A Contemporary Covenant

I'm currently reading (among others) a local history of the area in which I minister, Dundonald, on the eastern outskirts of Belfast, entitled “The Most Unpretending of Places”. That is the origin of the grainy photograph at the head of this post, and according to the author, Peter Carr, it is a picture of some citizens of Dundonald signing the Ulster Covenant on the 12th September, 1912. Either the people of Dundonald were ahead of the curve and wanted to sign that document a fortnight before Edward Carson appended his signature to the top of it, or else the author got his dates wrong…
It was on this day, September 28th 1912, that the majority of the adult Protestant population of Ulster signed a document known as the Solemn League and Covenant, in order to articulate their absolute opposition to the Home Rule Bill then being proposed by the British government. This piece of legislation would have left Ireland still firmly within the British Empire, but many within Ulster believed would threaten Ulster’s economic welling and might radically affect the culture and religion of Protestants across the island.
The leaders of all the main Protestant denominations in Ulster, including Methodism, and some of the smaller ones, were united in their opposition to Home Rule, which was an ecumenical miracle in a way... It is notable that it was unity around an issue of earthly citizenship rather than for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and was largely founded on anti-Catholic sentiment, and an understandable fear of suddenly finding themselves in the minority within Ireland rather than a majority within the United Kingdom, with a lot of old sectarian scores to settle, dating back to the Potato Famine, Penal Laws, Cromwell and beyond. But it should be said that while there was much anti-Catholic sentiment in many of the speeches that formed the context for the signing of the covenant the document itself is free of such overtly sectarian rhetoric (much more so than the 17th century Scottish Solemn League and Covenant on which it is based). For those who are not familiar with the document, here it is in full:
BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.
And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant. 
This was only signed by men, there was a separate Declaration for women to sign… But both of these documents were signed the length and breadth of Ulster, with many of the venues being Orange Halls and churches. My own relatives on my Dad’s side signed it in Lissan Orange Hall and the porch of Claggan Presbyterian Church outside Cookstown in County Tyrone. Some signed it in their own blood, some only making their mark as they were unable to write… And I am sure that there are similar stories in your families too… To some it may be a source of pride and a reminder of the resolve needed then and now to preserve Ulster’s distinct religious and cultural heritage. For other Christians, there are several problems with the document, in particular its insistence that God is on the side of Unionism and its implication that physical force against the British Government may be needed in order to prevent political defeat.
I could go into some detail as to the relationship of the Ulster Covenant with Biblical understandings of covenant, but I'll spare you that for today. But at best it is an agreement between people committing them to support one another in defying the government, asking God to bless this endeavour, which in itself is slightly problematic as … Which, as Romans chapter 13 reminds us that government is set above us by God and hence we would need to have compelling reasons to violently resist such authority. It is not a classic covenant between a nation and God, because in those, God takes the initiative and there is no blasphemous claim made by the drafters of the covenant that he does…
As such I don’t know that I would agree with some that this covenant itself was blasphemous and has brought down a spiritual curse on this land – a covenant with death akin to that which Isaiah accuses Ephraim of making:
We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement.

Isaiah 28:15 (ANIV)
I'm also currently reading Harry Smith's "Heal not Lightly", which I've had on my shelf for some time, but since it is largely a spiritual analysis of the context, content and consequences of the Ulster Covenant, I thought I really should read it now. I'll give it a proper review when I've finished, but so far I would say that his introduction on the Biblical and political context of the covenant is concise but helpful. However, I don’t agree with the underlying "spiritual warfare" theology underpinning what follows. That said, there is no doubt that the mindset of God on our side, which is found in both the Ulster Covenant and the later republican Easter Declaration of Independence, has unleashed a century of death and destruction on this land. That is why you will not find me referring to the events of this weekend as a celebration of the Ulster Covenant. It is a cause for commemoration, but certainly not celebration. And the same applies to the many events that will be marked throughout this decade.
But I hold on to the fact that, even if this may be termed a covenant of death, Isaiah’s words to Ephraim have been fulfilled:
Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the grave will not stand.

