A Declaration of Interdependence    November 22, 2015

I need to issue a full disclaimer right at the beginning of this sermon. I need to acknowledge my debt to a colleague, Rev. Sue Phillips, who is Regional Lead for the UU congregations in northern New England, and whose article, also called A Declaration of Interdependence, I read this past week and from which I have borrowed heavily, particularly for the first part of this sermon.

In her role as Regional Lead, Sue Phillips comes into contact with numerous congregations, but she writes of the congregation which is her absolute favourite. It is comprised of people all of whom are deeply committed to making Love manifest in their time and place. They understand that how they are says everything about who they are. They have learned that people of all ages need help to live faithful, growthful lives, and that it is the congregation’s collective job to be that help. In answer to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” thing which is so common, they say “One person alone is not a church”. They come together so that they can help each other increase the sum of Love in the world.

This congregation doesn’t talk about “membership”, they talk about “covenant,” and they all take it very seriously. They all accept responsibility for reaching out in Love to those who stray from the covenant, not in a spirit of punishment but because they want no-one ever to be cut off from the benefits of the covenant.

They have a process for being with each other in times of conflict, encouraging people to talk first directly to the person they’re having trouble with, and if that doesn’t work asking another person to help them reconcile. If the conflict becomes intractable, this community recognizes that someone might need to leave, since the peace and well being of the whole is more important than that of any single individual. But they also promise one another that they won’t just leave – they promise not to remove themselves unilaterally from fellowship, and they specifically say that being mad at another person in the congregation is not reason enough to leave. Because folks join the community by entering into covenant, folks can leave only by being released from that covenant.  They have promised themselves and each other that none of them will just take their bat and go home because something has happened which they don’t personally like. They know that the health of the whole is more important than the sensibilities of a single person.

Although this congregation governs itself, they celebrate that there are other congregations like them which also govern themselves but with which they feel connected with them. This congregation knows the importance of showing up for their neighbouring congregations, they promise to look out for their welfare, they promise to worship and celebrate together, to share resources, and to work together to expand their faith in the world.

This, says Sue Phillips, is a community that understands what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, where independence and covenant alchemize into precious religious life. I mentioned at the beginning that Sue Phillips is Regional Lead for Northern New England, and it would be reasonable for you to conclude that that is where this congregation can be found. And you would be right. It is Cambridge, Massachusetts. You might be surprised to learn, however, that the time of this congregation was 1648.

But it is not only there, then, it is here, now. It is in our collective DNA as Unitarian Universalists. That congregation about which Sue Phillips speaks, convened in 1648 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, articulated what is known as the Cambridge Platform, and it has been the basis of our congregational polity ever since. Those good folk of 350 years ago are our ecclesiastical ancestors. They were smart enough to realise that although each congregation of the time gathered independently, they each had responsibilities to others. The Cambridge Platform was a Declaration of Interdependence: a declaration of interdependence between persons within a particular congregation, and a declaration of interdependence between congregations. It was a Covenant to which each and all willingly gave themselves because they knew that however independent they might be in their individual thinking, they could not survive without each other, they could not be strong alone, they could not grasp all truth with only their own small minds.

When the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Association, our national denomination, was formed in 1961, the result of the amalgamation of two previously separate but friendly groups – the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America – the architects of that union echoed the Cambridge Platform, using the language of covenant. When a congregation joins the UUA, it promises to be part of the inter-connecting network of mutual and reciprocal support. When it formed 21 years ago, this congregation made that promise. The money it gives each year to the UUA is not to pay some centralised bureaucracy, it goes to make programs possible which benefit us all.

When you join this congregation, it is not the same as joining the Golf Club, to which you pay an agreed uniform subscription in return for certain privileges and benefits. Yes, the payment of some money is part of the deal, but it is not an act of transaction, it aspires to be an act of transformation. The amount is for you to decide, depending on your personal circumstances and the extent to which you want your pledge to be a reflection of your personal values, an expression in real terms of how important your spiritual well-being is to you and how much you want to contribute to the community which will nurture your spiritual well-being. You join for the opportunity to give of yourself as much as what you expect to get for yourself. You join to be part of something organic of which you become an integral part, and like an integral part of any body, the health of the whole is possible only when each part is contributing to that health. Cancer is what happens when individual cells within the host body are concerned only with themselves, regardless of their impact on the host body.

Six or so years ago, this congregation adopted a Covenant of Right Relations. In a few moments, I am going to ask you all to say it out loud together. I was not here then, of course, so I can’t relate that history from first hand experience, but I am told this Covenant was adopted in response to a conflict which had been going on within the congregation, and the shared recognition that the conflict could have been handled better if there had been some ground rules for people to abide by. I was shocked when I was told this. I had thought that there had never been any tension or conflict, ever, until I arrived a year ago as your Interim Minister and upset everything and everybody. Or, the adoption of the Covenant might have been the recognition that it is the law of the natural world that when two bodies meet, there is conflict. There needs to be mutual accommodation. The thing is not to avoid conflict but to deal with it creatively and constructively, increasing the strength of each body rather than leading to their destruction.

So, becoming and being part of this congregation is not so much about membership, paying dues in return for prescribed benefits and privileges; it is about covenant. It is about entering into a relationship with the others already here, and entering into a deeper relationship with oneself. Everyone is welcome here as they are. But, having arrived and been welcomed as they are, everyone is also expected to change, expected to grow, expected to be affected by their involvement with the process.

So, what is this Covenant of Right Relations? I invite you to say it with me, whether or not you are formally a member of the congregation. I invite you to say it with me, taking in the meaning of the words and what they are eliciting from you.

Covenant of Right Relations

Recognizing that conflict is normal in human relations and wishing to relate to others as harmoniously as possible, I sincerely intend to:

  • Treat others with kindness, empathy and respect.
  • Communicate with patience, flexibility, and a willingness to negotiate in the spirit of meeting as many needs as possible.
  • Be aware of my own thoughts, feelings, and needs, and share them directly and honestly with others, without judgment or blame.
  • Invite and listen to all points of view, respecting others’ feelings and needs and encouraging minority opinions.
  • Take responsibility for my own mental, emotional, and spiritual balance, asking for support when I need it.
  • Be mindful of the needs of the group as a whole, mourning together when individual needs cannot be met.

Is that easy work? You bet it isn’t. Is it worthwhile work? You bet it is.

So may it be for us all. Amen