As regular readers know, I don’t often post material from others on my blog. The essay below is an exception to my usual practice. The Rev. Jim Stockton, rector of Austin’s Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, posted a version of this essay about the proposed Anglican covenant on the Houses of Bishops and Deputies e-mail list on December 30, 2009. I was impressed with Jim’s insights and asked for his permission to reproduce an updated version of his essay here.
Bad Fruit from Bad Seed
The Rev. Jim Stockton
It is a given, I think, that most Episcopalians view the proposed “Anglican Covenant” as the fruit of a bad tree. It derives from the envy of a small number of emerging-world primates and the homophobia of some influential North Americans. The effective disturbance they raised together as far back as 1998 at the Lambeth Conference planted the seeds of conflict and caught the primates by surprise, especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and our own Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold. The surprise that these primates’ highly un-Anglican behavior achieved enabled their effort to gain momentum. While the Churches of the Communion continued to work and pray in accordance with Anglican norms, the ‘family’ of a few primates and their North American sponsors continued to work in a manner that owes more to guerrilla politics than to Christ-like or apostolic fellowship.
The combination of political ambition and social xenophobia that the groups shared continued to fester until it erupted around the possibility that the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. might ratify the diocesan election of a bishop who is unapologetically gay. At this juncture, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had before him an important choice. He could have served the Communion through his leading by example, i.e., he could have responded to the claimed angst of the vociferous minority by reminding all those claiming to be Anglican that the Churches of Anglicanism are interdependent in mission and independent in polity. However, he chose instead to invest his personal attention and the prestige of his office in validating the unsubstantiated claims of the envious and the homophobic. The bad seed of mischief had grown to a flourishing shrub.
The Archbishop himself assured that shrub’s growth to the full stature of a gnarly tree when he established the Lambeth Commission on Communion and gave it the task of producing what has come to be known as the Windsor Report. The Report was reactionary rather than investigatory. The Commission might have inquired of the primates claiming to take offense at Bishop Gene Robinson’s life-style whether their claims of real harm to their own churches as a result of Robinson’s election were, in fact, true. Instead, the Commission chose to accept the word of the most ill-behaved and loudest-crying children in the room, and thereby reacted against the Churches of the Communion that were most fully engaged and financially supportive of the Church’s mission. The Report was the first bit of bad fruit to fall from the bad tree. The proposed “Covenant” was the second, and the more obviously poisonous.
Anyone who has read the first proposed “Covenant” understood immediately that it was punitive in nature. The only question was whether or not one was in favor of punishing the American and Canadian Churches for their daring recognition of gay Christians as a genuine expression of God’s love for all. That the proposed “Covenant” was an instrument of punishment was never in doubt. This instrument has now been revised to yield the current and “final” version. The punitive nature of it has been muted but not at all eliminated. In fact, if the punitive aspects of the thing were eliminated, there would be hardly any interest remaining in driving its adoption forward. Hence, the intense focus on Section Four. Were Section Four not the intent of the thing, then it would have been dropped when people first raised their objections to it in the first draft. The proposed “Covenant” remains a device for the xenophobic and envious to punish those ecclesiastical bodies that are otherwise beyond their control because of democratic polity and the movement of the Holy Spirit. That it remains about punishment, coercion, and control demonstrates that the proposed “Covenant” is the worst of the bad fruit from the bad tree of emerging-world envy blended with privileged North American bigotry. To suppose that this bad fruit from this horrific tree can now somehow be nourishing for Christian fellowship is simply mad.
