THUS DO WE COVENANT

NOVEMBER 17, 2002
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


READING from Walking Together Conrad Wright (adap)

"Thus very early in our history as a religious body we insisted that creedal statements are not the proper basis for religious fellowship; more than that, that theological diversity is not only to be tolerated, but to be embraced as a good thing. This attitude, deeply rooted in our past, is part of our definition of what we stand for and hence who we are. We assert the right and duty of each one of us to adhere to his or her understanding of religious truth, even if we do not always agree- We believe deeply in the capacity of men and women of good will to walk together in religious fellowship, despite such doctrinal differences.

In short, to [the prophet] Amos' question: Can two walk together except they be agreed? the liberals reply: Yes, they can walk together despite disagreements. [But I caution that they cannot walk together] unless they are agreed on at least a few things of overriding importance. It is when they can agree on some basic attitudes and values that they are freed to tolerate much diversity in other matters.

Every denomination must have some way of understanding itself, some notion of what gives it its special identity. For churches like ours, it is the covenant – not the words of any particular covenant, but the covenantal relationship of mutual obligation. But unlike the Westminster Confession, which is an historic document, or [the Episcopalian's Book of Prayer], which does not get revised very often, the congregational covenant must be renewed continuously."


THE SERMON

You all remember, I hope, that marvelous moment of slapstick comedy in Mel Brook's movie Young Frankenstein. It's an old routine and I'm sure it didn't originate with Mel Brooks. The hunchbacked scientist's assistant Igor has appeared out of the rainy gloom; very foreboding. Dr. Frankenstein is there with his pretty assistant and the proprietress of the Transylvanian inn. "Walk this way," Igor intones, hitches his cape around him, crouches down into his hunched back, and slinks out of sight. The rest of the party doesn't hesitate. Glancing at one another for a brief second, they each hitch their cape around themselves, crouch down into a hunch, and slink after Igor into the castle.

It's a great joke because it's true. When we come to a new place, a place where we hope exciting and transformative things will happen for us, we are apt to closely follow the example of the more veteran occupants. Whether it's a trip through Dr. Frankenstein's creepy laboratory or as a congregant in a charming and picturesque steepled church on the town green, we need to know how to walk together.

About three hundred and seventy years ago, a group of Christian dissidents from England made their way to Massachusetts in order to seek religious freedom. We call them Puritans but they didn't like to call themselves that. Whatever you call them, they were our direct descendants in spiritual matters. These men and women were very like us in their sense of clarity about how to be a church together: churches, they believed, should be gathered and governed by their members, not by an external authority. Whenever I am tempted to take that aspect of our religious life for granted, all I need do is remember how my religious forebears were persecuted in their homeland for preferring to live by the dictates of shared conscience rather than by the dictates of a hierarchy of bishops. All I need do is look around me at other religious groups that operate today by hierarchy, and sympathize with the laypeople's struggle for truth, integrity and accountability in order to again appreciate the importance of the Puritan legacy.

The Puritans had another commitment, and that was to live by covenant rather than by creed. As people of the Book, they got this notion from the Scripture, where the word "covenant" appears 316 times over 295 verses in both the Old and New Testaments. Because of God's appearance in history to create covenant – alliance, pledge, treaty, league, agreement (all meanings of the Hebrew term berith) – with God's people, they saw this form of agreement as a sacred bond, a spiritual contract with far more moral power and depth of commitment than any other kind of agreement.

These passionate Protestants were very definite about conditions for membership in their churches, yes, but because they were covenantal rather than creedal, (with an emphasis on "how we will walk together" as opposed to "how we will believe together") their religion was able to change and shift and evolve over time, rather than be firmly wedded and welded to one understanding of ultimate Truth. Later, as the Puritan (and the Pilgrim) churches were influenced by liberal Enlightenment theologies and became Unitarian, their followers liked to say that "revelation is not sealed!" and therefore, neither ought be "sealed" our religious ideas (By the way, this church became Unitarian in name and in theology during the ministry of The Reverend Samuel Deane, who served from 1810-1835 right at the hottest point of the Unitarian controversy).

