as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, May 15, 2022
As some of you might remember, I was raised a Unitarian Universalist in East Lansing, Michigan. In my home congregation we had an important ritual. Each and every Sunday, as part of the service, we recited our congregational covenant. I can still remember it:
Love is the spirit of this church,
and service is its law;
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
The words came from James Vila Blake. A Unitarian minister, he had composed them in conversation with his congregation, the Unitarian Church of Evanston, in the late nineteenth-century. They soon proved popular with other humanist oriented congregations throughout the Midwest. Many adopted them as their congregational covenant.
I am not exactly certain when the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing embraced Blake’s words for its covenant. But by the time I came along its members had been reciting them for just shy of a century.
Covenant… Unitarian Universalist congregations distinguish ourselves from many other religious institutions is that we are covenantal, not creedal, communities. Creeds are statements of shared belief. They provide attestations of what must be believed if someone is to be a member of a given church.
Members of our communities have long been suspicious of such creedal statements. For generations, our congregations have held that religious belief–what you and I understand to be true about the nature of the world and the divine–is best left as a matter for individual conscience.
The first two words in the list of sources that inspire our living tradition are “direct experience.” We place the ultimate site for theological authority not in scripture or received tradition. We locate it each individual’s lived experience.
Now, my lived experience is always going to be different than yours. And your lived experience is going to be different than mine. This means that it is somewhat unlikely that we are going to be able to settle precisely on a shared set of beliefs–especially when it comes to theological matters. We might each have had experiences of “transcending mystery and wonder,” but what those experiences were and how we interpreted them are ultimately individual matters.
Rather than argue about whose experiences and interpretations should take priority, we agree to respect each other’s consciences. The core of our tradition was summarized by Earl Morse Wilbur as “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” And our religious ancestors thought that it was not for me, even as the preacher, to tell you what to believe. Nor is it for you to impose your beliefs upon others. Instead, it is for us to freely explore together what is true and be humble enough to admit that what is true for you might not be true for me.
Now, those of you who drove by the Fannin entrance this week might have a question about what the statement I just made. On Tuesday, you might note, one of our members–with my blessing–chalked the words, “We support abortion rights” under our congregation’s name. And you might be wondering, by claiming that we support abortion rights, are we not making some sort of creedal statement?
Our support for abortion rights is actually a good illustration of Unitarian Universalist understandings of conscience and covenant. Debates around abortion are theological arguments that rest upon questions like: When does life begin? Does a mother’s life or a child’s life take priority when there is a dangerous pregnancy? Should women have control over their bodies and the right to make a decision about whether or not to birth a child?
How you answer these questions depends a great deal upon your theology. And, as an aside, I really do mean theology. The polling data is quite clear on this point. The pollster YouGov has found that, amongst White people, the group most likely to oppose abortion rights, more than 90% of atheists and over 80% of Jews want abortion to be legal. In contrast, only 30% of White evangelical Christians are in favor of abortion rights.
Like I said, how you answer a question like, When does life begin? is a theological matter. People have a hard time agreeing upon theological matters.
In the United States, many people view either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament as sources of theological authority. You might imagine that these texts present one view, or offer only one interpretation, on how believers are to understand abortion. However, an examination of the texts should quickly disabuse you of such a notion.
Now, I am not going to reiterate the scriptural interpretations of opponents of abortion rights–based as they are, as far as I can tell, on a willful misreading of passages such as the one found in the first chapter of Jeremiah, “Before I formed in the womb I knew you.” You have most likely heard a lot of theological arguments based on that passage claiming that abortion is a great moral evil.
Instead, I want to share with you that it is quite possible to construct a theological argument, based on the Hebrew Bible, that supports abortion rights. Such an argument might counter a citation of Jeremiah with a reference to the second chapter of Genesis, “the Lord formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
The breath of life… here we have scriptural statement that life does not begin with conception. It commences with the first breath.
An alternative theological argument for abortion rights might begin with an interpretation of the fifth chapter of Numbers. The passage I am thinking of is long–it takes up most of the chapter–and I am not going to read the whole thing to you. And interpretation might be the wrong word to use in reference to it. If you read the passage, and I suggest to all our evangelical friends that they do, you will find “the Lord” speaking to Moses and giving him instructions on how priests are to perform abortions.
