January 28, 2012

A (Very) Close Look at Doll’s Pro-Covenant Essay

The Most Reverend William White
The Most Reverend William White
On the Web site of Modern Church, Jonathan Clatworthy has recently posted a rebuttal to Peter Doll’s pro-Covenant essay that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has sent to Church of England bishops. (See my post on Comprehensive Unity: The No Anglican Covenant Blog.) Clatworthy’s argument is brilliant, and I must congratulate him for his ability to see the forest presented by Doll, whereas I could only see trees—trees that, individually, seemed to make no sense to me.

Clatworthy’s “Americanism and the Anglican Covenant” is insightful, but it may still be profitable to examine some of the individual points that Doll uses to build his overall argument in favor of adopting the proposed Anglican Covenant. Doll touts his American background to lend credence to his picture of The Episcopal Church and its history. His English audience is likely to be taken in by this, but to me and to other Episcopalian friends, Doll seems to be describing a church unknown to us.

What I propose to do, then, is to examine individual assertions made by Doll and leave it to the likes of Clatworthy to criticize the global aspects of Doll’s case for the Covenant. To do this, I will reproduce all of Doll’s essay, interspersing my observations between his paragraphs.

The Doll paper begins
The Anglican Communion has fascinated me since my mid-teens, as long as I’ve been an Anglican and had an academic interest in history – the different national churches, the translation of the Prayer Book into myriad languages, the English parish church building exported into every climate and exotic architectural style. I also have a great affection for and owe a great debt to the Episcopal Church, which inspired and nurtured my faith in the first place. Although my focus here is on the role the American church is playing in the current travails of the Communion, I don’t for a moment pretend that the Americans are solely responsible for these difficulties. The conservative over-reaction to them is equally problematic. But I think I understand American religious culture from the inside, which I cannot say about the post-colonial churches. I also speak as someone who values deeply the comprehensive identity of Anglicanism particularly as I’ve found it lived out in the Church of England, even if I frequently can’t fathom how such a broad and diverse institution manages to hold together.
The author is clearly establishing his credentials here. Only later do we see that he is blowing smoke for his Church of England readers. He generously admits that Americans are not alone responsible for the chaos in the Anglican Communion, and he admits that he knows other Communion churches less well than he does The Episcopal Church. (That this is true becomes increasingly distressing.) Incidentally, The Episcopal Church is a post-colonial church—more about that later.
Also, a word of caution. I don’t offer a detailed apologia or critique of the terms of the Covenant. I’m more interested in its overall implications for the way we live out our lives in Christ. I see the Covenant as offering a choice between our declining into a federation of churches sharing a common heritage or drawing ever more closely together in Christ as a real communion of churches.
As Clatworthy has pointed out, the Anglican Communion is in no danger of “declining into a federation of churches sharing a common heritage.” That is exactly what the Communion has been heretofore. Until recently, that has been considered “a real communion of churches.” The actual danger is that the Covenant will convert the Communion into a collection of client churches required to adopt uniform dogma promulgated by an episcopally dominated international and unaccountable bureaucracy.
So, first of all, I want to contradict the widespread assumption around the communion that the Episcopal Church is simply an ultra-liberal institution, through and through. While its leadership is predominantly liberal, many of its members are more cautious and conservative. They would now identify themselves as being communion-minded, or ‘Windsor-compliant’ as it’s often expressed. This is an historic tension within the Episcopal Church, certainly present in the colonial period but coming to the fore only when efforts were made to unite the members of the Church of England into a national Church following the American War of Independence. Those churchmen led by William White, later the first bishop of Pennsylvania, who were commissioned to come up with a Book of Common Prayer for the American church had to produce something that reflected the reality of the new political situation they found themselves in — no more prayers for the monarch. In addition, however, they were men deeply imbued with the contractual principles of the Enlightenment. White modelled the government of the new church on the principles of civil government enunciated in the American Constitution. In that civil society, authority was understood to flow up from below, from the people, whereas the Church of England insisted that the episcopate was the source of authority and government in the church under God — authority from above. The enlightenment churchmen also took the opportunity to reshape the Prayer Book according to their ideological ends. They claimed in the preface to the proposed Prayer Book of 1786 that ‘the doctrines of the Church of England are preserved entire’. It’s highly important to note this declared intention to be faithful to the inheritance from the Church of England. It is a regular refrain throughout the history of the Episcopal Church, and it has often signalled in fact significant alterations to that inheritance. This proposed Prayer Book deleted the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds and omitted the descent into hell from the Apostles’ Creed, along with parts of the Psalter and the lectionary that were deemed to be ‘hurtful’, the sign of the Cross in baptism, various of the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from Evening Prayer. Anything that the revisers did not deem ‘rational’ was chopped. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult to see how they could say that ‘the doctrines of the Church of England are preserved entire’ with these changes.
