These words are not uncommon to our congregational life, honored and voiced most often during our worship services and meetings. But what exactly does it mean to “covenant?” Why do we as a faith community, as a religious movement, engage in the act of covenanting? Some of us may be quick to substitute in our minds the words “promise” or “agree” whenever we hear the term “covenant.” But that is an over-simplification, an incomplete assessment, which misses the full power that lies behind our coming together as a diverse and committed religious community. The word covenant must have its own space in our minds, in our hearts, in our actions, in the way that we choose to be with one another. For Unitarian Universalists, the word covenant is of vital importance to our appreciation of the autonomy of the individual and to the responsibility to release the individual when in community.
We cannot understand the importance of our act of covenanting without grounding ourselves in what Unitarian Universalism teaches us about the nature of independence. Our predecessors in faith stressed the importance of individual authority, and of the ability for every person to freely discern truth independent of an institutional prescription. So than why do we come together? If our independence is so crucial, why create a community? To covenant. Part of our independence is the act of coming together freely, the act of bringing our individual into community, and then releasing it for the sake of creating something greater than any one of us. When we covenant, we acknowledge that unity can only truly occur when there is diversity. When we covenant, we engage in an act of love; we simultaneously hold onto and let go of our independence in an effort to honor one another. When we covenant we willingly engage in faithful service to something beyond ourselves, know that we and it will be forever and beautifully changed by our coming together.
The Wailin’ Jennys have a song that I believe perfectly captures what it means to covenant, to fully be with one another in religious community. This song, “One Voice,” reminds us that when we come together, when we covenant, we create something new for all of us.
One Voice…the sound of one who makes a choice.
As individuals, we each make the choice, the free choice, to come together in community. My one voice, your one voice, makes the choice to enter a space where other voices are gathering; it commits to something beyond itself. When we enter into community, the sound that each of our voices makes when we willingly come together is a sound of love.
Voices Two…helping each other to make it through.
Two voices, both different, neither ever silenced, working together to move forward in beautiful harmony. Together you and I create something that is more impactful and whole than anything we could create on our own as individuals. We do not use our differences to generate conflict, but use our differences to build a system of mutual support and love.
Voices Three…surrendering to the mystery.
As our community grows, more voices freely enter, each with a sound or perspective different from the last. Rather than fight to be heard over the others, each of our voices exists to honor the others around it, knowing that we as individuals and as a community are enriched by each others’ presence. We surrender to the beautiful mystery that is the source of our equal authority.
All of us…the will to trust.
Singing with love, we let go of fear and individualism for the sake of creating a new community. As we come together, we learn to trust the autonomous choice that each one of us has made to be in the presence of one another. Being in the same space, we honor the good and worth within each other, by trusting that all of us have made the decision to faithfully serve everyone else’s voices.
One People, One Voice
Our covenant is “a song for every one of us,” a song by every one of us. Our voices come together and the whole becomes our message. Diversity in sound is inherent to our shared voice. We covenant in love, and create a community where the combination of our gifts gives us the new gift of unity. A shared purpose and vision grows out of our freely-engaged interdependence. Our community and world are strengthened by the love we each hold for something beyond our own independent selves.