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,