The current revision of Section Four employs high-sounding rhetoric about intentions for the proposed “Covenant,” but the text shows signs of being the garbled product of a committee. Section 4.1.1. reads in part: “Each Church adopting this Covenant affirms that it enters into the Covenant as a commitment to relationship in submission to God. Each Church freely offers this commitment to other Churches in order to live more fully into the ecclesial communion and interdependence which is foundational to the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” A cursory reading might suggest that the commitment to relationship is being said to be “foundational to the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” Analyzing the grammar more closely, it appears that “ecclesial communion and interdependence” (or perhaps simply “interdependence”) is offered as “foundational to the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” The problem with either interpretation is that the section presupposes that any of these are in fact “foundational” to any of the Anglican Communion Churches. The plain fact is that they are not. The Anglican Communion did not exist when the Church of England declared its governance to be independent of Rome. The Scottish Episcopal Church, and later the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, did not regard as foundational their interdependence upon one another, certainly not upon the Church of England. There was no such thing as an Anglican Communion upon which any of the Churches descendant from the Church of England built themselves. The first Lambeth Conference was not held until 1867. The current form of the Anglican Communion did not exist before 1969 with the establishment and first meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council. Until that time, and even since that time, the Churches that grew from the Britain’s colonial efforts were and have been independently governed, with each Church’s primates and bishops meeting voluntarily, but always proceeding absolutely independently of one another regarding their respective Church polities. To the contradiction of the proposed “Covenant,” history demonstrates that neither the “ecclesial communion and interdependence” nor a commitment to same are foundational to any of the Churches of the Anglican Communion. Thus, the draft “Covenant” is an attempt to put into place something new, but using language that implies that it has always existed.
Section 4.4.1 reads in part: “The Introduction to the Covenant Text, which shall always be annexed to the Covenant text, is not part of the Covenant, but shall be accorded authority in understanding the purpose of the Covenant.” Since this section refers us to the Introduction, it is helpful to turn there. Paragraph 7 includes this: “Our life together reflects the blessing of God (even as it exposes our failures in faith, hope and love) in growing our Communion into a truly global family. The mission we pursue is aimed at serving the great promises of God in Christ that embrace the peoples and the world God so loves.” I must confess, I did not know that it was a goal of the Churches of the Anglican Communion to “grow” “our Communion into a truly global family.” Instead, I rather thought we were already precisely that. Certainly, as is true of any real family, there are disputes among us, but I fail to see how a “Covenant” document, a new bureaucracy, a new organizational power given to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a procedure for punitive repercussions for daring to disagree with him will heal damaged relationships. Paragraph 7 continues: “This mission is carried out in shared responsibility and stewardship of resources, and in interdependence among ourselves and with the wider Church.” It seems, then, that the “Covenant” embodies a vision that involves not only a centralization of authority over Communion Churches, but also a centralization of their respective resources as well. The “Covenant” is a device to circumvent that pesky movement of the Holy Spirit in a particular context amongst a particular people. It trusts instead a Lambeth bureaucracy to decide the polity of that people’s Church, and the allocation of that people’s funds and the use of their resources—all of this in conjunction with the supreme irony of the high likelihood that the British Parliament will be unwilling to cede authority over the Church of England to anyone outside the Church of England. We can set aside concerns around the anomaly of a two-tiered Communion. If this “Covenant” moves forward to adoption, it will be the Church of England that moves to a new, and decidedly un-Anglican, third and upper tier. One hopes that enough of the primates will remember and appreciate that they are Protestants, and so head this thing off.
People will continue to claim that such concerns about centralization and shift in organizational power back to Britain are alarmist. To these I say that, if the “Covenant” is about relationship rather than power, then do away with Section Four entirely. But they are then left to defend the proposal of a “Covenant” itself. And so they should be. The Churches of the Communion are already in effectual relationship. Those who choose not to be so will not change upon the adoption of a “Covenant.” It is obvious, then, that if this “Covenant” is adopted, it will alter forever the meaning of what it is to be Anglican, at least until a sufficient number of Churches act to abolish the thing and to end the existence of the enhanced “Standing Committee.”
Anglicanism’s unique witness to world about what it is to be Christian has been that the Creeds of the Church are and have always been sufficient to define Christian fellowship. The polity of the Episcopal Church has never put being Episcopalian, much less being Anglican, ahead of being simply Christian. Being “a covenanting Church,” in the language of the proposed “Covenant,” redefines every Episcopal Church congregation, every entity of the Church, every thing and every person having to do with the Episcopal Church. It would do likewise for every other Church of the Communion. Britain might prefer it this way. It is painfully evident that Archbishop Williams would. However, the proposed “Covenant” is a stark contradiction of every Protestant impulse, every inclination among the people that led to the expulsion of the influence in England of Rome, and that of England from the Church in the U.S. Familial relationship is one thing; governance is quite another. Confusing the terms does not change the distinction. This “Covenant” is poisonous fruit from a bad and dying tree.