The English call deep-fried sticks of potato “chips.” Yeah, I know. But this is important if you ever go to England, as many of us have, because deep-fried slices of potato are called crisps, not chips, the name we use here, and the English certainly don’t call chips “French Fries,” which is just as well, as they appear to actually be Belgian in origin, at least from the French-speaking portion of what is today Belgium, where they are called “pommes frites.”
The English of the late 15th century would have been disingenuous if, in the middle of yet another dispute with France, and there was always a dispute with France, they had taken to calling chips “Freedom Fries,” what with there not actually being anything like freedom in England at the time. After all, the Magna Carta, over 250 years old even back then, really only created a type of freedom for the nobility.
But whatever they called fried potatoes, the simple fact was that England was once again in a hot dispute with France at the end of the 15th century, and the best way to secure an alliance with Spain was to marry the Prince of Wales, the future King Arthur, to a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. Except Arthur died before he ascended to the throne, and Catherine, along with the title Prince of Wales, was passed on to Arthur’s little brother, Henry.
He, of course, became Henry the Eighth, and what happened when this older wife he inherited failed to produce a male heir is the stuff of history. Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting, and petitioned the pope for an annulment of his twenty-four year marriage to Catherine. The pope was, inconveniently for Henry, being held prisoner by Catherine’s nephew, Charles the Fifth, and declined to grant the annulment. So Henry declared that he alone, not the Bishop of Rome, was the head of the church in England, and the Anglican Church was born.
At the same time, over on the continent, the Reformation was in full swing. Some of its ideas slipped past the guards at Calais… oh wait, that’s today… in any case, some Reformation ideas found their way to England, where they formed the basis of Puritanism, a movement that desired to purify the English church. Puritan thought was tolerated and even encouraged during the long reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, but the Stuarts who followed were less accommodating. So it was that the Puritan movement, no longer in favor, was divided between those who thought they must separate from the Church of England, and those who still believed the church could be reformed from within, the former group calling themselves Separatists.
Puritans of both stripes were among the leading lights of the country, and included the most important and influential clerics, all educated at Cambridge, but they found themselves losing their positions under the Stuarts.
Then the Separatists did what they had threatened with their name. They separated, not only from the Church of England, but from England itself. A small group first emigrated to Holland, then moved on, settling in the New World. It is this group that gives us the core theology of the United Church of Christ, that there is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s word, or as we like to say, God is still speaking.
In a few weeks, we will celebrate a moment from the early days of this Pilgrim colony, back before the genocide and expropriation that would follow. That expropriation and violence continue to this day at Standing Rock, where corporate interests and their thugs have joined militarized law enforcement to run a dangerous petro-pipeline through sacred and environmentally sensitive tribal land. But at least at the beginning, at that first Thanksgiving in the northern colonies, the legend tells us that these white-skinned immigrants in Plymouth were welcomed, received hospitality.
Not long after, the floodgates would open, and many English Puritans, including non-separatists, would take advantage of the new land to create their own colony, a “city on the hill,” a shining beacon for the world, giving a name to that hill on which they would build their capitol.
Like the Pilgrims, these non-separatist Puritan immigrants were strict members of the Reform tradition, but with this key difference from the Reform churches back in Europe: the European form of the Protestant Reformation was still about official “state” churches, the issue at hand being which form of faith, Roman, Lutheran or Reform, the local authority, be it a prince or a council, would choose.
The Puritans, having suffered oppression when the authorities made what they thought was the wrong choice, no longer believed that church belonged to those with earthly power. Their understanding of church changed dramatically.
Rather than church being municipal or national, part of the civitas or the polis, to use the Latin terms that give us words like civics and politics, the Puritans instead embraced the Reform idea that a church was a gathered people, though, with their obsession with predestination, they understood this gathered people as God’s elect. That you were part of God’s elect was made evident by your character, your conduct. We have long abandoned some of that Calvinist theology, including predestination and irresistible grace, but the notion of church as a gathered people remains.
This was a dramatically different way of understanding and organizing church. For the first time since the conversion of Constantine, your religion was not based on your tribe, who had the biggest sword, or the accidents of history. Your religion was based on free choice. This freedom was imperfectly implemented in the Massachusetts colony, where folks were not really quite as free as in William Penn’s colony to the south, but the idea of individual religious choice was revolutionary and became a core American value, all based on the notion of a form of committed relationship called covenant.
I rarely find myself in agreement with conservative columnist David Brooks, but in a New York Times piece written earlier this year, he discusses four great irreversible trends affecting our age: global migration, economic globalization, the Internet and a culture of autonomy. He admits the ways that these factors increase the sense of personal freedom, but then goes on to say that at the same time these factors undermine social cohesion, leaving us with people that oddly are more free but feel powerless. Brooks proposes a social focus on covenant. He writes “A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed with love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.”
