Crossroads Are For Meeting (Again)

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Monday, October 19th, 2009




As you know, my subject is the Anglican Covenant. Is it really Anglican? Is it really necessary? Is it theologically defensible? Is it an effective way to address our present difficulties? I will get to these questions and others in due course, but first, to make sure we know what it is that we are talking about, I must take you on a little trip down memory lane. The first book I published was a collection of essays entitled “Crossroads Are For Meeting.” The date was 1986, and the particular cross in the road faced at that time by the Anglican Communion was the nature of its mission, and in particular its mission as a world-wide communion of autonomous churches. Previously, in 1963, The Anglican Congress had defined the inter-relation of these churches as being one of “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the body of Christ.” At this gathering, the assembled delegates took a dramatic step in defining the nature of Anglicanism as a communion rather than, say, a federation; but there were divisions over the Communion’s calling. If Anglicans are to understand themselves as bound by mutual responsibility and interdependence in the body of Christ, just what is the purpose of this communion under God?

The collection of essays I helped assemble revealed a profound division over this matter, one that is with us to this day. Is the mission of the Anglican Communion to join other Christian bodies in spreading the Gospel of reconciliation and redemption through Christ’s victory on the cross, or is it, with other churches, to join Christ in a sacrificial struggle to include the oppressed and marginalized and so to establish justice on the earth? Despite very articulate pleas that these two views need not be in conflict, they were in conflict then and remain so to this day. This conflict over the mission of the church has returned in our own time with such ferocity that it threatens any possibility of meaningful communion.

I hope I do not have to defend the statement that divisions over the mission of the church are lodged just below the surface of our current argument about sex. The crisis we now face has been building for quite some time, and it involves matters far more central and complex than disputes over sexual identity and conduct. To my mind, the big issue is how autonomous churches called to carry out God’s mission at a particular time and place can remain at the same time in a communion that is catholic in both belief and practice.

In its modern form this question was posed at the Lambeth Conference of 1948—the first to be held after the Second World War and the first to take place during the dismantling of the British Empire. At this meeting a committee of bishops asked, “Is Anglicanism based on a sufficiently coherent form of authority to form the nucleus of a world-wide fellowship of churches, or does its comprehensiveness conceal internal divisions which may cause its disruption?”i This question defines the struggles of Anglicans in the post-modern period, but its roots go down into the soil of Anglican beginnings. The Church of England established itself as the church of a nation, but it sought to do so as an expression of catholic Christianity. The Episcopal Church sought to establish itself as a church independent of the Church of England, but nonetheless bound by its doctrine and discipline (and so also by its combination of both national and catholic identity).

Similar tensed goals are to be found in the numerous provinces that had their beginning the middle of the 19th Century and came to full flower after The Second World War.ii Just how are these churches to remain both local and catholic? That is the question. In response, Anglicans have at best stumbled toward an answer. In 1867 the first Lambeth Conference of Bishops was called to address governance issues brought into focus by growing independence within the colonial churches, the publication of Essays and Reviews, and by the Bishop of Natal’s view of Holy Scripture.iii The birth of many new and autonomous provinces after The Second World War issued in the Pan Anglican Congress, The Anglican Consultative Council, and The Meeting of Primates. The crisis brought about by the consecration of a woman to the Episcopate produced The Virginia Report along with linkage of a congeries of consultative bodies that were labeled “The Instruments of Unity” (now “The Instruments of Communion”). Finally, the actions of the Dioceses of New Westminster and New Hampshire in the matters of gay blessings and ordinations issued in the Windsor Report and the proposal for an Anglican Covenant.

All these institutional developments have been directed to the same end—both to guard the autonomy of the various provinces of the Anglican Communion and insure that each “recognizes” in the others fellow members of a communion of churches. This goal is easy to state, but extraordinarily difficult to achieve. To this point, the Instruments of Communion have not been able to provide the several provinces of the Communion with confidence that they, the instruments, can achieve this goal. Failure to address adequately the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster and those of The General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) has strained the credibility of each and every one of them. The proposed Anglican Covenant is, in my view, the last best hope for achieving the goal of a communion of autonomous churches bound by common belief, practice, mutual responsibility, and interdependence. As I hope to demonstrate, it does so by placing responsibility for communion firmly in the hands of the autonomous provinces themselves. The proposed Covenant asks that the provinces and local churches of the Communion covenant one with another (rather than with a legislative or juridical body) and within this covenanted relationship exercise their autonomy within the limits imposed by membership in a communion of churches.


Now, is this proposed Covenant really Anglican? Is it necessary? Is it theologically sound? Will it succeed in achieving the goal its supporters have in mind? The best way to respond is to work through the main points of the proposed covenant with these questions in mind. You will remember that the latest version of the Covenant has four parts—the first three of which, along with an “Introduction,” “Preamble” and “Declaration” have been approved for circulation to the provinces for ratification. The fourth section, largely procedural in nature, is now being reviewed. Since they have already been approved for circulation, I will focus on “The Introduction to the Covenant Text,” the “Preamble”, and sections one through three. Though it is of central importance, my remarks on Section Four will be brief because we do not know what its final form will be.

