Theologically, I don’t think I can separate the two. Autonomy is defined by identity in relationship with others. A covenant is defined through a relationship between two autonomous partners. In a sense, autonomy and covenant defines where one stops and another begins yet focuses on where they connect. I will first focus on autonomy.
Autonomy comes from the Greek “from auto "self" + nomos, "law": one who gives oneself his/her own law” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/autonomy). Autonomy means having good boundaries. Boundaries allow us to know who we are in relation to others around us. The Hazelden Foundation identifies “the need for boundaries physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” The Foundation states that “Boundaries ensure that our behavior is appropriate and keep us from offending others. When we have healthy boundaries, we also know when we are being abused. A person without boundaries will not know when someone is physically, emotionally, or intellectually violating them” (1).
In Eric Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development eight stages are laid out that shows how a healthily developing human should pass from infancy to late adulthood. The second stage is “Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (2 to 3 years)” In this stage the child begins to answer what is and is not under their control and where they stop and others begin (Erikson 24). If parents encourage self-sufficient behavior, toddlers develop a sense of autonomy; a sense of being able to handle many problems on their own. But if parents demand too much too soon and refuse to let children perform tasks of which they are capable, or shame the child at early attempts at self-sufficiency, children may instead develop doubt about their ability to handle problems (Erickson 32).
Taking these two concepts and smushing them together, I can see how many pastors can shame their congregations; or how those higher up the chain can shame a local pastor. So the UCC is right to seek autonomy. But it is good to note that no one is completely free. We are all bound by our family systems, context, socio-economic status, culture, assumptions, and so on. We are not islands unto themselves, but interconnected beings. I prefer the term “inter-vidual” versus individual. A balance must be struck between the inter-vidual and the larger group that he or she is a part of. I think The UCC Constitution and Bylaws hold this autonomy in balance with the need for covenant.
Covenant is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement” and it comes from the Middle English, from Anglo-French, from present participle of covenir to be fitting. Covenant therefore means “a fitting agreement between two or more autonomous entities.”
When the four streams came together, they each had a particular identity and tradition. They were able to agree upon similarities and yet keep various ID markers in place for local congregations if they wanted it. For example, not every church is high church, or congregational, but each is free to choose what works, or what is fitting, given their context and history. This balances out the autonomy as it helps prevent spiritual abuse that can stem from a rigid system that has itself convinced of perfection, apostolic descent, and over controlling tendencies that result. Covenant also helps to remind the local church that they are not alone.
I think this is an excellent model. It allows for self-expression yet keeps this expression from harming others. It allows for creativity within reason. Speaking as an artist, I like this model because if one has complete freedom the canvas remains blank. Given some boundaries, some theme, some restriction, the artist then can paint within or rejecting what has been defined.
Erikson, Erik H. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, 1959.
Hazeldon Foundation. “What are Boundaries” CPE Handout. Copyright 1988.
Merriam-Webster.com: “Autonomy” and “Covenant” searches
United Church of Christ. The Constitution and Bylaws, 2005 Edition. Pilgrim Press, 2005.