Saturday, 18 December 2010

Ten (not really very good) Reasons Why the Proposed Anglican Covenant is a Bad Idea

Lacking anything more useful to do, I’ve been looking through the ‘Ten Reasons Why the Proposed Anglican Covenant Is a Bad Idea’ posted on the Comprehensive Unity blog.
Why bother? Because, if it is to stand any chance of success, the Covenant process needs clarity of thought. Looking through the Ten Reasons, however, one finds confusion and, indeed, a certain lack of logic.
Reason 1, for example, begins by stating that,
The proposed Anglican Covenant would transform a vibrant, cooperative, fellowship of churches into a contentious, centralized aggregation of churches designed to reduce diversity and initiative.
Every time I read this — and there have been several — I wonder how anyone could describe the present Communion as “a vibrant, cooperative, fellowship”. I honestly can’t see that. And apparently neither can whoever wrote this document, since under Reason 9 we read,
The proposed Anglican Covenant .... is advanced in an atmosphere of anger, fear, and distrust ...
So which is it? The answer would seem to be that it depends on what point you’re trying to make: one here against the Covenant or one later against Covenant advocates.
Reason 2, meanwhile, rests on a massive ‘beg the question’:
Under the Covenant, churches will be inhibited from undertaking new evangelical or mission initiatives for fear of offending other Communion churches and becoming embroiled in the disciplinary mechanisms set up by the Covenant.
Of course, it could be said one region’s ‘evangelical initiative’ is another’s departure from the ‘evangel’ itself, but isn’t that the whole issue the Covenant is set up to address?
Reason 3 is an assertion based, apparently, on special pleading regarding a particular understanding of management:
In an era in which power and authority are being distributed in many organizations in order to achieve greater efficiency, responsiveness, and accountability, what has been proposed for the Communion seems out of step with current thinking regarding large organizations.
This sounds fine, but if authority is ‘distributed’, could a diocese not depart from its province? This is not what one is hearing advocated currently in TEC. The point may (or may not) be valid, but its application needs to be more tightly defined.
Reason 4 is another of those statements which makes one wonder if one has not been living in a parallel ‘Communion universe’ for the past decade:
[The Covenant’s] immediate effect is to create divisions.
Like there aren’t any at the moment? The point continues:
Churches that cannot or will not adopt the Covenant automatically become second-class members of the Communion.
Well, yes, but won’t that be because of those divisions which have brought about the need for the Covenant in the first place?
Reason 5 might actually have some substance:
The proposed Covenant is dangerously vague.
Surely, however, another possible response, rather than rejecting the Covenant, is to suggest ways to tighten up the vague bits? The challenge may be valid, but the solution does not automatically follow.
Reason 6 is just piece of theological silliness, relying on a blatant tu quoque argument:
The proposed Covenant runs counter to the gospel imperative of not judging others. It is all too easy for Communion churches to complain about the sins of their sister churches while ignoring or diverting attention from their own failures to live out the Gospel.
If churches within the Communion are truly failing to live out the Gospel, the answer is not to let everyone else do it as well!
Reason 7 relies on another special pleading which has run throughout this whole dispute:
The proposed Covenant encourages premature ending of debate.
What we know, of course, is that the only ending of the debate which will not be rejected as ‘premature’ by those who want to keep it going is an acceptance of homosexual practice. This is actually made clear in what follows:
[The Communion] has too quickly concluded that “homosexual practice” is “incompatible with Scripture” and that adopting the Covenant is “the only way forward,” neither of which is either intuitively obvious or universally agreed upon.
Fine — but do those opposing the Covenant in this way really accept that it could, after debate, be universally agreed upon? If not, let them be honest and say so.
Reason 8 seems invoke phrasing from the Windsor Report of 2004, where it was envisaged that the Covenant would “make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection” holding together the Communion. However, it turns on a re-interpretation of ‘forceful’ to mean ‘using force and coercion’, which is not at all the same thing;
The notion that we need to make “forceful” the “bonds of affection” is fundamentally flawed. If we need force and coercion to maintain relationships between Communion churches, there is no true affection, and the very foundation of the proposed Covenant is fraudulent.
Reason 9 again relies on giving a particular word a desired ‘spin’:
The proposed “Covenant” seems more like a treaty, contract, or instrument of surrender than a covenant. In the ecclesiastical context, a covenant is usually thought of as an agreement undertaken in joy and in an atmosphere of trust—baptismal and marriage covenants come to mind.
One is tempted to point to the example of Suzerainty Treaties, which had parallels with the biblical Covenant between God and Israel. These were not exactly ‘undertaken in joy and an atmosphere of trust’. More importantly, however, it is the existing lack of joy and trust which has brought about the need for the Covenant — and which, as has already been observed, point 9 actually recognizes:
The proposed Anglican Covenant .... is advanced in an atmosphere of anger, fear, and distrust, and with the threat of dire consequences if it is not adopted.
That is regrettable, but not having a Covenant is not going to change matters.
And finally Reason 10 reveals the objections themselves to be somewhat disingenuous:
The Anglican Communion would be better served by remaining a single-tier fellowship of churches, allowing disaffected members to leave if they must ...
So in fact the objection to the Covenant is not that some Anglicans will “become second-class members of the Communion” (Reason 4). Indeed the idea of ‘business as usual’ causing some people to leave the Communion is regarded as entirely acceptable — so long as it is the ‘right’ people who leave (those who are “threatening to walk away”).
Thus, ultimately, what the objectors to the Covenant want is exactly what those in favour of the Covenant also clearly want: a Communion to their own liking.
And there is nothing wrong with wanting that. But if even those objecting to the Covenant don’t seem to recognize the truth of their own position, what hope is there for real dialogue and real understanding?
John Richardson
18 December 2010

