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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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Challenge

Recently on this site, we advised our readers of the launch of our opposite number, the Yes to the Covenant group. According to one of the two news releases they have issued to date (but curiously do not seem to have provided online), they intend to counter the “negative campaigning by a small group of detractors,” which I presume means us.

Their spokesperson, Miss Prudence Dailey, accuses us of “spreading ill-founded fears.” The rest of their narrative is a rehash of the same tired talking points we’ve all heard before. Indeed, while their website does link to the proposed Covenant, there was not (so far as I could find on 28 February) a single analytical piece on offer which actually referred in any way to the text of the proposed Covenant – apart from a list of the section headings. They were also challenged on their use of a picture of Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu - thus implying his endorsement - given that the retired Archbishop has never taken a public position on the matter. They quickly corrected that gaffe.

But there is hope. In carefully parsed rhetoric in the news releases, Miss Dailey indicates that she and her group would like to see “a balanced view.”

Here at the No Anglican Covenant Coalition, we have no fear of “a balanced view.” In fact, we have occasionally linked to pro-Covenant pieces that we thought were worthwhile, including creating our own links page for a series of pro-Covenant articles from the American publication, The Living Church. We have also linked to Miss Dailey’s site.

We like a balanced discussion here at NACC. In fact, we have consistently called on the English Bishops to ensure that members of their synods are provided with balanced materials that set forth both the case for the Covenant and the case against. This is consistent with past practice in the Church of England on controversial issues such as the ordination of women. Two of our patrons, retired bishops Peter Selby and John Saxbee wrote personally to all 44 diocesan bishops to press the need for a full and fair debate.

Unfortunately, national Church of England officials and some bishops have chosen not to follow this reasonable precedent and have, instead, provided only one-sided pro-Covenant material. Some dioceses refused to allow critical material to be distributed to synod members. In one diocese, the first 40 minutes of a scheduled 90 minute debate was handed over to pro-Covenant speakers (including one of Yes to the Covenant’s patrons) before anyone critical of the Covenant was allowed to utter a syllable – and the remaining 50 minutes was split evenly between Covenant supporters and Covenant opponents.  (That work's out to 65 minutes of pro-Covenant speeches against 25 minutes of Covenantsceptic speeches.)

But some dioceses have allowed a fair distribution of materials and ensured a fair and balanced debate. And in virtually every one of these dioceses, the Anglican Covenant has been rejected – often by substantial margins.

We are big fans of balanced debate here at the No Anglican Covenant Coalition.

So, Miss Dailey, if you really do believe in a reasonable and balanced discussion, I challenge you to join us in calling on the remaining 27 diocesan bishops to ensure that balanced material is provided to their synods and that appropriate speakers are invited to present both sides of the question when their synods meet.

Our contact information is here on the website, Miss Dailey. We await your response.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Two More Dioceses Vote for the Covenant

Church of England dioceses continue to vote on whether the adoption of the Anglican Covenant should return to the General Synod for a final vote. This weekend, the synods of the dioceses of Winchester and Sheffield voted. Alas, both voted in favor of the Covenant. Sheffield announced the result without revealing the actual vote totals. The vote totals from Winchester are as following: Bishops—3 for, 0 against, 0 abstentions; Clergy—22 for, 11 against, 4 abstentions; Laity—38 for, 10 against, 2 abstentions.

Of the 44 Church of England dioceses, 7 have now voted in favor of the Covenant, and 10 have voted against it.

Update: The vote totals for Sheffield are as follows: Bishops—2 for, 0 against, 0 abstentions; Clergy—16 for, 6 against, 1 abstention; Laity—31 for, 9 against, 0 abstentions.


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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Anglican Covenant: where next?

Recently the Coalition welcomed Dr. Diarmaid MacCulloch as a new patron. He has given us permission to post this text of an article he wrote which was published in the Church Times. It is I think you will agree, interesting reading!

For the Coalition
jim B

Anglican Covenant: where next?

Twenty years into the reign of that good and pious monarch George III, in 1780, John Dunning MP tabled a motion in the House of Commons that ‘The influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’. It was passed, despite much fury from the government of the day (which had just inadvertently created the United States of America by its stupidity). Dunning’s Motion did not end the efforts of the executive to accrue power and centralise; those efforts are with us still. Nevertheless, to use a phrase which Dunning would not have recognised, but would have relished, it was a reality check: it reminded royalty and the executive to preserve a delicate balance amid parliamentary politics and not try undue self-assertion. Although George III was pretty cross at the time, his successor still sits on her throne, while the descendants of many monarchs contemporary with King George look back on the guillotine, the firing-squad or ignominous exile.

