Diocesan Synod Presidential Address : 17th March 2012
The Rt. Rev. James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
I have been very exercised about this Presidential Address; about what I should say and when I should say it within this Synod. For the Bishop to take a Presidential view on the Covenant could be seen by different parties to the debate as exercising undue influence. But I have decided to speak now about the Covenant because I believe that it is right for the Diocesan Bishop to guide the Diocese in its common life and also because by placing my concerns before you ahead of the debate allows others who take a different stance to voice their own views. I have shown the proposer and opposer of the motion the text in advance. I hope this reflection might be a help to all of us as we come to a mind as a Synod.
I should add that I wrote this before the Archbishop of Canterbury recorded his piece for YouTube. I have not altered or modified my address in the light of his comments as I do not wish this to be seen as a personal disagreement with the Archbishop.
Synod will know from my previous addresses that I have consistently expressed concern about the creation of the Covenant. When I was on the House of Bishops Standing Committee I shared my reservations with the Archbishops. Another reason why I hesitate to reiterate my concerns is because I feel the Church demeans itself and undermines its mission when it invests so much in internal conflict. Also, I know that the Archbishop of Canterbury has worked tirelessly, courageously and beyond the call of duty to heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion. I know too that he sees the Covenant as a means of rescuing the Communion. When the Covenant was last debated at the General Synod I deliberately registered an abstention; it was out of loyalty to the Archbishop that I did not vote against it and against him.
However, as we come now to the final vote and to this Synod motion I tell you with a heavy heart that I shall be voting against both here and at the General Synod.
Already a significant number of Dioceses against the wishes of their own Bishops have voted down the Covenant. I will not go over the ground that I have covered in previous Presidential Addresses but will single out a number of reasons why I believe that far from being the salvation of the Communion the Anglican Covenant would seriously undermine it.
Firstly, we live in an increasingly litigious world. Sadly the church is not immune from litigation. Indeed when you add a religious dimension to litigation it becomes all the more fraught with people claiming not only that they are right but also that their cause is right in the eyes of God. This often makes litigation in the Church all the more divisive and destructive. It is my expectation that overlaying the structure of the Anglican Communion with this Covenant and with its explicit threats of “relational consequences” we will be making our Communion vulnerable to those forces that propel people forward in litigation. For the first time the Anglican Communion will have a monitoring body with the authority to declare the actions of Provinces as “incompatible with the Covenant” and bar their representatives from membership of ecumenical dialogues and central bodies of the Communion. This takes the Covenant into areas of judgement and discipline. It will become a field day for the media.
Secondly, the Covenant will introduce to the Anglican Communion a dynamic that will increasingly absorb us with our own internal order. It will take time, money, energy as from year to year we inspect the credentials of different Provinces to see whether or not they should be regarded as true Anglicans having acted contrary to the Covenant. My heartache here is that those precious gifts of time, money and energy should be directed to the mission of God. Legal wrangling only blights an institution and impedes that mission.
Thirdly, the Church has been born for mission. Two thousand years of church history tell us that the mission of God brings with it adventure and risks and takes us to new places that we never dreamed of. Right from the outset when the Jewish disciples of Jesus engaged with a Gentile world they found themselves challenged, conflicted and more importantly changed by those encounters. The Church must be free to go into all the world and to engage with new cultures enabling us all to learn Christ. As we do we will find that we too are changed by this engagement with the world. Such change lies at the heart of repentance as we continually re-think, re-assess what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in a new context. The problem with the Covenant is that it introduces a dynamic which makes the Communion essentially introspective and resistant to change. Instead of setting us free to engage with a changing world it freezes us at a given point in our formation, holding us back and making us nervous about going beyond the boundaries and reaching out to God’s world. Indeed, just at the point that the church needs to be innovative and courageous against the forces ranged against us we will find ourselves constrained by fears as to whether our bold actions might mire us in procedures of dispute resolution.
There are bound to be times in mission when it is right to go out on a limb. If we hold back all bold initiatives until every Province agrees then we shackle the church in chains. The beauty of the Anglican Communion is that each Province can respond uniquely to its own cultural context within the triangle of Scripture, Reason and Tradition.
Fourthly, the partnerships that the Diocese of Liverpool has with the Diocese of Akure and the Diocese of Virginia have proved to me the importance of being in relationship with different Dioceses in other parts of the Communion and of God’s world. Invariably we have seen the Gospel more clearly as we have observed how it is obeyed in these other cultures. The beauty of the Communion is that it allows for such ad hoc relationships to spring up all over the world. In the history of our own partnerships we have had one extraordinary meeting of the three Dioceses together in which the outcome could not have been anticipated by any one of us. The differences between us became the learning points. Indeed, we learn most about the Gospel from those Christians who differ from us.
These Partnerships are about friendship and fellowship in which the bonds of affection can grow and in which difficult topics can be explored within the security of those committed relationships. That is the nature of the Anglican Communion. To overlay it now with a quasi-legal structure and the threat of “relational consequences” for those with whom we disagree changes the character of the Communion radically. It introduces a new element to the Communion with far reaching implications.
Fifthly, the Church of England is characterised by the authority of the Bible, the Creeds of the Church, the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, the Thirty Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. These are sufficient credentials for the Church of England and do not need to have a Covenant superimposed on them. All Provinces of the Anglican Communion who are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury know that he and they are bound by these doctrinal sources.
When we are in Christ, we are in Christ with everybody else who is in Christ and in communion, whether we like it or not - or them or not, whether we agree with them or not. To be in Christ is an act of grace. It is a gift. I believe that whoever calls Jesus Christ Lord is in Christ. I know that for some this is an insufficient definition and down the centuries the Church has been driven by those who have sought to define it more fully. But it is a New Testament maxim of Christian discipleship (1 Corinthian 12v3).
As one who believes in the transforming effect of the encounter with Christ and as I observe the as yet unharvested fields of mission I will work with those who accept this New Testament hallmark of the Lordship of Christ and at the risk of allowing tares to grow alongside the wheat set my face towards a generous interpretation so that all the time, money and energy at our disposal might be directed away from internal preoccupations to reaching out and embracing the world that God loves.
The Church of England and the Anglican Communion have over the centuries developed a generous embrace allowing seekers to taste and see the goodness of God. Within our borders, within the borders of what Cranmer described as that “blessed company of faithful people”, there is a generous orthodoxy. There is space for the seeker to breathe, to enquire, to ask questions, to doubt and to grope towards faith and to find God. That I believe is a space within the Body of Christ worth preserving. The Covenant will change the character of the Communion and, I fear, the Church of England.
© The Bishop of Liverpool March 2012
Note: Video of this address can be viewed here.