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….There is no greater church than a congregation which meets in one place.
(The Cambridge Platform -1648 , Revised Ed., Peter W. Murdy)
We do here now…renew that Covenant that we were formerly in together as a Church of Christ, (that) we will walke in all the ways of God that are and shall be revealed to us out of his word,…so farre as God shall enable us…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 good of their souls. . (From the Second Parish in South Scituate – Now the First Parish in Norwell - 1642)
The making of covenants, religious and secular, is a very ancient practice dating back to Biblical times and earlier. One of the earliest attempts in our own New England history goes back to the making of the Cambridge Platform in 1648 which set the model for future Protestant covenants including our own UU versions in Norwell and Chatham.
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 U.S. 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 as it ever was.
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. On 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 today--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, and in your own church by-laws here in Chatham or my former parish in Norwell or elsewhere.
It could be said that individuals join 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 much more difficult and the quality of the product would be much less than what we have today.
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 in practice. Walking together implies much more than the preservation of our precious individualism.
I have had the pleasure of serving three different congregations within the Ballou Channing District of the UUA and each of them had different but similar Affirmations or Covenants that they have used in their worship and church governance policy. I began my ministry in Middleboro in 1964. I remember that the church had a framed plaque hanging in the narthex in the front of the church which declared in large bold print:
The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man,
The Leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character,
The Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.
I did not know it at the time, but the declaration was composed by the late 19th Century Boston minister, James Freeman Clarke in 1886, in a sermon entitled, “Five Points of a New Theology”. It was a popular summation of Unitarian thinking at the time, but years later was criticized for its naïve view of human nature, overly optimistic to say the least. The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood man are not exactly up to date with 21st century feminist theology, and the joke that has made the rounds was that it left out the most important fact of its composition and viewpoint—the Neighborhood of Boston. Not exactly global in import. It was still okay for Middleboro in 1964, but the sign disappeared into a steeple closest not long after I moved a little closer to the Neighborhood of Boston in 1969. To Norwell, Massachusetts.
My second and longest period of ministry was at the First Parish in Norwell from 1969-2000. The Covenant of Membership at that time was 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 adapted the Ames Covenant in the latter part of the 19th 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." During my ministry the congregation made two changes in the covenant. They deleted the word "Christ" which is a theological judgment about who Jesus was (the Christ or Messiah), and then a few years later changed the word "man" to "humankind" to be more inclusive of both women and men. And then in 2003, three years after my retirement, the Norwell parish decided to drop the Ames Covenant from its bylaws and they wrote a new one.
In the bonds of fellowship and love, we unite
To cultivate reverence,
To promote spiritual growth and ethical commitment,
To minister to each other’s needs and to those of humanity,
To celebrate the sacred moments of life’s passage,
And to honor the holiness at the heart of being.
First Parish Church’s Covenant, adopted March 23, 2003
Much more humanistic and universal in tone and outreach.
Another popular affirmaton from a Unitarian source in 1894, comes from the Rev. James Vila Blake, in Evanston, Illinois, which reads as follows:
Love is the spirit of this church,
And service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
That has a familiar ring to it does it not? The Bridgewater and Chatham congregations still use the Blake affirmation, but change the word “law” to “gift” or “foundation”, thus softening the tone and making it less legalistic. You cannot command love and service. You can only give or offer it from the heart. It all comes down to the closing line, “to help one another.” That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it.
Mention should also be made of two other affirmations and covenants from the Universalist side of the ledger, which were popular in their day, and one of them still is in many UU churches today. The first was known as “The Washington Declaration”, which was approved by the UCA convention in D.C. in 1935, and read as follows:
We avow our faith:
In God as eternal and all-conquering love,/ In the spiritual leadership of Jesus,/ In the supreme worth of every human personality,/ In the authority of truth known or to be known, /And in the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil, and progressively to establish the kingdom of God.
You can hear echoes of some of those pharases in the current UUA Principles and Purposes: like, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (the supreme worth of every hum,an personality). The other Universalist covenant statement was arranged by UU minister, L. Griswold Williams for the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit, and was called, “A Covenant For Free Worship”:
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 mankind 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.
Within the Ballou Channing District, the Brockton and the Barnstable UU churches still use variations of the Griswold Williams covenant, and I am sure there are many other UU churches that still use it elsewhere as well.
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 or heart and is wholly dependent upon the free consent of the parties involved to live by the terms implied in the covenant.
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.
A covenant is more or less a statement of our overarching purpose as a congregation. Some UU churches go further and try to develop a mission statement, which is more specific and particular in the vision it seeks to put forth. A Covenant or Mission seeks to answer the question of who we are, and how we shall walk together through this mysterious world of life and death, and joys and sorrows.
When my spirit is struggling to rise above the world weariness and despair that presses in upon us all, I for one am grateful that I have a church to go to, and a community of faith to belong to, that gives me courage, hope and endurance in the face of all that would undermine my belief in the worthfulness of life. We all need more help in that life long endeavor than we can ever say.
Though we may use different words and language from one church covenant or affirmation to another, we are all attempting to say in various ways that we seek to give expression to a covenant of wholeness and way of being that will affirm and sustain us through all the changes and transformations of this life. It was true 370 plus years ago, is still true today, and will be ever more. Amen.