Here, Erica Dunmow, Chair of Urban Theology Union, explores the concept of Covenant through the Methodist tradition. Tracing the links between its emphasis on mutuality and its distinctive commitment to place, Wesley’s focus on social holiness and its mission to develop local leadership, she draws out vital insights for the churches as we focus on civic renewal for the Common Good. Looking at its impact from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to more contemporary expressions, we can see its potential to be a gift to the revitalising of our political life.
A Methodist perspective
When I bought my house in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic suburb in east Sheffield, I was given the Deeds from 1919 and was fascinated to find that in the original Lease the lessee, a local draper, had covenanted not to have any workshop on the premises for the manufacturing of steel or smelting of iron, nor (rather more to my disappointment) have a steam engine, without written permission of the landowner. There were other points about the number of houses allowed on the land, and how the boundary walls should be kept. When I had some building work done the architect asked if I knew if there were any covenants affecting the land and he was fascinated to peruse the document, as a result of which the planning application for the extension referred to the space as a ‘garden room’. I have since installed a workbench, but no steam engine. When I asked him whether anyone could actually take action if I did so, he said there would probably need to be a test case.
Thus covenants in land have an element of rooted permanence, and this is the essence of their purpose – to ensure that there is care and attention to what happens, long after the original parties have gone. On one side in my case, a major landowner whose estates would be presumed to be inherited and managed by the family over many years, on the other, an individual no longer remembered, who sold the property on in the 1920s. There is in here a resonance with the Covenant made between God and Moses – something binding, of mutual interest but with the stipulations being set out by the more powerful party, in the form of Commandments.
Similarly, many Methodist Churches have Deeds which incorporate covenants that alcohol cannot be consumed on their premises. The abstinence preference was only developed in the mid to late 1800s as the church became aware of the problems of alcoholism and its contribution to poverty and destitution. In 1987 the prohibition of alcohol in Methodist manses was lifted and things eased as it was felt that what was once a way of benefitting people, was now putting a bar to engagement with people outside the church. Communion wine remains non-alcoholic out of compassion for people fighting addiction. Older chapels built before abstinence from alcohol on Methodist premises became a precept, do not have this covenant in their Deeds: hence the substantial Georgian Chapel in Sheffield is now a Walkabout Bar!
So, what does the term covenant mean to me and offer us in terms of mutuality in Christian church engagement in neighbourhoods in the modern era? I am writing with a background in Methodism as you may have guessed, and have had the privilege of simultaneously advising the third (voluntary and community) sector at a national level on working with local government – particularly the 1990s Single Regeneration Budget programme – whilst living in a multi-faith inner city target community and sitting as a community rep on the Bid Development Board. So I have seen how the often well meaning national rhetoric about participation plays out on the ground. The community reps were given a 20pp document entitled ‘a community-led bid’ at our first meeting before we had expressed any ideas at all ! and our first act was to ask that if that document was to be the basis of the proposal it couldn’t be called ‘community-led’. It was, and the request to change the title was finally acceded to at the very last meeting (before which we had made other significant changes and additions) when the ‘top’ copy was presented for signature.
Biblically, there at first appears to be a power-imbalance in the Covenant. It is set up by God (the powerful party) with conditions that humanity (the weaker party) may not entirely like , but with a commitment that if the weaker adheres to it, the more powerful will stick with it and look after the weaker, because it has the interests of the weaker at heart and it wants their long term good. As important, is the fact that God will withhold power for the benefit of humanity – the first Covenant with Noah is a commitment to the whole earth to withhold total flood, the second with Abraham establishes the nation as God’s people, the third through Moses establishes the social and ethical code which Jesus propounded and which inspired Methodist spirituality. There is also that – somehow odd – notion that God needs relationship with humanity. These two factors counteract the power imbalance and create a greater degree of mutuality than otherwise might appear.
The Methodist element of my faith gives me a particularly strong take on covenant, through the yearly celebration of the Covenant Service, a tradition invented by John Wesley to keep his followers mindful of their relationship with God. The Service is still taken very seriously. There are some folk who avoid church on the first Sunday of January or September (depending upon whether the church marks the beginning of the calendar, or the Methodist, year), because there is no culture in Methodism of holding crossed-fingers behind the back when inconvenient promises are made. The declaration that: ‘I am no longer my own’ but God’s, and that God can ‘put me to doing, put me to suffering… let me have all things, let me have nothing’ is a daunting one if one lacks a sense of trust in the love and mercy of God. Some people do not want to promise what they fear to keep.
