Monday, January 16, 2012

All Grown Up? Part Two

All Grown Up? Part Two
Aiken UU Church
January 12 2012
Gaye Ortiz

Friday the 13th – 2 days ago – was not just another day known for bad luck.  In the northern Texas town of Grapevine, there was a lot of excitement over what an evangelical pastor and his wife were doing on the roof of their mega-church. You may have seen the interviews done this week with Pastor Ed Young and his wife Lisa, co-founders of Fellowship Church and co-authors of a new book called: Sexperiment – 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse.

They say they want to ‘bring God back into the bed’ and to tell married couples that a strong sex life should work to unite them outside the bedroom; they propose that couples have sex for 7 days straight to see the amazing results of such intimacy for their relationships. So to drive home the point on Friday they put a bed on the roof of Grapevine Fellowship Church and began a 24-hour bed-in. Those of us who are old enough to remember John Lennon and Yoko Ono doing the same thing in a hotel room in Canada to protest the Vietnam War remember how much fun was made of them.

Not all evangelicals are thrilled with Pastor Young’s rooftop bedroom stunt either: an article in Christianity Today suggests a profit-seeking motive - but not only does it ‘vault the book onto the bestseller list on Amazon for a day,’ the article declares it is lacking in modesty. And the message of Pastor Young makes the single life look somehow deficient instead of an equal but different lifestyle choice. (Matthew Lee Anderson, “The Trouble with Ed Young’s Rooftop Sexperiment,” 1/12/2012

So the pastor and his wife have come along just at the right time for my sermon today!

Why should the topic of sex and sexuality be brought up in a Sunday sermon? Because it’s a topic that has implications far beyond the bedroom. Our sexual ethic, according to the Religious Institute, should be “focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts” (Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing,

The Religious Institute was founded in 2001 “to promote sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society” (“About the Religious Institute,” Its mission is “to change the way America understands the relationship of sexuality and religion.” It operates in a multifaith context across the US, partnering with clergy and congregations as well as with advocacy organizations, seminaries, and sexual and reproductive health communities.

Specifically, it promotes:
o   Sexually healthy faith communities
o   Full equality of women and of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in congregations and communities
o   Marriage equality for same-sex couples
o   Comprehensive sexuality education
o   Reproductive justice
o   A responsible approach to adolescent sexuality
o   Sexual abuse prevention
o   HIV/AIDS education and prevention
(“About the Religious Institute,”

Now, I can’t possibly get around to talking about all of those points in one sermon! But I will begin with some information about the person who has driven this sexual justice agenda in American progressive religious circles for the past 10 years.

The Institute’s Executive Director and co-founder is the Rev Dr Debra Haffner, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and a sexologist. She has appeared on the Bill O’Reilly Show to debate the issue of sex education for elementary school children, and has written recently in the Huffington Post and The Washington Post on the Penn State scandal. Rev Dr Haffner was an adviser to the UUA on the development of the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexual education curricula, in which now over 7000 facilitators have been trained. Debra Haffner also co-authored an online UUA course called “Balancing Act: Keeping Children Safe in Congregations” (Michelle Bates Deakin, “UU Sexologist Debates Bill O’Reilly, UU World, Winter 2007, 49).

Recently the UUA added to the number of competencies – there are now 15 - in which a ministry candidate must show proficiency when going before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee; the addition was the competency ‘Sexual Health, Sexual Boundaries, Sexual Justice.’ One way that I could fulfill the requirement for this competency was for me to take an online course offered to ministry candidates by the Religious Institute, called “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals.” My enrollment in this course was then supplemented by going to the fall retreat of the Southeastern UU Ministers’ Association, where the Rev Dr Haffner was the program speaker. I had lunch one day with her, because she was kind enough to offer to sit with the interns attending the retreat, to talk about the Ministerial Fellowship Committee process, since she is on that committee. I completed the Religious Institute online course by the end of last month, and was just notified this past week that I have a certificate to prove it!

