I’ve been noticing a recent trend in Church parlance that’s been driving me up a wall: using “covenant” as an adjective. A friend at BCC pointed me to this article that showed that the phrase “covenant path” really only entered the common vernacular when men started using it. Prior to that, Elaine Cannon had used the term in 1993, and it was then quoted in General Conference by Elaine Dalton in 2007 (who was quoting an Ensign article by Elder Holland from 2006). Of the first 15 uses of the phrase, 11 were women. The article concludes that we need to pay more attention to the words of women to glom onto these verbal gems. That’s where they lost me.
I hate the phrase “covenant path.” To me it sounds culty. It sounds like something a mega preacher would say before bilking you out of your hard earned money and then attempting to seduce you. It makes my skin crawl.
I was in a discussion with a convert friend, explaining that there was an instruction in the Church handbook for Relief Society presidents to police the way the women dress, and that I had seen two women attempt this, both times with awkwardness that made everyone uncomfortable. She challenged me to find it in the current handbook, and I found that it had been removed! (It was still in the November 2019 handbook).
Here’s what it used to say:
Dress StandardsThe Relief Society presidency teaches sisters to be well groomed and modest in their attire. Presidency members help sisters understand that at Church meetings, their appearance and clothing should show reverence and respect for the Lord. Relief Society leaders also help sisters understand that when they go to the temple, they should wear clothing that is suitable for entering the house of the Lord. On these occasions they should avoid wearing casual clothes, sports attire, and ostentatious jewelry.
Honestly, this resulted in two VERY uncomfortable Relief Society meetings in my experience. In one case, the Relief Society was going to do a pajama party theme for an activity. The President, for some reason, perhaps this paragraph, felt obligated to clarify that the women should “dress modestly” for this all-women Church party. Then she stopped, laughed at herself, and said to herself more than anyone else, “I mean, not that I think you are all going to show up in lingerie to a Church activity!” Then her eyes went as big as saucers, realizing she had said that aloud. She was embarrassed. Several in the room were embarrassed. It was probably the only moment I actually liked her. She was normally very black and white and judgmental.
The next time it came up was during our brief experiment with sitting in a circle in “councils” once a month. The Relief Society teacher, a good friend of mine, shared a story that I thought might be fictional about her daughter’s prom dress choice, and asked how we can help our daughters (it’s always the daughters, right?) gain a “testimony” of modesty, and how can we not worry about others judging us as mothers if our daughters aren’t “modest.”
I’m not sure I helped her out, even though I was her counselor. I said, “Well, I’m 50, and I don’t have a testimony of modesty. I honestly don’t even know what people are talking about most of the time. We should wear what makes sense for the situation and butt out of other people’s choices. As for our daughters, they don’t wear garments. They don’t need to dress as if they do.” The sisters laughed, and a few agreed with me that they didn’t really know what a “testimony of modesty” would entail and that temple rules didn’t apply to our daughters. I didn’t realize at the time that what I had said was a direct contradiction of the handbook which had instructed us to butt in and police other women’s dress. Why anyone thought that was a good idea is beyond me!
When I checked the new online handbook, this entire section was gone. Poof! As you can probably guess, it was never in the men’s section, but what I found was that the Relief Society instructions were still completely different from the Elder’s Quorum section due to the priesthood. All the men’s section is framed in terms of priesthood roles and responsibilities. The women’s section is now using a new phrase: “covenant responsibilities.” Specificially, Relief Society Presidencies are to “Teach sisters their covenant responsibilities.” I do not know what this refers to, and they are not listed. Is it mourning with those that mourn? Is it stuff from the temple recommend interview? Nothing is listed. Maybe that’s good; maybe that’s bad.
On the upside, it’s not explicitly about modesty policing adult women. On the downside, it could be about anything the Relief Society President thinks it’s about. More likely, it will be about nothing and will just be ignored for the vague nothingburger it is.
