February 8, 2008

A Covenant with Death

The Saint Andrews Draft Covenant (SAD) represents a marked improvement over the earlier effort. Many of the concerns that I had expressed in earlier commentary have been addressed, and a number of the troublesome details have been eliminated. The few that remain are hardly worth noting because, unfortunately, the main problem still persists, like a stubborn stain that will not give in to the most rigorous scrubbing.

The details never were the primary concern. Rather it was, and is, the as yet unanswered (or at least not clearly answered) questions: What is this covenant for? That is, what goal is it intended to achieve that we have not already reached, or cannot achieve by less formal means? How does this covenant advance or improve on our present capacity for mission and ministry?

The whole covenant process to date — apart from the efforts to frame a covenant based on cooperative missionary and ministerial efforts — has inherited a fatal flaw from its genesis in the Windsor Process: the idea that a mechanism can be developed by which people will always get along, and by means of which the disagreeable or the difficult can be excluded either temporarily or permanently from participation. One need look no further than the current fracas over Lambeth invitations to see how hopeless it is to develop such an agreement with the present cast of characters. There are some who are already well advanced on the road to "walking apart" from the rest of us; however much they employ the relativistic language by which it is not they who are moving but everyone else.

A covenant such as this SAD one will not solve our problems — it will express them: and it will be a tautology at best, since only the agreeable will agree to it. But if people are already absenting themselves from the Lambeth Conference — attendance at which is purely voluntary once the invitation has been extended, and the criteria for invitation to which are minimal (only a very few not having been invited) --- if they do this when the wood is green what will they do when it is dry? You can not make people be agreeable.

It still seems to me that very few people are actually sanguine about the development of such a covenant at all. Most people, again it seems to me, without having done exhaustive research, are more or less happy with the status quo and laissez-faire of the present Anglican Communion. Perhaps this and only this question should be put before Lambeth (not that I want to accord it particular authority, but just to test the waters): Do we need a written covenant? Yes or no. I do not sense at this point that the motion would carry in the affirmative.

So while I continue to support the idea of continued conversation around a covenant of sorts, it needs to be of a very different sort: a covenant affirming the common mission and ministry of the Church, our common membership with one another in the communion of the Body of Christ, a communion which is irrevocable, and from which no one shall or can be excluded other than by their own deliberate action. This is a covenant based upon the notion of grace which is a gift of God which one can refuse to accept (and so alienate oneself) but from which no power on earth can expel. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

We are already married, friends. It is too late to think about concocting a pre-nuptial agreement. We are stuck with each other: for life, for better for worse. Let us not allow the death which comes by reliance on the Law (a new Law or an old one) to overtake us. Let us deal with our difficulties under that rubric: Live + Jesus.

Tobias Haller BSG


Country Parson said...

I am among those who favor a covenant as a way to provide more coherence to the Communion. It isn't that I don't treasure our messy ways. I very much do, but I also treasure the possibility of a more clearly defined Anglican identity. I have no illusions about the covenant solving all our problems, nor do I believe that it would be wise to define Anglicanism by 16th and 17th century creedal statements. So I have plenty of reservations about the current state of negotiations, but I do think we need to complete Hooker's work with a clear and simple answer to the questions of his day, because they are also the questions of our own day: If we are not Roman Catholic and we are not Evangelical Protestants then what are we? How do we define ourselves in a way that makes sense to us and to the world in which we exist to do the work God has given us to do? How best can we organize our collective resources to do that work?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks CP. That's where I'm coming from, and why I don't oppose the "concept" of a covenant (actually I support it!) I suppose one way to look at it would be to say, Is the draft acceptable if we simply remove section 3.2.5, and Appendix section 8 (and any of the earlier clauses referring to it)? Those are the parts I find theologically untenable. This would leave a fairly positive document intact, with ample provision for consultation and discussion when problems arise, but without the "death penalty" of excision hanging over it all.

Anonymous said...

I have recently read the work of a Christian Old Testament scholar. Remarking on the "difficult" passages in the Hebrew Bible, this scholar suggested that those passages be "listened to" as though they were being read by Jesus himself. After all, he probably knew most of them by heart.

How would he (or did he) interpret them? What words might he emphasize, and what words might he omit? What meaning would he draw from them? How would he apply them (or dismiss them)?

I know that this sounds a bit like the over-simplified "WWJD", but it can help to see through the mists and veils of time and culture.

I tried to apply that principle to the proposed covenant material, and I came out exactly where you did, Tobias!

And I think your question "What is it for?" is central to the issue. Does the Covenant exist in order to give Anglicans a new sense of commitment, bonded-ness, and interdependence? Or is it merely a velvet covering for a judgmental club?

Or is it now (as I suspect) perhaps already too late for such a document to serve any constructive purpose?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the customary wisdom, Fr John-Julian. I suspect the answer to your final question may be "all of the above."

Malcolm+ said...

