Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Meaning of Covenant

I’ve read most of the same sex blessing study material recently sent out in preparation for this summer’s triennial convention of the Episcopal Church, and have some problems with the way the word covenant is used throughout, and especially in the suggested liturgy.  To me, the way the reports read, covenant could be easily changed to contract, and I think that loses the heart of the meaning of covenant.
As I understand it, covenant is not something one makes, but something one enters into.  So if one enters into it rather than making it, who makes it?  The one who has the authority to do so does, and, when made, the terms are not negotiable for those entering into it. 
The English word covenant is used several hundred times in our translations, most of them in the Old Testament.  It consistently refers to the definition of a relationship between humanity and God in which God established the terms and conditions.  If there is an exception, it is about agreements between humans in which God is the sole judge.
To use a more human example, the king conquers a new land and establishes a covenant with his new subjects.  Their desires may be taken into account, but they don’t make the covenant, the king does.  The new subjects have two choices: enter into the covenant or face the consequences.  
It may be a harsh example, but it makes the point that the covenants we enter into, as a part of who we are as God’s people, are established by God, not by us as a function of negotiation with each other or with God.  It may be that in the rites of marriage, whether of same or different sexes, the church has struggled to identify the nature of the covenant and put words to it, but the struggle has always been about discerning what God has established or is establishing. 
Our current liturgy says that the covenant of marriage was established by God, but one would have hard time finding that spelled out in any of the hundreds of covenant passages in scripture.  It took a long time for the Church to discern marriage as a Godly covenant, a sacrament, revealed in both scripture and experience.  We take it for granted now, but it wasn't always so. 
I think we need to be bold enough to say in plain language that we now understand that God has established the terms of covenant that bless same sex unions, and that we have done the best we can to put appropriate words to it.  It is a new understanding.  We did not recognize it before, but after many years of prayerful study, we do recognize it now.  In time we may anticipate a greater fullness of understanding, but this is where we are at present.  
I would prefer that the scriptural sense of covenant we attribute to marriage be reflected in the liturgy for the blessing of the union of same sex couples.  To be blunt about it, I think the way the word is used in the liturgy set forth for study lacks that conviction.  If we, as the Church assembled, do not have that conviction, then we need to lay the matter aside and return to prayerful discernment.

1 comment:

Country Parson said...

I recently ran across a citation attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson: "Matrimony is no more than a form of friendship recognized by the police." Even more true today when the contractual nature of statutory civil unions, whether called marriage or something else, is emphatically underlined by the increasing popularity of prenuptial agreements.

I have no objection, as long as it does not get confused with the Godly covenant into which a couple enters seeking God's blessing.