Covenant relationship

What draws us together as a faith community? Our answers will define our goals and the ways we work together.

Each of us comes with unvoiced expectations, and the reality is that these expectations can vary widely. When others do not recognize these or support them, we can feel let down and puzzled.

Likewise, the priority each of us gives to our faith and its community of practice can vary widely. When these, too, differ, we can once again feel let down and bewildered. For some of us, our faith is our top priority. For others, it’s among the top three. And, at the other end of the spectrum, it’s a feel-good place to touch in on from time to time. We see some Friends in worship each week, while others appear sporadically from month to month or year to year.

We have competing demands on our time, resources, and attention, after all, along with personal desires and goals. How do we, as a group, pull them all together?

Some congregations have found value in drafting a “mission statement” to define the work they undertake, even if that sounds a bit too much like the corporate world for a life rooted in faith for some of us.

In the fall of 2013, Debbie Humphries of Hartford Meeting and Jonathon Vogel-Bourne, the former secretary of New England Yearly Meeting, led Dover Friends on an in-house retreat based on the Biblical concept of covenant as the core of a faith community.

As they pointed out, a covenant differs from a contract, which can be broken and imposes penalties when that happens. A covenant is more like a marriage, a lifelong bond that fosters intimacy and nurture. Like a marriage, it also becomes central to a family of faith – one that extends inward and outward. Pointedly, the intimacy of covenant demands honesty, even though the individuals within an intimate relationship will unintentionally hurt one another. As we were reminded, refusing to acknowledge those injuries means being dishonest with each other and weakens the bonds that unite us. For a people who proclaim nonviolence, this hits close to home. Or as others remind us, our peacemaking should begin in our times of doing business together as Quakers. Forgiveness, then, is another requisite of covenant relationship.

In the retreat’s exercises, we also uncovered how widely our expectations of what we expected from Meeting can vary. For some, it’s worship or tradition. For others, social witness or meaningful community. Parents with children may have one set of expectations, while those of advanced age hold another. In a covenant relationship, though, each of us will face an expectation from Meeting that we do something in response to the expectations we bring. For instance, if religious education for children is a high priority on one’s expectations, there is a responsibility to have one’s children present. If we have an expectation of a comfortable room for worship, we have a responsibility for the building and grounds. And so on.

Observing the realities of the faith community, though, I’m left pondering the discrepancies between those of us whose bond with Meeting yearns for the completeness of covenant and those who see their relationship more along the lines of a subscription or loose association. It’s a much different perspective than the usual member/attender distinction we draw, but it might give us a clearer picture of appreciating what each person brings to Meeting, both in one’s needs and response.


This originally appeared in Dover Friends Meeting’s newsletter as we consider new ways of addressing the needs of our faith community. Unlike many denominations, we Quakers are closely involved in the business of our congregations, or “meetings,” given that name by our recognition of church as the believers or people rather than any organization or building. (And so, the church meets.) The “monthly meeting,” or local congregation, is so named because we gather together to review our common business once a month even though we worship together at least once a week.

In sharing this dialogue, I’m hoping Friends and non-Quakers will perceive ways the discussion might benefit their own circles, religious or otherwise. I certainly welcome insights and suggestions. After all, we’re all in a time of upheaval and the challenges are many. Once again, the world’s being turned upside down.


Regarding Elizabeth Bathurst

Those of you who followed the Daybook here last year have tasted the writing of Elizabeth Bathurst (1655?-1685). Still, she likely needs some introduction, however belatedly.

Although described as a sickly young woman who died around age 30, Bathurst left us some of the clearest and most penetrating theological writing from the first generations of Quakers. Perhaps, had her health permitted, she may have had wider recognition as a consequence of traveling in free-gospel ministry rather than remaining largely confined. Her mind is quick, sharp, fearlessly aggressive, original – so much so that many of her critics insisted the author must have been a male writing under a nom de plume. Unlike the journals and tracts of many of the early women Public Friends, hers often delves squarely into logical argument about the foundations of Quaker belief, rather than exhorting piety or more faithful practice.

Even so, she is little known through much of Quaker history, perhaps in part because her work, like that of Isaac Penington, appeared as Friends were earning a kind of respectability after decades of persecution. Indeed, I came across her astonishing writing only after I’d finished the overviews of major Quaker thinkers I’ve previously posted on this blog. Maybe her quotations in the Daybook will make up for that oversight.

When I first thought of adding snippets from early Friends as a third part of each Daybook entry, I envisioned rotating Bathurst among a handful of others. Once I began examining her definitive volume, however, I realized she alone could carry this.

I tried not to match her lines to the day’s Biblical text nor to my own notes. Rather, I’ve trusted to a degree of serendipitous interplay, perhaps the way seeming unrelated vocal messages arising in Quaker meeting for worship often carry an unanticipated thread.

Originally published posthumously 1691, the volume we’ve consulted is:


I’ve drawn from The Third Edition. LONDON: Printed and Sold by MARY HINDE, at No 2, in George-yard, Lombard-street, 1773.

Significantly, a woman printer.


Now, looking back through my notes, I find many fine quotations that weren’t used last year. You may anticipate seeing some of them posted as suites here in upcoming months.