October 11, 2010

When the Benefit is the Cost

In good Jesuit fashion, I have been trying over the last couple of years to think through the cost/benefit ratio presented by the Anglican Covenant, and the prospect of The Episcopal Church signing it. To put it bluntly, it seems to me that its only conceivable benefits correspond exactly to its costs. In response to the old legal question cui bono? a voice cries out, Nemo.

Let me be more specific: the two most widely cited benefits of the Anglican Covenant are, first, to be able to speak in ecumenical dialogues with a unified voice; and, second, to be able to avoid controversy through a mechanism designed to generate consensus. I submit that both of these urged (and related) goods come at the cost of equally weighty (and twinned) evils.

As far as ecumenical dialogue goes, there is already sufficient univocality in the Anglican Communion on issues of creed and doctrine. The same can be said for most of Christendom, with the exception of some churches’ parochial dogmas. As we all know it is primarily the form of church government that creates most divisions between churches, especially as to who is in charge. All current divisions within Anglicanism, largely over matters of pastoral or moral theology — ordination and marriage — are also present in the wider ecumenical sphere. What is more, a number of our active ecumenical (or even closer) partners tend to share TEC's more innovative position. The same can be said of the churches of Porvoo. Are they the Chopped Liver of Ecumenism?

But to get back to the cost/benefit: the only way to speak with a single voice on these very matters would be for the Communion to abandon its actual identity as a chorus of voices singing in parts, and put on the identity of a monophonic choir. Now, I enjoy Gregorian Chant as much as the next monk, but the Anglican Communion, in spite of the significant role Gregory played in its creation, isn’t really all that good at singing in unison (except on the minima hammered out in the Reformation and Elizabethan Settlement) but is rather good at polyphony, rich with the cultures of many nations and tongues. Is it worth giving up our actual richness in order to please — whom, exactly? And will it please them? And whom do we offend in the process, such as all of those ecumenical partners who are already actually working with us?

The second evil is related: as the process laid out in part four of the Anglican Covenant, however attenuated since its teeth were pulled from the text in the revision process, retains a subtext of coercion as a means to consensus — coming to agreement by attrition, picking off the voices in a parody of the Farewell Symphony. Again, we stand to lose the very richness and variety that form such a characteristic element in Anglican identity — particularly the freedom in matters of rites and ceremonies, which, the last time I looked, appears to cover ordination and marriage.

Is it worth replacing the full-course banquet that is Anglicanism with such a mess of pottage? In the long run, the question remains, What does it profit the Anglican Communion to become a whole-world-church at the cost of its soul?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Anglocat said...

The answer, Tobias, is of course, no. But I think the end sought for--creating a world wide church--is a bad one. I'm with Richard Hooker on this one. In the Preface to the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker posits that the evolution of churches in their places of planting reflects the needs of those among whom the church grows up and that even the means of organization may properly vary from place to place. Moreover, the foibles as well as the virtues of great figures (such as Calvin, in Hooker's time) may be reflected in not only their own churches, but those which adopt their teaching. Institutionally, local control and autonomy is a way of allowing for the correction of error, as discerned over time.

And that, not simple anti-Roman Catholic spite, is the justification for Article 37, stating that "The King's Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction."

The Covenant, with all other issues put to the side, subverts the fundamental balance struck in Anglicanism.

Marshall Scott said...

Well, yes, Tobias, apparently Porvoo and Called to Common Mission, and its Canadian equivalent are, if not chopped liver, the potted plants of ecumenism - at least, as far as those pursuing a Covenant are concerned. Canterbury is focused on Rome and Constantinople and their connections. The Global South leaders are interested in their evangelical colleagues in their own backyards.

You know, we could embrace the Articles - at least some, but a different collection than most Covenant types point to - and lean into our Lutheran heritage. Let us embrace our position as the church catholic ever reforming, emphasizing not the tension framed by Anglo-Papalists and Anglo-Calvinists, but instead being Anglo-Luthero-Catholic.

And I'm only half kidding - and perhaps less than half.

Closed said...

Most of the things I love about being Anglican are precisely those things that seem to be identified as the problem by those pushing this covenant. Beyond the minima, as you say, we are incredibly diverse which means I can learn from a broad range of Christians and their ways of understanding God's self-gift in Christ as well as God's showing Godself through creation and at work in our social worlds. Why we want to be pinned down because other traditions want us more pinned down is beyond me. It is our comprehensiveness and flexibility that makes possible adaptation so that catholicity can be found in variety. Catholicity as these folks define it is a bland generality of the ether rather than the rich multivariant spectrum of lived Anglican catholicity shaped by the contexts and histories of localities, of place.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

AngloCat -- my position exactly. I think God does not want a single world-church; the whole ecumenical enterprise (if it leads to a single institutional church) is contrary to the will of God, and this is why it runs aground. God loves 'unity-in-diversity' -- a body with many organs, not a monolithic blob.

Marshall, ah, yes, so many Anglicans moon over Rome and Byzantium! Ain't gonna happen -- we know their terms -- and we are far better off seeing ourselves in line with the Lutheran models, as in fact we are!

Christopher, precisely. Uniformity is not comprehension.

The Very Rev. Daniel B. Brown said...

Thanks for the image of the "Farewell Symphony." It makes clear that consensus is just another name for the univocality at the heart of the covenant's ethic of purity. I'm pretty sure JC's life, death and resurrection are meant to free us from worshipping just such idols. Ironic that Proper 23C's gospel sings it so well with the voice of the lone leper in thanksgiving. In my less than Jesuit calculations the evils of the Covenant outweigh the goods.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

You're welcome, Oldmiler. And thanks for the note relating this to that powerful Gospel!

Closed said...

Precisely, as I noted following my research, our catholicity is a comprehensiveness historically and locally shaped:

"That on Holy Communion, for example, the views of Jewell, Andrewes, and DeKoven can all be held together as authentically Anglican is nothing less than remarkable. To my mind, such possibility says more about the type of persons and communities Anglicanism forms, not out of a bland mediocrity but more a middle way created by interconnected tensions, similar to what Christopher Haigh terms “parish anglicans.” And thus, I cannot help but notice how so often we have argued for our catholicity, belying the wound that our break with Rome occasioned—a break that in turn required our own apologies. Yet, through these controversies as conversations, I glimpse a particular way of being catholic. This catholicity, contra much popular Anglican mythos, is not merely “unmarked,” but like Israel at Peni’el profoundly touched by our own wrestling with God and one another. Just perhaps, precisely because of this, Hooker prophesied rightly our spirit and ethos:

O God of truth and peace, who didst raise up thy servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever."

Unpublished Dissertation, 222-223.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks again, Christopher. It is astounding that diversity is not only tolerated by celebrated (and embedded in the liturgical texts and the Articles) on doctrinal theological issues such as the nature of the Eucharist and the Atonement (where all of the different theories sit comfortably cheek by jowl) -- yet toleration of diversity on a matter of pastoral or moral theology, and touching on rites and ceremonies (granted explicit license for diversity in the formularies!) has become such an issue of of required submission and uniformity -- even in the face of the admission that the old consensus no longer holds!


June Butler said...

No matter how many times I read Part 4 of the Anglican Covenant, I read it as binding the members of the Communion to agree to punitive consequences for those who don't have their doctrinal and/or biblical ducks lined up in a proper row. The consequences are vague, and, as Part 4 reads, I am not even clear as to who will decide on the consequences for recalcitrant members.

Perhaps, the section is clearer than I perceive, but I don't see, as I read the document, how the Episcopal Church could or would want to sign on to such an agreement.