Unanswered Questions (and the Covenant)

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones."
Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"
"True Humility" by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 1895. [via Wikipedia]

Alan Perry, in his usual wise and witty way, has taken a look at the suggestion that the proposed Anglican Covenant is, as “the late Douglas Adams” said of planet Earth, “mostly harmless.” I confess that I have myself been somewhat of that mind, though it now appears to me that rather than “mostly harmless” it would be better to describe the Covenant as “mostly useless” and “possibly harmful” — depending. Depending on what I will get to in a moment.

But first of all let me repeat something I have said about the Covenant for some time: if ever there was a Curate’s Egg, this is one. A few parts of it are passably good, but even the best bits seem to be a bit underdone — or perhaps, given the long stretch of committee editing, overdone.

Further, the Covenant as a whole does not appear to answer some very pertinent questions — which anything purporting to be a roadmap for the future of Anglicanism really ought to have answered. This is a map with uncomfortably large portions still labeled Terra Incognita — if not, “Here be dragons.” And the primary unanswered questions have to be, “What is the Anglican Communion exactly?” and “How does the Covenant relate to that Communion?”

The problems begin right in the Preamble with “We, as Churches of the Anglican Communion...” This is the sort of language one finds emerging from a broadly representative Council or Convention, introducing a conclusion to which a gathered body has come; not from a select committee cobbling together a text submitted to various rounds of “feedback” and then submitted to the “We” for approbation. In other words, from the very beginning this document seeks to put words in the mouths of those who have not yet signed it. Worse than that, it presumes an agreeable “We” when in fact it is now abundantly clear that a significant number of the first person plural have no interest in adopting the thing at all.

I have noted before the strangeness of a text purporting to be for “We” of the Anglican Communion which assures that failure to sign, or withdrawal after signing [4.3.1], need not indicate a church is not part of the Communion (though “recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion” [4.2.1]). Moreover, the document unhelpfully states that other non-Anglican Communion churches might be invited to adopt the Covenant, which would not in itself bring with it “any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion.” This is one of the reasons I say the Covenant fails clearly to define what it means to be Anglican. Though it does quote the standard definition at 4.1.1, it seems to be both an afterthought and discordant with the rest of Section Four. The Anglican Communion has, like England itself, survived without a written constitution to this day, and the Covenant is not a clarifying step forward, but a source of further confusion, and perhaps division. Since the communion already exists, will this document “enable” it or disable it?

However, taking that traditional definition in hand, it seems to me it can be said that the reality of the Anglican Communion has about it aspects historical, confessional, and relational. The historical is mercifully beyond our power to alter, though it can be, and has been, spun in a dozen different directions from the very beginning. Suffice it to say that the Anglican Communion is not and was not the result of a definitive constitutional plan, but is an outgrowth of the colonial and missionary work primarily of the Church of England, and later and to a lesser extent, the Episcopal Church in the United States. That much is, I think, factual beyond dispute.

The extent to which the Anglican Communion is confessional is a matter of greater debate. The Articles of Religion were definitely framed with an eye to setting doctrinal boundaries, and were adopted as such by the various historical heirs of the Church of England. The fact that they have fallen to desuetude down through the years can hardly be contested, but it is absurd to claim that the churches of the Anglican Communion do not have some minimal doctrinal positions in common that distinguish them from other streams of the Christian tradition. “Confessional” may well be too strong a word to describe our present state, or even the rather cluttered yet sadly patchy tapestry offered by the Covenant, but Anglicans do have theological and ecclesiastical opinions not shared by other traditions, a few in direct opposition to some of those other traditions, and which distinguish Anglicans from them.

In the long run, the Anglican Communion is primarily relational — given the history and doctrinal traditions, it is ultimately made up of those who wish to be part of it, whether through the “accidents” of history, or the late-coming “Instruments of Communion” or simply on the basis of “showing up” and taking part in bilateral and multilateral mission and ministry down through the years. And this is where the proposed Anglican Covenant opens the door for the greatest possible harm: for it will use communion, or the withholding of communion, as its primary disciplinary tool, under the chillingly forbidding phrase, “relational consequences.” It will ironically bring about the very thing it was supposedly designed to prevent: division in the communion.

You will note above that I referred to “possible harm” and alluded to dependencies. In the end, the Covenant will be harmful only to the extent that it is employed in a disciplinary way, as destructive to the relationships of the communion — which is to say, of communion itself. If the severance or diminution of communion (though I’m not sure what partial communion could possibly be!) is the only way to discipline those who are creating tension in the communion, then it seems to me better not to introduce a mechanism that could produce such a result.

On the other hand, since only those who adopt the Covenant have any chance to help guide it in a productive, rather than a destructive, direction; and further, since at this point among the most vocally opposed to it are those who also most wished to employ it in this surgical fashion, this may present a reason for those who really do want to encourage the communion to stay together in spite of disagreements — at least among those who wish to self-select togetherness over institutionalized schism — to adopt the Covenant with the understanding that Section Four shall never be appealed to or employed, and perhaps to move for its amendment or removal.

Ultimately, it depends... Like so much of life, it depends on who shows up. Like any party, it is the guests who will make it a success or doom it to failure.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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