June 8, 2011

The Covenant Crisis

As I have noted previously, I find myself poised somewhere between the two extremes of the Anglican Covenant debate. At one end are those who appear to think that not only is no agreement needed, but that the very idea of pan-Anglican governance is inimical to our identity as Anglicans. At the other extreme are those who appear to think that the AngCov is not merely the best way forward but the only way forward to settle the disputes that have raged through the Communion over the last two decades or so.

I find myself much more inclined towards the former than to the latter. In fact, I find the latter position not only to be facially absurd — if the member provinces of the Communion cannot agree on the Covenant itself, it cannot very well be the basis or means for subsequent agreement — but contradictory to the historical evidence, and arguably misguided as a way forward even were there signs of widespread willingness to move in such a direction.

The latter view is well typified by this comment from the Rev’d Dr. Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity, Faith and Order in the Anglican Communion Office.

It’s become quite clear that if we’re to be a global church, we need something that expresses how we live together as a family.

One of the good things about this thesis is that it recognizes — by expressing it as a goal — that the Anglican Communion is not “a global church.” So what is it? It is “a fellowship of autonomous churches.” This fact raises two questions: 1) what is autonomy? And 2) is autonomy circumstantial or essential to Anglicanism?

The meaning of autonomy

Autonomy means self-governance. In the Anglican usage it is really more like its political equivalent “sovereignty.” When a church is autonomous it means that there is no “superior synod” to which it is answerable. (Mark McCall has argued just the opposite, on the basis of political double-speak that refers to “autonomous regions” within some larger governing structure — but it is double-speak I am attempting to clear away, and there is no need for the church to ape the duplicity of the state! “Conditional autonomy” belongs in the category with “partial virginity” and, as Groucho observed, “military intelligence.”)

One of the catchphrases of the AngCov debate has been the Windsor Report’s, “Communion is the limit of autonomy.” I reflected on this at length almost three years ago, and my views have not changed since. My point is that if autonomy is limited then it isn’t autonomy. Even if it is merely voluntary self-censorship, it is precisely submission to a heteronomous influence.

My sense is that all of this is the heritage of the liberal knee-jerk reaction to past colonialism adopted at the Toronto Congress in 1963 under the mealy-mouthed term mutual responsibility and interdependence. “Mutual responsibility” I can certainly buy — no church is an island, as John Donne might observe were he around to participate in our current discussions. But “interdependence?” While “responsibility” carries with it some idea of gifts, “interdependence” is far too needy a term. This is not to say, with anti-Pauline brusqueness, “I have no need of you.” Rather it is to acknowledge the reality that while the various churches can learn from each other and work together with each other, the idea that we “depend” on each other is both a historical and logical fallacy.

Circumstance or essence?

Which brings me to the second question. The Church of England’s assertion of autonomy from the Church of Rome is not a mere historical accident. The sense of national autonomy was passed down to all of the daughter churches arising from the English colonial and imperial adventures, and the further granddaughters borne by those churches. As I noted in my previous post on this subject, so keen were the English to keep the American church separate from them, that they forbade (by Act of Parliament) the newly consecrated American bishops White and Provoost, and anyone they would consecrate or ordain, from ever functioning within his Majesty’s dominions. (Obviously this Act of Parliament was either repealed or ignored at some point.) This sense of autonomy was so powerful that it led to the formation of a separate Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America at the time of the Civil War — a new entity created with some sense of regret at the necessity in the South and utterly ignored in the Union and the General Convention.

I have written before about the practical advantage of autonomy — it allows for provincial testing of contextual developments in discipline and worship and for their gradual reception or rejection by other provinces. (Such developments have happened at a slower pace in the past, and much of the tension in the Communion in our time is no doubt due to the rapid increase in the pace of communication and almost instant reactivity.) Autonomy is the safeguard both of local privilege of development and local insulation from foreign developments judged unacceptable. As I have noted time and again, no other province is forced or even expected to adopt what they regard as innovations in any other province, and autonomy is the bulwark against such pressures, if they are perceived to exist. The true statement is: Autonomy is the limit of communion interference.

Globalism as a confusion with Communion

The Anglican Communion is not a “global church” and I don’t want it to become one, for the very reason that such globalism will stifle the greatest gift Anglicanism offers to world Christendom (and if we have nothing to offer why do we exist?) — autonomy in diversity in a fellowship of churches who are not bound by each other’s local decisions.

This is a different model to the Roman, the church which “subsists” in the college of bishops in union with the heir of Peter. It is more like than unlike the Orthodox model of autocephalous churches pledged to a common inheritance of liturgy and canon law, each Orthodox entity holding itself to be the local expression of the fullness of the whole church.

