September 9, 2009

Why No Anglican Covenant: Part 1

I have been slow to deliver on my promise to elaborate on my opposition to an Anglican covenant made in my August 6, 2009 post “No Anglican Covenant.” Readers may consider this a first installment of my fulfillment of that promise.
I want to begin by considering how the notion of an Anglican covenant has been promoted and the actual nature of the covenant drafts that have been proposed. Everyone else seems to capitalize “covenant” in the phrase “Anglican Covenant,” by the way. I will do so when it makes sense to talk about the Anglican Covenant. We are not there yet.

Not just any agreement among churches of the Anglican Communion could properly be called a covenant. In fact, the sort of agreement I advocated in “The Covenant We Do Need” is not so much a covenant as it is an administrative agreement about the mechanics of how we will do certain (largely non-controversial) things. I will return to the idea below.

The Ridley Cambridge Draft, as well as the drafts that preceded it, are properly called “covenants,” not because of anything they have in common with agreements between God and Noah or between God and Abraham, but because of their similarity to so-called “restrictive covenants” common in the real estate realm. They attempt to constrain the actions of signatories, and they specify, at least in general terms, a mechanism to enforce the intended constraints.

The covenant—I will now limit my remarks to the draft currently before us, including its controversial Section Four—is a classic camelid product of a committee. It is part confession of faith, part mission statement, part constitution, and, of course, part restrictive covenant. This is perfectly consistent with the recommendations of the Windsor Report, itself a product of a committee. (See especially the section titled “Canon Law and Covenant,” which begins at paragraph 113.)

Like the real estate mechanism, the Anglican covenant is inwardly focused: it is not about declaring to the world what Anglicans believe or do, but about restricting internal diversity and enforcing doctrinal uniformity among Anglican churches. One of its purposes is to tell the Anglican churches what they must believe. Episcopalians should have no illusions about this. The parts of the Ridley Cambridge Draft that are least restrictive-covenant-like are mostly—and I emphasize mostly—provisions of the apple-pie-and-motherhood variety, sugar coating to divert readers from the poison pill within.

A fundamental problem with the Anglican covenant is its dishonesty. While claiming to preserve the essence of the Anglican Communion, it is instead radically altering it. As I said in “Reflecting on the Archbishop’s Reflection,”
In fact, what [Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan] Williams and other primates have been doing is portraying themselves as conservatives, preservers of the Anglican status quo. In reality, they are revolutionaries, trying to hoodwink the naïve and the over-courteous into abandoning the fellowship that has been the Anglican Communion in favor of a radical centralization intended to enforce doctrinal uniformity. This is the underlying purpose of the Anglican covenant. Terms such as “mutual responsibility” are thrown about by the archbishop as a kind of spiritual blackmail intended to intimidate churches such as our own into giving up their birthright of ecclesiastical autonomy. Williams derisively dismisses “mere federation” as though it were not what the Communion has been these many years.
A similar view is expressed in the excellent analysis provided by the Modern Churchpeople’s Union paper “Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future: MCU’s reply to Drs Williams and Wright”:
Yet [Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan] Williams and [Bishop of Durham N.T.] Wright both write as though this authority [to impose a particular view—even a majority view—on the whole Communion] was already there, already competent to discipline the Americans for disobeying instructions. We must therefore ask why these two senior clergy, who know full well that Anglicanism does not have central authorities with that authority, condemn the Americans on the basis that it does. It is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion: that (perhaps without realising it) they are in the process of creating an authoritarian centralised system, and are identifying themselves with it. The Americans are to blame for the controversy only from the perspective of those claiming more authority than they have.
Serious dishonesty at the Anglican Communion level is evident in the Windsor Report, which either creates or propagates myths about the relationships between Anglican churches. No one doubts that churches of the Communion are, in some sense, interdependent. They consult with one another on various issues, and they coöperate in such projects as delivering disaster relief. The Virginia Report, prepared in 1997 for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, spoke of autonomy and interdependence this way:
3.28 In the development of the Anglican Communion there is no legislative authority above the Provincial level. (How far this is a result of the Royal Supremacy in the Church of England is a matter for reflection. Other historical factors in other Provinces have also affected the question of autonomy and interdependence.) There has been an insistence upon the autonomy of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion. However, while autonomy entails the legal and juridical right of each Province to govern its way of life, in practice autonomy has never been the sole criterion for understanding the relation of Provinces to one another. There has generally been an implicit understanding of belonging together and interdependence. The life of the Communion is held together in the creative tension of Provincial autonomy and interdependence. There are some signs that the Provinces are coming to a greater realisation that they need each other's spiritual, intellectual and material resources in order to fulfill their task of mission. Each Province has something distinctive to offer the others, and needs them in turn to be able to witness to Christ effectively in its own context. Questions are asked about whether we can go on as a world Communion with morally authoritative, but not juridically binding, decision-making structures at the international level. A further question is the relationship between the autonomy of a Province and the theological importance of a diocese which is reckoned to be the basic unit of Anglicanism.
The Virginia Report never became the holy writ that the Windsor Report has become. Its authors acknowledge provincial autonomy as real independence, but they long for stronger bonds of obligation among the churches. Interestingly, the chair of the group that produced the Windsor Report, Archbishop Robert Eames, played the same role in writing the Virginia Report. In the Windsor Report, the description of provincial autonomy becomes the following:
73. Although there is a sense in which the Church of England’s break with Rome in the sixteenth century was an assertion of that Church’s ‘autonomy’, in more recent times the concept of ‘provincial autonomy’ in Anglican thinking was developed in its early twentieth century context to signify ‘independence from the control of the British Crown’. The established Church of England of the Reformation was, and remains, subject to the royal supremacy, and many overseas Anglican churches at one time or other had been similarly subject; speaking of their ‘autonomy’ came to refer to their disengagement from that supremacy.
The seeds of this argument can be found in the Virginia Report, of course. The Windsor Report then goes on to make a kind of Orwellian argument that autonomy is subjection:
76. A body is thus, in this sense, ‘autonomous’ only in relation to others: autonomy exists in a relation with a wider community or system of which the autonomous entity forms part. The word ‘autonomous’ in this sense actually implies not an isolated individualism, but the idea of being free to determine one’s own life within a wider obligation to others. The key idea is autonomy-in-communion, that is, freedom held within interdependence.
The Windsor Report uses the argument that autonomy is not autonomy as justification for an enforced accountability among Anglican churches, put forward as normative. Here is what Dr. Joan Gundersen, church historian and General Convention deputy from the Diocese of Pittsburgh recently said about paragraph 73 of the Windsor Report in a post on the House of Bishops and Deputies Mailing List (I quote Dr. Gundersen with her permission):
My problem is that this statement is at odds with the actual historical development of a number of provinces in the Anglican Communion. First of all, the communion had ALREADY been formed by a group of national churches that included those that saw themselves as truly “independent” of each other before the second British empire began breaking up. (The first empire, of course, took a beating in the late 18th century.) Furthermore the Anglican Communion includes a number of provinces that NEVER were part of the British empire and thus this entire statement is alien to their understanding of the relationship between their church and the rest of the communion. Last time I looked Japan, Mexico, Rwanda, the Congo, the Philippines, the Southern Cone, Korea, and Brazil had not been part of the British Empire. A majority of the countries in two regional provinces (Central America and West Africa) were not part of the British empire. There are other regional provinces where specific countries included in the province were not part of the British Empire (such as Liberia in W. Africa).