If that last part sounds like scripture, it should, for it comes from the Book of Ruth.
The idea that the people of God were in a committed relationship with God and with one another is nothing new. Scripture tells us that Abraham and Sarah entered a committed relationship with God, a covenant, with terms that set out how that relationship would work. Scripture tells us that the Hebrew People, represented by Moses, entered a committed relationship with God. Scripture tells us that the House of David, the ruling house of the unified kingdom, entered a committed relationship with God. Each of these commitments were spelled out in testaments that governed the relationship.
Freedom to enter relationship was also central in the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus, that charismatic troublemaker who offered a radical reinterpretation of God as loving and longing, making the relationship between God and human less like the relationship of king and vassal and more like parent and child. Jesus invited people into committed relationship, into covenant, but it was free, so Jesus also allowed people to walk away, to choose not to enter into a new covenant, or testament, with the holy.
The Puritans would go beyond the intra-church covenant, for while no bishop or king was on hand to control the local church, they understood that free covenant governed the relationship of churches to one another, so they created inter-church covenant. They looked to the apostolic age, the incredible growing pains the faith went through as it transformed from a rural Hebrew reform movement into an urban Gentile religion, and they, the Puritans, themselves knew a thing or two about transformation, about growing pains. They remembered how the church at Antioch, influenced by Paul, wrestled with whether the new Gentile converts first had to take on the physical sign of the old Hebrew covenant, if they had to face “the chop.”
So they sent representatives to Jerusalem, so they could decide together what was best. There was no talk of autonomy, for they were all in it together, all under one head, Jesus called the Christ, all part of a freely entered covenant. And the Puritan and Pilgrim churches in the new world were all in it together, all under one head, Jesus called the Christ, all part of a freely entered covenant.
Sharing a common heritage, and no longer divided by the question of separation from a national church that was already an ocean away, the Pilgrims and Puritans slowly grew back together. They would be challenged when the Puritan protectorate back in England moved toward local church oversight by a regional body, or presbytery, and so they would spell out their free inter-church covenant in the Cambridge Platform, would come to be identified by their congregational form of governance. They would be challenged again as two waves of religious fervor would sweep across the region, leaving division, sects and new religions invented from whole cloth in their wakes.
They were a Congregational church, each congregation made up of people who freely-entered into a committed relationship with God and with one another, each church in freely-entered covenant with other churches. And this is still who we are today.
Our denomination no longer emphasizes our particular form of governance, chooses instead to name ourselves for our desire for unity and for the sole head of our church, Christ, so we aspire to be the United Church of Christ. But it is the congregational form that was adopted over fifty years ago when our new form of church was born, when we welcomed the Christian Movement and the Evangelical and Reformed into our family. It is the way every local church and every other setting of the church, from the local association to the state conference and on to the national setting is governed, by free covenant, by committed relationship.
Our Puritan ancestors were not perfect. There was that thing with Anne Hutchinson, a rather unpleasant year or so in Salem, and a well-earned reputation for being grim and judgmental. But they contributed much to our national identity. Judging Christian character by how you lived was a motivation for hard work, and so New Englanders came to be known for a Puritan work ethic. And the freedom they celebrated in their religious life not only informed their work in creating our nation, it also drove them to work for the freedom of others, for slaves and for women.
It informs our faith today as we struggle for the freedom of those at the margins, for the oppressed, from those that live in fear in Chicago to those who live in fear in Palestine, that place where Jesus taught us that God is love.
David Brooks is right that there are irreversible forces at work in our world, but I would choose to emphasize the culture of autonomy as the greatest threat to our way of life, for we have a long history of weaving new people into our social fabric, so migration and globalization are not threats. Racism is still a thing, as is homophobia, but so much of today’s hate doesn’t fall along the fault lines of identity. We are a culture too willing to throw away a relationship, any relationship. We are too unwilling to compromise, to hear the story of others. It is a “my way or the highway world,” and inflammatory rhetoric strips those who are different, who disagree, of their humanity. The holy book of too many sworn to guard the commonweal is Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness.
You cannot have covenant if you don’t first have freedom, have autonomy. But you cannot have a free church or a free nation if you don’t have covenant.
May we continue to honor our Congregational heritage with our work in the world. May we be keepers of covenant. May we, the followers of a brown-skinned reformer prone to acts of protest and civil disobedience, do as he did, opening our doors and our hearts to all who wish to follow on the way of a loving God, a God who transcends tribal hatred, a God with those at the margins, and with us still. Amen.