Anglicans have historically understood the national or provincial church in much the same way, though without the common canon law aspect. It might be helpful to apply to the church the same term the Anglican Founders applied to Scripture: sufficiency. Each national or provincial church is sufficient unto itself for its own maintenance. It does not require or depend upon any input from any other sister church, although it welcomes and celebrates its communion with the other members of the Anglican family. Unlike an individual diocese, which cannot create a successor to its own bishop without the input of the larger church body of which the diocese forms a part, the national church or province is sufficient and competent to its own maintenance.

Finally, the Anglican Communion is, as the good Canon observes, a family. Families do not, in fact, require a written document to govern their behavior with one another. A few basic ground-rules defending autonomy, rather than generating a specious interdependency, would not be bad. Lionel Deimel put together such a list a while back. Such rules, some of which go back to Nicaea, include respect for provincial boundaries, fidelity to the Creeds, Sacraments, and the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation. If we are to have a Covenant, let it be one that preserves what is best in what we have, rather than mooning after something we have never had, and likely don’t need.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Mr CatOLick said...

There is an interesting line of thought to be considered, perhaps. It is the question, 'why do many feel the need for a covenant?'

The clarity of you argument is effective. The fact that many others are willing to sell their inheritance for a bowl of gruel is interesting.

Thank you

Lionel Deimel said...


I think we are in complete agreement this time. Moreover, I read “The Anglican Triad” and think it is a brilliant meditation on the nature of Anglicanism.

The real question now—certainly for Episcopalians, at any rate—is how we should deal with the Covenant at the 2012 General Convention given that we cannot possibly adopt it.

Erika Baker said...

If the best we have includes autonomy, and if it is precisely the consequences of this autonomy that have caused the fragmentation of the Communion to the point that people believe a Covenant is necessary, how realistic is it to call for a Covenant that preserves the best of Anglicanism?

It strikes me that what you and I believe to be the best is precisely the stumbling stone to many of the others.

WSJM said...

"...if we're to be a global church..."

And why would we want to do that? If we want to be part of a global church, there is already one in existence, and they've been pretty good at it in the past, although one might ask how that's been going for them recently.

Back In The Day I knew a priest of somewhat Ultra-Catholic bent, and as nearly as I could tell his only real objection to papal authority was that he wasn't the one who was exercising it.

Lionel asks, how should we deal with the Covenant next year? My suggestions:
1) "Verrry interrr-estingk!" (Now you know how old I am!)
2) "We've been having some very good conversations about this, but we need to have more, including with other Anglican churches."
3) "We'll get back to you."

Marshall Scott said...

Mr. CatOLick, I think there is a question prior to "why do many feel the need for a covenant?" Specifically, it is, "Do many feel the need for a covenant?" I think we can raise the question as to whether the sense of need of a covenant (with or without this text) is really widespread, or simply more widely reported.

Now, we might need to parse that term "many" in several ways. How many national/regional/provincial churches have clearly expressed a sense of need for a covenant; and does that proportion amount to "many?" I'm not sure we've seen that question asked in that way. It is somewhat different than, "Do you agree with the Windsor Report;" or, "Are you interested in embracing this Covenant text in the interest of maintaining Communion relationships?"

Or, we might ask how many diocesan bodies have responded to this discussion with a sense that a covenant of some sort is necessary. The Church of England, the Episcopal Church, and some other churches have taken that step, and we will hear from them in due time. But, have all national/regional/provincial churches engaged in such a province? It would be interesting to see in that light just how "representative" primatial statements actually are. What percentage or what distribution would we need to see to describe it as "many?"

And all of this is without consideration of how many of our parishioners are interested enough in the topic to pay attention, and who then feel a covenant is necessary. From an Episcopal perspective, that would be a meaningful exploration; while in other parts of the Communion it might not.

In any case (and I realize I've perhaps wandered a bit far), I don't know that it has been demonstrated that "many feel the need for a covenant," much less that we've actually heard "why."

Mr CatOLick said...

I, being lazy, had hoped that observation would go unnoticed. I am also quite stupid at times.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you all.

Mr. Tom C., (I take Marshall's point about the "many" as read.) a number of the "needs" include:

* to punish errant provinces
* to be "a real church" just like Mama Rome, esp. so Mama will know where we all stand on issues Mama has already made up her mind about
* to feel part of something more important than just our own province

These are just three that I've actually heard put forward. None of them, to my mind, are valid, and barely constitute broth, let alone gruel ;-)

Thanks, Lionel. I keep coming back to that Triad. As to action, at this point I'd say GC should do as I've suggested in the last round: affirm the basic congruence of the F3S and the unacceptability and incoherence of S4, and insist on further cross-provincial dialogue.