A triumphalist whiggish anecdote from British history, yes, but on the weekend of 18 February, a very whiggish event happened in England. Four Anglican diocesan synods were asked to vote in favour of the Anglican Covenant, with every pressure from the executive (that is, the vast majority of the Bench of Bishops), and all four synods declined to do so. It was a sign that the incoherence of the arguments in favour of the Covenant was beginning to become clear. We have been assured that the Covenant is vital for the future of the Anglican Communion, and so not to approve it will lead to break-up and theological incoherence. Equally, we have been assured that the Covenant has been watered down so much that it won’t change very much really, so it is perfectly safe to vote for it. Above all, not to vote for it will be very upsetting for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who supports the Covenant. This argument, widely if a little surreptitiously canvassed, irresistibly reminds me of a MacCulloch family anecdote: my grandfather was taking morning worship in St Columba’s Episcopal Church, Portree, around 1900. It was a hot day; a party had come to church from one of the great houses on the Isle of Skye, and one of the young ladies said to her hostess in a stage whisper, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to faint’. The matriarch majestically retorted ‘You will do no such thing. It would be disrespectful to Almighty God, and distressing for Canon MacCulloch.’ Although the admonition was on that occasion successful, that is no way to do theology. The future of Anglicanism can’t be decided on whether a momentous theological decision will hurt any one person’s feelings.

The Anglican Covenant is bad theology for many reasons: the most important of which is that it gives to central bodies the authority to decide who is fully an Anglican, in a way that offends every canon of Anglican history. It also makes an elementary mistake about discipline in our tradition. There is no question but that the Covenant originated in a wish on the part of certain primates of the Communion to put the Episcopal Church of the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada in the Naughty Corner. If anyone tries to deny that, let she or he read a collection of essays from 2002, To mend the net, co-edited by Archbishop Drexel W. Gomez of the West Indies (Chairman of the Covenant Design Group, no less) and by Archbishop Maurice W. Sinclair of the Southern Cone. Now it is obvious that every body with a common purpose needs rules which may amount to discipline; but discipline in our Church is exercised against erring individuals, not against entire ecclesial bodies which have in prayer and careful thought about real pastoral situations, have come to their own decision about what is right for their own situation in a God-given place. It is a nonsense to try to spank an entire Church, although authoritarian-minded folk have often tried it over the centuries of Christian history. On 18 February, four Anglican dioceses made that point. So far, ten dioceses in England have voted down the Covenant, and only five have voted for it. Now, perhaps, those bishops who back this ill-thought-out and potentially disastrous measure should get the message, and let the Covenant quietly subside into the swamp of bad ideas in Anglican history.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

From The Leicester Synod

With the kind permission of Canon David Jennings, here is a copy of his address to the Leicester Synod. His address and other well reasoned arguments carried the day and the Covenant was defeated.

Jim Beyer



Canon David Jennings, Canon Theologian, Leicester Cathedral

Mr Chairman, I have read all the papers, as you suggested. The one by Peter Doll is one of the worst. It is full of irrelevant historical stereotypes and non-sequitors. Why didn’t he say all these things 25 years ago, if he felt they were true? The paper by Paul Avis is wrong: there is no contradiction between autonomy and catholicism.

  1. Let’s be honest about the covenant. If it hadn’t been for the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA, and the provision of services of blessing for same sex partners in the diocese of New Westminster in Canada, we would not be having this debate now. Whatever anyone says to the contrary it is about sex, and gay relationships in particular. In this respect it is an institutional attack on gay Christians being treated equally in the life of the Church. We ought to be able to deal with these matters apart from the provision before us. We ought also to grow up and grow out of our obsession with gay relationships, rather like the Church has historically grown out of many other supposed challenging issues. In yesterday’s Church Times, Giles Fraser, writing in support of disposing the covenant, suggests that ‘Reconciliation comes when those divided by differences learn to see Christ at work in each other. Mostly, this is achieved through patient friendship and listening’.