Yes, you heard me correctly, the fifth chapter of Numbers–which is one of the first books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the most sacred part, in the Jewish tradition, of the biblical texts–offers instructions for performing abortions. A portion of the text reads, “here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman, ‘… may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.’ And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!’.” A little further down the text makes clear that the issue being discussed is whether or not the woman shall “retain the seed”–in other words, continue to carry the fetus.
If you go and read the text you will find it is quite patriarchal. It is as much about male control of female reproduction as it is about abortion. Nonetheless, it clearly shows that there is scriptural warrant for supporting abortion rights. And as for the passage’s patriarchal nature… well maybe that suggests that we should not be using texts from almost three thousand years as the basis for making moral decisions in the twenty-first century.
Of course, if you go and read the text you might also come up with an alternative to my interpretation. But that is precisely the point.
Our religious ancestors were wise enough to recognize that people are going to interpret scripture passages differently and develop differing theological positions. They knew that these differences were inevitable. Rather than give up on the notion of community, they made a different choice. Curiously enough, it was also based on interpretation of a scriptural verse, this one coming from the third chapter of Amos and reading, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?”
The language is ableist but using it they came to the conclusion that it was possible for people of, in Conrad Wright’s words, “good will” to journey “together in religious fellowship, despite… doctrinal differences.” In order to do so, what was required was a commitment that, to again quote Wright, “human solidarity means more than divisive issues of theology.” Instead of describing what we believe together, congregational covenants are meant to express how we will be together.
They are declarations meant to describe the nature of our relationship. To be a part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is to be in relationship with the other members of the community. It is to promise, in keeping with our metaphor, to travel together along the highways and byways of life.
In reciting the old Blake covenant members of my home congregation were describing, were promising, each and every week, how they intended to live together. They would unite in the spirit of love. They would devote themselves to service. They would live together in peace. They would seek the truth, but never forget that the most positive force in human life is not truth but love. And they would help one another.
Their covenant did not include metaphysical claims. It did not state anything about the nature, or absence, of the divine, or the authority of scripture. Instead, it was an expression of the congregation’s loyalties. To be a member of that congregation meant to be loyal to love, to be loyal to truth, to be loyal to peace, and to be loyal to each other.
The question that I hope to put forward to you in this sermon is: What are this congregation’s loyalties? Put differently, what does it mean to be a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston?
I want you to look at your order of service. You will notice two things about it. The first is that today is declared to be Covenant Sunday. The second is that nowhere in our liturgy do we recite a congregational covenant.
Covenant Sunday… Many Unitarian Universalist congregations hold a service once a year where they lift up their shared covenant and celebrate their membership. First Houston has not done this in the past. Today, we are starting what I hope will become an annual tradition of celebrating our covenant. Earlier we celebrated our newest members and all of those who have made a continuing commitment to be part of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.
And now, I am offering you some reflections on our covenant. Well, not really, now I am offering you a sermon as a starting point for us to collectively reflect on First Houston’s covenant.
You might recall that I am currently under a five-year contract to with you as a developmental minister on a set of developmental goals. One of these is working to answer the question: “What kind of church do we want to become?” In pursuing that question you charged yourselves to “Craft a Mission, Vision, and Covenant, that are common knowledge and… inform decision-making.”
And so today, on this first Covenant Sunday, we are formally launching our process to do so. The goal is that, guided by a committee of the Board, over the next eight months we will collectively create clear statements of the congregation’s vision, mission, and covenant.
Vision: an aspiration statement of what the congregation desires to be.
Mission: a statement of what the congregation is charged to do now in order to make our vision a reality.
Covenant: a statement of what we, the members of the congregation, promise to one another as we seek to live into our mission and vision.
The committee’s process will involve ample opportunity for you to participate in developing these statements. There will be surveys, small groups, opportunities for reflections, all of which, starting in the autumn, will be accompanied by a set of services on the nature of vision, mission, and covenant. This will lead to a congregational vote in January to adopt, I hope, the statements that the committee has worked with you to develop.
For Unitarian Universalists this is deeply religious work. The word religion, I have reminded you in the past, comes from the Latin religare, “to bind.” And in our congregations, our covenants are literally what bind us together as a community. They state what we promise each other and to what we give our loyalty.
