A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon
Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – June 13, 2010
We come from good stock. Our theological forebears are the Puritans who came to this country for religious freedom. Now when you think about our very flexible attitude toward worship and the five or six hours of sitting on hard benches wearing those funny hats and studying the Bible worship of the Puritans, it’s hard to realize that we came from the same stock. But we did. What do we inherit from them? Well, in addition to our belief in religious freedom, we have inherited our congregational polity. “Polity,” what’s that you might ask. Well, let me tell you a story.
In the early days of the seventeenth century a young man by the name of John Robinson who was a brillant scholar was appointed to serve St. Andrews parish in Norfolk, England. He was a wonderful preacher and his congregation was growing. But he found himself troubled by the idea of some recent rulings by some bishops in the Church of England that obliged all citizens of the parish to belong to the parish in which they lived. He did not see church as being something that was forced on people. He did not think people could be coerced to believe or belong to something. He didn’t believe in creedal confessions, or obligation of membership to a church.
Instead what he believed was important in membership to a church was a promise, a covenant to come together in faith as individuals who with their own integrity decided to walk together.
In 1607, he got together a group of his members who believed as he did in this concept of covenant, and they formed a congregation. Each member agreed to freely join as they said in their covenant, “in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all His ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors.”
This little band was later known as the Pilgrims. They were much maligned for their audacity in thinking they could form their own church without King or Church authority. They fled to Holland and spent the next 12 years in Amsterdam then Leyden. Then in 1620, about 100 of them set sail for America where they landed and built a community and a church. Their congregation, First Parish of Plymouth is the oldest congregation that we can identify as being our American roots of Unitarianism. And the roots were founded in covenant.
At the heart of our Unitarian tradition is the idea of freely joining together and making promises to each other about how we want to be together. About who we are and who we want to be. These promises are sometimes implicit, not written down. And sometimes they are written. But they are constantly changing as we change, as different people join us and have different ideas. Our covenant is fluid and dynamic, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
As our reading today from Rebecca Parker suggested, “We inherit covenant before we create covenant.” We have inherited much from our Puritan forebears, and from our Unitarian and Universalist founders as well. One of the things we inherited is congregational polity.
Polity means how we are governed. From the time of that first band of Pilgrims who later became known as Puritans, we inherited the idea that a congregation governs itself freely. That the members of a congregation come together and decide how they want to be together. They make decisions that could be considered promises to each other about how they want to do things. These decisions, either written or unstated, become the covenant that holds them together.
The other historical tradition that reflects our congregational polity is our association of congregations. The UUA is not technically a denomination. There is no creedal statement that churches or members must accept to become a part of the association. We freely choose to operate together in an association of churches. In the By-laws of the UUA, it is a “voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships… which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together.” Congregational polity is not just about one church being autonomous, but about a group of autonomous churches being in relationship to one another. Our churches are “covenantal communities” and we are in covenant with other “covenantal communities”. (Earl K. Holt III, Redeeming Time, p. 30)
So what holds us together? Why do we create these covenants? James Luther Adams, Unitarian theologian says that our creation of a covenant comes from our inherent feeling of being a part of something larger than ourselves, whatever that may be. He says,
“Traditionally, our churches have been grounded in a covenant binding us together… but this enterprise of maintaining the network is itself not to be understood as simply a human enterprise. It is a response to a divinely given creative power, a sustaining-power, a community-transforming power. This power is ultimately not of our own making…” (Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, p. 252)
Whether we see this larger thing as the natural universe, the Spirit of Life, universal love – whatever we see it as – it envelops us and beckons us into this communion. We feel it represented as our community here – something larger than ourselves of which we are a part. And as a part of it, we want to shape it and create it into something better, something visionary. That is what our forebears saw when they decided that church was not something obligatory but something that people freely chose and freely created together. It was and is by covenant that this vision of Beloved Community is formed.
Puritan Richard Mather wrote in 1644 that “Covenant may be implied by constant and frequent acts of communion performed by a company of Saints joined together by cohabitation in towns and villages… the falling in of their spirits into communion in things spiritual…”
How do we “fall in” with our spirits into “communion in things spiritual.” It sounds rather Christian. But is it? Isn’t it just how we are together?
When we get together and have a meeting and we do check-in and hear about someone’s mother being sick, or someone’s child having troubles – isn’t that a “communion of things spiritual?” And when we get together and paint the church or pull weeds or make coffee – isn’t that a covenant that we’ll take care of this church together?
And when we get 40-50 of us and meet downtown and march in the Pride Parade – isn’t that a communion performed by a company of Saints? Isn’t that something spiritual?
And when we sing here every Sunday – “Here we have gathered, called to celebrate”? And creating a covenant of our selves, a covenant of what we see as meaningful?
Our covenant is defined by many things:
- how we treat one another
- what we do together in this church
- what we do together out in the community
- how we care for one another when one of us is hurting
- how we come together on Sunday morning
- our by-laws and our policy and our Covenant of Right Relationship
- the financial pledges we make
- the positions of responsibility we hold
All of these things are a part of our covenant together. And it’s because of this feeling of being a part of something larger, something of great meaning, something spiritual that we do this.