This is the first of two parts of an analysis of Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Anglican Covenant. Today, I introduce my critique and discuss Section 1. In the concluding post tomorrow, I will discuss Sections 2 and 3 and offer some concluding remarks.Although much has been said and written about the Anglican Covenant, critics have been superficial and generous in their evaluation of its first three sections. Section 4 has been a lightning rod for criticism, which has both diverted attention from the rest of the Covenant and encouraged charity toward it so as not to be seen as uncoöperative. The devil, it is often said, hides in the details, however, and the exact wording of Sections 1, 2, and 3 is important. Churches considering adoption of the Covenant need to understand just what they are being asked to sign on to, so that they can evaluate the likelihood of their being subjected to “relational consequences” for their actions past, present, or future.
I have long thought the first three sections of the Covenant misleading and dangerous, but I have resisted the daunting task of making a systematic argument to that effect. In what follows, however, I offer a critique of Sections 1, 2, and 3 in the hope that doing so will encourage more thorough and honest discussion of those parts of the Covenant.
I undertake this task as a defender of the integrity of my church and with my skills as a technical editor, one who seeks clarity in a text and who is obliged to raise questions wherever clarity is lacking. In this instance, unfortunately, I cannot go back to the author and suggest rewording, since we have been told that the text to which churches are being asked to subscribe is the “final text.” I cannot, therefore, always provide a definitive explication of the meaning of the Covenant, but I can suggest what, in practice, it might mean. This is the best anyone can do.
I will not attempt to analyze the Introduction, which, according to §4.4.1 is not actually part of the Covenant. The Introduction is a page and a half of impenetrable gobbledegook intended to lend an air of religiosity to the Covenant and to discourage serious reading of what follows. Likewise, I will ignore Section 4 for now, which is of an entirely different character.
My observations will be of greatest interest to members of The Episcopal Church, and especially to deputies to the 2012 General Convention who will likely determine the fate of the Covenant in relation to The Episcopal Church. I trust that other Anglicans will also find my remarks helpful.
PreambleLet me begin with the Preamble of the Covenant. Here and in what follows, I will quote the Covenant text sparingly. Readers should read my comments with the Covenant text itself readily available in order to follow my remarks.
The Preamble seems reasonably straightforward. I do find the citation of Revelation 7:9 to be both pretentious and irrelevant, but this is only a stylistic issue.
Section One: Our Inheritance of FaithThis section includes assertions that “each church affirms.”
Section 1.1.1 is certainly unobjectionable.
Section 1.1.2 is a bit problematic. What, exactly does it mean to affirm that
The historic formularies of the Church of England, forged in the context of the European Reformation and acknowledged and appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion, bear authentic witness to this faith.A footnote explains that what is being referred to here are “The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” The significance of the “historic formularies” has been downplayed somewhat in this draft over earlier ones. The Episcopal Church, of course, never used the 1662 prayer book, and I think that Episcopalians would not accept the Articles of Religion as a valid statement of their Anglican faith. Can The Episcopal Church “affirm” §1.1.2 in good conscience? I suspect not.
I cannot accept, and believe that The Episcopal Church cannot accept, the characterization, in §1.1.3, of the Old and New Testaments “as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” This formulation has tended to earn a bye by virtue of being attributed, in a footnote, to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Significantly, however, this particular wording appeared in the wording adopted by the 1888 Lambeth Conference. It was not part of the resolution adopted in Chicago by Episcopal bishops in 1886 and never formally adopted by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. The wording of §1.1.3 seems to elevate Scripture over tradition and reason and could be—and almost certainly will be by some Anglican churches—seen as an assertion of sola scriptura.
Section 1.1.4 is also derived from the Chicago and Lambeth Quadrilaterals, but, again, the Covenant favors the Lambeth articulation. What, exactly, does it mean to affirm the Apostles’ Creed “as the baptismal symbol”? This seems to make no sense. And what of The Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 BCP? Is it somehow incompatible with §1.1.4?
Section 1.1.5 also derives from the Chicago and Lambeth Quadrilaterals. What is the significance of “and of the elements ordained by him”? If wine is unavailable and grape juice is used, is this a violation of the Covenant? Perhaps this section is too specific.
I see no problems in §1.1.6.
Section 1.1.7 is clearly asserting that our churches are liturgical and, in one way or another, derive our liturgies from the first Book of Common Prayer. The phrase “shared patterns of our common prayer and liturgy” suggests a uniformity that does not exist, however. The wording is circumspect, perhaps in recognition that a distressing amount of Anglican worship is not based on the local prayer book.
