AS THE Vicar of Haydon Bridge, in Northumberland, I have experienced the power of covenantal relationships, both informally and formally, as we lived through the flooding caused by Storm Desmond last month (News, 11 December).
The strength of these covenantal bonds within the community has reminded me how these right relationships lead us to be in right relationship with God.
More important, they have also reminded me that, as our weather changes, we need to remember the part that covenant plays in defining our right relationship not only with each other, but also with creation: that if we continue to live out of sympathy with God’s covenant with creation, we break our deep covenant with God.
Covenant is one of the fundamental theological motifs of scripture. Through the Old Testament in particular, it defines the promissory relationships we have with God and with one another. Through our agreements, we come into right relationship with each other and with God.
In this community — as in those across Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire, Northumberland, the Borders, and into Scotland — many of the bonds that tied the community during the flooding were informal. It is true that nothing brings people closer together than a crisis, and the floods have shown the deep mutual bonds that exist between the members of this community.
As the waters continued to rise, and the night became darker, people came out of their homes to see how they could help. Often, there were too many hands for the sandbags. One person was so caught up in helping others that she needed to be called back to her home when it, too, began to be flooded. Through this crisis, we discovered in a deep and practical way what it was to live in right relationship with each other.
IN THE weeks after the flooding, these right relationships have also found more formal articulations: a crowd-sourcing website has raised more than £3000 for local needs; a meeting with the flood authorities was very well attended — not simply by those who were flooded, but by many wanting to know why this had happened here.
Most important, these informal covenants are beginning to be formalised in the community’s relationship with our volunteer Fire Brigade. In recent years, an “armed forces covenant” has been created, and I believe it would be fitting now for us to think of what an “emergency-services covenant” might look like.
In Haydon Bridge, the volunteer Fire Brigade is under threat of closure because of council cut-backs. Having been on almost constant call through the weekend of the storm, firefighters continued to pump water from homes and cellars well into the week after.
There is now urgency in the community to restate our covenant (to use my language) with them, and, through this, to help save them from closure for the good of the whole area, and possibly even the preservation of life in the future.
ALL OF these relationships, informal and formal, have been, for me, articulations of the deep covenant we have with God. In light of these experiences, I found myself returning, perhaps inevitably, to one of the greatest articulations of God’s covenant with humanity, in Genesis 9, at the culmination of the great flood narrative.
On first reading, it appears that God’s re-establishment of his covenant with humanity is done in asymmetrical terms: covenant is something that God does to Noah and his descendants. If we read this chapter more deeply, however, we find that God also re-establishes his covenant with creation, and with humanity as stewards of creation.
After the great flood, God reasserts creation as a partner in these right relationships. In scripture, the covenantal relations that we share with one another provide the means by which we all share in God’s covenant with us. The same needs to be true of our relationship with creation. We need to live faithfully, in right relationship with creation, as a way of living out our part in God’s covenant with all creation and its creator.
THE sheer brutal force of the changes in our weather should be a reminder, if one were needed, of our part in God’s great covenant — not only with us, but also with creation. The coincidence of Storm Desmond with the Paris climate-change conference was not lost on those bailing out homes and businesses in the north of England (News, 11 December).
Our climate is changing. Whether this is man-made or a natural phenomenon is secondary to that fact. Communities such as that in Haydon Bridge are now having to come to terms in a challenging way with what it means to live on a river.
Members of this community are now, as never before, having to think practically about how and whether they can live in homes that never used to flood. As a community, we will have to think carefully about where new homes are built, and how we engage responsibility and sustainably with the river that runs through the heart of our life.
As our weather changes, as Storms Abigail, Desmond, Eva, Frank, and their ugly siblings become more and more a feature of our lives, we must remember again our part and responsibility in God’s covenantal relationship with us and creation.
Covenant reminds us that creation is not simply a gift that God makes to us, to do with as we will. Creation is the space through which we live out our covenant with God, each other, and the earth. Now, more than ever, we could be wise to remember this.
The Revd Dr Benjamin Carter is the Vicar of Haydon Bridge and Beltingham with Henshaw, in the diocese of Newcastle.