Comprehensive Unity: The No Anglican Covenant Blog

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Anglican Communion Covenant: A Church of England Objection from an Evangelical Perspective

The Revd Liam Beadle, Assistant Curate at St Andrew’s Church, Enfield, sent us a very interesting essay a few days ago. We are delighted to be able to reproduce it here. The essay is also available in PDF form here.

The Anglican Communion Covenant:
A Church of England Objection
from an Evangelical Perspective

by the Revd Liam Beadle
February 28, 2012

It would be interesting to conduct a survey of what it is that English Anglicans most value about their Church. It might be its worship; it might be its restraint; it might even – particularly if we are asking a group of evangelicals – be its formularies, namely the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. It should therefore be startling to Anglicans that we are being asked to agree to a covenant which ignores our liturgical tradition, responds to a presenting issue, and adds to our formularies. Several dioceses in the Church of England have already voted against the proposed Covenant, and in this short paper I seek to explain my own reasons for rejecting it.

The first reason for rejecting the proposed Covenant is that it is mistaken about the Bible. The Covenant begins by quoting 1 John 1.2-4, presumably because the apostle uses the word ‘communion’. The reason John gives for writing his letter is that those who believe might be assured of eternal life (1 John 5.13). This assurance rests on the apostolic proclamation of the life which God has revealed in Jesus Christ, and it is this apostolic proclamation which is expounded week by week in the churches of the Anglican Communion. This is a helpful way for the Covenant to begin, because it acknowledges that the Church is formed and reformed not by the Church’s formularies, however helpful they may be, but by the work of God’s Holy Spirit as the prophetic and apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ is declared. The sad irony is that this is precisely how the Covenant does not use the Bible.

The scriptural content of the Covenant, particularly in its Introduction, relies on a method called ‘proof texting’: points are made, and a biblical reference is offered in parentheses afterwards. The classical Anglican spiritual practice is the continuous reading of Scripture within the doctrinal and devotional framework of the daily office. In Morning and Evening Prayer, the canticles, the prayers, and the rhythm of the Church year, act as hermeneutical tools, interpreting the Scriptures for us so that they become more and more part of our common life. Simply to cite a verse of Scripture in order to make a point is contrary to that inheritance. It is, therefore, as pastorally unhelpful as it is theologically unsophisticated.

This lack of sophistication is evident in paragraph 1.2.5, which refers to ‘the expectation that Scripture [will] continue…to illuminate and transform the Church and its members’. Aside from the curious ecclesiology which separates the Church from the people who make up the Church, this is troubling because it both claims too little and too much for Scripture. It claims too little because it suggests a lack of assurance that the Church will be illuminated and transformed: the Funeral Service does refer to our ‘sure and certain hope’, but ‘hope’ has an eschatological force that is absent from mere ‘expectation’. At the same time, it claims too much, because it ascribes to Scripture the power to ‘illuminate and transform’: this introduces a problem, because such power does not belong to Scripture, but to the God who has inspired the Scriptures. This is the ‘central claim’ of N. T. Wright’s short book Scripture and the Authority of God: ‘the phrase “authority of Scripture” can only make Christian sense if it is shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture”.’ (p. 17) Such shorthand may be helpful for Christians in their daily lives. But in a document which assumes the authority of the proposed Covenant, it is very dangerous indeed. The Covenant is mistaken about the Bible.

The second reason for rejecting the proposed Covenant is that it is mistaken about the Church. The preamble to the Covenant refers to ‘the Churches of the Anglican Communion’, and the document goes on to refer to ‘each Church’, thus separating the churches one from another. It is implied that ‘the Church’ is synonymous with ‘the province’. This is contrary to the Thirty-nine Articles, which state that ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’ (Article XIX) The ‘basic unit’ is not the province. Nor is it the diocese. It is the individual congregation. This is not ‘congregationalist’, because congregations are rightly drawn together in a diocese by their bishop, from whom the apostolic ministry of word and sacrament comes. However, to refer to a province as ‘a Church’ is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of Anglican ecclesiology. Once again, a useful shorthand is in danger of inadvertently becoming a doctrinal commitment.

