Meeting as Covenant Community
June 23, 2018 § 10 Comments
My meeting is reconsidering what it means to be a member and I’ve been working with a committee that is preparing a draft of a new document that lays out the meaning of membership for newcomers and people considering membership.
The old document presents membership in terms of “covenant community”, which works very well for me. I seek a covenant community in my membership and I have thought about membership as covenant for a while. I want to dedicate a couple of posts to my thoughts on this subject. I want to do several things:
- First, I want to be clear about what “covenant” and “covenant community” mean.
- Then I want to explore how the truth of this approach to membership prospers in our meetings.
- And I offer a metaphor for covenant community that seeks to express it in a way that works even for Friends who are post-Christian and not theistic in their spiritual outlook.
What do “covenant” and “covenant community” mean?
For an in-depth discussion of the meaning of covenant community, you can’t do better than the chapter on The Meeting as Covenant Community in Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. I hope my readers have access to this wonderful resource. But let me offer my own take on this.
A religious covenant is a set of mutual agreements or promises regarding privileges and responsibilities between individual covenanters and their religious community, with God as the anchoring third party. So, at least in theory and technically speaking, a (religious) covenant has three nodes of relationship, and the relationships are reciprocal. The nodes are the member, the community, and God.
As Lloyd Lee Wilson puts it, this anchoring of the covenant in God is essential and changes the character of the community utterly. This is what makes a covenantal community uniquely valuable. To quote him:
Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (page 71)
The purpose of a covenant community is to provide a home for this transforming work. That means that joining a meeting that is a covenant community invites radical engagement with our spiritual lives on the part of our fellow members, who are to be the vehicles for God’s transforming work. We will discern together what transformation means and how we will go about it. We will work with each other to achieve it. We will be disciples together in a discipline of seeking and living into God’s will for us, in a relationship of mutual engagement with our fellow covenanters. Or, if you will, we will seek to realize our real and higher selves with each other’s help.
This requires a level of attention to each other, in both our outer and inner lives, that goes far beyond what most folks are expecting from their meeting. Many Friends would not see the purpose of religion to be diving into a spiritual crucible or the purpose of a meeting to be managing the crucible’s controls.
Thus I suspect that most liberal Quaker meetings would be at least a little uncomfortable thinking of their meeting as a covenant community. (In fact, I suspect that many meetings wouldn’t even really know what I’m talking about.) And that most meetings couldn’t function as covenant communities, even if the language wasn’t off-putting. Because we’re talking about something that goes much deeper than the words.
Some Friends in my meeting are uncomfortable with those words. And we tend to “honor’ these discomforts by avoiding them, so our little committee feels some pressure to drop the words. But what about the concept or understanding of meeting life as a covenant? Do we keep that understanding and use language to express it that won’t trigger uncomfortable reactions? Or does their discomfort go deeper than just some uncomfortable associations with the words as evocative, perhaps, of a religiosity that now longer works for them? Do they intuitively sense the fire in the crucible, the challenge of change, to both themselves and the community, that embracing transformation entails?
This kind of proactive, mutual engagement with each other in our spiritual formation is what I mean by covenant community. It’s something you would only presume to get into with fellow members; not with attenders. That is, you would only get this spiritually intimate with people who had also agreed that that is what they want from their meeting. They, like you, would have bought into the covenant and welcomed the attention by becoming members.
But is that ever what we offer people in our clearness committees for membership?
What about your meeting? Does it use covenant in this way as its understanding of the meaning of membership? If not, could it? Do you?