May 16, 2009

Still No Reason for a Covenant

I don’t usually reprint other people’s essays on Lionel Deimel’s Web Log, but I am making an exception for a perceptive essay that was sent to the House of Bishops and Deputies Mailing List a few days ago. The essay, “Still No Reason for a Covenant,” was written by Jim Stockton, an Episcopal priest in Austin, Texas. Because the HoB/D list does not have a public archive, and because I believe this essay deserves to be more widely read, I am reproducing it here, with permission of the author. There is no need for me to write on this topic, as Fr. Stockton has done a better job than I could hope to do. The text below is slightly edited from the original, what was in plain text, rather than in HTML.
He has made himself abundantly clear: the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) is intent on imposing a covenant upon the Churches of the Anglican Communion. One can only wonder why he is intent on this end, for he has offered no real purpose for it. The sum of all his apologetic is that a covenant is an end that justifies itself. He fails to offer a genuine and theological purpose for it. On the one hand, he notes that the Churches do function and serve in effective partnership with one another. On the other hand, he implies that without a covenant the Churches will not be able to continue to do so. His reliance upon a false and implied logic exemplifies a plain truth of the matter: neither he nor anyone one has yet offered a serious reason for pursuing a covenant. Many have offered justifications for the concept of covenant per se, but no one has offered anything that approaches a compelling inspiration for this particular effort. This effort was initiated bureaucratically through the Windsor Report (even though the Primates themselves meeting at Dromantine expressed reservations toward the pursuit of a covenant) which was itself a response to the use of parliamentary bullying and the socio-politically ‘conservative’ propaganda by emerging-world primates who were then and are still being funded and manipulated by hard-right American money. The Archbishop of Canterbury, apparently possessed of a curious notion of his role as somehow the head of a single global Church, now seems intent upon imposing this view of his own rights and privileges upon the wider Anglican Communion.

His address to the recent meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council helps exemplify his position. “The Anglican Communion has never called itself ‘a church’ in its official documents and yet as a world-wide communion—not just a federation—it has claimed for itself and claimed particularly in relation to its ecumenical partners that it is precisely more than just an assembly of local churches that happen to belong to the same bureaucracy. It has tried to behave in a church-like way: recognizing ordained ministry, sharing sacraments, sharing teaching and to a large extent doctrinal formulations and canonical positions.” Reality contradicts the Archbishop’s claims. In fact, the Churches do not belong to the same bureaucracy. In fact, the Churches have not “tried to behave in a church-like way;” unless such behavior equates to the efforts of autonomous and autocephalous Churches working cooperatively on specific goals and ministries. If this is the case, then where lies the need, much less the inspiration, for a covenant? Further, it is a fact that the Churches of the Communion do not universally ‘recognize ordained ministry, share sacraments, teaching, and doctrinal formulations and canonical positions’ any more than, for instance, the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church. An American clergy person’s ordination does not automatically translate to ordination in the Church of England; he or she is not an English priest and is not allowed to function as such without application for license to do so. As is true respectively for each Church of the Communion, the Episcopal Church in the United States ordains clergy in and only for the Episcopal Church in the United States. Any exception to the rule is exactly that, an exception. It may be that the Church of England, or just the Archbishop of Canterbury, would prefer it to be otherwise. Nevertheless, we are not a Roman Catholic style Church. The reality simply is not what the Archbishop describes in his remarks. In fact, the reality of the Anglican Communion is ecumenical in the sense of the ancient Church. Rather than trying to change this to recreate the Anglican Communion in the image of jolly old England or of the Roman Church, we should be celebrating the distinctive gifts that this venerable model offers the world.

It is, I think, manipulative and unkind of the ABC to imply that Churches who may not look favorably upon a covenant are somehow lesser in their faithfulness to Christ-like fellowship and ministry. Yet he does exactly this when he declares “that provinces of the communion that choose to adopt the proposed Anglican covenant when it is made available will be showing that they ‘want to create a more intense relationship between them—a fuller and freer exchange between them.’” [This and subsequent quotations are from a May 12, 2009, Episcopal New Service story.] He goes on to suggest that once a covenant is in place, then more will need to be added: “Others,” he says, “are not choosing that [to adopt the proposed covenant] and the difficult question is: what is the best and most constructive relationship between those who do choose and those who do not.” He declares that with some Churches signing on and “others” not doing so, what will be needed then is “some other kind of structure with ‘groups of Anglicans associated for different purposes in different ways.’” Again, he implies something that simply isn’t true. He implies that if all the Churches, rather than only some, will adopt a covenant, then all will be well. I suggest, to the contrary, that whether the adoption is partial or wholly Communion-wide, any adoption of “the covenant” will require a new structure. And, I suggest, the ABC fully anticipates exactly this.

