A transcript of a talk given by Trevor Miller to Community Group leaders.
It’s important that we understand what we mean by covenant, because the notion of covenant or its use as a word is not familiar today, except perhaps in the marriage service.
The root meaning of covenant comes from the Latin ‘con venire’ Lit. = a coming together. That is, a bond entered into voluntarily by two (or more) parties by which each pledges to do something for the other. Where those ‘coming together’ determine what roles, rights and responsibilities are needed for a common understanding of the agreement entered into.
This of course is the shared commitment to loving-kindness and steadfast loyalty we read about again & again in the Bible, with the covenant God saying, ‘I shall be your God, you shall be my people’. Jer 31:33. A common understanding of what it means to say Yes to God in ‘coming together’ with Him.
This awareness of a common understanding is so important, which is why I want to briefly comment on what we don’t mean by covenant before emphasising what we do mean, in order to have a common understanding of our shared vocation in being covenanted together.
1] Our meaning is NOT that of a Contract – as in a legally binding business agreement for goods or services rendered. Or as in a deed of covenant where we agree to pay monies to a charity. Such contracts involve a give and take arrangement that carry legal obligations where penalties exist for breaking the contract. More often than not entering in with an attitude of ‘I will do my part only as long as you do your part’.
2] Our meaning is NOT that of a Creed – as in Credo = I believe. That is, agreeing statements of faith and doctrine as formal confessions that carry authority from a hierarchy. Creeds tend to be exclusive i.e. unless and until you believe exactly as I believe, we can’t come together in heart. It follows that they are often static, legalistic, unchanging and lifeless.
3] Rather, our meaning IS that of Companionship – Something distinctly relational, not merely propositional or contractual. It is a shared lifestyle; a life lived with a common purpose and mutual intention. So that, to use Bonhoeffer’s term, we are ‘banded together’ to explore ‘a new type of monasticism’ as Companions under a common Rule of life.
Contract or creed can be impersonal, i.e. simply a unity of cooperation to achieve a common goal, whereas covenant is personal, a unity of persons which can’t be described in functional terms alone, hence companionship.
Further, a contract can be ripped up and discarded, a creed can be dismissed as no longer relevant but this can’t be done with a covenant because it is much more than a sheet of paper or a set of principles. It is shared personhood and it is this sharing of each other’s person – a community of the heart – that is covenant relationship. And this is why the penalty for breaking the covenant is first and foremost relational.
It follows that one of the marks of Companions in Community is this awareness that covenant is reciprocal – Yes, I have something to give, but I also have something to receive. I give myself as a person to the whole and I am bonded together with everyone else who gives himself or herself as a person to the whole – and we all draw from the gift of persons who are all wonderfully diverse and different from everyone else. We are Alone – Together, covenanted together because we are each covenanted to God.
In a covenant agreement those who are ‘coming together’ share their goods and services in a commonality of heart as Companions. It is a move away from individualism to community. A shift from an attitude of ‘community for myself’ to ‘myself for community’ to use Vanier’s terms and this only comes with a real grasp of ownership and belonging; a real sense of being part of a whole, even as a geographically dispersed community.
Companionship is an awareness that we are in this together, committed to one another through a common commitment to Jesus – a Yes to God, a Yes to a Way for Living, a Yes to A+V = a Yes to Community.
– Each having made a commitment to Jesus = a focus on being and becoming Alive to Jesus – alone, no one can do it for you.
– Each having made a commitment to one another = a focus on being and becoming Alive to one another – again we can only do this alone.
– Each having made a commitment to expressing the above through a shared lifestyle = a focus on being and becoming Alive to spiritual formation through our Rule of Life as a Way for Living – This can only be done Together.
To say again, our Community is a gift from God and the Covenant we enter into as Companions binds us together, so that in being connected in heart through a shared vocation, we are Together in our Aloneness.
We all need both ‘enclosure’ (Alone) and ‘encounter’ (Together). This is the genius of our corporate identity – the Alone mediated through the Together and the Together mediated through the Alone as we seek to be an expression of Christ in the world. A world where through our own unique roles, responsibilities and relationships, we work as best we can, both Alone and Together, for justice, peace, love and faith.
So then, covenant relationship is not the friendship of a club or the team spirit of a sport or the acquaintance of a business venture but an inner awareness of ‘coming home’. We have been called to ‘come together’ in heart and vocation, even though we are geographically dispersed. So that, wherever we are, our common purpose is centred in relational values – to seek God, to know self, so as to learn how we can better live with others and serve the world of our influence whether that is great or small.
We have been pondering how we do this within the awareness that as a geographically dispersed Community we will never all be physically together – Gatherings like our Easter Workshop are the nearest we get. This is why times of renewing the covenant relationship like our Easter workshop become times of symbolic value and significance. They are significant because there is a concentration of interest upon the past in its relationship to the present – a link historically, prophetically and spiritually to our foundations. The importance of our collective Memory and Story as we recall and remember the covenant times, are to be celebrated with thankfulness. These times support us, re-energise us and encourage hope within us for our ongoing faith journey to see the kingdom extended in our hearts and in Northumbria and wherever the Father leads.
Nevertheless, it remains true that because we can never all be physically together at one time, we all relate to different people at different times. Many Companions are only names in the prayer guide to some but are close friends to others etc. Many have connected for the 1st time while attending a retreat at our Mother House or attending a mission event that is happening close to their home.
The covenant of Community profound as it is, can never guarantee that a certain person will always stay physically close to another. It guarantees only that there will always be someone there – inspired by the same spirit. Jean Vanier
This is why all Companions and Community Groups are central in giving visibility to God’s faithfulness in our lives together. Heart, Home, Hospitality is all about relationship, welcome, acceptance and the encouragement of hope. All of us are commissioned and commissioning is all about empowerment, entrusting tasks to another, letting go. It literally is a co-mission, mission in cooperation with others, and our Hild Liturgy encapsulates this in the threefold desire, ‘Lord, show me the right seat, find me the fitting task, give me the willing heart.’ It is being who you are, where you are, what you are – using the gifts and graces, our unique creative expression in the context of the everyday ordinariness of our lives – Alone/Together.
– We want to encourage the liberty to explore and discover our unique personhood and how that relates to serving others.
– We want to acknowledge that there is freedom to fail because of our incompleteness: as long as this is accompanied by a real aspiration: seen in the ‘spiritual’ perspiration that comes with a determination to be more Christ-like. This is living as salt and light allowing the God flavours and God colours in our lives to be seen and shared.
– We don’t want to be wasting precious time, by just using our energy and resources to perpetuate the building of a church sub-culture or maintaining an institution that often militates against the incarnational expression of real humanity, personhood and identity, that is at the heart of our Community. But we want to serve every expression of the church that is organic and relational.
– We want to be looking for signs of the Kingdom in the streets: where God is seen in the everyday ordinariness of life – in the home, market place, in the hearts of people worked out in the real world of roles, responsibilities and relationships.
‘Covenanted together within the love of Christ we share a common heart for Northumbria and a commitment to wander for the love of Christ wherever the Father leads.’