What, exactly, is the “apostolic mission” referred to in §1.1.8? Do all Anglican churches understand this mission the same way?
In general, §1.1 gets into trouble by being too specific. It thereby encourages disputes regarding whether churches might be acting in a way that is incompatible with the Covenant. Doing anything to encourage such debates is not going to advance the reputed goal of keeping the Anglican Communion together.
Section 1.2 enumerates commitments of signatories of the Covenant. It is quite reactionary, although this has not been widely noted. The Covenant has a strong prejudice against change.
That prejudice is immediately apparent in §1.2.1. Churches commit
to teach and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, as received by the Churches of the Anglican Communion, mindful of the common councils of the Communion and our ecumenical agreements.When did the “Churches of the Anglican Communion” receive the faith they are supposed to uphold? Did the Church of England receive it before The Episcopal Church did? Did each receive the same faith? What about the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil? What are the “common councils of the Communion”? The Lambeth Conference? The Primates’ Meeting? Whose “ecumenical agreements”? Does the Anglican Communion have any ecumenical agreements? (I don’t think so.) Does The Episcopal Church have to be “mindful” of the relationship of the Church of England and the Church of Sweden, since those churches are members of the Porvoo Communion? Does the Church of Nigeria (Anglican) somehow have to be respectful of The Episcopal Church’s relationship to the Moravian Church in North America? Does anyone really know—can anyone really know—what §1.2.1 allows and what it prohibits?
Section 1.2.2 may seem innocuous on first reading, but the reality is that the Communion has many conflicting ideas about what is “the teaching of Holy Scripture,” and many would argue that that teaching has been and is now in conflict with “the catholic tradition.” Ultimately, this section will mean whatever the Standing Committee says it means. That is unlikely to be what The Episcopal Church thinks it should mean.
It is significant (and disturbing) that neither §1.2.1 nor §1.2.2 acknowledges reason as a source of authority for the Communion. Apparently, Richard Hooker is not going to be the quintessential theologian of the Anglican Communion that will be created by the Anglican Covenant. The omission again illustrates the profound prejudice the Covenant has for forever keeping things as they are, since neither tradition nor a literal reading of Scripture allows latitude for change.
As far as I can see, §1.2.3 is complete gobbledegook. I have no idea what it means. It asserts that churches commit
to witness, in this [theological and moral] reasoning, to the renewal of humanity and the whole created order through the death and resurrection of Christ, and to reflect the holiness that in consequence God gives to, and requires from, his people.I suggest that statements like this are not helpful if a layperson like myself can make so little sense of it. This section will endear Episcopalians neither to the Covenant nor to the Anglican Communion. This is the sort of statement that gives theology a bad name.
Section 1.2.4 overall seems reasonable, but it has some worrisome eccentricities. The “communal reading of … the Scriptures” seems to suggest that we all must interpret Scripture the same way. Surely, this is unacceptable. (Section 3.2.3 elaborates this theme.) I have no idea what to do with “and costly witness to.” Is this about martyrdom or what?
Section 1.2.5, concerning the handling of Scripture, is not, in itself, objectionable. The problem, of course, is that one person’s faithful, respectful, comprehensive, and coherent interpretation of Scripture is another person’s misreading. Provisions such as §1.2.1 lead me to believe that sincerity in interpretation will not be a defense for any interpretation deemed non-traditional.
Section 1.2.6 is just fine. It is perhaps the only provision in the entire Covenant that could be viewed as “liberal.”
Section 1.2.7 is another provision whose meaning is obscure. What does it mean to act “in accordance with existing canonical disciplines”? The Anglican Communion itself has no canons, so what canons are being invoked here? What does it mean “to nurture and sustain eucharistic communion”? I suspect this means that no church should do anything that would cause another church to declare broken or impaired communion. If so, it is another instance of a prejudice against any church’s rocking the Anglican Communion boat.
The final clause of §1.2.8 sounds lovely. But the notion of pursuing “a common pilgrimage with the whole Body of Christ” is another instance of the Covenant insisting that no church can do anything novel unless the whole Communion goes along. Here, in fact, there is a suggestion that all Christians, not just all Anglicans must agree. Thank you, no, I prefer a church that’s alive to one that’s preserved in formaldehyde.
Part 2 can be found here.