The lack of clarity about Scripture and the Church comes together in paragraph 2.1.5. We are called to ‘affirm the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism to the full visible unity of the Church in accordance with Christ’s prayer that “all may be one”.’ The implication of this affirmation is that Our Lord’s high priestly prayer in John 17.11 has not been answered. This raises a Christological problem, because it is not possible for the second Person of the divine Trinity to make a request of the Father which is unanswered. It misunderstands the words of Jesus, which are a prayer for the continuous unity which will be given in his death and resurrection and the subsequent outpouring of his Holy Spirit, not in the mutual recognition of each other’s bishops (however desirable that may be). And it is also an ecclesiological mistake: those who come to God in the name of Jesus Christ already are one, because they have received the Holy Spirit and have been drawn into the communion to which the beginning of the Covenant refers when it quotes 1 John 1. Visible unity, while not irrelevant, is secondary to the invisible unity which is already ours in Christ, and it is not the primary concern of John 17.11. The Covenant is mistaken about the Church.

The third reason for rejecting the proposed Covenant is that it is mistaken about humanity. This is particularly the case in the much-discussed ‘fourth section’ of the Covenant, which deals with ‘Our Covenanted Life Together’. Paragraphs 4.2.4 and 4.2.5 refer to ‘relational consequences’ which may be the result of a province seeking to dissent from the contents of the Covenant. These shady ‘consequences’ are not described. Their presence in the Covenant is a veiled threat. Under these circumstances, the ‘joy’ which is declared at the end of the Covenant is an impossibility. We know from our own lives that friendships only work when we know we are loved by the other person regardless of who we are or what we do: as the apostle Paul might express it, we ‘carry each other’s burdens’ (Galatians 6.2), rejoicing in the other person even when we disagree with him or her. It is this which enables us to speak the truth in love to one another. By contrast, a friendship where there are unstated ‘relational consequences’ is not a true friendship. To be in a family where there are unstated ‘relational consequences’ is to be unloved, with all of the dysfunction and unhappiness that implies.

While it may seem unfair to criticize the Covenant for what it fails to say, its lack of ease with our humanity is seen in its refusal to engage with the presenting issue, which is the disagreement in our Communion about the blessedness or otherwise of homosexual relationships, a disagreement which was brought to the fore by the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire. The other formularies of the Church of England demonstrate a degree of engagement which is entirely foreign to the Covenant: the Thirty-nine Articles unequivocally address Reformation disputes, the presenting issues of the day; The Book of Common Prayer is a book of liturgies for the use of Christians in their daily and weekly worship; and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons is a way of providing pastoral oversight for Christians. But the Covenant fails to engage with the presenting issue, and lacks such a liturgical and pastoral focus. It therefore sits very uneasily alongside the other formularies. Simply pretending the presenting issue does not exist is a pastoral and ecclesial disaster. The Covenant is mistaken about humanity.

The continental Reformation produced a number of confessions of faith. Instead of this, the English Reformation produced a set of liturgies: English Christians were drawn together not by guarantors of orthodoxy, but by worshipping God in response to his Word to us in Jesus Christ. It is this which has enabled Anglicans to be open with one another about our differences, without fear of hidden reprisals or ‘relational consequences’. At a time when the Church needs to be drawn back to Scripture, grow in its self-understanding, and acknowledge its humanity, the proposed Covenant gives us words which are mistaken about the Bible and the Church and which, rather than deepening our friendships, cause us to step away from one another. If we accept one another because we have accepted this Covenant, we have failed to understand not only what it is to be Anglican, but also what it is to be Christian.

That is why I reject the Anglican Covenant.

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Blogger profskett said...

Lots of excellent points here, and a well-written article; thank you Liam.

I contest only one thing that you've said: namely that, when the Covenant-writers talk of 'relational consequences', I don't believe that this phrase is intended as a veiled threat of 'reprisals'; rather, I think they probably view it as a statement of fact - that is to say, I suspect they perceive that, if church groups or provinces choose to dissent, this will inevitably cause some damage to the relationships between those groups. (Of course, in reality, this need not be the case - indeed, as you say, we should "[rejoice] in the other person even when we disagree with [them].")

It is, of course, highly ambiguous and has the potential to 'sound' threatening to people who know they aren't in agreement with this Covenant, so I would agree with you that it is a bad choice of phrase. (And, hence, it is arguably in keeping with the rest of this insensitive of incoherent document!)

March 1, 2012 at 12:37 AM  
Blogger Lionel Deimel said...