One thing that the Rev Dr Haffner says is that sexuality education is a religious issue, and that it is tied in with our religious commitment - as a people of faith - to truth telling: “people should have full and accurate information, not biased and censored” (UU World). In the UU World article about her debate with O’Reilly, one of her comments sounds very much in tune with the north Texas pastor who put his bed on the rooftop this week: she says that she hopes people will see that they can be “sexual people and religious people” (UU World). Religion is better known for its condemnation, constraint or exclusion of people who do not follow its teachings on sexuality. Many people have been hurt and damaged by the refusal of some faith traditions to address the sexual dysfunctions in their own communities and leadership. But when we look at the major faiths, we can see that there are many traditions that celebrate sexuality through their theology, practices and their holy texts.

Native American spirituality, for example, embraces ambiguity in the sexes with traditions that honor ‘two-spirit’ people, and the Hindu tradition recognizes three sexes and divine entities that transcend the categories of sex and gender. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs is one well-known example of erotic poetry. In the Christian letter of Paul to the Galatians, the verse that gives hope for an inclusive community says that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). (D. Haffner and D. Palmer, Sexuality and Religion 2020, Religious Institute, 2010, 8).

Our religious faith should help us grow in maturity; it should help us grow in self-awareness and self-acceptance. Our UU principles can guide us in this: the first principle promotes respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. The second calls for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And for us UUs, we should be accepting of the claim that sexual justice does not stand apart from other forms of social justice: Haffner writes, “Because all injustice is rooted in oppression, religious leaders have a special role to seek to eradicate not only sexism and homophobia, but all forms of oppression that undermine equality and right relationship…” (D. Haffner and D. Palmer, Sexuality and Religion 2020, Religious Institute, 2010, 10)

I would love for the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church to be able to declare that it is a sexually healthy and responsible congregation. In order to make that a reality, we members and friends of the church should work on what it means to be a sexually healthy adult. That doesn’t mean we can claim to be perfect, but this is not as difficult as you may think. Just as, last week, we talked about being grown up in our approach to conflict, we are called on to accept what, for some, are weighty responsibilities. Some of us grew up and became sexually active in the 60s; it was a time of sexual liberation and experimentation. Some congregations were lax in their sexual mores, and some ministers engaged in inappropriate relationships with congregants.

At that time, issues, such as homosexuality, were thought of in much less accepting ways: in 1967, 88% of UUs thought that homosexuality should be discouraged by law or through education (“Sexuality and the UUA: Fifty Years of Sexual Justice and a Call to the Future,” GA presentation, June 2011).  And in our society some behaviors, such as rape, were not considered to be such serious breaches as we know them to be today: you may know that, until 1993, North Carolina did not consider spousal rape to be a crime.

But today, there are two things I ask you to reflect on that can determine whether you are a sexually healthy adult:
First, do you understand that a person can have sexual feelings without acting on them?
Second, do you only engage in sexual behaviors and relationships that are life-enhancing and not potentially harmful to yourself or others?

The first question – do you understand that a person can have sexual feelings without acting on them? - is about self-knowledge and self-control; the second is about power. The first question asks us to practice restraint and honesty: we may indeed meet someone who is quite attractive, and we could even wonder about the potential for a sexual encounter. It takes a grown-up ability to perceive our feelings and it takes control not to act on them if it is not appropriate.

The second question - do you only engage in sexual behaviors and relationships that are life-enhancing and not potentially harmful to yourself or others? - is about consensual and unexploitative action. If two people share equal power in a relationship and find it mutually pleasurable then that is a win-win, life-enhancing situation. But we know that it is too easy to take advantage of people who are unequal to us in terms of power, who might not be protected, or might not have the level of maturity to engage in a sexual relationship. If your behavior is harmful to yourself or others, then may you find it within yourself to stop any offensive or coercive action.