It is true, of course, that The Episcopal Church has never been theologically monochromatic. One could say the same about the Church of England. It is also true that the American church developed in a climate of democracy. (Note that the church constitution and the United States Constitution were developed in parallel; the former was not modeled on the latter. This is unclear in Doll’s text.) The Americans established an episcopate “locally adapted in the methods of its administration” to the needs of the United States. I will have more to say about the proposed prayer book presently.
If the rational enlightenment assumptions of William White marked one pole of Episcopalian believing in this period, Samuel Seabury, who had already been consecrated Bishop of Connecticut by the Scottish Episcopalians, represented the alternative. The New England Anglican tradition had its origins in the conversion of several leading Congregationalist clergy and scholars to the Church of England, having been convinced by their reading of the ancient Church Fathers of the necessity of Episcopal ordination. Despite having started out as a tiny, oppressed minority in puritan New England, they were a dynamic and influential high church movement drawing significant numbers of converts from the Congregational established churches. In his analysis of the proposed Prayer Book, Seabury rightly perceived the influence of Deism (God as a distant clock-maker), Unitarianism (denial of the Trinity), and Arianism (denial of the divinity of Christ) at work. His brand of Anglicanism insisted on fidelity to the witness of the early Church, a catholic adherence to the inheritance of faith: He wrote, ‘the surest way to guard against this mischief, is to attend to the interpretations of the oldest Christians and of the universal Church.’ And so Seabury fought a rearguard action against these changes. The desire for the unity of the Church was sufficiently strong that he was able to reverse the most serious of the changes. In this he was aided and abetted by the bishops of the Church of England, who refused to consecrate bishops for America unless the American Prayer Book remained more faithful to the inheritance of 1662.
Doll makes Seabury the orthodox hero of The Episcopal Church’s formative period and White the defeated outlier. This nearly reverses the conventional understanding of the situation by Episcopalians. The northern colonies had strong Anglo-Catholic sympathies, but Church of England parishes were few. Church of England parishes were numerous in the South, and particularly in Virginia. These churches were more Protestant in outlook, and this is the viewpoint possessed by William White. White was neither a Deist, nor a Unitarian, nor an Arian. The proposed prayer book to which Doll refers was just that—proposed. The book finally approved in 1789 was the result of give-and-take among American Anglicans eager to establish a new church for a new nation. It was not a radical departure from the English book of 1662.
I mention this telling vignette from the history of the Episcopal Church to remind us that the tensions that we see today in the life of that Church are no new phenomenon. They have been present at least since the beginning of its independent history. I find this strangely comforting. The doctrinal issues under consideration then — the divinity of Christ, the Trinitarian nature of God — were of far greater import than the issues that divide us now. If they could manage to preserve unity then, we can do so now, if it means enough to us.
I have no problems here. Would that churches in Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere—one should include the Anglican Church in North America here—agreed.
My fear is that we no longer care enough about unity to hold on to it. Unity is not an idea that means much in the context of American religious life. Americans are strongly imbued with a sense of their own ‘exceptionalism’, and this is (if possible) even more true of their religious than of their political and social life. The particular extreme reformed Protestantism that arrived with the early settlers has formed the theological habits of the continent, with a conviction that in the new world the original humanity, before-the-fall humanity could be recovered. This assumption has been further shaped and expanded by Americans’ experience of the land: as settlers moved west, inescapably they were always encountering new sights, new opportunities, new peoples. If ever there were a land in which humanity thought it could re-invent itself, this was it. When the historian Frederick Jackson Turner formulated his ‘frontier’ thesis of American history, he perceived that persistent adaptation to frontier living allowed the constant reinvention of civilization from its barbarian beginnings. As the philosopher Joseph Needleman said in his examination of the Shakers, ‘America is the land of zero. Start from zero, we start from nothing. That is the idea of America.’
This paragraph is very wrong. Doll begins by conflating unity with uniformity. The Episcopal Church began with a quest for unity in the face of the diversity that even Doll recognizes. Over the years, the church has had its disputes, which have largely mirrored similar conflicts in England. (Much of the nineteenth century could be characterized by disputes between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, with broad-church Episcopalians seeking a viable reconciliation.) To be sure, America seemed to be the cradle of myriad idiosyncratic religious movements, advocating everything from snake handling and lay celibacy to plural marriage, but The Episcopal Church was largely untouched by America’s weirder religious excesses.
