September 25, 2009

Why No Anglican Covenant: Part 2

This is another of a series of posts on the proposed Anglican covenant. Earlier posts include “No Anglican Covenant” and “Why No Anglican Covenant: Part 1.” These posts are being presented in no particular order.
There is much to be said about what is in the Ridley Cambridge Draft proposed as an Anglican covenant. Too little attention has been paid to what is not in the draft, however. In this essay, I want to discuss an important provision that is missing.

We have been told repeatedly that members of the Anglican Communion must observe the three moratoria first articulated in the Windsor Report (see paragraphs 134, 144, and 155) and reiterated by the primates. Despite protestations that the current conflicts are not about sex, however, only the moratoria involving homosexual persons seem to be of significant interest to the elements of the Communion upset with The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. Neither the primates generally nor the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular have condemned border crossings with conviction. They surely have done nothing to stop them. Primates who have violated provincial boundaries or have countenanced such incursions by their bishops have been swift to justify such activity as unimportant when considered beside the blessing of same-sex unions or the consecration of partnered gay bishops. They view incursions as necessary to provide pastoral care for supposedly persecuted “orthodox” Anglicans, despite the fact that incursions violate longstanding Anglican tradition.

It is curious that “orthodox” elements of the Communion continue to advocate the three moratoria while conspicuously ignoring ongoing (and expanding) incursions. It is also curious that the proposed covenant, while requiring churches to do and to believe all manner of things, is silent on the matter of not messing in the affairs of sister Communion churches. Perhaps that is because the purpose of the covenant is to mess in the affairs of other churches.

Before considering why overlapping jurisdictions are a bad idea, I want to make some general observations about the concept of episcopal jurisdiction. The situation we see today is more complicated than that of the fourth century, when the Council of Nicaea dealt with the matter. There is no longer a universal (or nearly universal) Church. In Pittsburgh, for example, churches are overseen by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal bishops, not to mention whatever kind of bishop Bob Duncan might be. Overlapping jurisdictions are a fact of life almost everywhere, but the Anglican Communion has traditionally invoked Nicaea Canon 8 as requiring unique jurisdiction insofar as Anglican Communion bishops are concerned. Although there is not a single, unified Anglican Church, Communion churches act, at least in this regard, as though there were—until recently, at any rate.

Why is it important that this should be so? There are, I think, at least three reasons. First, having parishes of multiple Anglican churches in the same geographical area is confusing to people who might want to attend them, not to mention journalists who might need to report about them. Whereas Lutherans or Baptists may be used to paying close attention to the exact denominational flavor of a church carrying their generic designation, Anglicans are not. Of course, people could learn to live with overlapping jurisdictions, but, as one living in two versions of the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh,” I can attest that such a situation is indeed uncomfortable and confusing to many, especially to people shopping for a church.

In fact, another problem with overlapping Anglican jurisdictions is that it puts Anglican Communion churches in competition with one another for parishioners. If the overlapping dioceses are themselves already in conflict with one another—as they are in northern Virginia, for example—the competition is likely to exacerbate existing tensions and make it increasingly difficult for the churches to coöperate in mission of any sort, which, one might argue, is the whole point of the Anglican Communion. The close juxtaposition of Anglican parishes of mutually hostile dioceses has more insidious consequences, however. First, it encourages the demonization of those Christians in the other jurisdiction. (The Pittsburgh experience could be cited here as well, at least with respect to the parishes that left the Episcopal diocese for the Southern Cone.) Also, it sends the message that Anglicanism is a narrow, rather than a broad, Christian tradition and that, whether locally or when traveling abroad, it is important to find the right flavor of Anglican houses of worship. In other words, overlapping Anglican jurisdictions drive Anglicans further apart.

Finally, overlapping jurisdictions give reason to question the whole notion of an Anglican Communion. They make it abundantly clear that the Communion is not a unified church, that its pretensions to being the “third largest Christian grouping” or some such is so much puffery, and that the Communion cannot credibly speak with one voice to the world at large. In the present circumstances, the Anglican Communion seems to be a group of competitors vying for adherents, rather than a fellowship of coöperating, geographically localized Christian churches. Worse still, it acts like a den of pirates intent on poaching souls and absconding with property. One might think that an Anglican covenant should ban overlapping jurisdictions in order to avoid such embarrassing activities.

The Anglican covenant is presumably meant to offer both a carrot and a stick to potential signatories. From the standpoint of The Episcopal Church, however, it appears that no one remembered to include the carrot. If The Episcopal Church cannot even be granted a restoration of its exclusive franchise within its ostensible borders, signing on to the covenant can only be seen as the self-flagellatory act of an organization lacking a clear self-image and simple self-respect.

That said, I do not personally care if the Church of Nigeria, Uganda, or even England plants churches on our shores. In The Episcopal Church, we are used to having parishes with different worship styles and theological viewpoints check by jowl in any given diocese. I believe this acceptance of diversity is both healthy and, to many people, attractive in an ecclesiastical landscape often hostile to ideas different from those articulated in one’s own church. Episcopalians should not fear competition from intolerant “Anglican” churches sponsored by foreign provinces.

It is difficult not to believe that the churches of the Anglican Communion are too culturally and theologically diverse ever to agree on some issues, even if one takes the broadest possible view of Anglican tolerance. The Anglican Communion should therefore be concentrating on mission, not dogma. It is time to let individual Anglican churches try to be the best that they can be, give up pretensions to being a rival to the Roman Catholic Church, admit that the Archbishop of Canterbury is just the Archbishop of Canterbury (and technically, not even the head of the Church of England), and forget about adopting an Anglican covenant.

No Anglican Covenant


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