August / September 2019 - Vol. 105

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Covenant Community and Church
A Work of the Spirit – New Forms of Christian Life in Community
edited by Steve Clark

[The following article is an excerpt from a booklet entitled, Covenant Community and Church, which was edited by Steve Clark and published by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA in 1992. It was originally written to provide a short general summary of what a Covenant Community in the Catholic Church should be. Its subject is simply covenant community life. It includes references to current Catholic Church documents.

Covenant communities have flourished in great variety since their beginnings nearly 50 years ago. While this document is addressed to Catholics involved in lay led renewal movements, it can be beneficial for many other Christian renewal groups as well. - ed.]

Covenant Community

As throughout the ages the Holy Spirit has been active among the Christian people to bring about renewal, groups of Christians have come together to respond. Many Christians have come together to perform some special services or foster spiritual growth with no further bond among themselves than that necessary for achieving particular goals.

But the human race is naturally social, and it has pleased God to unite those who believe in Christ in the people of God (cf. 1Peter 2:5-10), and into one body (cf. 1Corinthians 12:12, AA 18). Therefore, the very nature of the Christian people is to be brothers and sisters in the Lord, one in the Spirit in the bonds of peace and mutual love (Ephesians 4:8). Consequently, when the Holy Spirit renews his people, he often leads groups of Christians to join themselves to one another to live more fully the life together of the Christian people. Such a coming together is not intended as an alternative to the life of the Church. Rather, it is a renewed living out of what the life of the Church should be and so signifies the communion and unity of the Church of Christ (AA 18).

In our day, desire for such coming together is felt with greater strength because of the loss of natural community in society and in Catholic parishes. With this has come the weakening of mutual help for the needs of human life and of mutual support for Christian living. The Catholic Church has recognized the existence of such a spiritual impetus among the Christian people and has sought to encourage it. Consequently, the formation of new Christian groupings is now canonically recognized by the Church. It is protected by the right to freely establish and direct special associations to foster the Christian vocation in the world (CIC, c 215).

In recent years the Lord has brought into existence new forms of Christian life that are called covenant communities. They are covenantal because they are based on the voluntary commitment of members to one another in a serious way that is not necessarily lifelong and does not necessarily partake of the nature of a vow. The commitment is in the form of a personal covenant of brothers and sisters one to another that supplements and strengthens the relationship that comes from being baptized members of the Church. They are communities because they share together their spiritual and material goods as a way of expressing their relationship as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
The relationship together of the members of covenant communities is personal and family-like, with a concern that extends to the whole of their lives. In that it contrasts to the partial and functional relationships that predominate in our society and tend to increasingly prevail in Catholic parishes and organizations. At the same time, the members' relationship to one another is not normally the kind of commitment that is found in religious communities and secular institutes, a commitment which puts the whole of each person's life under obedience to the leadership of the community. In this sense, the commitment together is a limited commitment. Those in authority in the community have the role of helping the members to live an active Christian life and to fulfill the commitments to one another they make in the covenant.

There are many types of covenant communities. Some are together primarily for mutual support in Christian life and service, while others are missionary bodies, established to be available to the work of the Lord for particular services. Some are together for the renewal of the parochial or diocesan life of the Catholic Church, while others engage primarily in an evangelistic or social apostolate in the wider society. Some are together to live a special spirituality, while others have no other spirituality than the common  one of the Church. All these communities are at one in their desire to live together as brothers and sisters their Christian way of life.

To the degree that covenant communities arise out of a desire to live more fully the life of the Church, they are patterned upon that life. They look to scripture for instruction in how Christians live together and how Christian leadership functions. They likewise look to the tradition of the Church for models of how to live Christian life together and how to relate to the broader Church. They desire to live the life of the people of God in communion with the hierarchy of the Church within the limits of what Catholic teaching, Catholic canon law and special hierarchical approval allows to them.

