January 12, 2011

Can these bones live?

One of the fudging factors in all of the discussion surrounding the Anglican Communion and the proposed Anglican Covenant is the time-worn distinction between action and essence. The question can be set as, "Is the Anglican Covenant a constitution for the Anglican Communion or a way of working (in particular with regard to settling differences) for the Communion?"

We are, in short, back to the distinction between models for the church, and the tendency to confound the governing bodies that hold sway over this or that portion of the Body of Christ with the Body itself. To some extent it is the difference between polity and theology: which makes the church? I have argued that a broad and robust baptismal theology makes the church, and the polity makes the denomination.

It used to be said that the Anglican tradition had no distinctive theology — two testaments, three creeds and four councils — but of course that's bumper-sticker thinking and doesn't hold up very well on close analysis. TEC jettisoned one of the Creeds in its early days, and who has much familiarity with the Councils any more? It also leads one to ask, Then why exist? (Which has its own set of answers which then indicate all of the reasons, theological, historical and political, for why we aren't Roman Catholics.)

Others point to the liturgy as a unifying factor, but from the day the Scots branched off with their own liturgical forms (followed by TEC), and the English and others in their line stuck with 1662 up to a point, on all sides to be replaced or supplemented by a plethora of new Books of [Somewhat] Common Prayer abounding -- though there are points of overlap and congruence, there is clearly no pan-Anglican liturgy any more.

Even when it comes to polity there is scant uniformity across the Communion, from Province to Province. Just taking the appointment / election of bishops as an example reveals almost any configuration of processes for gaining or bestowing the split hat as one might devise at work here or there around the world. And as for the Establishment — what a mass of problems that presents for the "Mother Church" in distinction to all of her daughters!

So can the proposed Covenant pull any of this together? Or is it simply an instrument of disunity that will clarify the lines of dissent and disagreement? Is it a symptom of an autoimmune disease, or the possible cure?

I have to say that in spite of my reservations concerning its many faults, amply expressed here and elsewhere, I remain somewhat on the fence concerning the Anglican Covenant. (That may shock or surprise some, and dismay others, but that is where I find myself. Please hear me out before immediately rushing to comment!)

In conversation with my brother Richard the other day, it struck me that the Anglican Communion is at present a bit like that wounded man on the Jericho road. The Priest and Levite may pass by, unwilling to assist, for what may have been very sound reasons based on notions of purity; the Samaritan, less concerned with purity than charity, acted.

So I ask, all fears aside, and all awareness of its imperfections laid on the table, could it be possible the net effect of as many provinces as possible adopting the Covenant be of any benefit for the future health of the Communion? That is, as you note, a question. And I'm looking for more positive answers, rather than doomsaying, of which I admit to having done my share. The question is: Can anything good come out of this proposal, and what form might that take?

Enough kvetching for the time being; let's see if there's an up-side, and if not, then it will be all the more clear which way we should go.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Fr. J said...

You'll not be surprised to hear that I believe that a great deal of good can come out of the covenant. I think it is very wise that the people who crafted this document chose to call it a covenant, rather than a constitution or a confession or something else. Covenant signifies relationship--the Baptismal Covenant, Marriage as a covenant, the covenant that God establishes with Israel--all involve relationship in which there is responsibility, yet the relationship remains paramount.

Much of the distaste for the covenant from both the left and the right has focused on the fourth section. Depending on who you talk to, it's either a loosey goosey mess or absolutely draconian. But I think we miss something valuable if we don't take a turn looking at those first three sections in greater detail. There is a great wealth that we share in common as Anglican Christians, in terms of doctrine and liturgy and history and, yes, even polity. It's easy to become focused on the ways that we differ, the different ways in which episcopacy is administered, for instance. But given our diversity, there is a stunning amount that can be claimed as a shared identity among Anglicans. Despite claims to the contrary, it is possible for us to name who we are.

The third section is particularly interesting in the way that it lays out what it means to be a communion, very much pressing home the point that communion is a gift from God and that covenant means placing our beloved above ourselves. In my opinion, a large part of why the fourth section is the nexus of controversy is because we don't really believe that communion matters. We want to do our own thing (and by we I mean not just TEC but GAFCON and others as well). We don't want to be restrained in any way, even by our own shared identity. It's the Corinthian error of mistaking licentiousness for freedom.

