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ANOTHER DRAFT COVENANT

I wish I could recommend Ruth Gledhill’s column in the London Times as a place to discover reliable conjecture. I grant you that journalists are almost bound to make inspired or even uninspired guesses to attract and keep a readership. Fair enough I suppose, except that there are those among us who place perhaps too much reliance on these excursions into prediction. Just because it is printed doesn’t make it true! (Must remind myself of that as I write!)

It seems that we shall see a revised version of the proposed Anglican Covenant, a statement designed to give worldwide Anglicanism an agreed approach to doctrine, discipline and worship and to define the boundaries of inclusion and comprehension. It is also proposed that a way be suggested to deal with the sort of internecine controversy we’ve been used to since Bishop Colenso wrote his now rather tame and very dated musings on the authorship of the Pentateuch, which in part occasioned the summoning of the first “Lambeth” conference of bishops in 1868.

Since those days Anglicans have squabbled about birth control, polygamy, intercommunion with “Protestant non-episcopal” churches, the ordination of women, lay presidency at the Eucharist and human sexuality. Of late an older controversy has obliquely reared its head. It is the matter of just how “Reformed” Anglicanism was intended to be or should be. By “Reformed” I mean cleaving to the teachings of those who followed after and interpreted the theology and discipline proposed by John Calvin, although not necessarily what Calvin actually said and taught.

There was a time when it seemed Anglicans could and did settle controversy by informal discussion. After all, as I have pointed out, until just after World War 2 almost all our bishops, except in the United States, were British, educated at a few major Public Schools -that doesn’t mean state schools but places like Eton and Harrow – and then at either Oxford or Cambridge or perhaps Durham! These bishops may have been higher than the Pope or lower than the Moderator of the Church of Scotland but they shared similar values, culture and devotion to the King-Emperor.

American bishops didn’t always think themselves treated as equals or appreciated, particularly during the archiepiscopate of the patrician Cosmo Gordon Lang. By 1948 matters had improved. Archbishop Fisher struck up a friendship with the American Presiding Bishop Henry Knox Sherrill and then visited the United States. Fisher’s chaplain wrote:

“..this lengthy tour really broke the ice with the Americans. They had always had a great love and affection for the Mother Church, but somehow or other, I don’t think they thought they really belonged, that they were an integral part of it. From that moment onwards, (Fisher’s speech on Anglican Tradition made in Philadelphia)however they knew they were…”

As the old boy’s network within the Communion gave way to indigenous episcopates in newly emerging nation states in what we now seem to term the “Global South” the American Church played a greater and greater role in the Communion, providing both a pattern for self-governance and huge amounts of cash.

Perhaps the overwhelming vote by bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference for the now notorious or glorious statement about human sexuality so shocked the largely liberal American episcopate that the spell of concord was broken. Perhaps the reaction of traditionalists in the American Church, many of whom had personal or “missionary” ties with African Provinces, exacerbated disunity. No doubt the communications explosion of the last decade or so of the Twentieth Century played its part. The American PB Frank Griswold seemed genuinely shocked that his consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire caused such huge reaction across the world. What is clear is that doing deals and making decisions behind the scenes has become more and more difficult. As our conversation has become more public, so has “political” posturing. As what we say is public and for the public, changing minds and course also becomes more problematic.

There may be much good in all this. The views of clergy and laity, or those who blog or email, are much more evident and available than was true just a couple of decades ago. However much bishops lament what someone recently termed internet “addiction”, it is here to stay. The Lambeth Conference is still only for bishops, but the bishops who will assemble in England in a few months will be better informed about the views of Anglicans worldwide than their predecessors. The exchange of opinions and views is something which may be done instantly and need not always be uninformed or an exercise in posturing.

On the other hand public exposure limits private conversation and negotiation, encourages intemperate language and expression and makes vain leaders less amenable to retraction or changing views or proposals. No doubt this factors in to the refusal of those who designed and put into place the idea of a Jerusalem conference of traditionalists before Lambeth, termed ironically GAFCON. As objections from the Primate of the Province in which Jerusalem lies, and its own local bishop, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Evangelical bishops and many others, those responsible for this provocative and obviously “political” maneuver have become more defensive and more obvious in their schismatic and empire-building designs. It looks likely that we shall see an alternative Anglican Communion largely composed of those who adhere to a new form of evangelicalism largely based on the principles of those who left the Church of England in later Elizabethan and Stuart times. They propose an archaeological religious text set to rumperty tumperty music to an informal choreography. The basis of their biblical justification is readily demolished by the Bishop of Durham and other orthodox biblical commentators. That a few Anglo-Catholic bishops and their followers are tagging on to this eccentric vision of a totally reformed and pure Anglican Communion is surely the wonder of the moment.

Within this context it is to be hoped and prayed that the draft for an Anglican Covenant to be published later this week will be sufficient to be met by overwhelming approval by a consensus of authentic Anglicans and particularly those who have found in the Windsor Report a sensible and genuinely Anglican approach to our present unhappy divisions. The loss of two or three African Provinces with their huge “membership” and the Province of the Southern Cone -how Sydney will manage a re-alignment and remain within the Australian Church is a mystery – will be a tragedy, and unnecessary and provocative tragedy one prays may be reversed as leaders retire and it becomes obvious that the Anglican Communion has reached agreement on the basis of its faith and the limits of its comprehension.

That this development has made it the more difficult for the Communion and its Instruments to bring the Episcopal Church’s independent policies to heel is obvious. It is to be hoped and prayed that wiser voices will be heard in TEC and that a younger generation of leadership will emerge reflecting not the 60s, but this century and its needs.

4 Responses

  1. “They propose an archaeological religious text set to rumperty tumperty music to an informal choreography.”

    This is a marvellous phrase with wonderful imagery. But I would like a translation as well, if possible. Is the kind of music that is very Victorian, or is it the clanging of guitars?

  2. “They propose an archaeological religious text set to rumperty tumperty music to an informal choreography.”

    This is a marvellous phrase with wonderful imagery. But I would also like a translation, if possible. Is the kind of music very Victorian, or the clanging of guitars?

  3. I’ve never been a fan of this Covenant idea.

    Michael Peers, the former Primate of Canada and the bishop who confirmed me and ordained me successively priest and deacon once said that what held Anglicanism together was that we meet. When asked if this wasn’t rather a weak unity, he replied, “But what if someone chose not to meet?”

    Riffing off this, it seems to me if we can meet together, no Covenant is required; if we cannot meet, no Covenant will suffice.

    That said, I await the next draft to see if it is an improvement on the former draft. But I hold out little hope that any piece of paper will be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

  4. The draft has now been released.

    It is an improvement – barely. But it is still a very sorry execution of a very bad idea.

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