If statement number 73 is removed for its historical incorrectness, the entire chain of logic in the Windsor Report leading to the idea that provincial autonomy still means subordination to the communion falls apart.
We are being led to think that Anglican churches are not giving up their independence because they are not now independent anyway. This is simply not true. That our fellow Anglicans are trying to hoodwink us into accepting this historical revisionism is sufficient reason to reject the whole enterprise of developing a covenant as a bad idea and unholy enterprise.

Diversity within the Communion should actually be seen as a strength, rather than a weakness. The Virginia Report acknowledges this on one hand—“[e]ach Province has something distinctive to offer the others, and needs them in turn to be able to witness to Christ effectively in its own context”—and then immediately speculates whether the Communion can maintain its moral authority without enforcing a uniform orthodoxy. There is, I think, a certain amount of papal envy among Anglican primates, including the present Archbishop of Canterbury. The world does not need another Roman Catholic Church, however. We have one already, and most Episcopalians believe that is already one too many.

Whereas it is true that various Lambeth Conference resolutions are suggestive of strong ties among provinces and a desire for even stronger ones, I must point out that such resolutions are not binding and have never been binding on Communion churches. This fact seemed well understood until Lambeth 1998 I.10 became the Eleventh Commandment, another example of Anglican use of the Big Lie. Certainly, Episcopal bishops have no authority to bind their church to Lambeth Conference resolutions, nor should they without the restraining influence of priests, deacons, and, most especially, laypeople.

Institutionally, the Anglican Communion is a mess. It is more of a dysfunctional camel than even the proposed covenant itself, which could actually make things worse. (Frank Turner recently even went so far as to suggest that the Anglican Communion is more imaginary than real.) We now hear talk of the four so-called Instruments of Communion each having its own list of who is in and who is out of the Communion, and we hear serious talk of creating a two-track Communion, an idea that has the potential of giving us eight distinct lists of who is in and who is out. The proposed covenant, if adopted, will effectively overlay the current chaos with more confusing and competing mechanisms.

We should abandon the idea of an Anglican covenant and start asking more fundamental questions such as
  1. What is the purpose of the Communion?
  2. What mechanisms will advance the purpose of the Communion?
  3. How can all orders, including the lay order, participate in Communion activities?
  4. What does it mean to be in or out of the Communion?
  5. How does a church join or leave the Communion?
  6. What is to be done with the handful of isolated dioceses currently in the Communion?
  7. Who is the leader of the Communion and what authority does that person have?
  8. Should the leader of the Communion be chosen by the members of the Communion?
  9. What obligations do churches have with respect to geographical boundaries?
  10. What obligations do churches have to respect the ordinations and depositions of other churches?
  11. Who speaks for the Communion and under what circumstances?
  12. In particular, does it make sense for the Communion to engage in ecumenical talks when the churches of the Communion are not of one mind on any number of issues?
  13. What is a fair way to finance Communion activities?
There are, no doubt, other important questions that we should ask. Our first order of business, however, should be to drop the idea of a covenant and to recognize that the diversity and messiness of the Anglican Communion are strengths to be celebrated, not weaknesses to be obliterated.


No Anglican Covenant

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