The American religious experience is like no other, and even if American Anglicans have historically identified themselves as standing apart from evangelical Protestantism, as being a cut above socially and intellectually, their actual experience is nevertheless deeply imbued with these same primordialist assumptions. From the beginning of the Republic, American Anglicans assumed their church was ‘purer’ than the Mother Church of England because they had disposed of state establishment. America is a self-referring cultural power; it does not occur to most Americans to consult others, politically or spiritually, to arrive at an understanding of truth and right. The great American literary scholar Harold Bloom, a secular Jew, has argued that virtually all Americans, whatever their religious disposition or denominational label, are Gnostics. What does he mean by this? 1) That there is no higher religious authority than the private individual. 2) That every individual can reach religious truth by his or her own efforts. 3) External expressions of formal religion (churches, worship, creeds) are unnecessary, and potentially a harmful block to true spirituality. 4) Any attempt to tell me what to believe is a threat to religious freedom. In such an approach to religion, there is no place for the fall, no place for the assumption that our human condition is fundamentally flawed by disobedience, such that we need to be redeemed from sin and death through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
This paragraph is pure poppycock. True, Episcopalians believed it appropriate that a free people have a church not entangled with the state. (Many in England are belatedly coming to the same conclusion.) As for Americans not consulting others to “arrive at an understanding of truth and right,” I would suggest that the English are even less inclined toward such consultation. (If the Church of England adopts the Covenant, it quickly will become clear just how disinclined the English are in this regard!) In any case, the description of Americans by Bloom that Doll cites applies nicely to American megachurches. It has nothing to do with Episcopal parishes. Moreover, the image of The Episcopal Church as the Republican Party at prayer is no longer appropriate. The church is broad in its makeup, and Hispanics represent the fastest-growing segment of the Episcopal population.
I don’t think it takes much knowledge or experience of the Episcopal Church to see the power that this ‘American Religion’ has over its life. If ‘personal experience’ has absolute authority, if finding the ‘real me’ is the central quest of human existence, then the individual requires complete freedom of choice unconstrained by any authority outside the self. A church inculturated in such a setting will affirm the individual quest in all its forms. Inclusion becomes a fundamental value for the church, the unconditional affirmation of all personal experience of whatever race, creed, gender, or sexuality. The purpose of the church is to validate those who have found their true identity and have thus found God. This would seem to be the thinking behind a recent orthodoxy of the Episcopal Church, the welcoming of all of whatever faith or none to communion. This seems to me a much more serious issue than the current disagreements over sexuality. By obviating the need for baptism, it leaves no space for the atoning power of Christ’s death and resurrection, repentance, faith or holiness of life.
Here is where Doll shows his hand. The foregoing nonsense about American religion is intended to set up a straw man for him to attack. In no way does The Episcopal Church advance “finding the ‘real me’’’ as “the central quest of human existence,” and the suggestion that it does is offensive. If English bishops to whom the Doll paper was sent actually believe this calumny, there truly is no hope for reconciliation within the present Anglican Communion. The inclusiveness of The Episcopal Church is not the product of an anything-goes acceptance of behavior, no matter how outrageous; it is the acting out of the admonition in the 1979 prayer book’s Baptismal Covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Doll takes another cheap shot at The Episcopal Church by attacking open communion, which is not technically allowed and is not widely practiced. (I personally am disturbed by the practice, for which I believe there is little theological justification.) In any case, The Episcopal Church is not in the business of “obviating the need for baptism.”
And if the individual is sure that no institution or system of belief can have any authority over the self, then it is equally true that no other church can have any authority over an autonomous national church. The attitude of the Episcopal Church is very firmly, ‘No one can tell us what to do.’ I remember particularly vividly the response of the American House of Bishops to the scheme proposed by the Communion Primates in 2007 for a scheme to provide pastoral oversight for congregations alienated from their own bishops. The bishops said, ‘It violates our founding principles as the Episcopal Church following our liberation from colonialism and the beginning of a life independent of the Church of England.’ These words and the rest of the reply seem to me an exercise in historical self-deception and wishful thinking. The Anglican church in the American colonies had an ambiguous relationship with the Revolution – some supported it, but many were firmly opposed to it, remaining loyal to the British crown. The only ‘liberation’ the Revolution brought Episcopalians was from much of the church’s financial assets and historic influence. Americans did not experience ‘colonialism’ in the same sense as African and Asian nations in the twentieth century. It is utter nonsense, I would argue, to equate the current American experience with that of African and Asian post-colonial societies. And yet if we take the statement at face-value, it must express how these Episcopalians feel about their situation. These rich and powerful Americans, the most privileged people on earth, identify their own experience of being oppressed and persecuted for their advocacy of gay rights with, for example, the experience of black South Africans under apartheid.
In the first sentence of this paragraph, Doll uses the “fact” he claims to have established in the previous one to conclude that The Episcopal Church cannot admit of any ecclesiastical authority over it. This is his way of denigrating the church’s traditional claim to autonomy. In fact, autonomy is a claim as old as the Anglican Communion itself, and one of the hallmarks of traditional Anglicanism that the Covenant seeks to extinguish.