Wesley formulated the Service partly because many people were coming to faith who were unchurched, uneducated and often lived what are now called ‘chaotic lifestyles’. His understanding of the Christian faith was that it is inherently social and communal. So he established a process of discipleship and formation through small groups , and the annual Covenant Service was part of structuring a new life for the converts that would help them keep to a path of holiness. Once a person came to faith they joined a class and/or band where they met midweek for prayer and worship and learnt the faith through Bible Study and mutual accountability and confession – not dissimilar to an AA  meeting where people are encouraged to be honest about their lapses. They also served the local community together and were active in social issues – a concept Wesley called social holiness. During the anti-slavery campaign Methodists widely promoted and supported the sugar boycott . This meant that both aspects of mission were embedded in the structure of the early Methodist societies  – that of sharing faith and of serving need. Methodism’s interpretation of God’s wishes is two-fold – the betterment of individual people by faith and lifestyle, and working and campaigning for disadvantaged people.
Young converts, as they grew in faith, would be tasked with leading a new class or band or taking up another of the numerous roles including that of local (lay) Preacher which were an important path through which new skills in administration, organisation and the efficient running of meetings were gained. Many of the early preachers came from what Wesley himself allowed were: ‘low trades, tailors, shoemakers and the like’. He wrote that:
‘It has been loudly affirmed that most of those persons now in connexion with me who believe it their duty to call sinners to repentance…are a set of poor, stupid, illiterate men’.
They may have started out as poor or illiterate, but were not stupid, and people’s confidence grew through the mutual learning style in Bible Studies, sometimes leading to an improvement in employment. Later on, the organising skills learnt and the commitment to tackling poverty, would lead many of those lay leaders, from the Tolpuddle Martyrs  onwards, to become active in the embryo trades union and mutual aid society movements. Such bodies were often structured along the same lines as Methodist societies – where members clubbed together for better representation to employers, or to save money in a simple form of insurance. They also took roles in local government as it developed in the 19th century. The early Methodist growth of leaders indigenous to their locality, especially within the strand known as Primitive Methodism, is something that the denomination has generally lost, but is beginning to realise that it needs to regain, to help it connect better within more disadvantaged communities. It can nevertheless be said that until the formation of the Welfare State, Methodism was ‘not a drag in the wheel of social improvement, but a driving force’. 
Thus there is a substantial strand within the Methodist tradition of social holiness which places a high value on practically and politically expressed concern for other people. This attitude of fellowship and mutuality for the long term are valuable qualities when looking to work with people outside the church. A sense of goodwill, of learning and developing together, and of being known as part of the landscape, all engender trust, vital in effective community engagement.
The visionary Forward Movement  of the late 1800s/early 1900s, a response to massive urban poverty in the rapidly expanding cities, which built the large Central Halls as a place for service and debate; and the mid-20th century Luton Industrial College  (sadly demised) and the still extant Urban Theology Union  are all examples of a church that looks outwards to develop something better for its locality and society at large.
The bands came to an end in most churches much earlier than the classes (which ended in most congregations in the 1960s and 70s) as other welfare provision and organisations grew. So now Methodists engage in such activity largely through organisations set up with other people of goodwill in the local community, rather than in provisions retaining a Methodist branding apart from some activities run on the church premises. MHA , and Action for Children  are the two outstanding exceptions.
The Methodist tradition of local engagement for the common good remains. In a survey of Christian volunteering in the early 2000s, 75% of Methodists were found to be volunteering locally in one form or another outside the church and its bodies – a much higher percentage than any other denomination.
Another aspect of what Methodism brings to community engagement, is that the phrase ‘the church’ is used much more in terms of the local body of worshipping people, rather than meaning the overall structure – i.e. more like the Catholic use of ‘the parish’. It has historically thought of itself as more of a ‘movement’ than a church . Thus if the congregation is drawn from the locality in which its worship is based (not always the case) engagement with that local community is through the people who both live in the area and worship there, and are of both church and community. The covenantal relationship when a local Methodist church engages in a project with the local community is therefore perhaps of the ‘wider church’ ( a common Methodist term) of either Circuit, District or Connexion  making a new relationship with the locality, through the people of the local church as participants of both parties.
But although more common in Methodism, covenantal community engagement is by no means unique to that tradition. In Sheffield for example, Anglican and Baptist Churches, supported by the Methodists in a Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP) , and the associated Catholic parishes, collaborated in building a new church to serve the Manor Estate in the mid-1980s, at a time when it was known as a “tough place”. The old building was falling down and a new brick-built church replaced it. This was acknowledged by local people as a sign that ‘the Church’ thought that they were worth investing in, and that new housing would follow as well. Commitment, in the form of lay and clergy time, to support the securing of major finance, to set up training courses and supported work units, was another sign that the churches were engaged for the long haul. New developments were celebrated by church services – forms of what Ann Morisy calls ‘apt liturgy’  in the community – and people came to faith. One man declared that the church had helped the physical and economic regeneration of the estate – what he now wanted was the spiritual regeneration.