PS: Sitting here a day later, I'm actually quite sorry to have had to write this piece No one really likes criticism and no one should enjoy dishing it out. But I couldn't look at these ten 'reasons' without reacting to the perception that they lack, well, 'reason'. Illogicality and self-contradiction is something to be avoided, whatever the field you're writing in. If the author can go back and come up with some alternatives, maybe I'd think again.
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  1. John, I'm trying to work out a few reasons why this might be a good idea, because I’d love it to be!

    In Scripture I come across two sorts of use of "church"

    (1) the form with a small c that can be put in the plural, for example the local Christian community in each of the Asian cities in Revelation, for example.

    (2) I also encounter the use of Church in the singular with a big c, the kind of first fruits of the whole creation, body of Christ throughout the world use. God, as sovereign decides who is in, not me; and I hold a Baptist Christian, for example, to be potentially as complete a Christian, as, for example a Roman Catholic, because I can't see any justification in Scripture for unchurching a Christian believer because s/he's not in with the Pope.

    Now, what and where is a "Communion" in all this = a group of Christians who agree (on what basis? that they would like to share communion together? — are they the hosts of the meal, then?).

    But hang on I share communion with Baptists, and they're not in "the Communion." So what is the Communion? What is the Scriptural justification for any of this?

    If I knew this, I could weigh the proposal by the light of Scripture, which it seems to quote in a sound bitey sort of way, as though "the communion" was the universal Church — but they can't mean this can they, because Anglicans have never claimed to be the only Christians? Not knowing this, I honestly don't know what to make of it.

  2. Bishop Alan,
    As a Baptist I have always understood that the 'Anglican Communion' is exactly that - a communion for Anglicans with all their common structures. It seems to me that there is "Anglicanism' and there is "Christianity" but such terms do not always coincide.

    Potentially yours,

    Chris Bishop

  3. Usually, when both sides voice opposition to a proposed agreement, it is a sign that the negotiators are on the right track.

  4. Bishop Alan, it seems to me that the Anglican self-understanding incorporates both the ‘identities’ of the Church to which you refer, whilst introducing a third — the level at which decisions may be made about things genuinely ‘indifferent’.

    If you’d like to read an earlier attempt of mine at tackling this question, back in 1998 I wrote a piece titled, ‘“To our own people only”: re-owning original Anglicanism’ published in Churchman and available here as a pdf, or here on the blog in modified form.

    The phrase ‘to our own people only’ is from the BCP preface, ‘Of Ceremonies’, which says,

    "... in these our doings we condemn no other Nations, nor prescribe any thing but to our own people only: For we think it convenient that every Country should use such Ceremonies as they shall think best" (emphasis added).

    What this requires is that between the small ‘c’ church and the big is what the Articles call a ‘particular or national’ church which,

    "... hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority ... (XXIV, emphasis added)

    Thus whenever the Prayer Book refers to the Church of England, it italicizes the latter, so as to distinguish it from, for example, the churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome (similarly italicized in Article XIX).

