Ways of Truth and Affection

Sarah Richards
September 18, 2016

Ways of Truth and Affection

How shall we answer this month’s question, what does it mean to be a community of covenant? I have frequently heard people refer to the Fellowship being like “family,” and I think that’s generally a positive thing, I don’t really expect folks to say, “we’re like a close covenanted community,” I get that. But the thing about family is, you’re born or brought or married into it, you don’t choose it. And you don’t have to do much to stay a member of the family, and in fact in some cases, people feel they’d like to stop being in their family, or that some other relatives would leave. Getting in, and staying in a covenanted community, by contrast, is a matter of informed choice and dedication to staying in, and coming back into covenant when you make a mistake. It requires dedication to the community to help others stay in through disagreement. All of these tough requirements, why bother? Why not just quit, walk away, find some other group that doesn’t ask for so much? What is so special about covenants, these frameworks for relating? How can they hold us together when we find ourselves at odds?

The founders of Dedham, Massachusetts didn’t really have many options other than “staying in.” Unlike other New England towns settled in the early 17th century, these folks didn’t come from the same town back in England, they didn’t even come over on the same boats. UU historian Alice Blair Wesley researched this extraordinary example of community creation, and tells their story:

So, guess what these New Englanders did in 1637 to get to know each other and to approach—gently, slowly—some very profound and personal religious issues? They set up a series of weekly neighborhood meetings, “lovingly to discourse and consult together… and prepare for spiritual communion in a church society, … that we might be further acquainted with the (spiritual) tempers and gifts of one another.” Meetings were held every Thursday “at several houses in order,” in rotation. Anybody in town who wanted was welcome to attend[i].

We know about these meetings because someone took notes. Alice Blair Wesley found “intriguing features in those meeting records: “For example, we all know the New England colonists were a “people of the Book,” the Bible. But they did not begin to talk about a church by talking about the Bible. By way of laying a basis for discussion of the church, they began by addressing a question of common sense or natural law.[ii]

…. After much general talk about “civil society,” they began to edge toward talk about a church. Their first question on this subject was: Here we are, not presently members of any church. We don’t know each other well, religiously. Are we qualified to “assemble together… [and] confer” like this? Their answer: We are, if, “in the judgment of charity,” we seem to be and think we are acting out of (in our terms) genuinely deep, religious love…

Next question: Well, if we can meet like this, just as neighbors, isn’t this enough? Maybe we don’t need a church. Their answer: No, this is too casual. If we really want to live in the ways of our deepest love, then we must intentionally form a much deeper community of love… And besides, others in the larger society need the example of love which a free church will publicly show forth…

These laypeople’s central conclusion, from all these weeks of discussion, was this: Members of their new free church should be joined in a covenant of religious loyalty to the spirit of love. And once members were joined in a covenant, of their own writing and signing, the members’ loyalty in the church should be only to the spirit of love, working in their own hearts and minds. No one—not the Governor, nor the General Court, not even members of other similarly covenanted churches—would have any authority in the local free church. They were not sectarian loners… They thought they should and they did seek counsel from neighboring churches.[iii]

There are some similarities between the founders of the Dedham church, and the founders of this very Fellowship in the early 1950’s, chiefly the concern with freedom of thought, and congregational independence, what we call congregational polity, but also in the coming together by choice, agreeing to promises of their own creation.

The Dedham church’s understanding of covenant was rooted in their Christian tradition, which itself flows from the earlier promise made between God and the Jewish people. Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams analyzed the meanings of covenant from this “original” source. He proposed that

The first characteristic of human collective existence is commitment, that is making an agreement, a promise. Promising is a characteristic feature of meaningful human existence….The meaning of life is found in the processes and responsibilities of groups and institutions….This is one of the great insights in history, namely that one is related to the collective in such a way as to be responsible for the consequences of one’s actions and for the consequences of collective action.[iv]

Adams goes on to note that the covenant includes a rule of law, “a consensus and a commitment with regard to what is right.[v]” Making up the rules of the game, as we talked about in the Time for All Ages earlier, also means defining cheating, breaking the rules—as Adams says, “The desire for justice can be fulfilled only through collective concern with law as the major agency of social control.[vi]” That sounds pretty stark, as if the covenant between God and humans, or between a group of kids playing tag is all about law and order, crime and punishment. Adams reassures us that “It is not only a covenant based on adherence to law but also upon trust and affection. One maintains responsibility for the collective, not, finally, because it is the law, but because of love. The responsibility is motivated by affection. Thus the breaking of the covenant is not merely a violation in the sense of criminality but in the sense of breaking faithfulness, of violating the affection that was the ground and nerve of the covenant in the first place.[vii]

What wondrous love is this, that calls us to make promises to ourselves and each other, to bind us by choice to responsibility beyond our own comfort and growth. In this way, the bonds of our Fellowship’s covenant are less like family, and more like marriage – there are rules set down, but their basis—at least in this culture—is love and affection. I don’t want to go too far with this analogy, I’m not talking about mass wedding or group marriage! But many, many people have recognized the similarity: how many of you have heard this passage from Corinthians at weddings?