Though it is not part of the Covenant itself, the” Introduction” provides the theological base for all that follows, and it does so by reference to the primary theological theme present in the ecumenical dialogues of the Anglican Communion. The foundational theme is “communion”.i The churches, all of them, are called through Christ into communion with the Triune God. In this communion, Christians share one with another in the very life of God. The mission of The Anglican Communion is, therefore, to share with other churches in calling all peoples, through Christ, into the life of God and to manifest that life in the relations of its various provinces one with another. The Covenant, its proposers contend, is not intended to change the nature of Anglicanism. Rather, its purpose is “to reflect, in our relations with one another, God’s own faithfulness and promises towards us in Christ.”ii To reflect God’s purpose for the creation in this way, it is necessary that God’s mission be “carried out in shared responsibility and stewardship and in interdependence among ourselves and with the wider church.”iii

It seems to me that nothing could be more Anglican than this theological starting point. It accords with the catholic identity we have claimed since the Reformation, it accords with our self-representations in ecumenical dialogues, and it is faithful to our internal deliberations. Nevertheless, you are surely aware that many object to the Covenant because they believe it compromises the autonomy of the provinces and for this reason is “un-Anglican.” I can only say in response that neither in the foundation of the various Anglican provinces nor in their ecumenical self-representations have Anglicans understood the autonomy of the various provinces to exist as an unfettered right. Neither have Anglicans, despite claims to the contrary, understood mutual responsibility and interdependence to have no relation to common belief and practice. If anything is “un-Anglican” it is an unfettered claim to autonomy in which each province claims to be judge in its own case whenever its “autonomous” decisions are questioned by other provinces. So it seems to me that the covenant drafters are quite Anglican when they say in the “Preamble” that the churches of the Anglican Communion covenant together “in order to proclaim more effectively in our different contexts the grace of God revealed in the Gospel, to offer God’s love in responding to the needs of the world, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and together with all God’s people to attain the full stature of Christ.”iv

So far, at least, the Covenant seems to me to thoroughly Anglican and certainly theologically adequate. It surely can’t be a mistake to root one’s ecclesiology in the sacrificial death of Christ and the life of the Triune God. But let us test further to see if we can make similar affirmations in respect to the specifics of the proposed covenant. Section One concerns “Our Inheritance of Faith” and like the other two sections is divided into affirmations and commitments. The affirmations seem to me both thoroughly adequate and thoroughly Anglican.

What is affirmed in respect to our inheritance of faith? Communion in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that worships one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! The Catholic and Apostolic faith uniquely revealed in Holy Scriptures and set for in the catholic creeds! This faith to which authentic witness is born in the historic formularies of the Church of England and appropriated in various way in the Anglican Communion! To this list of affirmations is attached the four elements of the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral and participation “in the apostolic mission of the whole people of God.”v

To what are Anglicans committed in respect to “Our Inheritance of Faith?” The answer is to a number of things but they all stem from a faithful and communal reading of Holy Scripture that is attentive to the councils of the Communion, our ecumenical agreements, the teaching of Bishops and synods, the work of scholars, and prophetic and faithful leadership.

Now, once again, (taking due note of the fact that the Covenant does not require subscription but only affirmation that the formularies of the C of E bear authentic witness to the catholic and apostolic faith) I see nothing “un-Anglican” or theologically inadequate in this. The rub for the Covenant’s opponents comes with the commitment to seek a common understanding of scripture that must be attentive to a host of voices that may well challenge deeply held convictions on the part of an individual province. But, once again, it seems to me less than theologically adequate to place the primary weight of interpretive responsibility on the shoulders of individual readers or even individual churches, as it appears many within our own church would prefer. It also seems to me theologically inadequate to define communion apart from unity of belief and practice—a cry heard with increasing force among the Covenant’s opponents.

Now to Section Two that concerns “Our Anglican Vocation”! This section affirms that the communion of the churches is to be placed within God’s providential ordering. The Anglican Communion is also to be understood as part of that ordering, and within that context the mission heritage of Anglicans is affirmed as offering unique opportunities. These opportunities are given greater specification by five commitments that echo the Baptismal Covenant found in TEC’s Book of Common

Though I have quibbles with some of the wording of this section, I doubt that it will be the subject of much controversy, and so I will pass immediately on to Section Three that, if grasped in its plain sense, most certainly will cause great controversy. Here the Covenant addresses “Our Unity and Common Life”, and here we come to the heart of our present conflicts. How shall we understand communion on the one hand and autonomy on the other?