“Relational consequences” is a euphemism for “punishment,” plain and simple. The situation is worse than that, however. Essentially, the Covenant is about crime and punishment, but it spells out neither what constitutes a crime nor what might be the corresponding punishment.

The Covenant does not encourage abuse; it virtually guarantees it.

March 1, 2012 at 1:26 AM  
Blogger June Butler said...

Even without a covenant, the Episcopal Church in the US has suffered 'relational consequences' by having its representative on the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity Faith and Order reduced to the status of a non-voting consultant. Even if the Episcopal Church adopted the covenant, in no time, another province would complain about our gay bishops, and we'd quickly be reduced to a second-tier membership. I have no doubt that 'relational consequences' are a threat.

March 1, 2012 at 3:41 AM  
Blogger June Butler said...

PS: I forgot my original purpose in commenting, which was to say that Liam Beadle's essay is splendid, indeed.

March 1, 2012 at 3:45 AM  
Blogger JimB said...

profskett, Welcome! I do not recall seeing your comments here before. If you have been, and I missed it, please attribute that to my age. ;-)

On "relational consequences" I think it is relevant to observe what has already happened. Using that phrase, Dr. Williams instructed his canon to remove several theologians from international commissions and essentially only permit them to be "consultants." It is particularly instructive to recall that one of them is a Southern Cone conservative.

So we know what "relational consequences" means from the actions of the powers that be in the communion. It means Dr. Williams gets his "two tier" communion and those "provinces" that annoy him find themselves in the tier reserved for those whom he does not favor.

It is, I suppose possible to read section 4 as you suggest. But we have the demonstration of how Dr. Williams reads it before us. And then we need to do some careful consideration of the "instruments of unity." One of course is Dr. Williams. But consider his control of the others. He convenes the primate's meetings, presides, and sets their agenda. He convenes Lambeth, determines who is invited (or not,) and sets their structure and agenda. He supervises the ACC staff and has the ability to dictate both policy and actions (cf. the diminishment of American and Southern Cone theologians.) He sets the agenda and presides at Communion meetings.

So at the end of the day, his reading of section 4, which we have seen, is the one that matters. Section 4 is in essence an exercise in centralization.

We certainly agree on "incoherent document!" Which is why we in the coalition came together to oppose it.


March 1, 2012 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

Well, well. Was it what was said here? Alas, I think not. Still, the two persons who were demoted to the role of consultants on IASCUFO have now been reinstated to full membership on the commission.

March 1, 2012 at 3:14 PM  
Blogger Thomas Renz said...

"For preservation of Christianity there is not any thing more needful, than that such as are of the visible Church have mutual fellowship and society one with another. In which consideration, as the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts hath divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, every of which is termed a Church within itself. In this sense the Church is always a visible society of men; not an assembly, but a society. For although the name of the Church be given unto Christian assemblies, although any multitude of Christian men congregated may be termed by the name of a Church, yet assemblies properly are rather things that belong to a Church. Men are assembled for performance of public actions; which actions being ended, the assembly dissolveth itself and is no longer in being, whereas the Church which was assembled doth no less continue afterwards than before. 'Where but three are, and they of the laity also (saith Tertullian), yet there is a Church:' that is to say, a Christian assembly. But a Church, as now we are to understand it, is a Society; that is, a number of men belonging unto some Christian fellowship, the place and limits whereof are certain. That wherein they have communion is the public exercise of such duties as those mentioned in the Apostles’ Acts, Instruction, Breaking of Bread, and Prayers. As therefore they that are of the mystical body of Christ have those inward graces and virtues, whereby they differ from all others, which are not of the same body; again, whosoever appertain to the visible body of the Church, they have also the notes of external profession, whereby the world knoweth what they are: after the same manner even the several societies of Christian men, unto every of which the name of a Church is given with addition betokening severalty, as the Church of Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, England, and so the rest, must be endued with correspondent general properties belonging unto them as they are public Christian societies. And of such properties common unto all societies Christian, it may not be denied that one of the very chiefest is Ecclesiastical Polity."

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 3, III.14, cited from The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine Mr. Richard Hooker with an Account of His Life and Death by Isaac Walton. Arranged by the Rev. John Keble MA. 7th edition revised by the Very Rev. R.W. Church and the Rev. F. Paget (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888). 3 vols. Accessed from on 2012-03-05

March 5, 2012 at 11:47 PM  

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