September 25, 2011

Victoria Matthews on the Covenant

Since September 1, 2011, when I announced the page on my Web site listing essays favoring the Anglican Covenant published by The Living Church, I have added  two additional essays to the list. The latest contributions published by the American magazine are “The Anglican Communion: A Brief History Lesson,” by the Rev. Dr. Robert Prichard, and “Greeting the Saints,” by the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews.

 Whereas I don’t intend to offer rebuttal to all the points made in the essays published by The Living Church, I reserve the right to comment now and then. (Alan Perry has offered an evaluation of the series as a whole and promises future commentary on particular essays. See his blog post here.)

Today, I want to exercise my right to discuss the Victoria Matthews piece.

 “Greeting the Saints” particularly caught my attention, as Bishop Matthews has a rather interesting history. She is now Bishop of Christchurch, in New Zealand, and was the first female bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada. More information about Victoria Matthews’ career can be found on Wikipedia.

Of course, I was intrigued that, being a woman, Bishop Matthews would be writing on behalf of the Covenant. That document, after all, is designed to inhibit theological and ecclesiastical change, of which she is an obvious beneficiary. Recognizing the potential for cognitive dissonance, she begins, rather defensively, with this paragraph:
People are sometimes surprised that I support the proposed Anglican Covenant because there is a widespread belief that the crafters of the Covenant intend to stop new developments in the Communion. Similarly, many Anglicans believe that if there had been a Covenant 25 years ago, we would not have both sexes elected and consecrated to the episcopate. (“We would not have women bishops,” they say, without speaking of “men bishops.” Bishop is not a gender-exclusive noun, and women is not an adjective.)
I’m not sure what the snarky parenthetical remark is all about. For about two thousand years, Bishop was indeed a gender-exclusive noun, and women can most definitely be an adjective. The bishop’s linguistic credentials are not really what I want to talk about, but her opening gambit is not reassuring.

The Bishop of Christchurch is concerned about “inter-Anglican communication,” which she views as dysfunctional. Communion churches, she suggests, must be committed “to being in relationship one with another, no matter what.” She asserts—or perhaps only hopes—that the Anglican Covenant will “ensure the kind of listening, communication, and relationship that is presently missing in the Anglican Communion.”

It is widely acknowledged that modern communication technologies, and especially the Internet, have complicated the life of the Anglican Communion. Almost immediately, an archbishop across the globe can know about—and object to—the goings-on in another Anglican church. And he—invariably he—can easily mount a worldwide campaign against it. Bloggers and parachurch organizations readily line up on one side or another. Church documents are quickly distributed and deconstructed.

Clearly, Bishop Matthews thinks this is terrible. I don’t. The problem she has with all this communication, I suspect, is that it makes life difficult for bishops. The church was not established for bishops, however, but for all of humanity. Democracy—the priesthood of all believers, actually—is not a bad thing, though it is admittedly a royal pain for those who consider themselves princes (or princesses) of the Church. That ordinary clergy and laypeople are showing themselves to be passionate about their churches is not a gift to be despised.

In fact, Bishop Matthews goes rather off the deep end in her discussion, arguing that some people suggest avoiding meetings because you will learn more by staying home, as if maximum enlightenment will occur if no one at all attends Anglican meetings! How this rather foolish idea is supposed to contribute to her argument I have no idea.

“What would happen if the provinces of the Communion were equally dedicated [as was the Apostle Paul] to being in relationship one with another, no matter what?” the bishop asks rhetorically. What, indeed, if primates did not declare their churches out of communion with one another, did not create alternative gatherings to which only like-thinking Anglicans are invited, and did not boycott Anglican meetings and complain that their concerns were not discussed at those meetings?

So, what does Bishop Matthews think is going to create a commitment to bring “listening, communication, and relationship” back to the Communion? Her answer, improbably, is Section 4 of the Covenant. She appears to be under the impression that the Covenant will enforce “listening and being in relationship.”

Bishop Matthews cites no provision of Section 4, or of any part of the Covenant, for that matter. Has she actually read it, or is she relying on magical thinking? In fact, the only “listening” Section 4 encourages is the monitoring of the behavior of sister churches for incompatibility of their actions with the Covenant. Further, rather than “being in relationship one with another, no matter what,” Section 4 of the Covenant specifies how the Communion can mete out “relational consequences” for alleged infractions of Covenant provisions without requiring any listening to the accused church at all!

In short, the Covenant is in no way the proper medicine for the Communion ailment that Bishop Matthews sees. She concludes her essay
It is my prayer that the Anglican Covenant will act as a midwife for the delivery of a new Anglican Communion, a Communion that has its gestation in relationship and deep listening.
I’m afraid that the bishop will have to find another prayer. This one is not going to come true

Update, 9/26/2011: When I wrote the above post, my main objective was to point out  that, however much Bishop Matthews would like it to be so, the Covenant simply creates no machinery to do what she believes needs to be done.

When I first read “Greeting the Saints,” my impression was that it was distressingly incoherent, but I did not want to make too big an issue of that. Upon rereading it today, however, I do feel compelled to write about the strangeness of its first paragraph.

As I pointed out yesterday, Bishop Matthews begins by acknowledging that, as a woman bishop, many would think it strange that she would be a Covenant supporter. Logically, what should follow this admission is an explanation of why such a supposition is, in her case, unfounded. Instead of explaining away the apparent anomaly, however, she goes on to complain about the use of the term “women bishops,” a complete non sequitur.

Why, I would like to know, does the bishop think that, had the Covenant been in place some number of years ago—the 25 years cited in her first paragraph is not enough—we would have women bishops today? Perhaps had the Covenant been adopted 40 years or so ago, there would be women bishops in The Episcopal Church, The Episcopal Church would be out of the Anglican Communion, and the Anglican Communion would have no women bishops.


  1. 'Woman' can indeed be an adjective. So says Merriam-Webster.

    It is widely acknowledged that modern communication technologies, and especially the Internet, have complicated the life of the Anglican Communion.

    Technology complicates all aspects of life today, not just that of the church. For good or for ill, communication is close to instantaneous, and we all need to adapt to the change.

    Bp. Matthews says;

    I have even heard that it is advisable not to attend certain events, as the coverage at home is always superior to what one learns by attending in person, and by staying at home you don’t have to meet the people who you know are wrong anyway.

    I've heard that said, too, but think of the logical consequences if everyone took the words to heart and stayed away: There would be no event.

    My judgement may sound harsh, but the bishop's words often seem like filling up space, and I think it's quite telling that the supporters of the covenant so rarely quote the text of the document. To attempt to enforce listening is as futile as forcing the bonds of affection. You can put people in the same room, but you can't make them listen.

    To use Lambeth 2008 as any kind of model seems ludicrous to me, when the one person who most needed to be included in the Indaba, Bp. Gene Robinson, was not invited.

    Bp. Matthews prayer is wonderful, but only if she substituted something other than the Anglican Covenant to be the midwife for the delivery of the new Anglican Communion.

  2. I'm disappointed that a woman bishop is in favour of the Covenant, which would act as a brake on change and developement of the Communion. I am much more in tune with Bishop John Saxbee who said in his valedictary speech at General Synod of C of E, "The Anglican Communion doesn’t need a Covenant because Anglicanism is a covenant. It is a way of Provinces listening, living distinctively apart from each other whilst remaining part of one another." He went on to imply that the proposed Anglican Covenant is a cure that would make matters worse for the Anglican Church.


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.