What is it that the covenant asks us to affirm? We affirm that by incorporation into the body of Christ we are called “to pursue all things that make for peace and build up our common life.”vii For Anglicans this affirmation signals a resolve “to live in a Communion of Churches” in which each “orders and regulates its own affairs…through its own system of government and law.”viii In doing so, however, it understands itself to be living “in communion with autonomy and accountability.”ix This accountability is not mediated through a “central legislative and executive authority” but by “mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference and the other instruments of Communion.”x

From this basic affirmation flow certain commitments. Chief among these is “to respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the churches of the Anglican Communion while upholding our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ, and the responsibility of each to the Communion as a whole.”xi Concretely this means that each of the Churches of the Communion, before taking a controversial action, will seek a shared mind through the Communion’s councils. Further, it means that when an action “by its intensity, substance or extent” threatens the unity of the Communion or the credibility of its mission, a province will only act (if it does so at all) with “diligence, care and caution.”xii

Few, I think, realize how strong the words “intensity, substance or extent” and “diligence, care and caution” in fact are. The same lack of recognition applies too much of the vocabulary deployed in earlier sections of the covenant. I speak of terms like “shared discernment, accountability, and autonomy.” In deploying these terms, the Covenant’s drafters refer to a substantial and well-developed body of Anglican thought.

The generally accepted meaning of these terms places a heavy burden of proof on any province that exercises its autonomy in ways that other members of the Communion believe threaten their unity or their credibility.xiii


I am forced to say (sadly) that by any reckoning, the recent actions of TEC’s General Convention are of sufficient “intensity, substance, and extent” to threaten the unity of the Communion. Further, given the seriousness of the threat and given the fact that TEC’s actions have been taken both against the counsel of all the Instruments of Communion and a direct plea by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it stretches credulity to say that they are actions that manifest “diligence, care, and caution.”

Indeed, given the fact that the first section of the Covenant clearly understands unity of belief and practice to be, in part, constitutive of communion, and given the fact that the third section makes clear that autonomy must be understood within the context of communion wide accountability, it would appear that TEC’s recent actions amount to a provisional rejection of the covenant. Apart from reversing the decisions recently taken, the only way TEC can with any integrity ratify the first three sections of the Covenant is to deny its plain sense and openly define communion univocally in terms of forms of mutual aid and hospitality that are decoupled from unity of belief and practice.

It is just this sort of talk that appears on the blogs and issues from the mouths of many of our present leaders. They do not like the Covenant because it compromises provincial autonomy and so is “un-Anglican.” By this charge they mean that the Covenant places limits on doctrinal and moral innovation, hinders innovations made necessary by the requirements of the mission of particular provinces, and places a curial hierarchy above the governing structures of individual provinces.

In response, one can only say that living in communion does place limits on doctrinal innovation and it does require that local adaptations for purposes of mission not make innovations other churches of the Communion cannot “recognize” as in accord with Holy Scripture and apostolic teaching. What, however, are we to make of the charge that the Covenant creates a curia that compromises the autonomy of the provinces? Opponents level this charge particularly against Section Four.

Since we do not have a final version of Section Four, I cannot respond in any definitive way to this charge. I will only say that in all the versions submitted so far the drafters have bent over backwards to protect the autonomy of the provinces. Rather than creating a curia that has legislative and juridical authority, they have sought procedures that will allow the provinces to act jointly and in good order when an action by a province, because of its “intensity, substance and extent”, is not “recognized” by the provinces as in accord with the belief and practice of the Communion as a whole.

The final section of the covenant in its penultimate form is procedural only. It does not establish an international hierarchy. It seeks only to present an orderly process for the provinces to preserve their unity and credibility through a process of “recognition” rather than adjudication. It is just such a process that the Anglican Communion has lacked and because of this lack, reactions to TEC’s recent actions have been piecemeal, chaotic, idiosyncratic, and productive of greater division rather than more extensive communion.

The simple fact is that without a strong Section Four that creates credible procedures rather than additional hierarchies, the Anglican Communion will perish as a communion of churches. So is a covenant necessary? I prefer to use the word necessary like St. Luke does only in reference to God’s providential ordering of his world. Whether a covenant or, indeed, whether Anglicanism itself are in this sense necessary I do not know. I can only pray that they are. Whatever the case may prove to be it is still reasonable to ask if a covenant is likely to be an effective means of preserving communion? I cannot answer this question with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, I believe the Covenant is the only hope we have if we wish on the one hand to preserve a communion that involves more than mutual aid and hospitality; and on the other, in doing so, avoid the creation of an international hierarchy. At this point, I must be utterly clear. From a human point of view our choices are extremely limited. Either we have a covenant with real consequences like the “two track” proposal or the Communion will collapses. Many provinces from the Global South that support a covenant with consequences will simply go their own way, and those who have rejected a covenant with consequences will be left with something that is a Communion in name only. To return to the beginning, I believe the Covenant is our only hope to arrive at our present cross in the roads and meet rather than part forever.

October 19 2009 01:35 pm | Articles