    These churches are in error on some points (as are the ‘Anabaptists’, according to Article XXXVIII), but whether we ought still to be ‘in communion’ with them would, I suppose, depend on the degree of the error.

    Behind all this is the notion that such ‘particular’ churches are constituted according to Article XXXVII, which declares that godly Princes are given the prerogative to,

    "... rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal ..."

    An Anglican bishop therefore functions as a minister of the Crown, on the same level as an MP or a Judge (just as a priest also functions as a Registrar). Neither their authority, however, nor that of the Crown, extends to other nations, which is problematic.

    Article XXXVII says that (according to Scripture), “The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions,” but of course that no longer applies to most of the Communion.

    Technically, therefore, we either ought to let the Communion go, rather as we have let go the Empire, or re-constitute it under an agreed common theological framework. The fact is that we have done neither, but arguably the Covenant process could be taken us towards the latter solution.

  5. Every time I read this — and there have been several — I wonder how anyone could describe the present Communion as “a vibrant, cooperative, fellowship”. I honestly can’t see that.

    John, when leaders and members of the churches proclaim their opposing opinions, accuse fellow member churches of heresy, threaten schism, and even, in some cases, make good their threats, the state of the Anglican Communion may look dire, indeed. But even as the quarrels in the AC continue, we must not forget that mission activities such as Lisa Fox, a deputy in the Diocese of Missouri in the US Episcopal Church, describes in the link below continue between and amongst dioceses and parishes.

    Lisa writes of the relationship between her diocese and the Anglican Diocese of Sudan at the Comprehensive Unity Blog.

    The relationship between the two dioceses is a real, vibrant, cooperative fellowship, and such relationships exist all throughout the Anglican Communion.

    As to tightening up the vagueness of the covenant, my understanding is that no amendments will be permitted. The covenant must stand or fall as is.

  6. That should read "the Anglican Diocese of Lui in Sudan". Sorry.

  7. Like you say, Mimi, the Anglican Communion contains both 'vibrancy' (though it is a vague and 'vogue' phrase), and bitter division. You can focus on either.

    However, unlike what Reason 1 claims, the Covenant will not "transform" the Communion from a community of the former into a community of the latter.

  8. As a person who has experienced both the wonderful connectedness of the Anglican Communion and the broken bits - I stand by #1 as a dream which we have lived into, are living into and will live into. We see it breaking through especially when we work for God's kingdom on earth in helping the least of our sisters and brothers. We can do this together better than apart in our own little enclaves. It is possible, to me, that we can have sharp disagreements over the many things we have fought over through history from circumcision, to hats, to candles, to who is truly human (Native people, people of African descent, women, gays - all have been debated) and worthy to be full members of the church - and still we can carry on in communion - as our relationship is not with one another but through Christ in our baptism. It just takes the will to do it - not a document that we can do more fighting about. You believe being gay or lesbian and being in relationship with one's beloved is beyond the pale - and you try to prove it to me by making a fence around your church. But love will win out in the end - it always does because God is love and all love comes from God. Sure there is sin - that is why we have to confess. Like Joseph - where doing the right thing would have been to stone Mary -- he chooses love instead.
    I don't want to go to God saying - but it says here on this paper .... I would rather go trusting in God's mercy.

  9. Ann, it is all well and good speaking of "being in relationship with one's beloved" and love winning out "in the end", but we are confronted by the Scriptures which tell us, for example, "Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

    Now this is not 'me' making a fence around 'my' church - I would happily draw the fences somewhere else, other than where Scripture does, or indeed have no fences at all. It would have been possible for me to have become a Christian in 1969 (rather than 1971) had the fences been where I'd wanted them!

    Moreover, whoever, is 'deceived' in the matters to which Scripture refers, it is very important that they be 'undeceived'. We cannot just say, "Let's agree to disagree", as you seem to suggest. Would that we could - but we do not have this choice!

  10. However, unlike what Reason 1 claims, the Covenant will not "transform" the Communion from a community of the former into a community of the latter.

    John, it seems to me that if the Episcopal Church is demoted to second tier membership or worse, the relationships of its parishes and dioceses with parishes and dioceses in other churches in the AC could well be adversely affected.

  11. Thank you, John, for your article from 1998 which I find a genuine anchoring point in our tradition. It leaves (but fir another day perhaps) two points of question: (1) the ambiguity between the CofE as a national church, in BCP terms, and the CofE as 2 provinces of a larger entity, away of thinking which grew in force with the tractarians and (2) who is "us"? But many thanks for mapping the territory on which we have historically stood so deftly!