  1. My concern is not just to do with this reality, as important as it is for gay people, but other and further implications. There is the very real possibility that other matters will be sucked into the covenant vortex, such as, for example, liberal explorations of faith. Me, for example! At the end of December, someone from Australia, possibly the diocese of Sydney, and who signed himself ‘In God’ accused me of being a heretic, a blasphemer and a liar. On 30th December he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I quote: ‘Dear Archbishop, I am writing to you to request that you stand down and defrock Canon David Jennings. The man is a heretic and cannot possibly be allowed to be a member of the clergy. He states openly that he does not believe in creationism. He believes instead in the nonsense that is evolution.’ I immediately wrote to Bishop Tim and asked if he wanted my head on a platter, and to which I have received no reply! There is a real risk that the covenant process will be used against more free-thinking Christians. Also, given the diocese of Sydney’s rejection of the covenant, it will not placate those who don’t want to be placated. The covenant is becoming increasingly irrelevant and unnecessary.

  1. Let me affirm that if Churches such as Nigeria, Uganda, or wherever, and dioceses such as Sydney, or wherever, want not to appoint gay bishops, or provide services of blessings for gay couples, or reject liberal thinkers like me, then fine. No-one ought to compel them to act in any other way than in accordance with their own conscience or principles. However, neither should they impose their will through a quasi-legalistic and judicial process upon other provinces who wish to move in a different direction. Such recognition of diversity and mutual respect has always been a defining feature and principle of Anglicanism, not least through provincial autonomy, which hasn’t been questioned or challenged from a theological or ecclesiological, let alone catholic, perspective until New Hampshire and New Westminster.
  1. I would urge rejection of the motion. To date 5 C of E diocese have voted in favour and 6 against, I would ask Leicester to make the score it 7/5!


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yes to the Covenant!

Today the No Anglican Covenant Coalition welcomes a new participant in the debate about the proposed Anglican Covenant. Yes to the Covenant has launched a new website which promises to offer some pro-Covenant analysis and argument.

Obviously, it is early days in the Yes to the Covenant campaign, so we will give them some time to set forth any arguments they might have with reference to the actual Covenant text before responding at length to their preliminary and skeletal website. For nearly a year and a half we have been calling like a voice in the wilderness for logical, reasoned arguments as to why the Covenant should be adopted (with reference to the actual text) and we look forward to a response to our plea at long last.

We commend the authors of Yes to the Covenant (both of them) for the promise of things to come and look forward at long last to engaging in reasoned debate about the merits of the proposed Anglican Covenant.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Momentum Shifting in Anglican Covenant Debate

The No Anglican Covenant Coalition has issued a news release titled “Momentum Shifting in Anglican Covenant Debate.” It can be found on the Resources page of the Coalition’s Web site here. The body of the release is reproduced below.

LONDON – With one-third of English dioceses now having voted on the proposed Anglican Covenant, leaders of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition are detecting a significant shift in momentum. With last weekend’s clean sweep in Leicester, Portsmouth, Salisbury and Rochester, ten dioceses have rejected the Covenant while only five have approved it.

“When we launched the No Anglican Covenant Coalition just 16 months ago, it seemed like we were facing impossible odds,” said the Coalition’s Moderator, the Revd Dr Lesley Crawley. “But now the tide appears to be turning. The more church members learn about the Covenant, the less they like it.”

“I’m glad to see how perceptive the diocesan synods have been once well-rounded arguments are put to them,” said Coalition Patron and Oxford University Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. “There were two Covenants in the Church of England’s seventeenth-century history, and in combination, they destroyed episcopacy until wiser counsels prevailed. It appears the dioceses are not interested in helping present-day bishops making it a hat trick.”

“It is heartening to see the dioceses rising up to their responsibilities instead of delegating their discernment to the House of Bishops and the archbishops,” according to former Oxford Professor and General Synod member Marilyn McCord Adams, who now teaches at the University of North Carolina. “Churches come to better decisions when parties feel free to disagree.” Professor McCord Adams is also a Patron of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition.

To date, the proposed Anglican Covenant has been approved by five dioceses of the Church of England (Lichfield; Durham; Europe; Bristol; Canterbury) and rejected by ten (Wakefield; St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich; Truro; Birmingham; Derby; Gloucester; Portsmouth; Rochester; Salisbury; Leicester). Approval by 23 diocesan synods is required for the Covenant to return to General Synod. Rejection by 22 dioceses would effectively derail approval of the Covenant by the Church of England.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

A New Slogan?