The Manor area group of churches  embodies what the Urban Theology Union is currently exploring as Kingdom-based Evangelism. In this frame, people are invited to go on a journey of discipleship, not with a group of set-apart people who know a pattern of answers about faith which will guarantee their place in heaven, but a group doing their best to follow Jesus and work out what that means in the here and now. The posture is to follow His teaching and example to help build communities a little more like the Kingdom, places of justice and joy, as foretold in the Gospels. They are sharing the difficulties of local life, but importantly bringing into the situation prayer, hope and love – a vision of something better, and trust in a God who will help make it so. There is both a mutuality of living with people outside the church, coupled with a different perspective, based in God’s covenant.
At an early 2000s conference on faith engagement in urban regeneration , a young Muslim I’d worked with in my local community regeneration process and I were both in opposition to a Bishop and a Mosque secretary who wanted to see how such monies could be accessed to mend their buildings’ roofs. To do that you would have to set up a company with people in the local community to manage the building as a communal resource, we said. The two leaders were appalled at the potential loss of control and the likelihood that the organisations would collapse in a disorganised mess, leaving the buildings in a worse state. But the mosque / church people would still be there and could just step in again if that were to happen, we both said. We knew from experience that local people could be engaged with trust to create something for the betterment of all. We also knew that the faith communities were committed in the long term to give back-up and nurture as needs be. More than 20 years on, two churches on or near the Manor Estate are still run through the local management companies; clergy and laity are still providing skills and training to enable people to grow into their responsibilities, the churches are still being places of light and hope for the long term, still meeting needs and welcoming new followers of Jesus.
So, for me there are two forms of mutuality that have been expressed through the Methodist praxis over the years, which offer something to the wider church:
- The mutuality of learning together and working together with people of goodwill for the good of the whole community
- The mutuality of the Covenant with God, who has declared an eternal interest in and provision for the good of humanity.
One final note of caution around the use of the word covenant. It should be used carefully and only where practice actually reflects its meaning. Words morph their meaning as practice changes. For example, the term ‘mental health’ is increasingly used to mean ‘mental ill-health’. And in the very early days of business plans, some people in business didn’t like the use of the word ‘mission’, as in Mission Statement, because of its religious overtones. A couple of years ago when working with the local churches group, one of the people objected to us having a Mission Statement because they associated it with the world of business!
In the 1990s, there was much discussion of the nature of the ‘partnerships’ between the Third (voluntary and charitable) Sector and Government. There were questions about the balance of power and whether the statutory bodies would stick to their word. After that there was talk of a “Social Compact”, which also proved transitory. The implication of words can drift at the whim of the powerful. If the term covenant is to be used more often in church engagement with local community for the common good, it needs to be used sparingly and with care, concerning things which are binding, costly and long-lasting, rooted in respect and trust. This is because it is a sacramental term in the best sense of the word – a sign of the in-dwelling of God’s love for the land and its people, for the long haul.
© Erica Dunmow, December 2020
Erica Dunmow is Chair of Urban Theology Union, Sheffield and Director of the Reclaiming Local Lay Ministry for Mission Project (funded through the Susannah Wesley Foundation, University of Roehampton). She began work within the third sector, holding national roles for nearly 20 years. Since 2004 she has held national and local roles in developing mission and new congregations, especially in urban contexts.
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-  E.g. circumcision in the Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17)
-  Methodism did not identify as ‘a church’ until the 1900s – the congregations were called societies which grouped into Circuits, Districts and Connexions (sic) at a national level.
-  C M Pocock, PhD Thesis, accessed via http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/30585/1/PhD%20thesis%20C%20M%20Pocock%20July%202015.pdf
-  Robert F Wearmouth in The Social and Political influence of Methodism in the 20th Century (London: Epworth) 1977 (p.186) For more background on this paragraph, see esp chapters 10-12 of this book, and also Rupert Davies, A Raymond George and Gordon Rupp (eds) A History of the Methodist Church in Britain, Vol III (London: Epworth Press) 1983
-  https://bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk/CommunityHistories/Luton/NonconformityinLuton/WesleyChurchAndLutonIndustrialCollege.aspx
-  Previously known as the Urban Theology Unit, which brought principles of Freirean education and contextual theology to the UK, and still specialises in lay theological education. www.utusheffield.org.uk
-  Previously known as Methodist Homes for the Aged
-  Previously known as The National Children’s Home
-  For much of the 19th century there were at least 14 different strands of Methodism in the UK alone!
-  The Methodist term for its national structure which includes all elements down to the local congregation, but is often short-hand for the national office in London.
-  Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP) refers to various models of formalised joint denominational activity – e.g. a joint congregation in a shared church building, or a project with joint governance. At the time referred to, the Manor LEP was an, almost unique, area partnership of three denominations and five church buildings, each with different combinations of denominations in their congregations. The Anglican/Baptist new build was St Swithun’s (sic). The formal LEP has been replaced by Churches Together in S2 East.
-  Beyond the Good Samaritan, Ann Morisy, Continuum: London 1997 (pbk edition 2003) pp49ff
-  held by the Christian Muslim Council