Erika, I don't think upon him he has caused the fragmentation; rather it is the reactive that he of some to others' autonomy. My rule is that one can never be sure never to offend, but one can vow never to take offense. Some in the communion seem to relish being offended!

Bill, Arte Johnson aside, good responses!

Marshall, excellent questions worthy of wider discussion. We need more "why" in this mix. (I'm reminded of the old Zen response, "Just a dip, no why!"

Erika Baker said...

quite. So if people take offense even if we believe they ought not to, and if they are moved to curtail the whole concept of autonomy of the provinces as a result, then we can fairly say that we disagree about what the best of Anglicanism is.

Maybe we need to have that conversation?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Exactly, Erika. That conversation is the only good I can see coming out on this whole covenant exercise -- A. greater clarity about the nature of Anglicanism.

Erika Baker said...

do you see this conversation actually happening? I see the Covenant debate as stifling rather than encouraging it.
Am I wrong?

Alan T Perry said...

Well said, Tobias.

By all means, let's keep on discussing until the parousia.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, the covenant debate has unfortunately been steered too much into that Scylla and Charybdis I mention at the opening of this essay.

As time goes on, however, and more folks ask "Why?" when others pressure either "Just say No! No how, no way!" or "Shut up and sign! We NEED this!!" there is more and more opportunity for thoughtful reflection. I sense that the "need this" argument is flailing, and the obvious failure of the AngCov itself to gain any kind of real momentum is the best argument against its utility. And the reasons "Why not?" are becoming more obvious.

Time will tell, but at least some of us are talking!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Alan, that's set for Dec. 21 unless I'm mistaken. ;-)

Alan T Perry said...

Tobias: do you mean I've wasted my effort shopping for Christmas? ;-)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Not at all, Alan. I have it on good authority that only those who have adopted the Covenant (or are in the process of adoption) will be invited to the Rapture. |-)

Paul (A.) said...

Is it just my impression, or is it the case that the "many" who seem to feel a need for this Covenant is primarily limited to a set of bishops who feel they don't have quite enough authority in this world?

Marshall Scott said...

We might note with interest the process
suggested today and offered for approval in the General Synod of the Episcopal Church of Scotland. It seems to describe a measured step for consideration, expressing an initial response, with further discussion at diocesan synods, before before voting in General Synod to adopt (or not) canonically the Covenant. (H/T to Thinking Anglicans)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Paul (A), they do form a portion of the "many" -- others are those who I think are "worried" that we will somehow lose our connection with Canterbury if we don't adopt -- the explicit language of the document to the contrary (e.g. 4.3.1: if even withdrawal does not amount to a repudiation of Anglican character, how can not adopting be more so?) There are others with shaky ecclesiology who seem to think being a "denomination" (as our BCP's first Preface calls us) or a "national church" is not enough, and really do want to be part of some kind of institutional "world church" -- traditional Anglican doctrine of the church (see Article XIX and the Catechism p. 854) notwithstanding!

Yes, Marshall, a very helpful approach and one we might well model. Let's see what Scotland does with it!

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...


You mention "interdependence" and offer an opinion as to why it is not relevent. My opinion is that those who espouse "interdependence" are really talking about "co-dependence," an entirely different thing, which is what is really happening with this Covenant.

In a co-dependent relationship each party's actions are restricted by what they perceive the other party's reactions will be. If this isn't the essence of the rationale behind the Covenant, what is?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Amen, Deacon Charlie. I said much the same thing a year and a half ago -- it is precisely codependent behavior, of the most unproductive sort.

Lionel Deimel said...

An insightful observation, Charlie. More prosaically, this is what I wrote earlier on Preludium:

In the current context, irrespective of what it may once have meant, “mutual responsibility and interdependence” means that each Communion church is answerable for what any other Anglican church does. It is therefore necessary for each church to be able to veto the actions of other churches to avoid embarrassment. This is foolishness and self-destructive.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Lionel, this has always been the root problem with the Covenant -- it is, in (IIRC) Jim Naughton's brilliant phrase, "government by hurt feelings."

It lives into the worst kind of busibodiness and judgment of one another, and opens the door for envy, malice and control. It is immoral. As the old Zen parable had it, "Here open the gates of Hell." This is precisely why Section 4 is the most problematical bit, as it isn't about commitment and affirmation, but about taking offense and complaining against one another!