The covenant by which a fellowship of believers gives themselves to the Lord...is what
distinguishes one church from another. This is the "church covenant" and members
can have no church authority over one another apart from it....The more detailed and clear
this covenant (or voluntary agreement) is, the more it is able to keep church members
aware of their duty to one another and to encourage them in it....The essence of a
covenant is the agreement and consent of a group of faithful people to meet regularly
together as a congregation for worship and mutual edification. (The Cambridge Platform,
Revised Ed., Peter W. Murdy)
Last October I attended a series of lectures and workshops marking the 350th Anniversary of the Cambridge Platform which is a signal event in the history of that form of church governance known as congregational polity. The first day of the program was held at the First Parish UU Church in Harvard Square. The second day of the program was held around the corner at the First UCC Church on Garden Street. There were leaders and participants representing four congregationally ordered religious bodies--the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, The United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Association (which was ably represented by UUA President John A. Buehrens).
Theologically, the four religious bodies represented viewpoints from the most conservative and fundamentalist to the most liberal and modernistic. The first three were clearly Biblically rooted and Christ centered in their views, while the UUA, though acknowledging its origins in the Judeo-Christian concept of covenant, was no longer exclusively Christian in its theology. What all four traditions held in common was a firm belief in congregational polity as the best and soundest form of church governance, or as the Cambridge Platform expressed it, "There is no greater church than a congregation which meets in one place."
The Cambridge Platform is important to us not only because it helped establish the right of congregations to govern themselves, call their own ministers, elect and appoint their own lay leaders and officers, establish their own rules of membership, but also because it set forth the notion of the separation of church and state which was later written into the Constitution. The Platform said, "It is not the power of the magistrate to compel their subjects to become church members. As it is unlawful for church officers to meddle with the sword of the magistrate so it is unlawful for the magistrate to meddle in the proper work of the church officers." Though much has changed since the Cambridge Platform defined the nature of congregational polity--we no longer accept the Calvinist theology on which it was based, and we no longer permit civil authorities to arrest citizens for religious blasphemy--still the manner of church governance set in place, the idea of covenants within churches and between churches, is still viable and important to us 350 years later.
Indeed, church historian, Conrad Wright, tells us that.. it is a fact of no small consequence that Unitarian Universalists stand in a tradition of congregational polity that is almost four centuries old; that they are much more conservative with respect to the practice of that polity than they are with respect to doctrine; that they have been Congregationalists in polity much longer than they have been liberal in theology; that...their congregationalism has proved to be more durable and adaptable to changing times than any of the doctrinal formulations--whether of God, or human nature, or human destiny--that dominate accounts of the history of liberal religion. The problem is that we take it so much for granted that we tend to overlook its importance to our endurance and survival as a religious movement.
It has often been said that the UUA is not a denomination (in the sense of an overarching religious institution with hierarchical authority), but rather an association of Congregations and churches who voluntarily come together for mutual sustenance and support, which was one of the rationales set forth in the Cambridge Platform for cooperation between churches of the Standing Order in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One the one hand the Cambridge Platform declared that "the churches are distinct and not to be confounded one with another; equal and not to have dominion over another; yet", on the other hand, "all the churches ought to preserve communion one with another."
The reasons for their preserving communion with one another were stated in terms that still carry meaning for us 350 years later--for "mutual care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation and relief." The Principles and Purposes of the UUA begins with the statement: "We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote...." Though the Principles do not use the same language as the Cambridge Platform, and its concepts are much broader and more encompassing in their vision, still it could be said that all of the bases for communion between churches as set forth in the Platform are implied one way or another in the UUA By-Laws.
It could be said that an individual joins a church for many of the same reasons. We cannot make it in this world entirely on our own. We need one another to become whole and loving and free. Likewise, an individual congregation needs the care and support and consultation of other congregations to become all that it should be for its members. If we had to find and train future ministers, create religious education materials from scratch, publish hymn books, do social justice work all on our own, we might be able to do it, but it would be exceedingly difficult and the quality of the product would be much less than what we have today. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations at the District and Continental levels has been extremely helpful to us in all these areas and will be even more so as you pursue the task of hiring interim ministers and eventually calling a new senior minister early in the next century. What we do, how we define who we are, and what we want to be as individual members and as a congregation, comes out of that Association whether we are aware of it or not.