I think that perhaps the worst scenario would be one in which provinces signed onto the covenant just to keep playing the game, without any intention of actually having to be accountable to one another. I was just doing a wedding prep with a young couple last night, and we talked about Ephesians 5 and the call for a husband and a wife to be subject to one another. That is the mark of covenant, and indeed the mark of Christian love itself. If we can come to that humble realization in the Communion, than the covenant will have more than served its purpose.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Fr. J. Good points. On the issue of diversity vs. what we share, I also would add that the distinctive "Anglican" approach we inherit from the Elizabethan Settlement and Hooker is comprehension rather than uniformity. The genius of the Elizabethan prayerbook and Articles was the ability to embrace discordant theological opinion under overarching principles. This is what I'm trying to do with the Covenant here -- not so much getting caught up with the details, but to look at its overarching concerns, which seem generally to be positive rather than punitive. Keeping in mind that part 4 was meant to deal with last resort situations is one helpful observation. Is that embrace large enough to quell concerns over the Covenant's weaknesses? It may well be, if entered into in good faith, as you suggest is necessary. That exercise may ultimately be more valuable than the text itself. Actions will speak louder than words...

Marshall Scott said...

Fr. J, some of us could consider a covenant that focused on what is in the first three sections (albeit it that some would amend those). We are quite engaged in those things we share. I think that, in light of those things "we believe," in many of not all cases we would support those matter to which "we commit" in the first three sections.

I can see that a member church that cannot embrace the first three sections should not sign on. I can see that a church that had signed might find it can no longer embrace the first three sections, and so feel called to withdraw. Had the fourth section been that simple, that straightforward, I think many would have accepted that restraint and accountability to those who shared the common heritage. Had there been a simpler mechanism, one focused on the Anglican Consultative Council (since that is the measure, in the Covenant Draft, of who is and is not part of the Communion), that mechanism, that accountability might have been acceptable. The process as presented so re-tasks the Joint Standing Committee (both by its new mandate and its new title) as to effectively create a new Instrument; and provides such potential restraint and accountability for the respondent and so little for the potential complainant as to invite caprice and even mischief.

This has been presented, too, with great confusion. The Draft distinguishes between participation in the Covenant and membership in the Anglican Communion; and then appears to conflate the two. Some want participation in the Covenant to define membership in the Communion. Others feel membership in the Communion makes unnecessary any further structure, such as the Covenant. Neither the Covenant Drafting Committee, nor Archbishop Williams, the Covenant's chief advocate, have made any clearer this apparent confusion.

A covenant has been proposed as the way to clarify the relationships in the Communion, and so hold it together and allow it "to speak with one voice." Unfortunately, no other mechanism has been discussed, much less really explored. This process, resulting in this draft, has been a matter of haste and expedience.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Marshall. You enumerate many of the same caveats and concerns I share. And I've said before that a hermeneutic of suspicion concerning the Covenant (esp. given its origins and earlier drafts) warrants caution, as well as the general principle of looking at documents in light of their potential abuse.

But I am here trying to explore if a more optimistic reading, a more charitable reading -- perhaps in light of the unacceptability of the document to those most set on punishment, and also in light of the actual changes in the covenant language and the diminution of the "penalties" and so on -- if there is a way forward.

I am going to be taking a close look at the document in the coming weeks, with a particular eye to the amendments from earlier versions.

You are right the document was prepared in haste. But it need not be adopted in haste -- and if being part of the adoption influences how it is actually employed, then that is an important factor it seems to me. All married couples take the same vows but not all marriages are the same as lived out.

Anglocat said...

Sorry, Tobias, but my answer is a simple "no". There are two reasons for it:

1. The underlying purpose is to get all concerned to agree to relationship which is disciplinary in nature, and to enable the sanctions that TEC's adversaries would like to impose upon it, but have no warrant to do so under the current "loose confederation" structure. We're being asked to submit to a non-extant jurisdiction so that we may be punished.

2. In the process, the Anglican Communion will acquire the Magisterium which facilitates quick executive decision-making at the expense of consensus building. Williams will have his "Anglican Church" and we will have a curia. As Cyrano would say, "No, I thank you!"

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Anglocat. Both of these points are certainly "could be's" -- but I wonder if they are "must be's" -- that is, is the language of the proposed covenant actually reflective of these powers or structures, or is that a holdover from reactions to the earlier drafts?

One thing I plan to do is take a very close look at the present draft, including noting where the language has changed from the previous versions. I suggest others do the same.