The Covenant Crisis

As I have noted previously, I find myself poised somewhere between the two extremes of the Anglican Covenant debate. At one end are those who appear to think that not only is no agreement needed, but that the very idea of pan-Anglican governance is inimical to our identity as Anglicans. At the other extreme are those who appear to think that the AngCov is not merely the best way forward but the only way forward to settle the disputes that have raged through the Communion over the last two decades or so.

I find myself much more inclined towards the former than to the latter. In fact, I find the latter position not only to be facially absurd — if the member provinces of the Communion cannot agree on the Covenant itself, it cannot very well be the basis or means for subsequent agreement — but contradictory to the historical evidence, and arguably misguided as a way forward even were there signs of widespread willingness to move in such a direction.

The latter view is well typified by this comment from the Rev’d Dr. Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity, Faith and Order in the Anglican Communion Office.

It’s become quite clear that if we’re to be a global church, we need something that expresses how we live together as a family.

One of the good things about this thesis is that it recognizes — by expressing it as a goal — that the Anglican Communion is not “a global church.” So what is it? It is “a fellowship of autonomous churches.” This fact raises two questions: 1) what is autonomy? And 2) is autonomy circumstantial or essential to Anglicanism?

The meaning of autonomy

Autonomy means self-governance. In the Anglican usage it is really more like its political equivalent “sovereignty.” When a church is autonomous it means that there is no “superior synod” to which it is answerable. (Mark McCall has argued just the opposite, on the basis of political double-speak that refers to “autonomous regions” within some larger governing structure — but it is double-speak I am attempting to clear away, and there is no need for the church to ape the duplicity of the state! “Conditional autonomy” belongs in the category with “partial virginity” and, as Groucho observed, “military intelligence.”)

One of the catchphrases of the AngCov debate has been the Windsor Report’s, “Communion is the limit of autonomy.” I reflected on this at length almost three years ago, and my views have not changed since. My point is that if autonomy is limited then it isn’t autonomy. Even if it is merely voluntary self-censorship, it is precisely submission to a heteronomous influence.

My sense is that all of this is the heritage of the liberal knee-jerk reaction to past colonialism adopted at the Toronto Congress in 1963 under the mealy-mouthed term mutual responsibility and interdependence. “Mutual responsibility” I can certainly buy — no church is an island, as John Donne might observe were he around to participate in our current discussions. But “interdependence?” While “responsibility” carries with it some idea of gifts, “interdependence” is far too needy a term. This is not to say, with anti-Pauline brusqueness, “I have no need of you.” Rather it is to acknowledge the reality that while the various churches can learn from each other and work together with each other, the idea that we “depend” on each other is both a historical and logical fallacy.

Circumstance or essence?

Which brings me to the second question. The Church of England’s assertion of autonomy from the Church of Rome is not a mere historical accident. The sense of national autonomy was passed down to all of the daughter churches arising from the English colonial and imperial adventures, and the further granddaughters borne by those churches. As I noted in my previous post on this subject, so keen were the English to keep the American church separate from them, that they forbade (by Act of Parliament) the newly consecrated American bishops White and Provoost, and anyone they would consecrate or ordain, from ever functioning within his Majesty’s dominions. (Obviously this Act of Parliament was either repealed or ignored at some point.) This sense of autonomy was so powerful that it led to the formation of a separate Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America at the time of the Civil War — a new entity created with some sense of regret at the necessity in the South and utterly ignored in the Union and the General Convention.

I have written before about the practical advantage of autonomy — it allows for provincial testing of contextual developments in discipline and worship and for their gradual reception or rejection by other provinces. (Such developments have happened at a slower pace in the past, and much of the tension in the Communion in our time is no doubt due to the rapid increase in the pace of communication and almost instant reactivity.) Autonomy is the safeguard both of local privilege of development and local insulation from foreign developments judged unacceptable. As I have noted time and again, no other province is forced or even expected to adopt what they regard as innovations in any other province, and autonomy is the bulwark against such pressures, if they are perceived to exist. The true statement is: Autonomy is the limit of communion interference.

Globalism as a confusion with Communion

The Anglican Communion is not a “global church” and I don’t want it to become one, for the very reason that such globalism will stifle the greatest gift Anglicanism offers to world Christendom (and if we have nothing to offer why do we exist?) — autonomy in diversity in a fellowship of churches who are not bound by each other’s local decisions.

This is a different model to the Roman, the church which “subsists” in the college of bishops in union with the heir of Peter. It is more like than unlike the Orthodox model of autocephalous churches pledged to a common inheritance of liturgy and canon law, each Orthodox entity holding itself to be the local expression of the fullness of the whole church.

Anglicans have historically understood the national or provincial church in much the same way, though without the common canon law aspect. It might be helpful to apply to the church the same term the Anglican Founders applied to Scripture: sufficiency. Each national or provincial church is sufficient unto itself for its own maintenance. It does not require or depend upon any input from any other sister church, although it welcomes and celebrates its communion with the other members of the Anglican family. Unlike an individual diocese, which cannot create a successor to its own bishop without the input of the larger church body of which the diocese forms a part, the national church or province is sufficient and competent to its own maintenance.

Finally, the Anglican Communion is, as the good Canon observes, a family. Families do not, in fact, require a written document to govern their behavior with one another. A few basic ground-rules defending autonomy, rather than generating a specious interdependency, would not be bad. Lionel Deimel put together such a list a while back. Such rules, some of which go back to Nicaea, include respect for provincial boundaries, fidelity to the Creeds, Sacraments, and the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation. If we are to have a Covenant, let it be one that preserves what is best in what we have, rather than mooning after something we have never had, and likely don’t need.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

No comments:

Post a Comment