The rest of this paragraph is, to use Doll’s own words, “an exercise in historical self-deception and wishful thinking.” True, not all Church of England members in the Colonies supported the Revolution. Despite the fact that some clergy fled to Canada, most clergy, particularly in the South, did support the Revolution. Laypeople did so overwhelmingly. The church suffered few losses of assets because of the Revolution, though it arguably lost influence in states where it had been established.

What follows is strange indeed. According to Doll, Episcopal Church bishops said, in response to an attempt by the Anglican primates to dictate how the American church should be run, “It [the alternative pastoral oversight demanded by the primates] violates our founding principles as the Episcopal Church following our liberation from colonialism and the beginning of a life independent of the Church of England.” He then goes on to dismiss the church’s claim to autonomy because the colonialism experienced by the American Colonies was not as oppressive as that experienced by black South Africans! The Episcopal Church is not autonomous because its forebears suffered oppression; it is autonomous because it established an existence separate from the Church of England with a democratic polity in which only its members participate. What is a bedrock American idea is that of government by consent of the governed. Episcopalians have consented only to be governed by their constitution, canons, and prayer book, as established by the General Convention.
The further irony is, of course, that the Anglican Communion would not exist as it does without the efforts of the American Church to force the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. Their bishops wanted to have a chance to condemn the liberal theological tendency represented by Essays and Reviews and Biblical criticism and Bishop Colenso. Then they wanted the Communion to be mutually accountable and interdependent. Now the issues are different and the roles are reversed. Now it is the American bishops who resist claims of reciprocal obligation. So what is it about the Covenant that so offends and frightens them? Why does it have them running for their muskets to repel the new imperialists?
However upsetting the Colenso affair, it is well known that that first Lambeth Conference was not intended to be legislative. Archbishop Longley made it clear at the outset that the gathering was intended to allow the attending bishops to “discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action.” Only since passage of the notorious 1998 Resolution I.10 have bishops argued seriously that Lambeth resolutions are somehow binding. (In a sense, that resolution was the ultimate source of the current chaos in the Communion.)

Bishop of Minnesota Henry Whipple put it this way in a Lambeth Chapel sermon at the beginning of the 1888 Conference: “In so grave a matter as the restoration of organic unity, we may not surrender anything which is of Divine authority, or accept terms of communion which are contrary to God’s Word. We cannot recognize any usurpation of the rights and prerogatives of national Churches which have a common ancestry, lest we heal ‘the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly,’ and say ‘peace, where there is no peace;’ but we do say that all which is temporary and of human choice or preference we will forego, from our love to our own kinsmen in Christ.” (Recall that the Lambeth version of the Quadrilateral was promulgated at the Lambeth Conference of 1888.)