I admit to being more emotionally and spiritually affected by our historical story than is probably reasonable. Perhaps its because I have a somewhat over-active imagination and I can imagine what kind of life I might have if a group of people, so long ago, did not risk their lives and livelihoods in order to walk freely as religious people. And I am guessing that you can imagine this too. If there is one thing we have in common amid our theological diversity as Unitarian Universalists, I think it is this: we believe that freedom is indispensable to the spirit of love. (Alice Blair Wesley) We believe that freedom to discern truth for ourselves collectively is not only what creates well being in our individual souls, it creates well being for the society.

In today's Unitarian congregations, I think we have lost, or at least undervalued, that detail about collective truth or shared understanding. Today we stress the individual search for meaning to the extent that our churches risk having no center and no compelling message. When I became a "born-again Unitarian" in my twenties it was not because of the religion's promise of individual freedom for me. That, I could do alone, and do it just fine. What I cannot do alone, and why I need church so badly, is to discern what is right and holy and to create God's kingdom -- in love, justice and compassion -- with others who also freely choose to join in that quest with me. That simply can't happen if I stay home on Sundays with the New York Times.

A covenant is therefore different than a mission statement. A mission statement makes a claim about what ministries and programs a congregation chooses to its members, friends and the larger community. We should certainly have a clear mission and try to live by it. But a covenant is the map by which we travel in order to fulfill our mission. A covenant says not what we shall do, but how we shall do it – in what spirit. It is a kind of spiritual contract freely entered into by those who decide to form a community of faith.

You may be wondering what the fascinating handwriting is on the front of your order of worship this morning. That, my friends, is the original covenant of this congregation as recorded by some scribe back in 1642 (at the founding of the "sprinkler's" congregation; those who broke with the First Parish in Scituate and its minister the Reverend Charles Chauncy over the issue of baptism practices). The bracketed section is the actual covenant language, which I will read to you as it has been provided me by our Parish Clerk, Dexter Robinson.

We do here now further Covenant, and renew that Covenant that we were formerly in together as a Church, that as a Church of Christ we, by the gracious assistance of Christ, will walke in all the ways of God that are and shall be revealed to us out of his word, to be his ways, so farre as God shall enable us. And to this end, we will do our best to procure and maintaine all such officers as are needful, whereby we may enjoy all his ordinances, for the good of the souls of us and ours: and we shall not refuse into our society such of God's people, whose hearts God shall incline to joyne themselves unto us, for the furtherance of the worship of God amongst us, and the good of their souls. (Covenant of the First Church 1642)

This is a pretty nifty snapshot of the people who broke from the original Scituate congregation to form this one, isn't it? Foremost, we certainly get the idea that they were thoroughly committed to the idea that while they believed in the authority of the congregation to govern itself, they considered Christ to be the head of their church. Which begs the question for us today, if Jesus is not the head of the church, who or what, is? It's not any one of us. It certainly isn't me. It might be the combined wisdom, strength and love of all of us together. It might be God – whether God is seen as a Transcendent Being, an immanent force in Nature, the best of humanity, or a combination of all of the above. Whatever the case, on my days of sore struggle in the ministry I find it immensely helpful to remember that something greater than all of us, and yet something that emerges from within each of us, is ultimately shaping our congregational life. No one of us can make it succeed, and no one of us can be accountable if it fails. Keeping covenant does not guarantee success. We are human, after all.

So as old-fashioned and creaky as that old 1642 covenant sounds to my ears, I feel blessed by the founder's promise that we walk together by "gracious assistance" of a Higher Law, and all for the good of our souls! When I lose my way in detail and duty, I recall that phrase and am newly blessed. All for the good of our souls. A worthy prayer indeed.

But history rolls along and perhaps wanting simpler marching orders, the congregation adopted a far less formal covenant, this one known as the Ames Covenant:

In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus Christ we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.

Eventually, as some of you recall, the title of "Christ" was dropped to reflect the more humanistic appreciation of Jesus of Nazareth common in our religion at the time, and the more inclusive term "humankind" was put in to replace the word "man." So by about 1969 this congregation was covenanted this way:

"In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind."