The Progressive Religious Coalition interfaith celebration of the life of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. that was held in Augusta Thursday night included an offertory; the recipient of the offering was Child Enrichment Inc. I was honored to call for the offering, and while I was composing my remarks earlier in the week, I called and spoke with the executive director of Child Enrichment, Dan Hillman. Although I had already done my research to understand the mission of the organization, he gave me more of the context for why they need the support of the community. The mission of Child Enrichment Incorporated is to provide and coordinate comprehensive intervention, advocacy and prevention for abandoned, neglected, and sexually abused children ( It was established in 1977 by a group of physicians, nurses, and social workers. Child Enrichment helps abuse survivors, both children and adults, to overcome their experience and to rebuild their lives; some cases go to court and are exposed to media coverage, but most are anonymous and little-known. Dan Hillman said that if I wanted to, I could add something to my offertory remarks that he always adds when he is speaking to people about the importance of the work Child Enrichment does – and it fits right in with my appeal today for us to be ‘grown up’: he said that in today’s epidemic of child abuse and sexual abuse, every one of us needs to be a responsible adult to support the work that needs to be done in the years ahead to protect children and to help heal them. 

So the Rev Dr Haffner stressed during the retreat in November that congregations need to be ready to support their children by having not only sexuality education like Our Whole Lives, but with policies against sexual exploitation or harassment of any kind within the faith community. When she asked for feedback at the end of the retreat, and asked us to tell her one important thing we heard her say, I replied with, “Written policy is your friend”…because she said it at a time when our congregation here in Aiken had just found that out, through the work that has been done on our recent safe congregation policy. Our Safety and Ethics Committee has done a wonderful job, taking its responsibility very seriously, to craft a policy that can help to protect our children and indeed protect all members of the congregation. But the Rev Dr Haffner did also say that there often is resistance from a congregation to the creation and enactment of policy guidelines – it could be the anti-authoritarian strain that lives on in fellowships, or it could be the individualistic streak of the UU culture. But any church that takes seriously its pastoral ministry to its children, members, and friends will want to pay attention to safety issues in terms of sexual health and responsibility.

And let me just mention a few of the issues that might come up in a congregation that might cause anxiety and then, if not addressed, cause conflict – remember that anxiety about sex is one of the most common triggers of conflict? There may be some past clerical sexual misconduct affecting a present-day congregation; there could be inconsistent or incomplete vetting of Children’s RE staff that results in sexual harassment; there could be a limited access agreement with a registered sex offender; there could be a female minister dealing with unwanted sexual comments in a group setting; one thing there could be definitely at the moment is sexual abuse survivors being retraumatized by the Penn State sexual abuse scandal in the news; and there could be congregations experiencing friction from divorced partners who have new partners... and the list could go on. So when we say that a faith community should be sexually healthy, that clearly is the expression of an ideal! We won’t be there yet, but it is worth working towards.

So what are the characteristics that define a sexually healthy faith community? According to the Religious Institute:

o   It has religious leadership that has experience and training in worship and preaching as well as counseling about sexuality issues.

o   It offers sexuality education for children and youth and a variety of services and programs to support the sexuality needs of the adults in the community.

o   It welcomes all people and all types of families into the faith community as full participating members, and values diversity.

o   It has explicit policies against sexual exploitation or harassment of any kind within the faith community.

o   It works for sexual justice at the denomination level as well as in the society at large.

This last characteristic is one that we will acquire next month, when our congregation undertakes the Welcoming Congregation Program, which educates us in how we can welcome diversity and work for sexual justice in our church, in our community, and in the wider world.

One of the assessments that I had to complete in my online course last month concerned this church being a public witness to sexual justice. I think we are making a start here - in addition to the upcoming Welcoming Congregation program, we already play host to the local chapter of PFLAG – family and friends of lesbians and gays. One of the questions in the assessment asked whether the minister – me - was an endorser of the “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.” I’d read it a while back, but hadn’t signed on to it since coming to Aiken. So yesterday I became a signatory to the “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing,” and I’ve made a copy to put onto the board in the hall. So please do have a look at it and feel free to ask for your own personal copy or make it yourself on our copier.

