Thoughts on Covenant
Covenant isn’t easy, but an important, healthy and life-affirming mark of our shared commitment to walk together, with God, writes Catriona Gorton
I begin with a confession: before I was a convinced Baptist I was, for a time, a member of a Methodist church, and it is to my Methodist friends that I owe my passion for, and commitment to, the idea of covenant. Every year on a cold, dark January evening we would renew our covenant promises: beautiful, challenging words that spoke deeply to my soul and expressed something I knew inherently to be good, to be Godly, to be true.
I was excited when the Baptist Union of Great Britain produced ‘Covenant 21’, reclaiming and restoring an important Baptist tradition of covenanting, of expressing a commitment to “walk together, with God, in ways known and to be made known.” I remember the Baptist Assembly where this covenant formed part of the communion service, and the sense of belonging it gave me, part of a movement much wider than my local church or Association. I share these reflections as someone unashamedly pro-covenant, pro-connexion, pro-union, and who tries to express that in her day-to-day ministry.
Induction services are sometimes compared with marriage ceremonies – happy occasions when we delight in new beginnings and within which we make solemn vows designed to help us fulfil our commitments one to the other whatever life brings. They are, whatever form of words we choose to employ, covenant making services: minister and church each pledging to each other, and before God, their commitment. With each of the churches I’ve served, I have made a point, at or around the anniversary of the induction, to revisit some aspect of those promises and, usually, to renew the covenant. Just like marriage, church-minister relationships needed to be tended in order to thrive.
This understanding of covenant informed my approach to a challenging time shared with my first pastorate, when they were forced to give me notice as they could no longer afford to pay me: as well as a ‘Covenant for Troubled Times,’ which we used at the start of the notice period, I created a liturgy for ‘release of covenant’ which we used at our final service together. This allowed us to recognise and release the disappointments and failings on each side, and to celebrate all that had been good and Godly along the way. Importantly it gave us a sense of emotional and spiritual closure: this was no ugly ‘divorce’, nor was I abandoning them, rather we continued to value and affirm each other in the parting of the ways.
As ordained ministers, we find our names on list of those who are in covenant relationship with the Baptist Union (or Unions in my case) that accredits us to serve their churches. For me, this too is really important: not only do I take seriously my ordination vows, I also recognise a commitment to accept the discipline of the Union(s). This is healthy and it is challenging!
Above all, covenant for is a vibrant expression of the oft cited 'priesthood of all believers' – once explained to me as "I'll be your priest, you'll be mine, we'll each be each others."
The first clause of the Declaration of Principle asserts that each local congregation is at liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer Christ’s laws. Diversity, difference and even disagreement are possible, even, dare I say, desirable, within a covenanted relationship; my own discipleship and ministry has been greatly enriched by sharing with ministers whose theology and spirituality differs significantly from my own. One of my favourite Biblical metaphors for the church is Paul’s use of the human body in all its diversity, yet, within it, each part is vital and valued for what it is. Covenant delights in diversity, recognising the potential enrichment it offers each participant, and generating new insights into what it means to live as Christ’s disciples, whether that is within the local congregation or more widely at cluster, Association or Union level.
Above all, covenant for me is a vibrant expression of the oft cited 'priesthood of all believers' – once explained to me as "I'll be your priest, you'll be mine, we'll each be each others." Covenant means sticking together whatever life throws at us; it means weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice; it means that you are permitted to hold me accountable and I to challenge you. Covenant informs every aspect of church life, whether it is sharing communion with elderly house-bound folk, arranging rotas to make the after-service refreshments or making huge decisions to sell or redevelop premises (each of which have arisen in both my pastorates!).
It isn't easy, and of sometimes course we disappoint along the way, but, for me anyway, covenant is an important, healthy and life-affirming mark of our shared commitment to walk together, with God, in ways known and to be made known.
In closing, I cite the Methodist Covenant prayer in its traditional form, which really says it all:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Picture: Lise Gagne
Catriona Gorton is minister of Hillhead Baptist Church in Glasgow, and is actively involved in wider Baptist life, currently serving on the Baptist Union of Scotland’s Board of Ministry and as a mentor for Pre-Accredited Ministers (equivalent to NAMs)