Unitarian Universalists (UUs) use the term “covenant” a lot, almost as much as they say “congregational polity” (but that’s another posting). The best exposition on covenant that I have found is the following text written by Doug Muder, a UU blogger from Nashua, NH.
One typical UU covenant statement was written by James Vila Blake:
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.
Most UU congregations recite some similar “unison affirmation” as a regular part of their Sunday services — more or less filling the slot taken by a creed in most Christian services. Covenant statements like this go way back in UU history, at least as far as the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. They express the democratic belief that a church is established by the commitment of its members rather than by the authority of a bishop or king.
If a creed is one way to define a church, a covenant is another. In a creed, people look outward and agree that they see the same things. In a covenant, they look at each other and exchange promises. Marriage vows are one type of covenant; they say nothing about what the couple believes, but describe the commitments that the individuals are making to each other. Unitarian Universalist congregations, then, are united not by a core set of beliefs, but by a set of commitments.
Like a creed, a covenant statement can become a meaningless recitation. But taken seriously, a covenant like the one above lays out a challenging spiritual path. How should you act, for example, if in all of your dealings with your fellow parishioners you consider yourself to be an agent of the Spirit of Love?
“To seek the truth in love” is another promise that is much easier to make than to carry out, particularly in a congregation that has no creed. In reciting the covenant, you are committing yourself to help your fellow members seek the truth, even if they are looking in places that you consider totally wrong-headed. This commitment calls on you to remain engaged with others in their search while restraining yourself from non-constructive criticism. You can’t just humor fellow members by agreeing with whatever nonsense they say, and you can’t just blast them either. If you think that Unitarian Universalism is an easy religion, think again.