It’s not a long document and I would like to read it to you – remember that many progressive religious communities find God-language powerful and evocative, not to say persuasive, in claiming the higher moral ground…and it’s okay if you want to substitute in your own mind the phrases you might use instead, such as ‘higher power’, ‘spirit of life’, or ‘the divine’:

Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality,Justice, and Healing:
 Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.  We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality.  We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.
Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality.  We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited.  However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts.  All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure.  Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health.  It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation.

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality.  We are called today to see, hear and respond to the suffering caused by sexual abuse and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.

Faith communities must therefore be truth-seeking, courageous and just.  We call for:
·         Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.
·         Full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in congregational life, including their ordination and marriage equality.
·         Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.
·         Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denominations.

Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society.  We call for:
·         Lifelong, age-appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries and community settings.
·         A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STI prevention and treatment.
·         Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.

God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity.  We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.

(January 2010

Why did I sign the declaration? I suppose it’s my ‘little light’ that I can let shine. That light is a metaphor for the truth-seeking that we are called to do; for me that includes the ordination of women and making heard the voices of women in faith communities. Some major faith traditions in the world – including the Roman Catholic faith that I left to become a Unitarian Universalist - still do not allow women to become ordained religious leaders. By my ministering witness as a woman, I can give support to the full inclusion of women in congregational life.

But equally important to me is the need to witness, as the declaration says, to our faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STI prevention and treatment. Is anyone under the illusion that this is not going to be an election topic? It already is, and certain politicians running for the Republican nomination have already expressed their opposition, not only to abortion, but to birth control. The hard-won victories for women’s reproductive rights from decades ago are under threat in 2012. I want to shine my little light to overcome that darkness.

I sign on gladly to the call for a sexual ethic that promotes the dignity and worth of women, LGBT members of our community, and other people who experience oppression in the search for justice and equality. I believe that we are all called to respond in both a pastoral and a prophetic sense to the signs of the times. Not only should we offer support and counsel to those in our midst who suffer now, our visionary witness to justice should pave the way for our children and help change how this country understands sexuality and religion. We have as UUs led change on many issues in the past – including equal rights for women, the right to contraception and abortion, full inclusion of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender ministers; and marriage equality.

On this weekend of remembering Dr King, we also recall that UU ministers, such as the Rev James Reeb, laid their lives on the line for social justice. Remember singing about how we’ll let our little light shine everywhere we go?

You and I together can let our light shine when we stand on the side of love on the issue of sexual justice.

We can let our light shine when we model progressive religious engagement and commitment to the sexual health of our congregations and our society.

And we can let our light shine when we demonstrate a grown-up respect for body and soul that can help to create a world “of sexual health, sexual justice, and sexual wholeness” (Haffner and Palmer, 36).

We might each only have a little light, but together we will let it shine until we light up the whole world.

Gaye Ortiz
January 2012

All Grown Up? Part One

All Grown Up? Part One
Aiken Unitarian Unversalist Church
January 8 2012

There is a short quote from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in the box above the Order of Service – here is the complete quotation:
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.

 As with so many of King’s words, they pose a very powerful challenge! Most of us are quick to forgive ourselves but hold grudges against people who commit a trespass against us of the same – or even lesser – magnitude. We don’t usually find it too difficult to jump into conflict, but it’s often the jumping out of it that is the trickier part.

However, maybe not all Unitarian Universalists know that our liberal religious tradition offers us the perfect way to get back into right relationship with each other when we have acted out, or have burnt, not built, our bridges with one another. Today we will explore the nature of conflict, how we get caught up in it before we know it, and how we can see it as a positive learning experience when we pay attention to Unitarian Universalist congregational polity.

1.    Expectations of church perfection and harmony
What do we believe about the way congregations should get along? Peter Steinke in his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, says that most of us have very idealistic expectations of the church: it will always reflect and demonstrate love; if any division is acknowledged, that is admitting to being a defective organization; and in some fundamentalist theologies, conflict is sinful or of the devil.

