and for ruling elders who oversaw church administration. As the name "Congregational Polity" implies, the Cambridge Platform gave each congregation the fundamental authority for their own operations. A congregation did have some responsibilities to other congregations; the Cambridge Platform identified six:
  • 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. 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.

Critics of congregational polity call it a type of religious anarchism – and there’s some truth to that. Still, we share our congregational polity with a number of other denominations. 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 -- so the UCC also has 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.

Another covenant that may be more familiar 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.


Our greatest 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, understood “God” to be “community forming power.” That power which comes into existence when human beings gather in a group and which allows that group to form itself into a community – that’s what James Luther Adams called God. So Adams did a great deal of thinking and writing about Voluntary Associations – about the Covenants that are the community-forming power.

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal issues a report every four years, and their 2021 report was called, “Unlocking the Power of Covenant.” The Commission observes that: “We are the promises we make and the vows we break.” A Covenant, it says, “is a mutual sacred promise between individuals or groups, to stay in relationship, care about each other, and work together in good faith.” The Commission goes on to say:
“No single concept is more central to our faith understanding than being in covenant. It is at the core of our identity. It is how we try to build and sustain the Beloved Community. It is the foundation of our governance structures at all levels.”
Ultimately the covenant is beyond language, beyond what words can say. It is the embodied commitment to keep on being together in love. Married couples may have long forgotten the exact words of the vow they spoke on their wedding day, yet, as long as they remain married and together they are embodying their covenant in their way of being together.

The ultimate covenant is beyond words but is embodied in our way of being together, expressed in our patterns of interaction. Still, attempting to put the wordless into words can be helpful. Giving it some words, inevitably imperfect and needing regular revision, but still some words to express our commitment to each other – that can provide guidance about how we shall be together.

For congregations, covenants come in two main forms: aspirational covenants and behavioral covenants. Behavioral covenants delineate the behaviors we promise to follow or avoid. Because behavior is publicly observable, we can notice when someone has broken covenant, and encourage zir back in to the right relationship that our covenant says we promise to uphold.

It’s a reality of being a people of covenant that we sometimes do break covenant. And that reality means that being a people of covenant also entails being a people of forgiveness, recognizing that we stray and calling each back, over and over, every time we do. The life of covenant turns out to be less about staying and more about returning – over and over and over again.

Rev. David Pyle was with us this weekend for a startup workshop that some of you were here for. Rev. Pyle has had some Zen training, as have I, and he referenced the basic teaching for Zen meditation. Focus on your breath. We usually suggest first-timers count their breaths, 1 to 10, then start over at one. Or just bring all your attention to the breath coming in, and going out. Your mind will wander off. It will start thinking about one darn thing or another. That’s OK. That’s what minds do. The mind secretes thoughts the way the liver secretes bile. The practice is, as soon as you notice you’ve wandered off, bring your attention back to the breath.

The practice is the coming back. The point of a 25-minute meditation sit is not to be so concentrated that you stay focused on the breath the whole time. The point is to spend that time coming back over and over: noticing a thought, letting it go, returning to the breath. Returning to the breath is the practice.

And as Rev. Pyle pointed out, coming back is also the point of the practice of covenant: to return over and over to mindfulness of the promises that define who you are. Our aspirational covenant is our mission: to grow ethically and spiritually, serve justly, and love radically. This is not behaviorally defined. There’s no stipulation as to what behaviors constitute growing ethically and spiritually, serving justly, and loving radically. So we can’t judge whether someone else is out of covenant.

Certain behaviors might cause us to inquire gently whether you are keeping the aspiration in mind, but, ultimately, only you can decide if you are keeping the covenant to grow, serve, and love – and only you can assess how well or poorly you are growing, serving, and loving. You haven’t broken the covenant unless you’ve stopped trying, stopped aspiring to grow, to serve, and to love – stopped bringing your mind back to this covenant every time you notice you’ve drifted off from it.

Behavioral covenants do stipulate some behaviors. Because behaviors are observable, behavioral covenant allows us to go the further step of holding each other accountable. We have a team at work on developing a behavioral covenant for this congregation.

Covenants make us. They spell out who we are. When I don’t know who “us” is, then I don’t know who “me” is. By becoming more conscious of our covenants – spoken and unspoken – we can live into them more fully, and become who we are with greater awareness and greater intentionality.

Marcia Pally’s 2016 book, Commonwealth and Covenant, recognizes that we need both situatedness and separability. We need to be situated — embedded in functional and caring families, and thick communities that define our values and our selves: villages of ordinariness in which you can be your plain old ordinary self without the constant expectation to prove yourself.

We also need separability. We need to have the freedom and the support “to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living.”

What creates situatedness, notes Pally, is covenant. A contract protects interests, she says, but a covenant protects relationships.
“A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love.”
Contracts stipulate an exchange of goods or services, but people in a covenant delight in offering their gifts.

We are here to offer each other what gifts we can – to hold open the space of grace. It’s about seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other.

I was once leading a Zen group that met weekly in the 2nd and 3rd grade classroom. Every week we Zen practitioners would gather in this room, and there on the wall, handwritten with marker on newsprint was the class covenant. It showed all the signs of a process in which grownups were drawing the language out of the out of 7- and 8-year-olds so that it would really be the kids’ own covenant. It said things like: “One: Listen and don’t speak when someone is holding the speaking stone.” There was: “Three: Pick up after each other and ourselves – don’t litter.” Notice: pick up after each other, not just after ourselves. The last one was: “11. Come together with a calm and open mind.” Nice. My favorite one, though, was number two: “Be kind to others even when they are not your friend.” Even our kids grasp the gist of the point that being a people of covenant means seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other.

It’s about giving of ourselves, and being called together into a different way of being in the world. I have been held and held together in covenant with Unitarian Universalists my whole life – and now I am held in covenant with you. It is such a wonder. Thank you so much.


No comments:

Post a Comment