Barry Cundhill's Service

Contract Theory, Covenants and the Hope for a Spiritual Gift

I have been asked to spend a little time explaining how I see the benefit of coming to church. I am actually going to treat this question somewhat technically and theoretically, as well as offering a personal insight.
Do we get a benefit in any economic sense from coming to church? The answer peculiarly may be yes, although nothing is particularly quantifiable. What matters here is exchange theory and even gift theory.
It is a standard feature of social anthropology that rituals taking place among a community bind that community together. One of the features of many rituals is the handling and passing of a token or tokesn. Perhaps the most famous example for social anthropology is the Kula Ring of the Trobriand Islands where eighteen islands of the Massim Archipelago are united by canoeists going out at danger to themselves to take and give red shell-disc necklaces that end up circling the ring of islands in a clockwise direction, and take and give white shell armbands that go around the islands in an anti-clockwise direction. These items have no utilitarian use and should not stay in one's hands for long; their value or what is called kitoum stays with the original owner. So what happens then is a material cost is paid, in terms of canoeing, for what is, in essence, passing around tokens in order to receive a spiritual gift. The gift in actual terms becomes the community of eighteen islands identifying themselves as being together.
Now there is a kind of contract involved here, for which there is clearly an exchange: but the exchange involves not a profit, but a spiritual benefit. There is a similar reasoning possible for the Christian Eucharist where congregants make a material effort to be present to taste and consume a completely useless bread based disc and drink of substandard wine. So what do they do this for? They do it for the perceived spiritual benefit of Christ understood to be either present in substance or in faith. Of course these products have immense prestigious value, or Kitoum, we might say, despite having no utilitarian value.
Unitarians have largely dropped this Eucharistic practice. There is such a service available in some of our churches, and there will be one at the General Assembly this weekend - but I doubt whether Mike or Mavis will have attended. In fact, I have done such a service here, at least after a fashion. At Barton Anglicans, in contrast, the Eucharist is celebrated at least four times every week; and they would be very opposed to lay presidency, as is proposed for Anglicans in a part of Australia, and yet I was a lay person among people in Barton who had conducted such as service, at least after a fashion.
The idea then is that at a central ritual, a spiritual gift is available.
But in fact all services are such an exchange with a spiritual gift. The exchange, the material effort, including monetary giving, is in the hope of spiritual benefit. Our material effort is in all the work we do, the help we offer, but also in attendance, in singing, in praying, in the doing of what we do. And it is done in the hope of such spiritual benefit: and such benefit, should it come, cannot be quantified.
Incidentally, in the Kula system, the giver is always of a higher status than the receiver, and the value of the item in terms of prestige remains with the original owner, even as it is passed around. If, with care, we transfer this understanding, then a minister of religion does acquire a spiritual status as the prime giver, or as at least the prime facilitator of the spiritual gift, even as he or she makes the effort of co-ordinating a religious community for which a stipend is given, a stipend that, importantly, is not measured against one's actual work effort. It is important in nurturing the spiritual gift that a stipend is precisely not measured against the work output.
We might ask the question whether some sort of contract is involved. Well, if it is, then the contract is more psychological in terms of understanding such contracts. That is to say, there is a whole range of differently understood, subjective and implied benefits to participation in the religious community, few benefits of which are ever written down. But the very fact that this material effort involves the holy, or the divine, and incorporates hope, means it is less of a contract and more of a covenant.
If you break an explicit contract you can seek redress through the law courts or binding arbitration; if you break some covenants then you might just face some sort of divine retribution: in the Bible, a freely entered into Covenant involves the God of justice who just might treat the Covenant Breaker with nasty consequences. In human terms, if, for example, you are a Baha'i and a Covenant Breaker, then you are shunned by the community. In fact there are so many Baha'i Covenant Breakers now that the Unitarian Universalists have started a Unitarian Bahai Association, that extracts the liberality of the Baha'i Faith from the authoritarian Universal House of Justice. Shunning, of course, means that even our talk with one another is a spiritual benefit. When two people talk, they get the added extra benefit of conversation. In some contrast to the Baha'is, the Unitarian Covenant, however we imagine it to be, is perhaps so loose that we cannot consider shunning anyone.