Christian churches have an interesting role model – the early Church, which is described in the New Testament Book of Acts. And what a picture of harmony, peace, love, charity! (Steinke, p104) But this utopian community soon gives way to lies, ruptures, and theological disagreements! And of course, once the apostle Paul begins his church-planting ministry, he soon is writing letters advising, admonishing, and haranguing churches that are going off the rails and losing sight of the agape love to which Christians should aspire.

2.    What is conflict?
Gil Rendle in the book Leading Change in the Congregation reminds us that conflict is not the same as a fight! His definition is from a different perspective: “Conflict is two or more ideas in the same place at the same time” (165). Given that definition, maybe it is a miracle that we are still in business, because with UUs there are always at least two ideas in the same place at the same time! But it’s a helpful definition that normalizes the idea of conflicting ideas.

3.    How can conflict arise?
However, conflict can arise in several ways, due to the structure of our congregations and how power is seen to play a part in them (‘Finding the Optimal Level of Conflict’ by David R. Brubaker, Alban Institute 2011).

Maybe conflict comes about when there is an attempt to shift the power imbalance by those with less power, trying to take it away from those who have centralized power. Or it can erupt when responsibilities overlap because roles are poorly defined, and once they become contested, tension and conflict arise. Maybe the common ground between parties in conflict is that they all love the church and want what is best for it, and just have different ways of expressing that. But sometimes people come to church “with their own agendas, which might not benefit the congregation as a whole” (Michael Durall, The Almost Church, 47).

Whatever the cause, we know that conflict can escalate into full-blown warfare before we know it! In churches, conflict often arises from anxiety. Peter Steinke has identified ‘13 Triggers of Anxiety’ (Steinke, 15-17); you can, if you choose, check off in your mind which ones you think your church is experiencing:
1)   money – raising it, distributing it, managing/mismanaging it
2)   sex/sexuality – be here for next week’s sermon!
3)   Minister’s leadership style – either a lack of or too much of leadership
4)   Lay leadership style – is it enabling or threatening, is it hands-off or hands-on?
5)   Growth/survival – when congregations feel attendance is in decline or growth has slowed
6)   Boundaries – when people overstep their authority
7)   Trauma/transition – emotional reactions to key events like extreme weather damage to the physical structure of a church or retirement of a minister
8)   Staff conflict/resignation – emotional upset due to staff disruption
9)   Harm done to or death of a child – stirs up a sense of helplessness in a congregation where normally children are protected and nurtured
10)         Old and new – worship practices like changing from candles to stones in joys and concerns or changing the time of worship
11)         contemporary versus traditional worship – intense connections to styles of worship
12)         gap between the ideal and the real – when the church’s ideals or mission is disrupted by self-concerns of members
13)        building/construction, space, territory – modifying existing space, or when growth squeezes usable space and threatens congregational activities and meetings.

However many times we are told that anxiety is normal, just one of the most common triggers of anxiety can heighten tension…and having more than one of these at any given time will be a sure cause for conflict.

When we do have conflict erupt in our midst, it pretty much takes a pattern where first there is escalation of a disagreement, perhaps with painful exchanges that hurt people’s feelings. Conflict quickly becomes competition, and the primitive brain kicks in with an ‘us versus them’ polarity. Reason is overtaken by passion, and we fail to respond with either reason or love. The more aggressive we become, the more we are likely to lie, take advantage, or ignore rules in order to promote our own sense of righteousness. Edward de Bono says, “ Being right is not too difficult. You choose your perception, you select your information. You leave out what does not suit you, you drag in some general purpose value words, you throw in a sneer or two about the opposition, and you are a fine fellow who has made a fine speech.” (107)
The reaction to one another, more than to the issue that began the conflict, is what can disturb a congregation’s balance (106).

