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We Covenant Together: Worship That Works
Despite the continuing evidence of Unitarian Universalist (UU) worship’s roots in Protestant Christian liturgical traditions, there is a critical difference between the meaning of UU worship and the meaning understood by other traditions with Protestant identities. It is the difference between worship founded on covenant and worship founded on creeds. This distinction is crucial for our free faith, and answers basic questions about why and how we gather. In his adult curriculum for new members, Rev. Brent Smith states the theological difference succinctly:
In orthodox understanding of religious community, creeds like the Apostle’s Creed define the center of the church. Theology “begins” with the nature of God because human nature is known (it is essentially depraved or sinful). The most important question is, “What is right belief?” When someone asks, “What does your church believe?” they are asking a question from an orthodox view. It looks back to a time when truth was revealed. Its emphasis is on conforming to a consistent, communal understanding of religion (God, Jesus, morality, etc.) and communal norms regarding faith. Consent involves consenting to place oneself under the theological discipline of seeking to understand and adhere to the church’s proclamations of belief. Therefore, the basis of community is an individual’s submission to right belief regarding God, as the church has come to know it.
In the Free Church understanding of religion, covenant is prominent. Theology “begins” with the question of human nature, because the nature of God is unknown, each individual having a different and uniquely direct relationship with God. The most important question is, “How do I treat my neighbor, that is, others?” When someone asks, “What does your church do for and in the world?” they are asking a question from a free religious, or liberal religious, view. It looks ahead to a future because truth unfolds. Its emphasis is on personal integrity and an individual’s understanding of the religious, and on the development of an individual’s faith. Consent is always operative and always shaping the individual because the freedom to explore and understand one’s unique and direct relationship with God is the purpose and aim of spiritual community, of giving one’s consent to walk with others. Therefore, the basis of a community is an individual’s faithfulness to and with others during life, conceived of as a spiritual walk with others.
Covenants are affirmed in our worship because they represent the foundation upon which our understanding of the church rests. Books such as Walking Together by Conrad Wright and Redeeming Time by Walter Herz have revisited the covenantal foundations of our congregational polity, as have UUA leadership and training resources that offer guidance on using covenantal processes to strengthen congregational life. If UU congregations are bound together primarily by the promises we make to each other, rather than by creeds we affirm together, then there is much to commend the routine use of a carefully chosen or composed statement of covenant in worship.
We claim no supernatural authority for the covenants we use in our worship. They are not scriptural texts or creedal statements that claim divine origins or sanctions. They have not been passed down from an ecclesiastical hierarchy that claims to represent divine authority. Our covenants come instead from the hearts and minds of our people. They may have been composed and introduced into worship by ministers; they may have been created by lay leaders, individually or through a group process. Some have been affirmed by a congregational vote; others have become a tradition of congregational life through usage.
As we visited evangelical Protestant congregations, we were struck by how noncreedal their worship is becoming. While these congregations may follow a membership intake and formation process that is powerfully creedal, we need to be careful about viewing all of Protestant worship as defined by their creedal platform. The congregationally based United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ are covenantal traditions. The Baptist and Pentecostal traditions have never featured creedal confession as a prominent aspect of their worship lives. Instead, these traditions have focused on personal testimony of transformed lives as the best statement of what the church believes and means for its members.
Among the congregations we visited was Vineyard Community Church near Cincinnati. We seated ourselves high in the balcony of a sanctuary larger than many concert halls. The high-energy, pop-praise music worship unfolding below us was augmented by a ceremony we had not yet seen at any of the evangelical services we had attended: a baptism.
Vineyard churches use full immersion baptism in a pool of water built into the chancel area. Even at a distance from the ritual, we were struck by the fact that it was not the minister who proclaimed the believers baptized and saved; it was the person or people who had been most important in introducing them to the Christian way of life. Their use of digital projection capabilities also made an impression on us. As people were escorted into the pool and immersed, there was an accompanying video in which each spoke about what their conversion and baptism meant to them.
Although there was no commonly spoken creed, we were aware that this congregation believed that lives are transformed by the encounter with the Christ and the God they praised, and they held up those testimonials as evidence of both their creed and their covenant.
What we fail to do frequently enough in our UU churches is illustrate the power of our covenants with opportunities in worship for members to testify to the difference their membership commitments have made in their lives. The covenants we use in worship are maps of the same territory we cover in our Unitarian Universalist Purposes and Principles, and in our congregational statements of mission and vision. They are liturgical responses to questions about what we are doing when we worship and why our people come to worship; where we find life’s most important salvific meanings; and how we respond to those meanings in worship and daily living.
In a paper on style in liberal worship, prepared for the Prairie Group in 2002, Rev. Roy Philips points us towards five meanings around which we may covenant through our worship:
- We share a common human journey, and so we covenant to value what is common among us over what separates and divides us.
- Each of us has unique dignity and gifts, and so we covenant to recognize and celebrate the dignity and gifts among us in the common life we share.
- We have a responsibility to envision and create a better world, and so we covenant to support and encourage our individual and common efforts towards its attainment.
- Despite the mystery that surrounds our ultimate destiny as a human race, our lives are worthy of praise, and so we covenant to help each other engage the mystery with praise.
- Religion is a human response to the mysterious otherness we encounter in our lives, and so we covenant to cultivate and explore the religious response among us as a defining and ennobling activity of the human race.
To summarize, we covenant to value our common journey, to recognize and respect our individual dignity and gifts, to support the attainment of a better world, to praise the mystery, and to engage in the practices of a religious life.
We encourage any congregation engaging in mission/covenant work that will affect its worship life to explore each of these components, because congregational life is diminished if all five are not present. We would also contend that transformative Unitarian Universalist worship will find ways to hold up in the service stories of how lives have been changed for the better by being bound by these covenants.