Covenant before Creed (aka Why Unitarian Universalism?)

I gave a short talk at my church last Sunday. You can watch below, or read the transcript further down.

Good morning! My name is Erik Gern. I’m a member of the Board of Trustees. In the past I’ve served our church as the leader of the young adult group, as a youth RE teacher, and as the chair of the Adult RE committee. I was also a member of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, my first UU home.

I have been a UU since 2001, shortly after graduating from high school. I’ve told this story before here, how I came seeking a church where I had the freedom to follow that “still, small voice,” to follow where my heart leads.

My question this morning is this: why did I stay? Why did any one of us, we eccentric, beautiful people, stay?

Christian churches and other religious communities emphasize creed, the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”s. But in what church can you find such an emphasis on covenant? “Right relationship” – meaning how we interact with one another and support each other in safe, helpful ways – is at the core of our process. Our seven principles – which may become eight principles in a few years – begin with these words:

We covenant to affirm and promote…

When we are accused of being a “religious all-you-can-eat buffet” by those with creed but no covenant, they miss the point. We are not a buffet. We are a thanksgiving meal. Each of us has brought something. Each of us enters this place, to use words familiar to some of you, “in perfect love and perfect trust.” Each of us agrees to treat each other with dignity and respect, as you would a family member. (Or maybe not!)

Without right relationship, there can be no right practice. How many of us have felt our trust betrayed lately? [raise hand] How many of us have seen those in power abuse that power to the harm of many? How many of us have been hurt by those who put creed before people?

To paraphrase a familiar passage, faith without right relationship is dead.

Faith without covenant is dead.

We are a living tradition – again, words some of you have heard before – because of this. Even though we believe differently than others, even though we may not believe at all, even though we believe differently than we ourselves used to in the past, we are all part of a common covenant.

That’s why I stayed. That’s why I continue to serve this community. That’s what will grow this community today, tomorrow, and for decades to come. Thank you.