Relations to Others
While there are covenant communities whose members have a special life together in one location with common ownership of goods, most covenant communities are made up of Christians who live among non-Christians in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life. They engage in secular professions and occupations (LG 31). They are commonly involved with others in a variety of relationships out­ side the context of the covenant community.

Insofar as members of covenant communities live in secular nations, they should be subject to the government of the nation they belong to and should abide by its laws (Romans 13:5, Titus 3:1). They should be ready for any honest work, including work to improve the temporal order (AA 7, 5, Titus 3:1). They should seek to do good to all, including those not of the household of the faith (Ga1atians6:10). They should be especially zealous to shoulder the splendid burden of working to make the divine message of salvation known and accepted by all men and women throughout the world (AA 3).

Members of covenant communities, as members of the Christian people and of human society, should see no necessary conflict in belonging to both at the same time. Rather they should strive to harmonize the rights and duties that belong to their membership in the Church and in human society, including their responsibilities to the two authorities (LG 36). At times they may engage as members of their covenant communities in special services to society joined with others who are not Christians. In such cases, it is preferable to do so in a way that allows joint supervision to be exercised by responsible Christians along with others.

Members of covenant communities should also recognize the great importance of unity among all Christians, one of the chief concerns of the Second Vatican Council. They should desire to cooperate in that movement which was fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit for the restoration of unity among Christians. They do so by prayer, brotherly love, and concern for renewal in the Catholic Church, as all members of the Catholic Church should (UR 4) . They also can do so by living their Catholic life in a way which, while preserving the essentials, expresses in the most effective way possible a Catholicism which is now accessible to other Christians. It therefore should appear in as Christ-entered, scriptural, and patristic a light as possible (UR 11, DV 21).

Sometimes members of covenant communities join with their brothers and sisters in the Lord who are not Catholics for joint works of Christian outreach and service. They especially join in that evangelistic and missionary outreach that can be fostered by unity among the followers of Christ. It is preferable to engage in such works with joint supervision by Catholic leaders and others. Such works should follow the ecumenical guidelines of the Catholic Church and the local dioceses.

Members of covenant communities also at times enter into brotherly relationships within a broader ecumenical community, relationships involving a bond of charity, prayer and witness with Christians or groups of Christians belonging to other confessions. When they do so, they normally form, with the approval of the bishops, Catholic associations or fellow­ ships. The leaders of such associations share with other leaders in the supervision of the ecumenical body.

Members of covenant communities sometimes make those in mixed marriages a special concern. They help the partners to see how there can be a life together that reaches to all things and a respect for the authority of the husband as head of the family without weakening the Christian faith of the family, compromising the faith of the Catholic partner, or failing to respect the authority of the leaders of the churches the partners belong to. Sometimes they reach out to Catholics involved in Christian outreaches led by non-­Catholics, teaching them the value of their Catholic faith and supporting them in living it. In all this they seek to confess before the whole world with all Christians their faith in God, one and three, and in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord (UR 12).

Finally, members of covenant communities as members of the wider Catholic Church seek to be a benefit to the whole Church. Some work in and contribute to dioceses, parishes and church organizations that are not sponsored or led by the covenant community. Some promote renewal or stand for integral Christian truth in the crisis of faith in our day. All pray for the Church and live the life of members of the one Church whether within the context of the covenant community or within other contexts.

The covenant communities themselves sometimes serve corporately within the Church, although more commonly their contributions come through their members engaging directly in Church life and organizations. Even where the community as a whole does not serve corporately within the Church, they should always seek to strengthen the Church by the testimony of a renewed Christian life. The communitarian spirit of covenant communities should lead them to seek to contribute to the unity and common good of the broader people of which they are a part.

Index to Abbreviations of Catholic Church Documents

AA The Decree on the Laity
CIC The Code of Canon Law
DV The Constitution on Divine Revelation
LG The Constitution on the Church
UR The Decree on Ecumenism

This excerpt is from Covenant Community and Church, Chapter One, edited by Steve Clark,and published by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA in 1992.

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