David Tombs and the Ulster Covenant Part III: A New Covenant in 2012?

bibleNow that the centenary of Ulster Day has passed, it is instructive to reflect back on how the churches have remembered (or have not remembered) the Ulster Covenant this year. In the third and final in his series of posts on the Ulster Covenant, Dr David Tombs asks if the churches missed an opportunity to articulate a vision for new covenant this year.

Tombs calls the churches back to what he argues is an authentic biblical view of covenant – as something that is ever renewed and renewing – suggesting that there may still be a chance for the churches to reclaim the idea of a new covenant.

A New Covenant for 2012? by David Tombs

On the whole this covenant anniversary year has not promoted much enthusiasm within the Protestant churches for a self-critical debate on their outlook in 1912, or the value of a positive and transformative vision of a shared society today. Or did I miss this?

Despite the honourable exceptions mentioned in earlier posts, most of the attention and energy seemed to be directed elsewhere. The concern was more for crisis management around preventing the anniversary being marred by public displays of sectarianism. This approach is best described as ‘conflict management’ rather than ‘conflict transformation’. Its importance cannot be disputed, but it is never really enough.

The anniversary could have been an opportunity for bold and transformative leadership.

It was a chance to set out the social vision of the churches for the twenty-first century, and an opportunity for prophetic leadership in the decade of anniversaries 2012-22. Yet despite all the media attention given to the anniversary it is not clear where the churches now stand on the covenant of 1912, or whether they see a more inclusive covenant as having value for building a more democratic society in the years ahead.

This is strange. One of the most striking aspects of the biblical story is the continuous reformation and restatement of the covenant tradition in response to new times.

Hence the new covenants associated with Noah, then with Abraham, then with Moses, then with Jeremiah, and in the New Testament with Jesus. The biblical covenant is not fixed in its form once and forever, it comes alive in new times in new ways.

In a radio interview with William Crawley on Sunday Sequence over the anniversary weekend I suggested that most of the attention around the anniversary had been to the past not the future.

Click below to listen to Dr Tombs on Sunday Sequence

Discussion had been backward-looking not forward-looking. I wondered what had happened to the biblical idea of ‘A new covenant for a new time’? What this covenant might involve, and how it would be recognised, would need to be carefully thought through, and debated much more thoroughly. Secular people will quite reasonably hope that the time of covenant is long-passed and never to return. It does not sound like something that a modern society would wish to go back to.

But for the churches, the anniversary could have been a reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of a covenant.

It is what a covenant is for and who it is for that is the issue.

  • What type of social vision and call for action does it offer?
  • Does it look to the past, or to the future?
  • Is it to be seen as a positive challenge to those who are willing to embrace it, or would it be inappropriate interference in the lives of those who do not welcome it?

Now that the anniversary of the 1912 covenant is over, might the churches find value in discussing what a covenant for a shared society should look like?

Would next year’s anniversary of the alternative 1913 covenant be a fitting focus for this, or would this be another way of staying fixed in the past?

Other Posts on the Ulster Covenant

David Tombs on the Ulster Covenant Part II: Regrets – and Alternatives?

David Tombs on the Ulster Covenant Part I: How Have Churches Marked the Anniversary of the Covenant?

Philip Orr’s New Perspectives: Book Review and Website Launch

Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins Book Review: Signing the Covenant – But Which One?

What Can We Learn from the Winning Entry in the Orange Order Song Contest?

Alternative Covenants, Alternative Perspectives: More Reflections on the Ulster Covenant

Fr Martin Magill – In Joyful Hope: Lamenting our Divisions and Striving Towards a New Covenant

What’s Shared Eucharist Got to Do with the Ulster Covenant?

David Trimble and Michael McDowell on the Ulster Covenant

How will the Churches Remember the Ulster Covenant?

(Image sourced on flickr, by revger)

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