Covenants do come in degrees. There are some who come for a service, find it is not for them, and don't come back: but they stay for the duration and thus covenant for an hour and have some sort of memory of the occasion. Some of us associate and come when we can, and perhaps stop, for again whatever spiritual benefit may appear. Some of us are committed but are only associates, whereas others can be very committed for year after year, and others still retain exclusive lifelong membership to the cause once it has begun. For them the loss of the Covenant they make could indeed be traumatic, and perhaps that happens when a tiny congregation decides to close forever.
Historically, the Unitarian tradition has been somewhat divided regarding its unstated Covenants. On the one hand, there was a dedicated, denominational, originally biblicist, effective Covenant of membership, that was competitive regarding other denominations. On the other hand, out of one aspect of the Presbyterian background, and into the evolved Free Christian understanding of the nineteenth century, there was a loose, anti-denominational and non-competitive understanding of Unitarianism, for a long time liturgical in form, that often didn't even like the name Unitarian, and yet was very identifiable as Unitarian in the wider religious landscape. So that Covenant was looser and broader. You can still get that difference today, even among the smaller numbers and after the merging of those Christian perspectives and the development of Christian-plus and non-Christian perspectives.
The spiritual benefit of the denominationalist comes from the commitment to all that the denomination has embodied, whereas for the broader Covenant the spiritual benefit comes in a wider view of religion and participation - yes, through the denomination but of what it represents and not exclusively.
So there are different styles of Covenants. But what emerges in such a community is the more liberal and democratic form by which we give material effort and hope to receive spiritual benefit.
It happens that organisation theory derives from religious organisations: indeed management theory and contract theory comes from religion and authority. The first form of authority is the charismatic. The charismatic is that individual who commands authority, like Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha'u'llah and Abdul Baha', and Gandhi. You then get tradition, so that the religious look backwards in their looking forward. Tradition means the authority of the sacred person, like in bishops or in the clergy of Shia Islam. But then this becomes bureaucracy, or rational organisation, where people fill their offices of authority according to their experience and skills and such a body is highly pyramidal, all authority and power at the very top.
However, there are then two more, the systemic and the human relations organisations. In the systemic organisation there is expertise in the body to which any management must defer for knowledge and advice, and in the human relations body there is a dispersal of expertise and management, so that authority is largely liberal in formation and democratic in nature. The theologian and social scientist Peter Rudge argued (in 1968) that the best form of Church was the systemic, not the sacred, where, because St Paul had stated, the Church has its arms, its feet, its head, in other words its variation of expertise of believers among its people but within a larger Church organisation. Peter Rudge valued the human relations body, but thought it just was too secular, too humanist in organisation, or at least the divine was too dispersed, for it to be Church. Yet we, here, are like the human relations body. We simply make the Church we are by being here, from who we are: we do it ourselves, and we make it what it is.
Now those who deal with contract theory know that it is in these latter two groups, the systemic and human relations, but especially in the latter group like ours, that the most in the way of implicit, psychological understandings of mutual benefits exist: the least quantifiable, and the richest of negotiated relationships. In the Covenant too, in a group like ours, so much depends on what is implied, so much that is unwritten and  negotiated. We know how well we are doing not because we can measure it (indeed we cannot), but because we can compare with how things have been. We know when our level of trust with one another is higher, or when it is lower, because we can can compare and contrast with what it has been. And we only know this because we talk, and we welcome, or we fail to welcome.
Now why do I value this form of Church? Because it is creative. It is a negotiating Church. There are resources in it that we can continually discover. We can indeed be creative: for out of a lack of a minister and lack of an organist we can discover new potential for co-operation and solving problems. We actually make good. Of course there are stresses, and strains, and traumas, but the trajectory can always become a good one. When you have to treat people with respect, in a human relations body, this is what you tend to do. And so we should. Because we Covenant in such a body as ours and then we show respect within the Covenant we make, respect to both what we call divine and to one another.
If our Covenant dies, we die, and so we must make it live. It is why I come here. Out of our material efforts we do get a spiritual gift. Some outsiders cannot see it. But perhaps they come in, to suck it and see. It is not easy to describe, but then the implied benefits inside a Covenant never were, and we live in hope.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful