“Have you been to the bathroom yet?”
It’s not the typical pre-workshop conversation my colleagues and I share as we set up projectors, easels, and workbooks for participants. My answer was no, so my colleague proceeded to describe what she found there.
There was a beautiful painting in an ornate gold-trimmed frame which depicted several early settlers to Massachusettts’s shores standing on a windswept dune. To their right, the ocean, with silhouettes of boats in the style of the Mayflower sailing (presumably) back to England. To their left, the harsh “New World” landscape almost daring them to tame it.
This was a congregation in Eastern Massachusetts, so the connection to the Pilgrims and the Mayflower makes sense. It’s likely that this church’s ancestors could be traced back to that historic moment. But also - the bathroom?? It's an odd place to hang portraits of our ancestors.
We followed up with our host congregation but no one there could say they knew why that painting was hanging there. Perhaps it led some folks to explore their history and tend to their congregation’s tradition. But that discovery had raised for me questions about not only our ancestors but one of their most significant gifts: the concept of covenant.
Unitarian Universalists are very proud to be part of a covenantal tradition, as compared to doctrinal or creedal faith. “We need not think alike to love alike,” we say. We have no confessions of faith to make in order to claim - and be claimed by - Unitarian Universalism. We are an Association of Congregations who have covenanted to support one another. Those pilgrims who fled all they knew and loved to pursue freedom of religion and an uncertain future brought with them the concept of Covenant that we inherited. Not a set of laws that could be policed and enforced, Covenant lives in the realm of “Obedience to the Unenforceable” (this language is credited to Lord Fletcher Moulton), much like the Golden Rule does.
While we all accept being part of a covenantal faith, we don’t all understand covenant in the same way. Many of us wouldn’t share our ancestor’s understanding of covenant, which began and ended with promises made between their God and themselves. They could not extend the grace of covenantal relationships to the indigenous communities they encountered here, nor later to the Black Africans who were enslaved and brought here. The land and the labor of those people were stolen and exploited to build some of the same churches we worship in today. While religiously progressive among European Christians, our ancestors’ practice of covenant was nonetheless as limiting at the time as we would see it today.
I was thinking of this recently while visiting one of our congregations. In a conversation after worship, I heard several earnest questions -
Will I be called out of covenant?
Will my friends be welcome here if they have different beliefs?
It breaks my heart a little when I hear covenant understood as punishment. As a weapon that delineates between the “in” crowd and the exiled. Those pilgrims, and the congregational DNA they left us, might be an unreconciled piece of our history it is time to reckon with. There is a seed of exclusivity in our history. A story in our past that says our covenant is for us, and alone. It is for keeping some others out. In that light it makes sense that we might have some fear that we could find ourselves exiled from covenant one day.
But friends, covenant isn’t a punishment, it is a practice. We inherit it freely, yes, but it is hard work to maintain and sustain it. Covenant doesn't decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ Covenant is there to hold us together and guide us through when we are having tender, difficult conversations; when there are multiple values in tension with each other; when we are activated, and it’s hard to be our best self. More than words on a page, it is a living connection to our ancestors, calling us to remember the dreams they dreamed for us. Reminding us to be the people our descendants will be proud of. It is our link to one another, and the promises and concessions we make to live in diverse communities. Covenant reminds us that there is something greater than ourselves in whose presence we make and keep our promises - call it God, Spirit, Beloved Community, or by any other name.
Our practices of spiritual leadership overlap and underlie each other. To practice Covenant requires us to tend to our tradition. To hold ourselves to our unenforceable covenants in anxious times requires us to do our inner work. Covenant is the invisible thread that allows us to claim and be claimed by our faith tradition; to be connected to each other; aligned with our vision of Beloved Community, across our differences. Four centuries after a band of religious refugees set down roots in New England, covenant does not define an exclusive club; it’s an expansive thread linking us to all of our neighbors and to a common destiny.
Imagine the portraits of this generation of Unitarian Universalists: ordinary, faithful friends, reckoning with our history, listening to where our present is calling us, and building more generous and liberating practices of covenant that will hold our 22nd century descendants in an interdependent web of fierce love and hope.