4.    How we survive conflict
It’s interesting to observe how people deal with conflict and how they adopt survival behaviors. Three ways of dealing with conflict complicate the confrontation of conflict: Avoidance is the chosen style of many churchgoers; when it arises in church they walk away, sometimes then leaving those who created the conflict in a greater position of strength. Accommodation or appeasing is a style that also gives control to opposing forces. This style is often the choice of church leaders because they place a premium value on tranquility and stability, a ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality. And compromise never solves a problem but just leaves both sides with most but not all of what they wanted; this pseudo-solution can almost guarantee the reemergence of conflict at a later date.

But these are the ways we often react, because we just want to survive the conflict. If we rush to a solution then that may prevent us from getting to the deeper issue. It is a way to reduce the motivation for members to stay on the issue and push for substantive change.

Tom Owen-Towle writes in his book Growing a Beloved Community that we should fight fairly, not cruelly; for impact, not injury. He says that sometimes church members must commit to “entering the debating chambers, share their piece, listen to their tablemates, then stay put…even though their first impulse may be to disappear as quickly as possible” (69). He goes on to observe that the Navajo sometimes practice extreme togetherness during times of stress: When someone has violated a principle or person, the townspeople gather to burn the offender’s home down. Then they regroup and, alongside the violator, help to rebuild a new one (70).

The Catholic monk and theologian Thomas Merton also emphasizes the need to stay put, when he speaks of the ‘vow of stability’: “our allegiance to the common values that establish our church’s very being in the first place must always supercede our personal positions” (69).

I don’t like conflict. And it is ironic that my spiritual journey began as a result of a conflict. As a teenager I joined a Southern Baptist church and was baptized there; the young minister and his wife had recently arrived and they were doing a great job building up the youth presence in the church. I felt energized and valued in my faith…and then, the church deacons fired the minister. I could sound uncharitable and say that that is what Southern Baptists do, that they can’t seem to survive without constant conflict – but my mother, who is Southern Baptist, says that so it must be true! Anyway, I decided to leave that church and start looking; I had a bookcase full of Collier’s Harvard Classics, and they contained a selection of holy writings from the major world faiths. I went through them methodically, and quite liked the Buddhist and Hindu teachings I found there. I told one of my friends at school that I was without a church and she invited me to hers; when I walked through the door and smelled the incense, I fell in love with the Catholic church. And remained that way for three and a half decades, until I discovered that I had been a UU all along!

When my home church had a situation two years ago that resulted in the resignation of its minister, I did feel very much like running away again. When the minister left, there were two of us who as ministry associates had pastoral responsibilities for the church until our new interim minister arrived. But the vow of stability that Merton talks about held sway, and my own surrender to the common values we shared as members of the church helped to hold me to it. Why would anyone give up the spiritual connection that has been so important in their formation as a human being because of a conflict? To me, abandoning my church and my ability to worship with my beloved community was not an even trade-off.

The year after a new interim minister came to my home church, she held a reconciliation service for the congregation, and did so with trepidation. Inviting the members to engage in peacemaking was very powerful; in the open forum, only one person spoke in anger against another one present, and after that expression of pent-up anger and sorrow, the other person asked if they could meet afterwards to talk about it, and they did in fact reconcile. It was a powerful exercise of congregational polity and covenant; the minister did not wave a magic wand over the sanctuary and erase all ill will, but she – and we - created a safe space in which everyone who wished to could speak about how they were feeling, and then all of us agreed to go forward in good faith as a united congregation. Being the ‘peace’ you wish to see in the world means that you do not lose your way in the jungle of anger and hurt and blame that is created by conflict.

