Scott MacDougall has just published a paper in the Anglican Theological Review titled “The Covenant Conundrum: How Affirming an Eschatological Ecclesiology Could Help the Anglican Communion” (Winter 2012, vol. 94, no. 1, pp. 5–26). MacDougall is a doctoral candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. In “The Covenant Conundrum,” he offers a fascinating view of the nature of the church, and he uses this vision of the church to evaluate the wisdom (or lack thereof) of adopting the proposed Anglican Covenant.
The central thesis of “The Covenant Conundrum” is that, when it comes to assessing whether to adopt the Anglican Covenant, it won’t do merely to ask whether the Covenant is confessional, contractual, conservative, centralizing, or punitive—the questions generally addressed in Covenant debates. Instead, the author contends, the Communion must ask what kind of relationships are appropriate within and between Anglican Communion churches. We then should ask whether the Covenant encourages or impedes such relationships.
MacDougall argues for a theology of the church based on what he calls an “anticipated eschatology.” Eschatology, the area of theology concerning the “last things” (the end of time, the fulfillment of creation, final judgment, death, resurrection, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God) provides a guiding vision for the quality of relationships churches should exhibit. The author asserts that the ultimate promise of God, the eschatological fulfillment of God’s purposes in creation, is the perfection of relationships, relationships between humans and God, among humans, and between humans and the rest of creation. Christian community—or church—has a calling to be the image of that ultimate reality. Above all, that ultimate reality should be reflected in the way in which church members relate to one another and in which churches themselves relate to one another.
The author describes five characteristics that make up the “anticipated eschatology” he advocates. First, an anticipated eschatology exhibits a dynamic tension that affirms that God’s future is indeed in the future, but that it is nevertheless possible for our communal life to point toward that future reality. This is what Paul referred to as being caught in the “now” and the “not yet.” This positions the church within an ongoing story of God’s work in the world, an unfinished story of creation on the way to its fulfillment. For the church to claim an ability to be the ultimate perfection of creation now would be to lose sight of the fact that the story hasn’t ended, and we therefore need to be humble about what we think we know. Second, an anticipated eschatology exhibits an openness to the new, an openness to finding the Holy Spirit at work in ways that are surprising and possibly challenging. Third, it is characterized by risk, the risk of being open to the new and the risk involved in having to discern healthy development versus change that appears to be irreconcilable with the Gospel. This is not easy work. Fourth, an anticipated eschatology requires trust in the best intentions of other Christians, but even more in the ultimate promises of God to bring about the good things that God has pledged will come to pass. Fifth, and finally, it is marked by hope in those promises, a hope that leads to joy in working together in expectation of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s mission and purpose.
None of this, of course, is foreign to Anglicanism, as MacDougall illustrates. Yet, it does not appear to factor much in recent Anglican documents and reports, the Covenant being chief among them. In contrast, the author explores the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission’s report “Communion, Conflict and Hope” and the work of Bruce Kaye, a member of the commission that produced it, and shows that that report advances ideas about the church that are much more in keeping with “anticipated eschatology” than does, say, the Windsor Report or the Covenant.
MacDougall concludes his paper with an argument against the Anglican Covenant on the grounds that it does not show evidence of an “anticipated eschatology” and is therefore inconsistent with historical Anglican understandings of the church. As a result, he argues that the Covenant would inhibit precisely the kind of inter-Anglican relationships we all agree we want. Commitment to an eschatological theology of the church modeled on these principles MacDougall sets out would allow Anglicans to hold together within and despite conflict, without the need for bureaucracies, committees, and processes of arbitration. In the end, MacDougall posits that it is not law that should bind the Communion together, but love. Bonds of affection have held the Anglican Communion together until now, and the fact that strain has arisen doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on that idea. Instead, he argues, we should strengthen those bonds of affection—not our judicial processes—all the more.
Unfortunately, the MacDougall paper is not on the Web, which is why it seemed useful to summarize it at some length here. For those Anglicans who don’t see the church as a perfect entity that must be defended against change, MacDougall’s thesis offers an compelling case against adoption of the Anglican Covenant.
If you want to read more about “The Covenant Conundrum,” Jonathan Clatworthy has written a brief review of it, and Scott MacDougall has written a response to that review. That dialogue, most suitable for theology junkies, is available here. If you want to read the paper itself and cannot find a copy of the journal, you can request a copy from the author. Go to the Contact page of the No Anglican Covenant Web site, click on “Click here to offer general comments, suggest additional material, or to ask general questions,” and indicate your request.