Left Behind? The Church of England and the Covenant

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Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Too much is being made, in the run up to the General Synod, of the fact that the Anglican Covenant’s future is tied to the Church of England’s vote on the matter: if the Synod does not vote to take the Covenant up for further diocesan approval, the Covenant’s own life, many say, will be over. Well and good, according to some, because the Covenant is a bad idea.

In fact, though, what is at stake in the upcoming Synod vote on the Covenant is the Church of England’s own future as part of the Anglican Communion: will she continue to be an integral part of a Christian common life and mission that has now encompassed the globe (due in no small part to the Church of England’s own past witness), and that represents one of the most adaptable forms of Christian life in a reordered world, or will she lapse further into the eddies of Western self-concern, diminished by the thousand cuts of her own identity politics?

The Anglican Communion will continue whatever the Synod votes. It will continue in its shifting center of evangelical gravity to the Global South churches, as it has already been doing. And it will continue the move to reorder its common life according to concrete covenantal commitments, because that is already at the center of her missionary life, and there is no credible or vital alternative to such commitments in the contemporary world. But the Church of England, along with a number of other Western churches, may no longer be more than a passing shadow on this movement.

While not fatal to the future of Anglican witness, and a witness capable of reaching out in fruitful ecumenical directions, the Church of England’s refusal to come along would still be a tremendous loss. As someone who worked on the drafting of the Covenant text, I can attest to the Church of England’s important contributions to its form: serious and responsible theological engagement and suggestions, constructive calls to Christian accountability, sacrificial personal contribution. Other churches have also given much to the process, and the Church of England’s lost potential gifts to the future will be met in other ways, at first haltingly perhaps, but in the end surely. Still, her turning away will deplete the resources of an Anglican future at least in the near term.

One should be clear that objections to the Covenant that have been articulated in the past weeks represent entrenched strategic interests, not without principled motivation, but nonetheless driven by worries over maintaining particular stakes in the church’s decision-making process. The fact that objectors openly admit that the text of the Covenant itself is irrelevant to their concerns – they rarely cite its actual words or argue on their basis – disclose the nature of their anxieties as lying elsewhere. The Covenant has become a symbol. But if so, a symbol of what? Onto its screen has been projected the ideologies of one after another group.

But the Synod needs to do its own projecting. What can it see? If it cannot see an image of the Church of England’s own life and calling in the Covenant’s discussion of Christian communion, common commitments, and mutual deference and accountabilities – a discussion derived from several hundred years of shared ministry and a rich ecumenical service and desire – then the Church of England will indeed have chosen to stand still, as other Anglicans move forward with a life that promises to go far deeper and more vibrantly into Christ’s purposes than what is left behind.

November 24 2010 07:26 am | Articles