Moreover, bishops attending nineteenth century Lambeth Conferences were not seeking a “mutually accountable and interdependent” relationship among Anglican churches. That phrase—actually “mutual responsibility and interdependence”—came along three-quarters of a century later at the 1963 Toronto Anglican Conference. The phrase was really a demand for older churches to treat newer churches as partners, rather than as clients. (See “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence.”) It was decidedly not about churches telling one another what to do.
The theology of the Anglican Covenant is an expression of an approach to ecclesiology called conciliarism. This is the view that the authority of councils of the church is above that of popes. It emerged in the face of papal claims of supremacy in the middle ages, was submerged by the power of papal autocracy from the 15th century, and only re-emerged in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. For Anglicans who regard themselves as both catholic and reformed, conciliarism has been an important foundational principle, a reflection of their accountability to the faith of the whole church. It takes us away from a centralised model of church authority to one where authority is dispersed throughout the Body of Christ; the body needs to speak in common to reflect its unity. This belief is reflected in the enunciation in the Covenant document of the venerable principle, ‘what affects the communion of all should be decided by all’. It is an expression of what we mean by ‘catholicity’, that we orient our lives according to the unity of the whole Body.
The assertion that “[t]he theology of the Anglican Covenant is … conciliarism” is astounding. If this is true, why has Anglican been without an authoritative council for nearly five hundred years? Doll is indulging in wish fulfillment here. Additionally, there are at least two problems with the principle of “what affects the communion of all should be decided by all,” no matter how venerable Doll takes it to be. First, as Clatworthy observes, decisions for the Communion under the Covenant are made by a small number of people, mostly bishops. These deciders would largely be unelected and not directly accountable to the majority of the world’s Anglicans. (Americans are concerned about the consent of the governed thing here.) Second, how is it decided that something actually “affects the communion of all”? Most Episcopalians would argue that whomever an Episcopal Church diocese chooses for a bishop is the business of no one outside The Episcopal Church. In fact, under the Covenant, the same small group that decides Communion issues also decides what issues need to be decided. (Can you say “tyranny?)
In contemporary ecumenical discussions, the tradition of conciliar theology is represented by the prominence of ‘communion’ (in Greek koinonia) as the heart of the life of the church. The fellowship of the Church is inseparable from the life of God the Holy Trinity, the mutual self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God who creates human beings in his own image and likeness creates us for communion with him and with one another in the Body of Christ. The communion principle is crucial for ecumenical relations for obvious reasons. If, as is commonly acknowledged, all Christians are united by baptism in the Body of Christ, then it is impossible for any denomination to dismiss any other, to say of other Christians that they do not matter. Christ has broken down the dividing walls of human sin and estrangement and made us one (Eph 2.12-22). Therefore we have an obligation to listen to and belong to one another, to live as those who know themselves to be new creatures in God through baptism and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
There is a good deal of theological gobbledygook here that I will claim neither to understand nor to be capable of evaluating. This seems as much an argument for agreement with the Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, etc. Why does the Covenant only cover Anglicans? (The Episcopal Church never suggested that it had no need of other Anglican churches, by the way.)
Communion ecclesiology has been the foundation of the recent Anglican examination of their common life in the midst of disagreement. The Eames Commission Report of 1989/90, the Virginia Report of 1997, and the Windsor Report of 2004 have all insisted that communion principles are the only conceivable foundation for the renewal of the common life of the Anglican Communion, now falling prey to fraction and schism. Rather than living as citizens of Christ’s kingdom here on earth, the advance guard of his reign of justice, mercy, and peace, we are living as creatures in a Darwinian jungle, ‘red in tooth and claw’, using every available legal and illegal, political and verbal means to slash and savage one another, and all for what end — the right to claim the label ‘Anglican’?
The uniformity of the recommendations of the Eames Commission Report, Virginia Report, and Windsor Report is, according to Doll compelling. It seems less compelling and remarkable when one realizes that Robin Eames headed each of the groups that produced these reports. Moreover, the reports are simply reports. Never were they accepted as definitive statements of Communion policy, nor, arguably, does any Anglican body have the authority to offer such acceptance. Clearly, Eames is fixated on a particular idea. He is not, however, the Anglican Communion or a typical Anglican. Doll’s Darwinian metaphor is embarrassing hyperbole.
We do have a way out of this mess. Since we are caught up in the divine life, it ought to be second nature to us. The Covenant document points to the virtues of Ephesians 4, ‘Faithfulness, honesty, gentleness, humility, patience, forgiveness and love itself, lived out in mutual deference and service (Mk 10.44-45) among the Church’s people and through its ministries’ (§3). These are the necessary corollaries of communion theology and living. Unfortunately there are seemingly insurmountable cultural and religious barriers to this mode of life. Communion theology assumes that hearing the Scriptures proclaimed is a communal practice, that the teachings of tradition and reason need to be communally discerned. But the assumptions of a common mind, a common listening, a common discerning in patience and love over time seem to be incompatible with the assumptions of what I’ve characterised here as ‘American Religion’.
Doll resumes his direct attack on Americans here. His insistence on the need for uniformity in doctrine surely is incompatible with “American Religion.”More to the point, his uniformitarianism—a Clatworthy term—is profoundly un-Anglican. Bishop Whipple, in the aforementioned Lambeth Conference sermon, put it this way: “ I reverently believe that the Anglo-Saxon Church has been preserved by God’s Providence (if her children will accept this Mission) to heal the divisions of Christendom, and lead on in His work to be done in the eventide of the world. She holds the truths which underlie the possibility of reunion, the validity of all Christian baptism in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. She ministers the two sacraments of Christ as of perpetual obligation, and makes faith in Jesus Christ, as contained in the Catholic Creeds, a condition of Christian fellowship. The Anglo-Saxon Church does not perplex men with theories and shibboleths which many a poor Ephraimite cannot speak—she believes in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, three Persons and one God, but she does not weaken faith in the Triune God by human speculations about the Trinity in Unity. She believes that the sacred Scriptures were written by inspiration of God, but she has no theory about inspiration. She holds up the Atonement of Christ as the only hope of a lost world; but she has no philosophy about the Atonement. She teaches that it is through the Holy Ghost that men are united to Christ. She ministers the sacraments appointed by Christ as His channels of grace; but she has no theory to explain the manner of Christ’s presence to penitent believing souls. She does not explain what God has explained, but celebrates these Divine mysteries, as they were held and celebrated for one thousand years after our Lord ascended into heaven, before there was any East or West arrayed against each other in the Church of God. Surely we may and ought to be first to hold up the olive branch of peace over strife, and say, ‘Sirs, ye are brethren.’” This, of course, is not the approach we find in the Anglican Covenant.Whipple’s sermon, however, was well received.
If that religion is fundamentally about an individual quest for the ‘real me’, about continually moving on to new frontiers, about the utter irrelevance of any authority outside the self, then reference to the authority of a common reading of Scripture, the common understanding of tradition, the common discernment of reason have very little meaning. So (from an American perspective) if our partners in the Gospel don’t agree with our understanding of Scripture, tradition and reason, it becomes necessary to change the parameters of our relationship.
Doll’s premise is bogus. Furthermore, Episcopalians want to preserve the parameters of their church’s relationship to the Anglican Communion. It is the over-reacting conservatives and Covenant advocates such as Doll and Rowan Williams who are looking to revise the Communion’s traditional relationships.
One approach has been, in place of responding to the challenge of mutual accountability, that American church leaders have claimed that communion theology puts an unacceptable priority on unity over truth and justice. Whose truth and whose justice are not issues up for debate. Nor is the idea that justice, truth, and communion might have something to say to one another. The American church is not prepared to accept further consultation or dialogue over this issue nor to wait for the rest of the church to catch up with its own understanding of the place of same-sex relationships in the life of the church. Whatever is acceptable and right in a particular American cultural context must be universally applicable to every other culture and context. There is more than an element of cultural imperialism in these American attitudes. Ironically, they resonate strongly with the gung-ho combination of domestic isolationism and foreign interventionism of American political life which so many American liberals deplore, and yet they don’t seem to be able to see the parallels here.
This is yet another libelous paragraph. The Episcopal Church has not tried to impose its views on other churches; it has only tried to explain the logic of the actions it has taken. The charge that Americans are unwilling “to accept further consultation or dialogue” is ironic. Many Communion churches continue to vilify people for their sexual orientation without listening to the people so marginalized, and even the Church of England considers how to implement women bishops in all-male committees. Doll apparently believes that the Church is more important than people. Episcopalians, on the other hand, tend to see justice delayed as justice denied. They are reluctant to throw their homosexual sisters and brothers under the bus for the sake of Communion peace. This attitude is influenced not a little by guilt over the Episcopal Church’s failure to oppose slavery aggressively or to champion the rights of freed blacks. American society moves quickly, and delay of the Episcopal Church to respond to the developing moral conscience of the American people while waiting for the rest of the Communion to “catch up” threatens the very existence of the church.

