#163 | Richard Nida | Use other words instead of "Covenant"

Submission 163
Richard Nida
The Community Church of Chapel Hill UU (Chapel Hill, NC) 6626

What is your suggestion or idea?

Let’s lose the word, “covenant.” In the current version of the Principles document, we only have to endure its usage one time, but in the proposed new version, it is foisted upon us seven times. Why? First let’s explore the meaning of the word and then its frequent use in the proposed document.

From Merriam-Webster.com, the first definition of covenant as a transitive verb, which is how it is used in the proposed document, means, “to promise by a covenant: PLEDGE.” Since it appears that “promise” or “pledge” would substitute nicely for covenant, one wonders why covenant was selected. Perhaps in part, it is because covenant has had a rich usage history in religious circles. Britanica.com explains it this way:

The concept of covenant has been of enormous importance in the tradition rooted in the Hebrew Bible; from it there is derived the long traditional division by Christians of the Bible into the Old and New Testaments (or Old and New Covenants). In postbiblical Judaism and sporadically in Christianity, the concept of covenant has been a major source and foundation of religious thought and especially of the concept of the religious community. . . A covenant is a promise that is sanctioned by an oath. This promise in turn was accompanied by an appeal to a deity or deities to “see” or “watch over” the behaviour of the one who has sworn, and to punish any violation of the covenant by bringing into action the curses stipulated or implied in the swearing of the oath. The oath was usually accompanied by a ritual or symbolic act that might take any of an enormous range of forms.

Clearly, the word covenant was intentionally selected for use in the current Principles document to somehow give a participant’s promise or pledge more seriousness, harken back to Judeo-Christian traditions, and maybe add an element of fear for some type of unknown punishment for its violation. Was that really necessary for UUs in 1985? Even if that were true then, isn’t it time to reject the false piety and use a simpler, less-fear laden word to express our intentions?

Second: The current Principles document was organized such that the promise, or pledge, or covenant was made once at the beginning of the document and the principles were then recited. The proposed document offers a different organization and requires the word covenant be repeated for each principle. Why? Does this organization increase a person’s commitment to each principle? Does the repeated recitation of the word covenant add reverence to the document? Is its repeated use intended to increase the fear of unknown punishment for violation of each individual covenant? Or is the frequent use of covenant just redundant (and also adds a lot of extra words)?

Two Proposals: Change covenant to promise or pledge in Proposed document; and
Change format in Proposed document to mirror current one.

What is the reason for your amendment idea?

I think the word ““covenant”” has negative connotations that makes its use inappropriate in both the current and proposed Article II documents. Its overuse in the proposed revisions to Article II is especially troublesome. There are other words like promise or pledge that express similar sentiments without resorting to false religious piety or fear of some unknown retribution if the pledge is broken.

Have you discussed this idea with your congregation or other UUs?

I have had discussions at four learning session led by my minister and approximately 20 congregates, at a formal discussion group with eight congregates, at several lunch meetings with members from multiple UU congregations, and with my daughter who is a lifelong UU.


I find the use of Covenant off putting and dangerous. Almost offensive. It makes me think of the burning of Michael Servetus effectively for being out of covenant. I see the word as weapon for exclusion and removal from community.

“You’re out of covenant” has already been used remove ministers from Fellowship (Eklof, Rohde) without fair due process. See this blog on the subject (the best independent reporting to date)

But, I find that the current proposal is so flawed, so unrepresentative of what most UUs want, deleting our 7 principles with these nebulous values, that no change to the current proposal within the stated guideline can cure it.

The entire thing needs to be voted down, and then a BOTTOM UP process started that authentically (and transparently) reflects changes average UUs might WANT to make to our definitional document.

The process should be similar to the process that lead to the 1985 adoption of our current principles. See this UU World article. I think most would agree some updating of the principles and sources might be in order, but this whole sale replacement is the wrong way to go, especially since most UUs are still unaware of this proposal, and certainly have not asked for it.


I agree that this process has been largely driven from the top, but it is more inclusive than I expected. Still, I agree that it is unlikely to result in something for which I would vote.

I completely agree with Richard’s comment on “covenant”. Why not use “Together we pledge” as an alternative, as ‘pledge’ is a more accessible term and combining it with “together” centers these pledges in the community.
Members of my fellowship also indicated their concern with “covenant” noting: “covenant carries a confusing and disturbing scent of ‘mandate’ which does not mesh with my view of Unitarian Universalism” and “*The term is heavily loaded with a sense of “old time religion” that makes me quite uncomfortable".


My understanding of Unitarian Universalism is that it is a covenantal religion. We have no creed or dogma, so what holds us together? The covenants we make among ourselves and the covenant that congregations make to be part of the UUA. Covenant is what keeps me engaged in my congregation and the wider UU world, when I disagree with what others say and do. To me, covenant is not a negative word, but it is one with a long theological history and I can understand how she might find that off-putting. Thanks you.