Sunday, April 26, 2009

We covenant...

Third in a series of posts about the April 2009 UUA Board meeting

When I think about how the UUA Board might be accountable to the "heritage, traditions and ideals of Unitarian Universalism", one of our "sources of authority and accountability", I think of Burton Carley.

The Reverend Burton Carley is the minister at the Church of the River in Memphis, Tennessee, and an outgoing member of the UUA Board from the Southwest District. During my two years on the Board, Burton has consistently been the voice representing our historic traditions and reminding us that we are a faith, not merely an organization.

Friday night's conversation on covenant, led by Burton and the Rev. Barbara Merritt, senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, continued this practice. The earliest covenant from our historical Biblical perspective is the one cited in Genesis 9: 12-15 between God and humans: a rainbow, promise that there would never again be a flood to destroy them. Burton has written an excellent paper that goes from here through history, including the Mayflower Compact and Cambridge Platform, to our current Purpose and Principals.

Over the past few years I have come to appreciate the role that covenant plays in Unitarian Universalism, a concept that is far too absent in our conversations and practice. Burton identified 4 covenants: the primary one is what we have in relation to the community we join as a congregation member. Though we may often think of ourselves as a "big tent", holding all comers, I think it is more accurate to describe our faith as a voluntary covenant, replacing a creed, agreeing to work and worship together. This would argue that the roughly half million UUs who show up in census counts but are not members of some sort of congregation (including the Church of the Larger Fellowship) may have UU values, but have failed to accept one of the most important tenets of the faith.

We talk even less about the lateral covenant between congregations, called out in Section C-2.1 of our by-laws: As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support. "Mutual support" between congregations happens, but we congratulate ourselves for activities that appear to be few and far between. This is not intentional -- most congregation members do not tend to think beyond their own congregation (I have been there). Perhaps a better understanding of our historical heritage and traditions would change that. Per Burton:

It is the communal memory of the historical nature of covenant that gives depth to the present reality of covenant. It creates a people rather than a disparate collection of individuals. It joins past to the future. It binds the many into one community without sacrificing the individual. It grounds the power of voluntary belonging. It lifts us up and bears us through the world when by ourselves we would be bereft of courage and without consequence in the larger culture. It bonds us to something more than ourselves and calls us beyond self concern to be partners in justice making. It causes us to remember the promise of who we are and who we might become. It gives the context for the present day reality of our covenant that joins individuals from all peoples. It makes rich our worship which is the primary location for the covenantal practices of memory. It makes real how we practice a faith.

[for copies of Burton's paper, contact]

Next post: UUA Finances


Bill Baar said...

...a concept that is far too absent in our conversations and practice.Why do you write that? We recite our every Sunday. I often refer to it in blog posts. It's fundamental to my life as a UU.

Linda Laskowski said...

My comment addresses "practice", Bill. Many congregations cite their congregation's covenant, and may or may not teach that voluntary covenanting is part of being a UU. My concern is more about the covenant to support other congregations. I don't think we do it well, and would love to be wrong about that.