While it is true that Americans tend to focus on American society and politics, this, as Clatworthy has pointed out, is natural for a large and complex country. It is unfortunate that the U.S. has gotten a reputation for foreign adventures, most recently due to the presidency of George W. Bush. Ironically, however, Episcopalians tend to be more concerned with the world beyond U.S. borders than the average American and to be as appalled by U.S. imperialism as anyone. Membership in the Anglican Communion has, in fact, fostered greater international awareness.
Another way to skirt around the challenges of accountability has been to reformulate the understanding of the office of bishop. This is necessary because the documents leading to the Covenant have expressed the role of bishop in entirely communal ways. The Virginia Report states, ‘The episcopate is the primary instrument of Anglican unity’ and that Episcopal oversight is properly personal, collegial, and communal. It is personal because ‘Bishops are called by God, in and through the community of the faithful, to personify the tradition of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.’ It is collegial because they share with other bishops the concerns of the local church and the community to the wider Church’ and they ‘bring back the concerns and decisions of the wider church to their local community’. It is communal, because bishops exercise their authority ‘in synod’, within the community of local churches and in communion with one another.
It is not clear how The Episcopal Church is supposed to have “reformulate[d] the understanding of the office of bishop.” The role of bishop was “locally adapted” to the American nation more than two centuries. ago. It seems churlish to complain about it now. It seems to be Archbishop Eames who is eager to change the nature of the episcopacy.
This understanding of the bishop’s office is now being jettisoned by bishops around the communion, both on the left and on the right. American bishops on the left tend to justify this in the name of a ‘prophetic’ understanding of their office, giving expression to the doctrine of radical inclusion, stepping out ahead of the church in ways that are meant to expose its weaknesses and disobedience. Within the Episcopal Church, ‘prophetic’ action has become a favoured way of effecting change in place of prolonged investigation and theological debate. Likewise, bishops on the right have launched missions within the jurisdiction of other churches in defiance of collegiality in order to proclaim their own versions of truth and justice.
It is true that partisans on both the left and right are, as we might say, pushing the Anglican envelope. It is hardly true that “prophetic” action is being used “in place of prolonged investigation and theological debate.” That investigation and debate has been ongoing for some time in The Episcopal Church, and change has largely come though normal canonical procedures. Episcopal incursions, unfortunately, violate traditions and are exceedingly divisive, though they violate no formal inter-Communion agreements. Ironically, the Covenant does nothing to discourage such incursions directly. (See “The Covenant We Do Need.”)
A yet further way of avoiding the claims of mutual accountability has been to hide behind a particular understanding of the autonomy of the national church. The definition of autonomy becomes a legalistic claim to the entire independence of the national church from influence or interference from any other church. The communion relationship is cast in political rather than ecclesial terms: rather than being engaged in a common discernment of truth, the sides must be willing to compromise; one side or other must admit being in the wrong, or else this will necessitate a break-up of the Communion. Many of the more conservative churches have expressed dismay that the Covenant offers no punitive sanctions to punish the Americans and so they want nothing more to do with it.
As I said earlier, the claim of autonomy is not an innovation. The claims of “communion theology” are. One might argue that “common discernment” is actually enhanced by allowing diversity among churches. In America, national legislation is often informed by experiments, both successful and not, undertaken by the individual states.