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

These words fit beautifully in a wedding ceremony, but Paul did not write them for that purpose at all—he wrote them to chastise the Christian church members in Corinth to quit squabbling, stop posturing, insisting on their own way, being irritable or resentful, and remember the basis for their being together: love.

Our covenants today are quite different in many respects from the ones described in Hebrew and Christian Scripture, and from the Dedham Church. But they all are based in love and faithfulness among the covenanted community. The promises made help define the identity and purpose of the covenanted community, and they remind us why and how to “stay in” when the promises are broken. Here’s CUF’s affirmational covenant developed and adopted last spring:

We are the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship: a statement of identity.

With compassion we honor our whole selves, each other and our beloved community. With intention, we choose to walk together in fellowship. We are talking here of our intentional choice, and how we’d like to be in relationship.

We seek truth and growth together, nurturing each other’s spirit and sense of reverence. What we’ll do, and how will do it, with love.

We respect all individuals and strive to create a world where all are treated with love and dignity. Here is our vision for the world, based in love.

We believe all people have strengths and wisdom, and are able to contribute to our faith community. Respect.

We give action to our faith through service and the pursuit of justice in the wider world. Every act of service, lovingly performed, matters. Here we promise to put love into action; it brings to mind the Social Justice network of the UUA, Standing on the Side of Love.

We value diversity in its many forms and welcome with open minds and hearts, all those who come among us. What wondrous love is this, that challenges us to open our minds and hearts, keep them open even when we feel fear and anger.

Looking at our CUF covenant, and our UU covenant, our seven principles, we see there is a purpose beyond staying in, returning to covenant so that we can enjoy our game of tag that is congregational life. It is also about making the world a more just, more compassionate, more loving place. James Luther Adams’ analysis of prophetic covenant includes the understanding that “Responsibility for promoting mercy and justice, especially for the deprived, requires criticizing those who have power in the society.[viii]” In other words, love is not only at the root of our promises within our congregation, it is in its branches—our work in the world–as well.

A covenanted community is not a family, it is not a club, whose concerns are inward-focused, it is a congregation that has a voice and takes action in the world according to its promises. So according to both the CUF covenant and the UU covenant, it is necessary, but not sufficient to love and respect yourself, and those like you in your community; it is necessary, but not sufficient to love and respect those who are different from you in your community, it is necessary—Adams would say, we have a responsibility– to act in love and respect on behalf of those who are unloved and disrespected by the powers that be in our society; the marginalized and dismissed. Some of you are familiar with the interfaith Moral Monday movement started last year in North Carolina by that state’s NAACP chair, the Reverend William Barber III. Last week, many UUs took part in a coordinated event in 30 state capitols, Bill Sasso and I represented CUF in Springfield. The Higher Ground Moral Declaration that was read and delivered to elected officials that day speaks to the responsibility of covenant:

“Following moral traditions rooted in our faith and the Constitution, we are called to stand up for justice and tell the truth. We challenge the position that the preeminent moral issues today are about prayer in public schools, abortion, and homosexuality. Instead, we declare the deepest public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, children, workers, immigrants and the sick; equality and representation under the law; and the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations.[ix]

Friends, when we are filled with frustration, when we have broken our promises to treat each other with love and respect, may we remember what wondrous love is this, that brings us together, and calls us to stay in.

When we are filled with anger at injustice, may we remember that when we were sinking down, friends to us gathered round, and reach out to do the same for those sinking all around us in the world.

What wondrous love is this, oh my soul.


[i] Wesley, Alice Blair, 2002.Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures, The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant (Chicago: Meadville-Lombard Press, 18-19.

[ii] Ibid, p. 19

[iii] Ibid, pp. 21-2.

[iv] Adams, James Luther, 1977. “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern” in The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1998. George Kimmich Beach, ed. Boston, Skinner House Books, 232.

[v] Ibid, p. 234, emphasis added.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid, p. 233.

[ix] http://www.moralrevival.org/moraldeclaration/ accessed 9/17/16.