Unitarian Universalists tend to be such strong minded individualists that we forget the importance of our ties and relationships to others within the parish and the greater ties that we have to other UU churches and the UUA at large. We want to define the meaning of our autonomy as individuals and our relationships to other church members to fit our own designs. It has been said that a Unitarian Universalist is someone who defines "autonomy" to mean, "I do things my way", and covenant to mean, "You do things my way." We are beginning to learn that it doesn't work that way. Walking together implies much more than the preservation of our precious individualism.
The oldest church covenant in New England if not America is that of the First Parish UU Church in Plymouth which as of 1997 has not been fundamentally changed since its inception in 1620. It reads: "We the Lord's free people, join ourselves into a church estate, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known, unto us, according to our best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost us, the Lord assisting us." Twelve years later the church up river from the First Church of Christ in Scituate made a covenant that stated in part: "We do here now covenant that we will walke in all the ways of God that are and shall be revealed to us for the good of the souls of us and ours." Please note that these ancient covenants were not creeds, but statements about how people should walk together in religious fellowship. And they both implied that religious truth was not fixed and unchanging, but was open to new truths "to be made known" or "shall be revealed to us." That was quite an assumption for 1620 and 1642, and both covenants were in place before the Cambridge Platform defined "the form of a visible church and its covenant" in 1648.
The Covenant of Membership in First Parish Norwell is a variation of what has been called the Ames Covenant which was devised by the Rev. Charles Gordon Ames ca. 1880 for the Spring Garden Unitarian Society in Philadelphia which he founded. The original Ames Covenant said: "In the freedom of the truth and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man." Other Unitarian churches, ours among them, adapted the Ames Covenant in the latter part of the last century. When I came to Norwell in 1969 the covenant read: "In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man." Since then we have made two changes in the covenant. We deleted the word "Christ" which is a theological judgment about who Jesus was, the Christ or Messiah, a term that could imply divinity. Since UUs do not wish to be bound to any theological interpretation of Jesus or God, the congregation wisely voted to delete the word from our membership covenant. A few years later the word "man" was changed to "humankind" to be more inclusive of both women and men.
The Ames Covenant or variations thereof is probably still the most widely used among us in over a hundred UU churches. Perhaps the next most popular covenant statement is the one developed by L. Griswold Williams for the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit: "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." Another one of my favorites is the "Covenant for Liberals" which was drafted by Walter Royal Jones, Jr.: "Mindful of truth ever exceeding our knowledge, and community ever exceeding our practice, reverently we covenant together, beginning with ourselves as we are, to share the strength of integrity, and the heritage of the spirit, in the unending quest of wisdom and love."
What is the difference between a covenant and a creed? A creed is a statement of theological beliefs. A covenant is a contract or agreement between parties to govern themselves according to certain agreed upon principles and purposes. A covenant represents the obligation of an oath or a promise, much like a wedding vow, except that a religious covenant has no force of secular law behind it. Its appeal is to the gods or to one's conscience and is wholly dependent upon the free consent of the parties involved to live by the terms implied in the covenant. In one sense it is an attempt of a group of people to answer the question: "Who are we?" or "How shall we walk together?"
Unitarian Universalist churches are free to make their own covenants of membership, to define and redefine and make changes in those covenants as each congregation sees fit. Likewise, the UUA Principles and Purposes can be amended and redefined, as has already happened once with the addition of a sixth source, "Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature." The UUA statement of principles and sources concludes with the statement: "Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support." It's the Cambridge Platform all over again adapted to modern times and a liberal religious institution.
Perhaps it is time for us as a congregation to engage in the work of re-covenanting with one another, to affirm our Interdependence as the new UUA study encourages us to do. It may be that it is time to craft a new covenant of membership or to expand upon the one we have. Once we have engaged in the work of re-covenanting perhaps we can go one step further and come up with a Mission Statement for the First Parish in Norwell as we move toward a new millennium and a new era of ministry. A covenant is more or less a statement of our overarching purpose as a congregation. A mission statement is more specific and particular in the vision it seeks to put forth. Who are we? How shall we walk together? What mission should we set for ourselves in the days and years ahead? You are invited to engage and participate in this work beginning at 12 Noon today and running for an hour and a half for the next four to five Sundays. Won't you join us? This church and congregation, including its present and future ministry, belongs to you. IT IS YOU, but only if you choose to make it so. I have every reason to believe that this congregation can face it future with confidence and hope.