In 2000, under the ministry of Dick Fewkes, the covenant was again changed to the one we know today, a more poetic expression written by a Reverend Griswold Williams in the 1930's (Interestingly enough, Griswold was a Universalist. We should note that the Universalists were not covenanted by congregation but rather adopted professions of faith in regional or state conventions. These professions were also known as avowals, confessions, affirmations, declarations, articles of faith and even creeds. I am so pleased that members of this congregation sent me a copy of the Winchester Confession that they were baptized into and that served as a condition of membership at their original church Universalist church in Somerville. Next year, on the bicentennial of the Winchester Confession I am looking forward to exploring that worthy document with you) :

Love is the doctrine of this church
the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom,
to serve humanity in fellowship,
To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine –
thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

So what's a Unitarian? For one thing, and certainly in this congregation, we are those who enter into covenant with one another and walk together according to it. Although our theologies have shifted, changed and taken new forms and influences since the 17th century, that one detail hasn't changed. Our covenants are alliances freely entered into for the purpose of ministering to one another and the world. There are no theological tests for membership in our churches. There is no catechism, no formula that all must repeat in order to belong (this makes it mighty challenging to teach Sunday school, butÉ!) If we repeat a unison affirmation all together in a worship service, all are free to refrain from speaking any objectionable words, or singing them. People may freely interpret the words they see on the page. They are free to discuss them, debate them, ask the preaching minister what she means by them, and to keep seeking fresh metaphors to express eternal truths.

We are a covenanted people. And it says in our original covenant, "we shall not refuse into our society such of God's people whose hearts God shall incline to joyne themselves unto us." What do we make of this today? Well, as I said before, it means that no one particular person is in control. No one person or group of congregants can decide when to open the door and when to close and lock it. "The Spirit bloweth as it listeth," says the Scripture, or as the theologian James Luther Adams once taught, "You can't make the holy spirit work according to an organization chart" (Alice Blair Wesley, 29). So over time, if sons of Jewish immigrants want to join the congregation, like my father did, or the daughter of Russian orthodox immigrants wants to join, like my mother did, you open the door to them. If a pagan who dances under the full moon to celebrate the Goddess chooses to join forces with you, you open the door some more. And you open the door to the person exploring Buddhism, and to the rational humanist who isn't much interested in spirituality at all but whom wants a community of ethical commitment to join with. This is the original commitment to inclusivity. It poses big challenges but it is also what makes our congregations so rich, so diverse and so amazingly powerful (and potentially more powerful and transformative) in a pluralistic country.

We are a covenanted people, and each congregation has both the right and the responsibility to create their own covenantal statement. Although I appreciate the denominational principles created in the early 1980's by a representative committee of Unitarian Universalists, I shudder when I hear them applied in a creedal fashion, i.e., "You can be a UU if you believe these!" (As Fred Muir reminded us in the reading I shared earlier, you cannot be a Unitarian Universalist simply by affirming our principles!) I spoke recently to the Reverend Harry Hoehler who helped craft the Principles. "They were meant to be attitudes we hoped all Unitarian Universalists could agree to." he told me. "They were never intended to replace congregational covenants." He regrets very much that in some cases, the Principles have done just that. That's a shame not because the Principles aren't a worthy document, but because they are a statement of fellowship between congregations, not an effort to dictate each congregation's ultimate loyalties back to it from the Associational hierarchy. To do so would be obvious and grievous erosion of our congregational system of governance and authority. As a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, First Parish Unitarian Church of Norwell is already supposed to be in general agreement with the Principles. How we decide to covenant together in order to live by those principles is for us to discern and to articulate.

Can two walk together except they be agreed? We wouldn't be here if we didn't think so. I am in sincere and respectful disagreement on some key theological positions that were held by the person who wrote this document. Yet I love him, and I love the community whose values he recorded because of their generosity of spirit and for the path they forged that I so gratefully walk with you today as a congregation. Can two walk together except they be agreed? Can two hundred, or more? Let me close with the wise response given us by the Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou who said, "If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace."

And so let us walk together. Amen

Benediction
Thus are we mutually pledged
to walk together in the ways of truth
united in the spirit love
with reverence for all of life
and appreciation for the diversity among us.
This we do by grace, and by faith,
as children of the One Spirit
which calls us to co-create a world made in love's image.
So may it be. So may it always be. Amen.