The problem, of course, is that this piece of quasi-curial crap doesn't do anything meaningful to define our Anglican identity more clearly.

What it does - an ALL it does - is set up procedures to silence and sanction anyone who dissents from whatever theological school is in the ascendancy at the moment.

It is the triumph of law over grace - and little short of a blasphemy.

But having the hopelessly compromized and partial Gomez as chair, what else could we expect?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Malcolm+ --- don't hold back. ;-)

Seriously you sum the problem up well: this kind of agreement is designed to give power to the prevailing view. It is exactly what went wrong in the time of Jesus when the School of Shammai was in the ascendancy and the School of Hillel in a period of decline, soon to be reversed, but not soon enough.

RFSJ said...


It's the marriage metaphor that works best for me - no sense in writing a pre-nup *now*, for God's sake!

I am very wishy-washy on the idea of a Covenant itself, although as an American, the idea of constitutions, etc., is part of my very DNA. Possibly so much of the consternation over a Covenant from American quarters is because, for us, such documents do mean quite a lot.

But if I had to live with one, I like your idea of nixing the Appendix. I can even live with the Section 3.2.5 - it reminds me of Matthew 18. Yes, 3.2.5(e) does have some sort of enforcement mehcnaism, kinda sorrta, but I see it as having enough fudge to be meaningless. We could live without that clause and it would be better, of course.

My bigger concern is 1.2.4, that continues to place primary teaching authority with bishops and synods. Maybe its more American-minded-ness, but we here in the US do not elect our Bishops primarily because they are good teachers. And given the often enormous administrative responsibilities we place on them, we shouldn't necessarily either. And synods? Please. I can't see the Convention of Newark articulating how we are to understand various passages of Scripture, or the Creeds, or anything else. On the other hand, as I type this, I wonder of the American members of the CDG pointed out that synods in North America always have laity. Do the CDG really want to place teaching authority there? I'd much rather simply nix the whole clause "Primarilty through the teaching and initiative of bishops and synods."



Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks RFSJ. I too pulled up a bit short at 1.2.4 -- I've been hammering away for a while against the notion that bishops are characteristically or principally teachers as opposed to being guardians of the church's unit; the Ordinal has assigned the teaching task to the presbyters -- but then realized that by "synods" they intend to include our General Convention, as they reference at 3.1.2 (with, I think, actually a nice nuance of "episcopally led and synodically governed" -- that does balance things a bit, no?) and again at 3.1.4.III, explicitly and at last including the laity too.

Perhaps some such heavy editing as ditching the "disciplinary rubrics" may be encouraged at Lambeth -- but I still tend to think the lobbying for a Covenant of any kind is coming from a very small segment of the church.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm is right. If our weakness as a communion is that we do not have a clearly defined identity, well, we can create confessional documents which will define us. If the real issue truly is, as the conservatives claim, that ECUSA and others do not respect the authority of Scripture, then let us precisely define the nature of the Bible and determine a proper hermeneutic interpreting it. This covenant does not prevent future disagreements; all it does is to ensure that there will be more conflicts in the future since we will now be able to have purges.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen any point in this proposed Anglican Covenant except to punish churches(provinces) that don't require gays to stay in the closet.

Where is the Gospel in that?

I am beginning to wonder if the time is not upon us when TEC & the Canadians & Mexicans & Brazilians & New Zealanders & Welsh & Scots & Old Catholics & non-fundamentalist Lutherans, etc., can be in Communion with each other & the progeny of the Church Missionary Society go their own way while the C of E quietly dies.

Lionel Deimel said...

In such circumstances as these, I often insist on asking this question: What problem are we solving? The obvious answer for those who really want a covenant is this: We want to be able to prevent other churches from doing things we don't like. For everyone else—for TEC, certainly—going along with the covenant process is a way to show that you're a team player. The problem with playing along with the game is that, in the end, you will likely end up with a covenant, and it will be one that solves the problem the most passionate are trying to solve. John-Julian and Malcolm seem to see clearly what game is being played.

Tobias's idea of voting on the idea of a covenant would be a good way to flush out what the real purpose is (or to get everyone to declare that it is something more innocuous). The covenant train has left the station. I think it will be difficult to change its consist while it is en route. Unless we can do that, we should blow up a trestle in front of the train to derail it. (Sorry, I've been watching too much House.)

A real discussion of a covenant necessarily leads to other questions. I love Country Parson's question. What is Anglicanism anyway, and why does the world need it? Do we need an Anglican church, rather than an Anglican fellowship?

The Communion, as presently constituted, can no longer provide what I would consider a satisfactory answer to the question of the nature of Anglicanism because we are being told that 17 million Anglican Nigerians can't be wrong. That is, an argument can certainly be made that Anglicanism is whatever "Anglicans" say it is. This, of course, dismisses Country Parson's question. If we have no good answer to what we are that is distinct, we should be satisfied with being something else, rather than just confusing the ecclesiastical landscape.