Sunday, 26 February 2012

Covenant: The Unitarian Parallel

I was particularly impressed with Andrew Davison's paper, given as a presentation in a Norwich listening seminar, against the Anglican Communon Covenant. On its own terms it states that the Covenant makes a mistake in being institutionally human to human (thus unimportant) and regarding people as divided and in need of unity, whereas Covenants are of God to people whose baptism already makes a unity between them.

This is specifically Christian and for a non-confessing Church. What I'd like to do is transfer some of its ideas to Unitarianism.

Unitarians can say 'we covenant' and the legitimacy of that is from an English Presbyterian past.

But when we do say something like: 'We convenant together in the cause of Liberal Religion' it is not something that begins just there.

The assumption is that this has been done before. To say this is not just present-future only, but something that is continuous by being in that gathering.

The 'we' is assumed to be the congregation. In Unitarianism the Church is the congregation. The General Assembly is more like a Communion. However, the 'we' may imply all Unitarians.

This is quite a claim. There are some Unitarians that have a catechisis. These central European Unitarians are of a different tradition, even if they've handled similar ideas at one time or another. They are low Protestants with Superintendent Ministers as well as ministers. Other Unitarians might derive from African wishes for freedom from a directive denomination. A bishop goes to a post office and likes what he sees of Unitarianism on a connected computer and, bingo, a group of churches are thus designated. A charismatic bishop in the United States became a universalist, and the one place he found freedom to be was the Unitarian Universalists.

They all ought to be on a quest for liberty and liberality, and recommend it for others. Now when I take a service I include intercessions (why not - its a focus on others) and still use the Anglican model of Church, world, sick and dead. In this case, Church means people of faith [including humanists] and then specifically the Unitarian identified.

So a covenant together is all these people identified and for the general purpose, unless otherwise stated. For, despite the diversity and difference, there is a claim to unity. The unity is not in Christ, or Buddha or any such, nor in any theology, though it is religious: it is in the place of liberty and liberality in the religious quest and therefore the upholding of the individual.

Older Unitarian theology took that liberty as being a wish of God: the freedom we have say to sin or not to sin, and the ability to turn away from sin [I notice in the older hymn book still quite a bit on sin and turning from it].

Newer Unitarian theology cannot make that assumption, or at least must stretch the meaning of God (as I do). Nevertheless to make a covenant is to be both Unitarian in identity and to affirm liberty and the place of liberality.

This is different from Andrew Davison's point, in so far as:

We are not individuals who contract or covenant into relation. It is not, as the Covenant has it, that the 'Instruments of Communion… enable [our Churches] to be conformed together to the mind of Christ'.

In fact we are, and oddly the individual that keeps silent does not so covenant, but is still part of the identity - the objection would have to be that there is something anti-libertarian illiberal in the liberty-liberal statement. It really does need individual consent. But I am agreeing (once translated) that:

No: Christ's death, our baptism, the Eucharist, the Scriptures we have in common - these conform us to Christ, not any legal mechanism.

Obviously not Christ's death - no one person's death makes anything - but the common identity is already that liberty and liberality of the covenanting together.

This means something important. That there is a unity already established. If the covenant is for all then we are stating a unity. Therefore the great differences that exist in theology in the UK, across the evolved version of Unitarianism, and then across other versions, are differences and disagreements, but not to the extent that they affect unity. Because there is still the social gospel of difference as exercised within a religious community. The covenant made is a witness to that.

Same with Anglicanism: that there is not a state of disunity where a covenant needs to bring Churches together to form a unity, but a state of unity where there are differences that require other means to express that unity more fully. Unity does not mean uniformity. Expressing unity more fully might involve the same number of differences!

I might have problems with the theology and practice of some American churches, or of some African churches: more's the pity for me. God has saved me into the same Body as them.

Nevertheless, the reason to make a covenant is to emphasise the unity, and that means reconciling. Again Davison's paper makes this point. A congregation may have gone through a divisive argument, and the purpose of stating a covenant then may well be to emphasise that unity which underlies the ability to have, the necessity to recover from, the argument just had. People may have walked off, they may come back soon, or later, or not at all. New people coming perhaps need a sense of unity exclaimed.

There may be a time when ethical anti-libertarian and illiberal actions and directions cause a more of a collective split. More often than not, in history, those who wanted less liberty and more credal affirmation walked off together, even if liberty was relatively new. Sometimes splits have to happen.

There is always a danger of factions and fractions, or walking out. Individuals do indeed walk out. I did a few times. I went effectively saying, this is illiberal, unethical, not right. Sometimes you just have to do it. But in the end, you also reconcile. It is untidy but people move on and groups move on. The principles are going to guide you back to that fellowship should you have kept them (of course you may also leave if your principles have changed).

Unitarian churches are free to innovate. That's half the point. The full money-legalisation of British Unitarianism in 1844 was from the argument of a congregation evolving its faith over 25 years.

There is one continuing bugbear in all of this, and it is in the General Assembly Object - that bit that is to uphold the Liberal Christian tradition. It doesn't matter that people are told it is not a creed. It has credal implications, and expects people will be doing this, whether they want to or not. Unitarians (as elsewhere in the GA Object) have the freedom to take faith where they will. That upholding part of the GA Object was anti-liberty and wrong to insert and I'll continue to say so. It is wrong on exactly those Unitarian principles on which I'd be happy to covenant.

Incidentally, I am not a member of the congregation at Hull. For some, covenanting is indicated by membership. Being a friend means some form of distancing. For me it is a more a Martineau-like (updated) statement of a general attachment than a congregational one, that I also have problems with the illiberal consequences of pure congregationalism where a clique can demand ideological conformity and there is little that can be done to stop it (other than internally). So in this sense I do covenant with the greater sense of liberty and liberality of Unitarianism. I also affirm the proper role of the General Assembly as the Unitarian Communion (and not, say, Unitarian Ministries International), but I do it with a huge objection to its Object. I want to see that Object revised and dislike the absence of attention it receives on the basis that it makes itself redundant. It doesn't. So my approach isn't without difficulties, and I'd covenant on general principles but probably not on specifics.

Oh and we should and do value relationships that enhance and give stability to individuals, and reflect these in ministry and blessings. Yes, some congregations have votes that can be to the contrary, but there is nothing in principle against these other than individual difficulties in contrary voting. I'd say this area should come within the realm of the minister's right to freedom of worship, and somehow transfer that principle when there is no minister. But whilst I could not vote, my congregation did take a positive vote for when a possible ceremony arose to take place in the building (but didn't actually take place).

As it happens, I cannot remember the last time we did a congregational 'we covenant together to' within worship, but I remember it from Rev. Ernest Penn on the general principles outlined and I did join in. I was probably a member then; I changed my mind after Unitarian College.

Still, covenanting is something we could do more, based on these underlying principles of already affirmed unity.

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