Monday, 12 March 2012

My would-be 'no' to the Covenant

A couple of weeks ago, the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod debated, and rejected, the Anglican Covenant. I wasn’t able to be there for pressing personal reasons (though I sent my apologies), but if I had been, I would have voted against it.
The odd thing is that, until a few days prior to the Synod, I would have voted in favour. What is even more odd is that I was persuaded to change my mind by an article in favour of the Covenant. The reason it had the opposite effect to that intended had a lot to do with it having been written by the Suffragan Bishop of Sherborne in the Diocese of Salisbury, Graham Kings (see here on the Fulcrum website).

As most readers of this blog will know, the new Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, made some remarks about same-sex marriage in an interview for The Times which were widely understood as backing for the idea of same-sex marriage. (See here for an edited transcript.)
Some retracting has been done since then. Bishop Holtam claims in a statement on the Diocesan website that he is committed to “Supporting marriage as it is currently understood”, but of course a little reflection will suggest that this doesn’t prevent him also supporting other understandings of marriage, which may be added to our ‘current’ understandings – such as, for example, the marriage of people of the same-sex.
This presumably explains how Bishop Holtam can also say that whilst he supports ‘marriage as currently understood’ he is also committed to “Supporting those clergy whose standpoint differs from my own”, namely those who think he has a wrong view of marriage when it comes to same-sex relationships.

What is also clear from such remarks, however, and from the statement itself, is that Bishop Holtam is in profound disagreeement with some of his clergy – a disagreement which explicitly includes the Bishop of Sherborne.

As I have been blogging here, however, the situation is complicated by the way in which the Church of England and the Anglican Communion understands and operates the principle of ‘collegiality’.
According to this understanding, episcopal collegiality can embrace diametrically opposed views of the truth and ‘consensus’ in this context does not equal agreement, or even a majority viewpoint.
To the outsider, this seems an ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ world. So long as bishops as a group maintain cordial relationships with one another – what one correspondent calls ‘the rules of the Oxbridge Senior Common Room’ – then bishops who resile from previously-held doctrinal positions will continue to be welcomed by the rest.
Thus Bishops Kings, when asked directly about his views of and response to Nicholas Holtam’s opinions, has replied that although he disagrees with his Diocesan, nevertheless, “We are committed to working together creatively.”
What exactly this creativity consists of when one bishop preaches and teaches that what the another preaches and teaches is wrong is baffling to most of us. I cannot help wondering what the Church would look like today if the Apostle Paul had decided to work creatively with Peter when the latter withdrew from fellowship with gentiles under pressure from visitors from Jerusalem.
However, I couldn’t help feeling this response also provided a significant insight into the true implications of Graham Kings’s appeal to support the Covenant.
Kings argues that the Covenant will preserve Anglican unity. And lest there be any doubt, we should indeed note that unity is a gospel value. Yet unity is not, per se, the ultimate value.
In our Prayer Book services, we regularly pray that God will, “inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord.” But the prayer continues, “And grant, that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word”. And without that agreement in the truth, there cannot, in the end, be true unity.
On the contrary, as St Paul wrote about the divisions amongst the Corinthians,
In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. (1 Corinthians 11:18-19, NIV)
We not divide the Church, for it belongs to Christ and is his body. But a collusion with wrong is not the maintenance of unity.

If Bishop Kings believes Bishop Holtam is seriously wrong - wrong in a way that contradicts an element of the gospel - then, like Paul with Peter, he should oppose him publicly, otherwise others may begin to drift in the same direction (Gal 2:11-13). If he does not oppose him publicly, then he clearly does not think the issue warrants such a stance, and therefore his disagreement cannot be that profound. Either way, given the already public nature of the controversy, the actions or inactions taken thus far have already begun to have an effect.

Reading Bishop Kings’s plea in favour of the Covenant, however, and reflecting on the situation currently facing the Church in parts of our own nation, I could not help feeling that if the Covenant as it now stands would enable the sort of unity that keeps people quiet when they should speak up, then it is something we could do without.
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  1. When I first read the argument by Graham Kings, I was struck by the fact that it took no cognizance of the position you just articulated. It's as if critiques from the traditionalist opposition don't matter. As far as I can tell from the coverage over the past several weeks, this is a fight between institutionalists and progressives. It has seemed to me from the beginning that the backers of the Covenant have spent all their efforts to turn progressives in its favor. If they had succeeded, what would they have gained? It needed the agreement of both sides to function as intended. Of course, I still think progressives would have been wise to adopt the covenant since they would have controlled its every clause. Ideology trumps pragmatism, I guess.

    So the Covenant is (so to speak) in the hospital on a ventilator and the EEG shows no activity. It's only a matter of time. The question becomes "Now what?" Rowan Williams has ruined all four Instruments of Unity, and tacitly committed the CoE to life in TECs orbit. Does he still have any options, or has he finally run out? Was the Covenant his last stand?


  2. John, do you think the Covenant would make much difference to the internal dynamics within the CofE? My reading of it is that its operation refers to relationships between the different provinces, so that if one province takes a decision which affects its relationships with others, there is a process to resolve those conflicts. So, the CofE can have its debates as usual, but the Covenant comes into operation when there is a commitment to proceed in a particular course with which other provinces disagree, and believe to be a first order issue. I would suggest the Covenant won't make much difference to whether bishops or others speak out on contentious issues - that is a matter of personal fortitude and the internal dynamics of the CofE.
    My opposition to the Covenant runs along different lines - it is a long-term solution to a crisis requiring emergency treatment, something like a course of antibiotics for a patient dying on the table. We have to administer emergency treatment before we can tackle the long-term treatment. Further, all of the doctors (instruments) with powers to administer emergency treatment have refused to do so, or had their authority reduced to offering advisory opinions or participating in consultations with no practical outcomes.

  3. Hi Andrew. My final decision against the Covenant was not because it would affect what happens here (as you rightly observe) but because the kind of 'unity' it would encourage across the Communion would be just the sort of thing you point out - a unity that doesn't tackle the problems and keeps us from addressing them.

    So I think we're basically in agreement.

  4. Spot on. It is arguable this sort of "unity" just relativises truth - so we all have our own "truths" under one big happy (or not so happy) tent. Which ain't the church in New Testament terms. So far as I can see.

  5. I agree with John. This is a unity that isn't worth having. What puzzles me is why all the liberals are up in arms about this. Paranoid, sorry Thinking, Anglicans have persuaded themselves that the covenant is all a dastardly conservative conspiracy, (I keep expecting them to declare that Rowan Williams is a closet Knight Templar and a tool of the New World Order). But if you look at the crucial Section 4, all the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion can do is "recommend" "relational consequences" to one of the "Instruments of Communion"- the very people who have so far refused to do anything about TEC- who are under no obligation to actually do anything. And that would only come after discussions which could take goodness knows how long. This gives the liberals what they want: endless "listening" and no action.

    But maybe I ought not to say that too loudly in case they notice...

    Stephen Walton