The Satirical Christian has just posted an essay called “In praise of Arranged Marriage…,” which is a reflection on the speech given by Bishop of Sherborne Graham Kings. The bishop, speaking to the Synod of the Diocese of Salisbury February 18 in support of sending the Anglican Covenant back to the General Synod for final adoption, was unable to prevent the vote from going against his cause. (See the vote totals at Thinking Anglicans.)

“In praise of Arranged Marriage…” suggests that the argument that Kings makes is analogous to insisting on sending the bride down the aisle even though she is not sure the marriage is a good idea. Kings’ logic is the same as that advanced by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself—the Church of England has gone this far down the road of  Covenant adoption, so it makes no sense to stop now.

But, of course, it does make sense to stop when the bride realizes that she is about to commit to a life of misery and unhappiness. The Satirical Christian points out that the best advice anyone can give the bride at that point is “walk away now.”

Perhaps this is the slogan the No Anglican Covenant movement should adopt: WALK AWAY NOW!

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Four Dioceses Say No to Covenant

Four Church of England dioceses have just voted against having their church adopt the Anglican Covenant. The dioceses of Leicester, Portsmouth, Rochester, and Salisbury have rejected the pact, making the score 10 dioceses against the Covenant and 5 dioceses for it. Thinking Anglicans has posted actual vote totals. Note that, for the resolution in favor of the Covenant to pass, majorities in both the clergy and laity votes were necessary.

This was a good day for opponents of the Covenant.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Coalition Adds Fourth Patron

The No Anglican Covenant Coalition today announced that Marilyn McCord Adams, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, has been appointed as the Covenant’s fourth Patron. The Coalition’s news release can be read here. An excerpt:
“The proposed Anglican Covenant was conceived in moral indignation and pursued with disciplinary intent,” according to Professor McCord Adams. “Its global gate-keeping mechanisms would put a damper on the gospel agenda, which conscientious Anglicans should find intolerable. The Covenant is based on an alien ecclesiology, which thoughtful Anglicans have every reason to reject.”
Coalition Patrons bring special expertise and influence to the effort to prevent the radical change to the Anglican Communion inherent in the proposed Anglican Covenant.

Professor McCord Adams is the second academic and the first American to become a No Anglican Covenant Coalition Patron.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gloucester Vote Totals

As reported in the previous post, the Diocese of Gloucester, voted against adopting the Covenant. We have at last received the actual vote totals. They are as follows:

Bishops: 1 for, 0 against, 1 abstention
Clergy: 16 for, 28 against, 1 abstention
Laity: 14 for, 28 against, 6 abstentions

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

And Defeat

I reported here yesterday that the Diocese of Derby voted to reject the Anglican Covenant. According to Thinking Anglicans, so has the Diocese of Gloucester, although no vote tallies have been made available. Significantly, Gloucester, like other dioceses that have voted against the Covenant, publicized arguments both for and against the Covenant. (See page on Diocese of Gloucester Web site here.)

Unsurprisingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own diocese has voted in favor of the Covenant and issued a press release to that effect. According to the diocese, the vote was as follows: bishops—1 for; clergy—26 for, 14 against; laity—39 for, 13 against. There were no abstentions. The press release rather gratuitously praises the Covenant. An excerpt:
The Anglican Communion Covenant gives vision to a “communion with autonomy and accountability” and offers an agreed framework for shared processes of decision making, mutual accountability and responsibility for all churches in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has strongly commended the Covenant to the Church of England; in his 2011 Advent letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion he said the Covenant: “Sets out our common life and common faith and in light of that proposes making a mutual promise to consult and attend to each other, freely undertaken. It recognises that not doing this, damages our relations profoundly.”
How could any possibly object to that?

Update, 2/8/2012: The vote totals for Canterbury were wrong in the original post above. They are now correct. (See comments below.)

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Eschatological Ecclesiology and the Anglican Covenant

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.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Victory in Derby

We are beginning another season of Church of England synods voting on whether to approve sending the proposed Anglican Communion back to the General Synod for final adoption by the church. Needless to say, the No Anglican Covenant Coalition is working to encourage dioceses to vote No on the Covenant.

We received word today that the Diocese of Derby has not only voted No, but has done so rather decisively. The single bishop present voted against. Of the clergy, 21 voted against, 1 voted for, and 2 abstained. Of the laity, 24 voted against, 2 voted for, and 1 abstained.

It is widely assumed that, if the Church of England rejects the Anglican Covenant, the Covenant project will be effectively ended.

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