5.    UU polity
And unlike some churches, we have an advantage because of our UU polity. That word is key to any understanding of our formation as a faith. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant dissenters in England and New England based their idea of covenant upon an understanding of the primitive Christian church from the New Testament. The covenant was a radical departure from the practices and polity of the established Church of England, because it held that each member of the congregation had a right and responsibility in matters of decision-making including shaping church policy. This is still a feature of UU covenants today. But what is more, the ancient covenant between the Hebrew god Yahweh and the Israelite people that is found in the Hebrew scriptures still is the grounding for our covenant. The scriptural cycle of right relations takes for granted the inherent aspect of human weakness in any relationship. Being free as humans to break promises and to fail to live up to our responsibilities is not seen as irreparable behavior, because the convenantal cycle is naturally one of rupture, return, repair and reform (Everett, William Johnson. Recovering the Covenant. http://www.religiononline.
org/showarticle.asp?title=1495, 4).

The obligation that binds us who join in covenant is one that resists and absorbs the inevitable stresses and strains in human relationships, and relies heavily upon trust that coexists with a common faith. Dr. Jan Garrett (Toward an Ethics of Right
Relations,, 5) recalls that the longterm covenant relationship between Yahweh and Abraham and his descendents “had its ups and downs. It seemed at times to be broken beyond repair and yet was frequently renewed.” She goes on to say that, in covenantal relationships, interactions will not always go smoothly, but “one does not merely walk away when the interaction hits a rough spot” (Garrett, 6).

We have through our covenant a relationship that is entered into voluntarily through binding mutual promises; it is not self-serving, and it is not shorttermed in its scope. The covenant helps us weather difficult patches and assumes that adjustments may be necessary.

There is a growing use of a covenant of right relations in UU congregations today. As the theologian Conrad Wright comments, “Our polity is important because it defines the way in which we believe human beings should be related to one another for ecclesiastical purposes, and it may be a guide or model for human relationships of other kinds.”(Wright, Congregational Polity, 1997, 2)

6.    Covenanting back to happiness
If a church already has a covenant then why would it encourage its members to create a covenant of right relations?

The sense of continuity of a congregation is valued through the historic covenant, but the identity of the congregation of today should be shaped by revisiting and revising the covenant in order to create and sustain relationship among its members as it moves forward. The UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, explains its right relations covenant this way:

It answers the question ‘How do we intend to behave so that we can create a welcoming community, a safe and sacred space?’ Covenants guide us when we are working well together, but conflict is inevitable when people live and work together in community. During conflict, a covenant can also remind us of the need to work through it in ways that are consistent with our community values. (UUCSS Right Relations Covenant,, accessed April 10, 2009).

In these and many other covenants of right relations, the identity of the congregation is clearly linked to its actions and thus to values that drive those actions: openness in communication, mannered behavior, and managed conflict are
ideals, set forth in good spirit and optimism, and aspirational in the sense that, as Rebecca Parker urges, “We need to be what we want to see, and make visible an alternative to the forms of oppression, alienation and injustice alive in our time” (Rebecca Parker, “What They Dreamed Be Ours to Do,” in Herz, Walter (ed). Redeeming Time, 1999, 90).

7.    Can there be benefits of conflict?
One of the more striking and perhaps the bravest feature of a covenant of right relations is the expectation that a covenant will be broken at some point. From ancient times, the cyclic nature of failure and repair, estrangement and reconciliation, is explicit in the covenant promise.
That we as humans who live in community need to constantly balance our individual needs with those of our neighbor, is a reality that many of us today ignore at our peril.  Perhaps the reason so many UU congregations have worked to produce and enact behavioral covenants is that they see that, at least in this one segment of their lives, they can fashion a relationship with others that then gives them hope for other parts of their lives where mutuality is still an elusive concept.

 So perhaps our moment of epiphany today is the realization that conflict can be positive and beneficial, if we can stay in the moment and work through it with the help of our covenant: to quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace,

So, as we sang in our opening hymn, ‘Don’t be afraid of some change’! The power of our shared faith is that within it we have diversity, but also, that we value the need for harmony: Wally Armbruster reminds us: “If everyone’s singing the same note, that’s not harmony, it’s monotony. Harmony happens when people sing different notes – some that sound like discord at first suddenly start to sound great…once your ear gets used to the idea” (Durall, 166).
May it be so, blessed be, amen.

Gaye Ortiz 1/8/2012