Covenant, communion, personhood, wholeness: A conversation to pursue

By Kathleen Staudt

Father, we pray for your holy catholic church

That we all may be one.

We say this most Sundays, gathered around the altar in whatever local congregation we belong to. I’ve been thinking lately about this prayer as one of the many in our liturgy that both holds up a vision and confesses our very deep brokenness. And it has resonated particularly over the past few weeks when for various reasons I’ve been reading, side by side, Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’s classic Being as Communion and Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Because I’m a word-person I’ve been playing with the consonance in the language between these two writers — Orthodox theologian and Quaker retreat leader– and finding a dissonance — perhaps a fruitful one — with some of the language about “covenant” that have come up lately on Episcopal Café. As a church and in our personal relationships, we are often living divided lives. Both these writers remind us, in different ways, that ours is a God who calls us to wholeness and unity. So what does that mean? My thoughts about this are still a little unformed but I’m hoping that putting them out there, partly in response to things I’ve been reading lately on the café, may elicit some discussion that will help me think more clearly.

So here goes.

Theologically and spiritually, in conversations about “covenant” and “communion,” I have been wondering whether we’re missing the point, or forgetting what these words mean because of the way their meaning is being distorted or manipulated in the political discussions within the Anglican Commuinon.

Just to remind ourselves of what we know: “Covenant” in Hebrew Scripture is about the relationship between God and God’s people — “you will be my people and I will be your God” — bad things happen when the covenant is broken, but ultimately it is God’s desire to restore it. “Again and again, you call us to return,” we say in our Eucharistic prayer, acknowledging this part of the story.

The “new covenant” established in the Eucharist is also about relationship between ourselves and Christ, and again, it comes from God’s side. We live in brokenness, all the time, in relations to these covenants — we fail to live up to them. But I don’t think that our tradition can deny that the call to live into a covenant relationship with God is fundamental to our identity as Christians, however we express that identity. And so how to live into a covenant with God that demands something of us as a human community and as separate persons within that community is a worthwhile topic for theological reflection.

Living in covenanted relatinship with others is part of our human effort to imitate and reflect back the faithfulness of God. Zizioulas takes it further: he says that since our God is a unity of “persons in communion,” we live into our identity as persons made in the divine image through our relationships with one another. This is what it means to be made in the divine image; to the extent that we violate and distort human relationships, or seek dominance over one another, we are dimming the divine image in ourselves; this is called “sin.” In this view, Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” becomes primary, and love becomes a way of being to which we are continually called home. The Eucharist draws us together as a church to remind us of this.

A covenant IS different from a contract because it rests not on defending the interests of individuals but on setting terms that will preserve the relationship, through mutual consent. Our growing cynicism about the language about “bonds of mutual affection” in the Anglican Covenant debate is distressing to me because that language does express an ideal we are called to live into, with God’s help and despite our human brokenness.

I welcomed with interest the discussion on Episcopal Café about the covenant of marriage, and how it compares with the monastic life, in a discussion that I think was meant to get us thinking about the manner of life we are called to as Christians in relation to one another. Objections can legitimately be raised that it is seems exclusive to focus only on marriage and monasticism as models for covenanted relationship — but I would like to see us have the conversation about what it means to live in covenanted relationship — what does Christian marriage mean in an era of sexual freedom and gender equality? For those who can agree that marriage is not dependent on gender, can we have this discussion now? Surely people who have been denied the opportunity to marry have important thoughts to contribute to a discussion of what Christian marriage means. And through that discussion we might come to a fresh theological consideration of other relationships to which we give ourselves in love and commitment.

The point, in the marriage conversation, is that we’ve so lost track of covenant language that we can’t even talk about what we aspire to in our theology of Christian marriage (“in it is represented the union of Christ and the Church” we say in the liturgical prayer: what do we mean by that? Or do we avoid the whole conversation because it’s couched in sexist language? Or can we talk about how we’d translate the idea into language we can embrace? Can we peel of the layers of abuse/oppression in these words and get to some kind of understanding of the nature of the relationship with God that these words, this image of Spiritual Marriage holds? Or do we throw it out altogether, and if we do, what happens to the Biblical challenge to live in covenant with a God who is passionately engaged with us and who exhorts us to love one another?

If I were to announce in a contemporary assembly that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female but all are one in Christ “– would people be offended by not being mentioned in the list? ((why did he leave out black or white, gay or straight, old or young, married or unmarried, east or west, north or south — is he snubbing some group or other by exclusion? I exaggerate, but among liberals I think this can be a common distraction in our conversations – we focus on who seems to be excluded and sometimes miss the point) — Paul of course is saying that there is a greater wholeness to which we are called, in which we find the fulness of our identity as human persons made in the image of God? Isn’t the point is that there are NO divisions in the divine life of Christ? And isn’t the invitation to hold up that vision, even amid our brokenness, and to admit that we all contribute to that brokenness, by those we exclude or allow to be excluded?

Similarly, even if few of us make profession to a monastic community, what are the expectations of monasticism that can help us in our human relationships? Joan Chittister suggests, for example, that “Benedictine spirituality is about caring for the people you live with and loving the people you don’t and loving God more than yourself. Benedictine spirituality depends on listening for the voice of God everywhere in life, especially in one another and here.” Is this an ideal we would like to retain as part of our identity as Christians and as Anglicans? How might it translate into our everyday situations. Why is it so difficult for us to have this kind of conversation?

I’m wondering what happens if we try on the Eastern Orthodox language and think of our particular selves in terms of “personhood” rather than in terms of “individuality.” It would be countercultural for us, in the post-enlightenment, individualistic west — but it seems to me that this might help us to look more closely at the formative effect of our relationships in the Christian life — how we shape and are shaped by one another, growing into the divine image, without denying the dignity of each and every human being. It seems to me that this may be what Parker Palmer is getting at when he invites people to live “undivided lives.”

None of this helps with what should be done about the Anglican Communion, the “Covenant,” etc. I don’t know where that will go; but I hope that our frustration over the politics and the difficulties of cross-cultural conversation (sketched out beautifully in Marshall Scott’s recent post on the café) will not lead us to become cynical about the abiding call to unity in Christ, or to fear serious discussion about what is radical, counter cultural and hard about the call to love one another, to live into covenanted relationships, and to recognize our deep identity in communion with persons very different from ourselves.

To desire unity in Christ is to come face to face with our brokenness; but isn’t that unity what we are called to as persons made in the image of God and called to be in communion with one another? The Covenant, the dream, of a God who desires relationship with us, is still the invitation we are called to hear. The brokenness is real, but so is the promise.

Reflecting on all of this (with apologies if it seems very disparate) I am led back to Verna Dozier’s wisdom, who sums it up when she writes: “We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God still waits.”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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