Houston | June 15, 2008
DENOMINATION Baptist (sort of)
PASTOR Jeremy Rutledge
ADDRESS 4949 Caroline
ON THE INTERNET covenant houston.org
SERVICES Sundays at 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
After two and a half years, the time has come for this series of reports to reach a close. For the most part, my approach to the pleasant assignment of observing the faith bases of my fellow Texans has been that of a sociologist of religion, my professional academic role for forty years. But, in response to a question I am often asked, I am also an amateur worshipper with a “church home” of my own, one that I attend simply for the love of it. For this, my last installment, I’d like to tell you about it.
The sign outside the church’s contemporary facility in Houston’s Midtown/Museum District identifies it as “Covenant Church: An Ecumenical Liberal Baptist Congregation.” An unlikely combination, perhaps, but Covenant makes a persuasive argument for being what it claims to be. The Web site and weekly program of worship assert a broad ecumenism by announcing that the church welcomes “persons of all racial and ethnic heritages, all sexual orientations, and all faith perspectives to our Christian community.” The adult Sunday school classes suggest a liberal view of Scripture and theology, and the mission projects—refugee resettlement, human rights, Heifer International, Americans United—are those one associates with a politically liberal outlook. (Fittingly, a metal cross that sits atop the communion table usually tilts slightly to the left.)
Despite those characteristics, Covenant has not surrendered its designation as Baptist, even though at least half of the 250 or so members have never worn nor aspired to wear that label. It was founded in the sixties by former members of one of the city’s largest Baptist churches. They were interested in the progressive theology of the time (including that of my seminary and graduate school professors Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Harvey Cox) and wanted to apply their understanding of the Christian gospel to the social turmoil of that tumultuous decade. They were also committed to the historic Baptist insistence on “each individual’s right to worship God and to respond to God’s call to ministry in his or her own understanding of God’s all-encompassing love.” After the Southern Baptist Convention lurched to the right in the eighties, Covenant withdrew from that body, but it retains a tie to several Baptist alliances. I think most members regard their congregation simply as independent and nondenominational.
From my first visit, in 1970, to the present, I have been grateful for the careful attention given to each worship service. Although dress and manner are casual, Covenant follows a formal liturgical order, but the content is new every time, with the call to worship, confession, affirmation of faith, and other segments drawn from a wide range of sources and often written and led by members themselves—an impressive number of whom are remarkably creative and articulate. We still sing the grand hymns, however, accompanied by a beautifully restored 1893 Hook and Hastings organ, and the choir is unusually fine.
At the mid-June service I’m describing here, chosen because it was so typical, the theme was peace. The call to worship began with “Pray to whomever you kneel down to,” then listed some of the possibilities (Jesus, Buddha, Adonai, Allah, and Mary, among others) and acceptable settings for continued petition (on the bus, in line for the movies or a latte, at the ATM, slicing carrots, twirling pizzas, pulling weeds). We were urged to let each step be a prayer “that we all keep our legs and . . . not blow off anyone else’s legs,” to let every wheel that carries us hum with the prayer of “less harm, less harm, less harm,” and finally, to “mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling your prayer through the streets.” The unison prayer of confession recalled Jesus’ observations in the Sermon on the Mount about humility, meekness, hunger, purity of heart, peacemaking, and persecution, contrasting them with our arrogance, false independence, gluttony, aggression, halfhearted commitment, and failure to take a stand. Despite being assured that we were forgiven for these shortcomings, reciting them did make one want to improve.
Since its beginning, Covenant has emphasized thoughtful preaching. Its current minister, Jeremy Rutledge, meets that standard. A contemplative 37-year-old, he seldom raises his voice to the level that some preachers consider the baseline, but it is consistently obvious that he has reflected deeply on what he wants to say, has carefully chosen each word and polished every sentence, and longs intently for the world to be better than it is. On this day, Jeremy called his proclamation “Blood on the Altar.” I suspected, correctly, that he did not plan to talk about either temple sacrifice or substitutionary atonement. The blood in question was that of Father Daniel Berrigan, the controversial Jesuit priest noted for his dramatic sixties protests against the war in Vietnam. The altar on which Berrigan poured out vials of his own blood was the Pentagon, whose steps and corridors he regarded as an abominable plinth for an array of false gods.
Jeremy compared Berrigan’s actions to those of the priest and prophet Jeremiah, who had mocked the illusory idols of Israel. He depicted American military might as just such a false god, unable to deliver the security it promises. Though he conceded that reasonable spending on defense is warranted, he said that when the outlay for tanks and missiles requires the neglect of hunger, health care, and the education of children, we have laid our money at the wrong altar. Berrigan had been viewed as “a crazy person, an irrational dreamer, someone who was out of touch with reality,” said Jeremy, but much like Jeremiah, the modern priest-prophet had in fact been in touch with a larger reality: “that what is most sacred is the mystery of life and the work of preserving it.” Jeremy urged us “to find our own steps, to take our own blood, the life that is in us, and use it in praise of what is sacred and in protest of what is not . . . leaving behind our fearful insecurity and following a different dream instead.”
There is no altar call or conventional invitation. Instead, worship leaders—a position that rotates through the congregation—talk about why they first came to the church or why they have stayed, providing glimpses not only of the church’s diversity but also of the many ways it has affected members’ lives. On this day, a physician who began attending while in medical school during the sixties spoke of several activities he had shared with members of the congregation in recent weeks—a deacons’ meeting, two social lunches, and an afternoon mentoring a teen—and invited visitors to “join us and help shape our evolving history.”
After the offering, the singing of the doxology (which uses inclusive language to praise “Maker, Christ, and Holy Ghost”), and an affirmation of faith that called on us “to challenge culture and upend the status quo,” Jeremy returned to the morning’s theme in his words of dismissal. Walking slowly down the aisle, he mused that he did not remember hearing anyone in the current run for presidential office suggest that we curb our military spending. “This year,” he concluded, “seems like a good year to ask such questions in the name of the craziest one of all, who taught the love of enemies, who taught care of the poor, who was called by others the Prince of Peace. May it be so.”
In the narthex, congregants gathered to visit, drink fair-trade coffee, eat healthy snacks, and sign up for various projects, such as marching in the gay pride parade to support our gay and lesbian members. At another table, people wrote letters to their representatives in Congress, urging them to vote for legislation providing food for the hungry. On the way out, many of them dropped their programs into a recycling basket. I held on to mine, to help me tell you about the church that has inspired and nurtured me for nearly forty years.