Excerpted from Rev. David Carl Olson’s Sermon on October 1, 2023                     

May the work of my hands speak for me,
May the work of my hands speak for me,
If I fall short of my goal, someone else will come take hold,
May the work of my hands speak for me.

This year, we’re organizing some of our services around the Gifts of our Unitarian Universalist Faith; and in October, we’re talking about the Gift of Our Heritage, the gift of our heritage.

This congregation has a heritage. We were started as a group of families who wanted a liberal religious education for their children. They found a house in Port Washington and became the Unitarian Society of the North Shore. They succeeded—we succeeded—and we grew to build a new home in Plandome and became the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society. And then in a bold move, we chose to rename ourselves and reframe our work, building this space as our newest home, as a place to continue to do the education work we promised our children, and the social justice work we promised the world, and the internal work each of us is called to do to grow our souls. May the work of our hands speak for us.

But our heritage extends back earlier—earlier than the second world war, earlier than the American movement to the suburbs, earlier than the building of the industrial city. A part of our heritage comes from the earliest visions of English-speaking people for new opportunities on this continent.

Some of our ancestors knew extreme trauma as they made their way on this continent. This is true for many people who came here, under many circumstances; and is true for those people whose land this once was before settler colonialism. This is a continent of trauma. And, for a group of people who identified as being English, there was great trauma as civil war at home led to the arrest of the king in 1648, his conviction of treason, and his execution. This led to some traumatic soul searching, including around the question: who is in charge?

Answering that question by a religious community could have gone a number of ways. To some who believed that authority should be placed in some kind of supreme ruler, they imagined that what was needed was a strong Bishop. In the Greek New Testament, the word for bishop is episcopos. Some people argued for episcopal leadership—either of the Roman or the Anglican variety. But not in New England.

In some places, people argued that authority should reside in a council of elders. The Greek word for elders is presbyterios. Many communities in England and Scotland wanted presbyterian form of leadership where a circle of elders would direct the faith. But not in New England.

No, in New England, in 1648, a convention was held that established the ability of a congregation to discern the will of God. The congregation, then, had the autonomy to run its own affairs: to build a meeting house, to select its own ministers, to elect its own leadership, and to determine matters of belief for itself. They argued for, and adopted, what we know as congregationalism. (The Greek word that gets brought up every now and then for a congregation is ekklesia, but our forebears were good enough linguists to know that ekklesia was a thoroughly secular term—thus not adopted for spiritual governance.)

The congregationalism that is our heritage has two important features that are in a dance with each other. The first is that each congregation is autonomous. Again, with authority over its own affairs. But there is another side of the heritage. All congregations are associated with each other. The existence of a congregation requires the acknowledgement of the other autonomous congregations. The selection of a minister is affirmed by the leadership of other congregations.

This was, in part, a matter of self-interest. These congregations, that did not have a bishop’s office and staff, nor a presbytery to whom to appeal, needed to stand on their own two feet—and help each other so to do. In our heritage, the minister had responsibilities to more than one congregation, preaching in their own congregation on Sunday morning, preaching in a neighboring congregation on Sunday afternoon, and preaching on market day for the larger community. And the leaders of congregations consulted with one another, offering suggestions and promising spiritual support.

So being autonomous on the one hand and associated on the other hand marks our heritage as congregationalists. You’ll hear a minister consult with you, advise you, some times arm wrestle with you—and then an aware minister has to say, “It’s your congregation! It’s your conscience! It’s your collective decision.” And we ministers hope that we have been helpful in developing what some of us in 12-Step groups call “a group conscience.”

One of the great gifts of our congregational heritage is that we can actually move quickly on making decisions. Our congregations had the authority, for example, to ordain women without asking some bishop or council of elders to agree. We were able to start performing weddings that were not yet recognized by the state—whether so-called interracial weddings in places where they were illegal, or weddings creating multi-faith families where that was desired, or holy unions for same sex couples before marriage equality was enacted. We can make statements and do actions on a host of social issues without waiting for exterior authority to approve our actions. And we can be bold in the use of our resources because the congregation retains the right to choose its own leadership, to run its own affairs, to create space for its own articles of faith.

What we treasure, the freedom that congregationalism gives us, is not something unique to Unitarian Universalism. There are a number of congregational traditions in the United States and among the religious practices of the world. In my mind, we should treasure the gift of our congregational heritage, and choose not to think that we are “all that.” We are not unique. What I especially value about our answer to the trauma that is part of our heritage—remember, Civil War, the arrest and execution of a king, the lingering battles over “who is in charge here”—is that we can relate to others who have experience trauma, and we have continued to place at the center of our identity the covenants by which we regulate our own collective behavior in pursuit of our aims.

I hold dear—and sometimes laugh about—a moment in our history. In 1629, a group of our forebears established a congregation in Salem, Massachusetts. There they adopted a statement about what they were about. “We Covenant with the Lord and one with another,” they said, “and do bynde our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.” No specific declaration of belief; no extensive catechism of faith; no, just a promise to move together as the divine path is revealed.

Now the reason that I laugh about this is that the simple promise to one another was extensively modified just a few years later to include paragraph after paragraph of clarifications about things that were now the rules. That’s right! No paganism here! (And no Romanism, either!)

Still, the authority of a congregation to name its own covenant; to make its own promise to each other and to the world; to set the conditions under which such a community affirms the ways it will be in the world—this expression of covenant is at the heart of a congregation that trusts that it may find conscience together to do the work that the Universe places into our hands.

I’d like to invite us, now, to recite the words of our own covenant, freely adopted in a democratic process about eight years ago. It has at least one glitch in that it mentions a committee that doesn’t exist right now but which our By-Law Committee and Governing Board will address and bring to the congregation in the next year. So accepting that this is incomplete—just like life often is—may I ask us to generously and thoughtfully rise together as we are able and read the Covenant of our Congregation.

Congregational Covenant

We, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, choose to become part of a community with a common purpose to foster an atmosphere where the Unitarian Universalist Principles will be learned and practiced.

We covenant with one another to freely explore our religious (or theological or spiritual) beliefs and to honor our diversity as a source of communal strength. We will work together to reach our highest potential as individuals and as a community by:

. . . Accepting, respecting and celebrating differences among us, always remembering the “Golden Rule”;

. . . Contributing to the Congregation intellectually, financially and with gifts of time and energy and by honoring each person’s need for self-care;

. . . Expressing thoughts and feelings directly, speaking honestly with kindness,
keeping an open mind and listening deeply, balancing our need to be heard with an obligation to listen, assuming good intentions in all interactions, and;

. . . Acknowledging that while we may not always agree with congregational decisions, we will honor the decision making process and respect the outcomes.

We will attempt to resolve any conflict with another congregant by direct communication with that person first, or by seeking the assistance of a minister and/or the Committee on Ministry. Should a congregant choose not to participate in dispute resolution, then that congregant agrees to drop the matter and not involve others.

Recognizing that our Covenant is aspirational, and in affirmation of the common purpose that unites us, we will support and do our best to abide by this Covenant.