The ABC’s remarks strike me as a thinly veiled warning to those Churches that would dare consider non-compliance. Despite the fact that the Church of England, bound by its status as a national institution, is well ahead of The Episcopal Church (TEC) on recognizing same-sex civil unions, the Archbishop of Canterbury is singling out The Episcopal Church in the United States as an example of those likely “others” among the Churches. He suggests that we of TEC had best not dare to set aside B033 of our last General Convention and return to observing our democratically established canons forbidding discrimination around sexual orientation in discernment of a person’s fitness for and call to Holy Orders. He claims that “holding back” on the episcopal ordination of people living in same-gender relationships “ought not to be seen as a denial of the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of Christ’s body.” This twisted logic may make some illusory rhetorical sense. However, it denies the reality that “holding back” is an autocratic assignment of a particularly and amorally defined group of people to a remnant margin. The Archbishop of Canterbury is issuing an official call for the Churches of the Anglican Communion to continue participating in official discrimination, and he does so for reasons that are purely and pathetically political.

Yet, he suggests that, should TEC ignore his endorsement of the moratoria [on blessing same-sex unions, etc., called for by the Windsor Report], we will be demonstrating our choice “not to go down the route of closer structural bonds and [of] that particular kind of mutual responsibility.” Does anyone see anything “mutually responsible” about the ABC’s circumvention of the Anglican Consultative Council’s decision not to forward to the Churches the proposed covenant? For my part, I pray that TEC chooses exactly as the ABC uncharitably characterizes he fears we will do. The Archbishop’s description of “some other kind of structure” sounds very much like the one that is now being demanded by the self-anointed “Anglican Church in North America” and their boundary-crossing foreign prelates. It also sounds like one that the ABC will be able successfully to sell to the English Parliament and the Queen. With “the covenant” as the fulcrum and the Archbishop of Canterbury (and thus the English monarchy) firmly in place as authoritative head of this new covenanted global Church, the new structure will resonate well with hard-dying English imperialistic impulses.

Watch for it. The ABC will continue to impose upon our conversations about a covenant his own vocabulary, speaking more frequently and plainly of the Anglican Communion as a “Church.” I anticipate that he will use these terms purposefully, hoping that, after having repeated them long enough and often enough, he will have succeeded in creating a new perception of reality, replacing fact with fantasy, reason with dogma. Undoubtedly, the Archbishop will continue to tell us that the Anglican Communion is not “just a federation,” not merely “an assembly of local churches,” hoping to train us to assume that there is more and that we should want it. He will then begin more overtly defining for us what that “more” is. My guess is that he will soon begin to imply, and then overtly to tell us in no uncertain terms, that we “are” already and “historically have been” a Church, albeit in a unique way. We will continue to hear and see the same from all those whose sense of institutional inadequacy drives them similarly to try create an Anglican imitation of Rome.

My prayer is that The Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada, along with some of our fellow “others” of the Anglican Communion Churches, will not succumb. Institutionally, structurally, no Church of the Anglican Communion is an appendage of a global “Anglican Church.” However, organically, spiritually, ministerially, and missionally, we are already united one to another, and with no further covenant than the historic creeds of the Church catholic. We are united not by virtue of our Anglicanism, which is secondary at best, but by our kinship in Christ. TEC and our fellow “others” need to lead the way in listening past the increasingly shrill demand for a covenant. We need to reject the use of rhetoric that includes talk of “The Covenant,” as though such a thing is already established. We will, I pray, not be misled to assume that it is an accomplished fact. It is not. There is no such thing as “The Covenant.” It does not exist, and language that speaks of it as though it does is inaccurate at best and deceptive at worst. There is only “a” proposed covenant. And it is a proposal without any express inspiration. It is a proposal awash in desperation. It is merely a proposed covenant. And I pray that we will reject it as a conceptual artifact.

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