  12. But Mimi, conversely if TEC signed up to the Covenant and abided by its provisions, its relationship with other parishes and dioceses in the Anglican Communion might be improved.

    The thing is, as the 10 Reasons document recognizes, we are not in a situation where everything is fine at the moment.

    Moreover, the fact that you (and others) seem to be assuming that TEC would be on the receiving end of any '“consequences” (i.e., punishments)' the Covenant might entail must surely tell us something about the current positioning of TEC in all this.

  13. But Mimi, conversely if TEC signed up to the Covenant and abided by its provisions, its relationship with other parishes and dioceses in the Anglican Communion might be improved.

    So TEC should depose their gay, partnered bishops and sign on? Or would there be an exclusion clause incorporated for those bishops already consecrated?

    Certain of us who have been following the discussion since Windsor believe that the very raison d'être for the Windsor Report and the convenant is to punish TEC for such consecrations and punish the Anglican Church of Canada for allowing same-sex blessings.

    And we still wonder how the Windsor Report morphed into a set of rules that must be obeyed. As Bishop Martin Barahona, retired primate of Central America said:

    “The Windsor Report,” he said. “It’s just a report. When did it become like The Bible. The Covenant. Why do we need another covenant? We have the Baptismal Covenant. We have the creeds. What else do we need?”

  14. Mimi is correct, John, that the Anglican Covenant, from the moment it was proposed, has been nothing but a stick with which certain prelates propose to beat the Americans (with the Americans, incidentally, ponying up about 40% of the cost of the stick). Rowan's choice to appoint Drexel Gomez as the head of the enterprise merely reinforces the real agenda, since Drexel had been calling for the exclusion of the American church for several years beforehand.

    But here is the comment that moves me to respond. You say:

    "whoever, is 'deceived' in the matters to which Scripture refers, it is very important that they be 'undeceived'. We cannot just say, 'Let's agree to disagree'."

    Of course, no one is actually talking about simply agreeing to disagree. More accurately, some of us are saying "Let's agree THAT we disagree and let's keep talking." It is only through continued dialogue that the deceived (whichever party that may be) will be undeceived.

    While the Covenant is being sold by its apologists as nothing more than a framework to continue discussion and to maintain relationships, it is manifest that the Covenant will not - and cannot - do either. It imposes quasi-judicial processes to resolve theological issues.

  15. Mimi, despite the hopes of Bishop Barahona, the Church of England in the first instance and the Anglican Communion which arose from it in the second, have never been defined by sola 'baptism and the Creeds'. For more on this, I'd refer you to Bishop Alan Wilson's comments above and the article to which I linked.

    As regards existing gay partnered bishops, TEC was told, when it first contemplated this move, what the consequences of its actions would be in terms of putting strain on the Communion. Nevertheless, TEC went ahead.

    Now if you are a supporting member of TEC, the present situation is no doubt difficult, but one cannot deny the conscious nature of that earlier choice and the acceptance, at the time, of whatever would follow.

    It is obviously for TEC to decide how to proceed from here, and to weigh the different challenges it will faces should other Provinces accept the Covenant.

    What I think cannot be done, though (in case anyone was thinking this), is to object to the Covenant essentially because it would create further problems for TEC. If TEC is right, which many obviously think it is, then it must continue on that basis.

  16. Malcolm, on the background to the Covenant and the fact that TEC chose this path knowing the difficulties it would entail, I’d refer you to my last posted comment to Mimi.

    As to your suggestion, “no one is actually talking about simply agreeing to disagree”, I was responding to Ann’s comment that, “It is possible, to me, that we can have sharp disagreements ... and still we can carry on in communion.”

    That may be so on some issues, and it may be possible for some time, but it is clearly not possible both to disagree in practice on this issue and to remain entirely in communion as before.

    The Covenant is, I think, trying to do something which may be impossible — which is to turn the clock back somewhat, to the point we could have been at several years ago, of restraint until dialogue is resolved, which may, of course, mean TEC either admitting it got it wrong or accepting ecclesial realignments, if this is genuine dialogue.

    Just to return to the point of my post, however, I think the 10 Reasons document really is weak, and if it is an indication of what the dialogue might have to cope with, it is a worry.