What Doll says about conservative churches is indeed true. Those church will likely destroy the Anglican Communion as we have known it.
The Covenant understanding of autonomy is very different, expressed as ‘autonomy in communion’. Autonomy in this sense does not imply unfettered freedom. Communion is not a human device for better relations. It is a gift from God and is therefore not something that human decision can break. Therefore, in this sense, ‘autonomy’ is a relational rather than an independent term. Each church is to be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating – in this way they are autonomous. But according to the principle of communion, they are to exercise that autonomy in mutual subjection and with regard for the common good.
“Autonomy in communion” in Doll’s sense is an oxymoron. What does it mean that communion is a “gift from God”?  Saying this is nothing more than a transparent rhetorical trick to make opponents feel guilty. Who, after all, would reject a gift from God? Was Islam a gift from God? Was World War II?
I’ve often heard people say that they are happy with the theology of the Covenant (sections 1—3) but that they part company with the fourth section – the one that has to do with the consequences of provincial churches not behaving in a collegial manner. This is seen as un-Anglican, as embracing a Roman-style centralising authority. And yet the worst punishment that is being suggested is suspension from participation in the instruments of communion. Given that these rebelling churches do not accept their accountability to these same instruments, this hardly seems like dire punishment.
I daresay there are many Episcopalians who would welcome being tossed from the Communion as an alternative to giving the Episcopal Church’s detractors the satisfaction of having the church leave voluntarily. It is ironic that banishment is seen as a valid response to Communion conflict by those such as Doll who advocate common discernment and compromise. It is likely that The Episcopal Church would quickly be threatened with expulsion were it to adopt the Covenant, as some Anglican primates cannot even deign to take communion with our presiding bishop. How interested in dialogue are they? My prediction is that the Communion with be destroyed or diminished whether or not the Covenant is adopted. The Archbishop of Canterbury probably could have prevented this. He did not.
The Covenant is not ultimately about punishing wayward churches. It is about giving them a choice. Do they want to be gathered into a closer, more mutually accountable relationship, or do they not? If they don’t want to be closer, then inevitably their relationship with the whole will be more distant. One might compare this situation with that of the United Kingdom in relation to the European community. If Britain chooses not to be part of the euro, its voice in the central financial councils will necessarily be less strong. Such choices have consequences.
I could not agree more with this paragraph. I believe that The Episcopal Church will, wisely, reject the Covenant option, as it is in conflict with its mission to minister to its people and society. If the church cannot act until it is allowed to do so by Uganda or Nigeria or Rwanda, it will become irrelevant to American life. The Episcopal Church is not about to jettison the Gospel for the sake of acceptance, but neither is it going to retain tradition for tradition’s sake to placate foreign Anglicans who neither understand nor appreciate American civilization.
Anglicans around the Communion often think about the Covenant in relation to their own church political objectives. It’s often said, ‘If we had to wait for the slowest members, women’s ordination would not yet have happened.’ In fact, over this issue the Episcopal Church was very careful to consult and accept the strictures of communion. That has not been the case in the more recent issue of same-sex relations. Here the Episcopal Church has in practice refused to be bound by communion-wide restrictions. I would argue that if the principles of communion are right, if the Gospel calls us to be subject and accountable to one another, then we must be obedient and patient and trust in the rightness of the outcome under God and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It may mean that we won’t have what we want when we want it. But if this way is Christ’s way, it is the way of the cross. If the journey to unity is to be true to him, then it must be costly and sacrificial.
To begin with, The Episcopal Church has not made its decisions in secret. When it prohibited discrimination against gays in ordination, the election of a gay bishop became inevitable. Further, the discussion of the women’s ordination issue in the Windsor Report is regarded as revisionist history by Episcopalians. Those Anglicans who insist that The Episcopal Church discriminate against LGBT persons are not asking Episcopalians to exercise restraint or to make a costly sacrifice; they are asking Episcopalians to sacrifice instead their sisters and brothers in Christ. Do we have the right to do that?
We find ourselves in a situation where we profess belief that Unity is what God is and what God does in the world, what he calls us to be, but that we find ourselves in danger of giving up on that Unity and accepting the disintegration of our Communion and of affirming our separation. I think the Covenant is worth our support despite its faults. We have no alternative programme. Those who wish to join it will do so because they wish to grow closer to others in the bonds of unity, not because it will enable them to punish wayward churches. They will join because communion is what God is and what he calls us to in Christ. Communion is our starting point, God’s gift to us in Baptism.
The operative words here are “to punish wayward churches.” This is what the Covenant is really about. As has been pointed out by more than one writer, the alternative—certainly one alternative, at any rate—to having a covenant is having no covenant. That has been God’s gift to Anglicans for centuries.
The liberals of the American church begin not with communion but with the ‘prophetic’ call to (their understanding of) justice and truth. The conservatives of the developing world and their GAFCON allies begin with neither communion nor justice but with the church as the guardian of (what they understand to be) truth. The Covenant process stands between these two poles. It values highly justice and truth, but it sees these not as starting points but as fruits of communities that together tenderly nurture unity, communion, and holiness of life. If the Church lives the life of communion for which God created it, then unity, peace, justice and truth will manifest the integrity of our choice to the wider Church and the world.
Doll craftily represents Covenant adoption as a via media position, rather than the radical step that it is. I see no reason why making nice with people in faraway churches with unfamiliar traditions and conflicting theologies is a greater good than truth and justice. The reality is that positive change in the world—post-modern folks are reluctant to say “progress”—does not, historically, come about through agreement  within councils at the summit of hierarchical structures. The world actually needs prophets; it does not need more ecclesiastical bureaucrats. Peter Doll believes otherwise.