It’s not uncommon to use a noun as an adjective. For example, you can talk about peanut butter, and you can talk about a swirl, but a peanut butter swirl is a third thing. You can make a covenant. You can walk on a path. So a “covenant path” must be a third thing. Within the Church, using “covenant” as an adjective is a contemporary phenomenon, a new buzzword.
Someone in an online discussion group mentioned that they felt the term “covenant path” was stifling, like their whole life was laid out for them and there was no agency. You just have to continue along on this prescribed course. Your life becomes passive. It reminded me of the Monty Python skit called The Presentation in which an architect’s idea of the building’s plans are completely different than his clients’:
If you are allergic to peanuts, a peanut butter swirl might sound sinister rather than yummy. Peanut butter is just a flavor of swirl, though. In the phrase “covenant path” the word covenant hems the path in. When the women mentioned in the By Common Consent article used it, they were referring to a community of believers all on the same trajectory toward the same communal goal. Does that mean peer pressure is what keeps us on the “path”? (I mean, yeah, that’s legit how Church works). Social controls are still limiting, and often feel more limiting to women than to men.
I’m not sure what “covenant responsibilities” means. Is it gender roles? (If so, bite me–I for sure didn’t covenant anything about that). Is it paying tithing? I’m not sure what the “covenant path” is. Is it the Mormon milestone path: baptism, temple, mission, marriage, parenthood, church service, death? Either way, I don’t think I signed up for some prescribed path to my life. I still get to make choices, right? I’m not really on a conveyor belt, am I? I thought we were all supposed to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, not just be a twig in a stream, carried along by a fear of not fitting in.
What I always found more appealing at Church was the idea of achieving our human potential, of striving to better ourselves, of reflecting on the enigmatic messages of Jesus’ parables and attempting to gain the type of wisdom he embodies. The phrase “covenant path” doesn’t do that for me. It feels compulsory, like it’s emphasizing that obligation over choice, compulsion over moral reasoning. Life is just not simplistic like that. We can’t make all our decisions at age 20 and never have to make another one.
My view of this phrase could be colored by the emphasis on obedience and authority within the Church. I recently listened to an interview with Mary Trump who mentioned very briefly a psychological disorder called Authoritarian Personality Syndrome. From Wikipedia:
The authoritarian personality is a personality type characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioning respect for and submission to the authority of a person external to the self, which is realized through the oppression of subordinate people.
A personality pattern reflecting a desire for security, order, power, and status, with a desire for structured lines of authority, a conventional set of values or outlook, a demand for unquestioning obedience, and a tendency to be hostile toward or use as scapegoats individuals of minority or nontraditional groups.https://www.dictionary.com/browse/authoritarian-personality
So maybe the real issue I have with the phrase “covenant path” is that it is being used within a culture that also focuses so much on obedience to human leaders quoting themselves and each other as authorities. It’s a strange mix to then talk about being locked into this covenant path as though that’s all there is. Everything else is bad or wrong or unwise or dangerous.
In a Church that talks so much about Religious Freedom, it sometimes feels like there’s no freedom to be ourselves within the religion, to make our own choices, to deal with life as it comes. By this way of thinking, if our lives don’t fit the board game version laid out for us, we are to blame. But that’s ridiculous! The entire point of life is that it’s organic and messy. We do the best with what we have. We try to learn to be wise. You can’t cookie-cut your way into godhood, or if you did, that would be like the IKEA equivalent of a planet. Sure, it would be easy to assemble, but it probably wouldn’t be the sturdiest thing out there. Likewise, people who comply rather than use their moral reasoning never develop into moral agents capable of difficult decisions.
- Do you like or dislike the phrase “covenant path” and/or “covenant responsibilities”?
- What do you think “covenant responsibilities” are? Why do you think women have “covenant responsibilities” while men have “priesthood responsibilities?”
- Were you aware that Relief Society Presidents used to be instructed in the handbook to police women’s dress?
- Do you think Authority Personality Syndrome is a problem in the Church? In your ward? Is it more or less of a problem than elsewhere?