The second thing I asked you to note about the order of service is that it does not include a congregational covenant. This is not to say that we are entirely without one. We have an implicit one and all of you, I suspect, have some sense of what you promise to each other as members of First Houston and to what we collectively offer our loyalties.
Our task is to make what is implicit, explicit. As Alice Blair Wesley has observed, “Strong, effective, lively… [Unitarian Universalist congregations], capable of altering positively sometimes the direction of their whole society, will be those… [congregations] whose lay members can say clearly, individually and collectively, what are their own most important loyalties, as church members.”
Strong congregations are those in which members can share with each other and with those they wish to invite into membership what it means to be part of other congregation. Can you do that? Can you clearly state what it means to be a member of First Houston?
When First Houston was organized, back in 1914, the congregation adopted a covenant written by Charles Gordon Ames. Like Blake, Ames was a Unitarian minister. Unlike Blake, Ames was a Christian Unitarian. And the covenant he created specifically linked the congregations that adopted it to liberal Christianity. It read, “In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.”
And here, before I go further, I should remind you about an important aspect of Unitarian Universalism. We practice congregational polity. Each of the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association is a self-governing entity. Each has its own history and any religious community that agrees to honor the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association can join it.
You might not know this but the way in which we practice congregational polity as a creedless tradition has allowed for significant theological diversity amongst our congregations. While there are plenty of congregations that, like First Houston, were started by liberal Christians, there are also congregations, such as the Washington Ethical Society, that were started by Jewish Humanists, or others, like the Praire Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Illinois that we founded by pagans.
But, like I said, when First Houston was organized, its members identified as liberal Christians. They agreed upon a covenant that reflected that identity. And every Sunday, for almost fifty years, they recited their covenant, which they called a Bond of Union, in their services to remind each other of their promises to each other and their highest loyalties.
In time, however, the composition of the congregation began to change. It opened its doors to people other than liberal Christians. And in the late 1950s, the membership started to feel uncomfortable with their historic Bond of Union.
As the discomfort grew, the congregation’s minister, whose name was Horace Westwood, offered them a sermon on the subject of covenant. He expressed his own sentiment that “It is a good covenant.” But he also reminded them that the congregation’s covenant belonged to its members and told them, “There is nothing to prevent us from changing this affirmation by the action of the congregation duly assembled for such a purpose.”
First Houston’s members took the words of their minister to heart. In 1962 a petition of almost fifty members was drawn up and presented to the Board calling for a congregational meeting to “ascertain… the adequacy of the present covenant.” The petition stated the covenant “is too sectarian in view of the broad range of thoughts… in the congregation” and that the “background of some of our members is in other religious traditions [beside Christianity]: Jewish… [and Muslim] for example.”
Shortly thereafter the Board launched a Covenant Committee. It developed a new covenant for the congregation and in 1963, the members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, retired their historic Bond of Union and adopted the following:
In freedom we search for the meaning of life,
Some find reality in man and the universe;
Others find it in God.
We express our faith in service to our fellow man,
And in sincere commitment to the highest we know.
Now, I am not sure why, but this new covenant did not prove to be particularly important to the members of the congregation. They stopped reciting the covenant on Sunday morning. A review of congregational documents at the time finds it absent from First Houston’s religious life.
It did not, in fact, last long. By the late 1960s it was replaced with another statement, this one reading:
Our church members are united by a courageous and adventurous spirit. We cherish life. In fellowship we seek to strengthen one in another in a disciplined search for truth. We recognize the wisdom that is found in affirming the worth of all men and in the democratic method of government. We seek to implement the vision of a world founded on the ideas of justice and peace.
Shortly after this covenant’s adoption it too seems to disappear from the congregational records. Since then there appear to be a few attempts to create a congregational covenant. None of them have succeeded in creating something that is common knowledge and informs decision making. It is true that there is something that reads a little like a covenant in the second article of our constitution. It is also true that we have a Safe Congregation Policy and that programs like the Adult Discussion Group have covenants that they use. But no one I have talked to in my almost four years as your minister has referenced any of these statements as the thing that binds us together as a religious community. No one has claimed that they are explicit statements of what we implicit covenant together when we join this congregation.
What does it mean to be a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston? What do we promise each other as members of this congregation? To whom and to what do we give our loyalties?
The Vision, Mission, and Covenant Committee will be working with us to answer these questions over the next eight months. In the hopes that we answer them well, I invite the congregation to say Amen.