There is, alas, a strong streak of anti-Americanism in the higher ranks of English society. Surely, Rowan Williams exhibits it, and I suspect that other English bishops are similarly infected. I don’t pretend to understand this. Perhaps it is residual resentment of the Colonies’ treatment of George III. My English friends have suggested that it has some relation to America’s late entries into the World Wars. In any case, Peter Doll has taken advantage of that anti-Americanism and, with the help of logical fallacies, has produced his diatribe against America and Episcopalians in support of the Anglican Covenant. That the Archbishop of Canterbury would find this libelous document a compelling argument for the Covenant is discouraging. I hope that at least some bishops of the Church of England will see through this transparent philippic.


  1. An exhaustive piece of work Lionel. Bless you for your patience; moe than I could muster in response to this travesty of half-truths.

  2. There is of course a conversation in the broad field of ecclesiology to be had about whether the establishment of a new structure of polity is equivalent to the creation of a "new Church." To read Cranmer's Preface to the 1549 or the Preface to the 1789 would lead you to guess that at least some folks felt not only that Episcopalians today are in the "same Church" that the members of the Church of England in the Colonies of North American were members of in days of yore, and indeed that the Church of England itself was in the truest sense "of the same Church" in 1550 that it was a part of in, say, 1450. While it is thus generally true that the Anglican Communion has evolved as a "federation" of independent Churches (though see issues related to Colenso in South Africa and to the upheaval more recently in Rwanda to see that the lines are not always so sharply drawn), many and perhaps most Anglicans historically and presently view our Communion as a more entangling state of being than our instruments of polity describe.

    Bruce Robison

    1. I seriously doubt that most Anglicans, either historically or presently, have much of an opinion one way or the other about the Anglican Communion, being much more concerned with their own parishes and dioceses and national Churches. At any rate, why should we regard this supposed opinion as being equal to what our actual instruments of polity say regarding that polity? Constitutional government - both civil and ecclesiastical - is based on its regulating documents rather than popular opinion, isn't it?

  3. It is rather important to note that when 18th and 19th century Anglican and Episcopal writers speak of "communion" they mean the word in almost exactly the same sense as we would use "denomination."

    But crucially, once independence came, and we obtained our own bishops from England, there was no "communion" in the modern sense of the word between the Church of England and PECUSA. England recognized PECUSA as being of the same "denomination" as them, but there was no ecclesiastical connection, or what we would call "communion." On the contrary, the US bishops consecrated by Canterbury and York, and all bishops they consecrated --- and any clergy they ordained --- were forbidden by law from ever functioning in English dominions.

    One of the chief problems with Doll's paper is his failure to grasp that words had different meanings in the colonial and early Federal era -- and to speak of "communion" in our modern sense of the word, as if that existed in, say, 1800, is utterly mistaken.

  4. For perhaps a different take on communion and Communion, I'd reference this. My friend, +Dan Martins, Bishop of Springfield, is in Canterbury this week for a gathering of bishops from around the Anglican world, and he's been giving some fun and interesting commentary along the way at his blog. Here is the link. A nice thing to do might be to pour a cup of tea and scroll back to the beginning of this trip, Thursday January 19, and then to read "up" the blog to the present.


    Bruce Robison

  5. Interesting reading from our mutual friend +Dan, but I'm not sure I see much in the way of content towards precise understanding of "communion" or "Communion" other than what I've experienced in similar trips to Lambeth and Canterbury in my own work on behalf of the Communion. I would say his essays characterize the old model of "bonds of affection" (and liturgy and liturgical supplies *{;-)) that many of us hold dear, and are content to keep as central to our life together. I'd have welcomed more on the Bible study and what those buttons were, and what if any new insights he gained from the exercise. I'm rarely disappointed in Bible study, and almost always come away with some new insight, and would have welcomed more on that.

    Thanks for the link!


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