Isaiah 28:18 (ANIV)
Through the new covenant in Christ's blood we are freed from the power of death… And whatever is celebrated or commemorated this week and throughout this so-called Decade of Centenaries, those of us who claim to be part of God’s covenant people, need to take seriously what that means. Our first loyalty is NOT to a nation state… be it the United Kingdom or a United Ireland, but to the Kingdom of God… a Kingdom which is founded in the new covenant, promised by the prophets, made at God’s initiative through the blood of Christ – as he explained at his last supper with his disciples:
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Matthew 26:27-8
As I think about the covenant signed 100 years ago I wonder if I would have signed it with my family, particularly if church and political leaders told me that my faith, culture, livelihood and perhaps even life was under threat… I don’t know, and I’m not going to stand in judgement over them for that… but 100 years on I, and Ulster, are in a radically different place, and when a number of my fb friends have asked me to add my name to and share a post celebrating the Ulster Covenant I quietly declined. However I responded warmly to the invitation by Contemporary Christianity (formerly ECONI) to draft some liturgical material for a Contemporary Covenant. I asked that there might be no formal acknowledgement of my authorship on the document, not out of any embarrassment or fear, but lest perceptions about my theological perspectives put anyone off using it. But I'm happy acknowledging my authorship here since this blog doesn't have a huge readership... and if you've found your way here you probably don't find my pronouncements too objectionable... It has been encouraging to see it being referred to and posted elsewhere and I hope it has been and will be useful. I largely based the material on the structure of the traditional Methodist Covenant Service which we usually celebrate on the first Sunday in January each year, but I'm sure that John Wesley and his successors will forgive me such plagiarism as he largely pilfered it from the writings of the puritan Richard Alleine. What follows is the act of covenant itself, if you would like the full liturgy (including call to worship, responsive psalm, act of confession and prayers of intercession, as well as suggestions for Bible readings and prayers) you can find it on the Contemporary Christianity website.

Brothers and sisters in Christ,
fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God,
let us together reaffirm our commitment to the solemn covenant which God has made with his people of all ages, nations and races,
a covenant of grace, sealed with the blood of Christ.
We are convinced that God’s Kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom;
All earthly empires and kingdoms rise and fall
but we confess our loyalty to a King that men did not crown and cannot dethrone.
His only earthly crown was one of thorns, a sign of sacrificial servant kingship.
And we know because of his death and resurrection that there is no power in heaven or on earth can separate us from that steadfast sacrificial love.
And so we take upon us the yoke of Christ,
making his purposes our priority,
seeking to do what is right in his eyes,
not necessarily what is popular among our peers, or in the court of public opinion.
We turn away in repentance from our failings in the past
And through the power of Christ’s Spirit we commit ourselves to do what God desires,
to love as sacrificially as Christ has loved us;
to forgive as we have been forgiven;
to engage in the ministry of reconciliation;
to seek and make peace;
to speak the truth, in love;
to hope unswervingly and proclaim that hope consistently
to serve rather than seek to be served,
to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s.
to act justly and practice mercy,
and walk humbly with our covenant God. 

At times this may be easy, at others it will be difficult;
It will sometimes bring honour, at others shame;
At sometimes it will fit with our own inclinations and serve our material interests,
At others it will be contrary to both;
In some cases we may please Christ and please ourselves;
In others we will not be able to please Christ except by denying ourselves;
In some cases we may be loyal to Christ’s kingdom and honour earthly loyalties;
In others we cannot be loyal to Christ and his kingdom except by rejecting previous loyalties and defying earthly authority.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant of God in Christ our own.
Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace. 

Faithful Father God,
since you have called me through Christ to share in this gracious covenant,
I pledge myself to you and your Kingdom
I take upon myself with joy the yoke of obedience
To give to you all that I have and am
In all things to seek first your Kingdom
and to do what is right in your eyes;
Seeking to serve you wherever you chose to place me
in every sphere of my life.
To live for you and your glory alone.
Now and forever more. So be it. Amen.



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