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WHITHER THE CHURCH?

The Anglican Communion staggers on into the New Year, battered and in imperfect communion. This past year has been tough for those who believe in “Communion” aka Church. Of course in a divided Christendom every use of the word “Church” with either a capital or small “c” falls short of its precise definition or the hope of its calling. If the two words are not precise synonyms, one can’t have one without the other. Rather like love and marriage, sacramental communion is at the heart of what we mean by Church and church.

Mere Anglicans are offered two remedies for our systemic malady. Our GAFCON co-religionists through their proposed rival American Province offer what appears to me to be a romantic and anachronistic vision, summoned from a day when “Anglicanism” was young and tied unevenly to the Continental Reformation. Whether the charred shades of the Edwardian bishops or  even the views of their more radical sectarian successors would adapt easily to the modern separatist scene is quite another matter. Certainly the ideal of a confessional form of Anglicanism tight on doctrinal interpretation and easy on ecclesiology, now relegated to adiaphora is quite another matter.

Oddly their mirror image seems similarly romantic and confessional. Despite often sneering rejoinders to separatists, those who largely govern TEC propose an appealing version of a 60s vision of peace and light, perhaps in blissful dysnjunction with the reality of the society in which conservatives and liberals have conspired to seduce us all with what has turned out to be greed, and a “me” centered lifestyle. Our present economic collapse is the proof of that pudding.  The TEC Establishment would love to enshrine their new morality in Canon and regulation, probably enacted next year at General Convention, forming a corpus of “doctrine” as formidable as those which emerged from Jersusalem in 2008. If the Communion refuses to accept these new principles many are just as willing to secede from the Communion as are many in Gafcon. A North American independent Church looks good to them.

Those who propose a Covenant as a remedy to these dis-eases, may seem equally willing to embrace a “doctrinal” solution. I tend to see the drafts of a Covenant so far presented less in terms of a doctrinal proposal as a presentation of a portrait or a family history. The Draft Covenant reminds us who we are and whom we serve. It speaks to an authentically Anglican voice or perhaps harmony of voices, the sum total of that which has and continues to describe the Anglican choir and its repetoire. Like any other adjectival construct, the Covenant so far has attempted to “describe and limit” a noun. The noun is the word Anglican.

The framers of the final draft of a Covenant must seek to say who we are without being too restrictive and what we believe without being wildly broad. If we lose our liberality and civility, our legitimate breadth in an attempt to rein in our radicals on both sides we will blur our portrait. If we give too greater latitude to “novelty” we will suggest a much too radical role for a Communion for which inclusion and tolerance denies the role of wild speculation and internal conflict, for living into inclusion involves a moderation not necessary in groups in which the majority rules. Perhaps the Covenant should finally frame our unwritten Constitutional principle as Anglicans that no section or group however temporarily ascendent should enact rules which violate the principles of any other significant constituent “party” within the Anglican comprehension.

One Response

  1. Let us remember that the Church of England (not “the Anglican Church;” there is not such thing) was an accompaniment to the colonizing efforts of England around the world of the 17th and 18th centuries. There was no original intent to create a Communion of autonomous and autocephalous Churches. As a phenomenon the Anglican Communion is an accident of history; it is an adaptation of the former colonies of England.

    When the United States won its independence from England, there was no Anglican Communion in existence. The Church in the United States decidedly did not seek to sustain communion with the See of Canterbury. Instead, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America sought only to maintain apostolic succession.

    The Anglican Communion, as a concept, is hardly even 150 years old. And in its modern manifestation, it dates back to no later than 1968, when the Anglican Consultative Council was formed. These realities present some hard questions that need to be asked before TEC and others participate in actions that will permanently alter the way this Church functions in the world. Harkening back to its origins, ECUSA was concerned with apostolic succession, not with communion with Canterbury. With the relatively recent formal establishment of the “instruments of communion (unity),” and with the trend toward greater mechanisms to urge, then enforce, unanimity, I think TEC will do well to revisit its inaugural choice: apostolic fidelity or fealty to England?

    I suggest that if Canterbury’s only or main relevance to the Anglican Communion is to serve as a tool of enforcement, then it is time to gather up that same Reformation energy that compelled Tudor England to question those claims of authority that were coming form Rome, and now place that same challenge before Canterbury. TEC will do well to lead the way in requiring Canterbury to do far better than trying to ram through the post-Lambeth processes a Covenant in order to convince us that Canterbury is still relevant to the practical mission and ministry of the autonomous Churches of the Communion.

    The Churches already participate in varying degrees with one another, more with some, less with others. A covenant won’t change this. Primates and Houses of Bishops of certain Churches that have claimed to reject other Churches won’t be changed by a covenant. The reality is what it is. There are established processes by which a proposed province or Church accepts membership in the modern version of the Anglican Communion, as prescribed by the Anglican Consultative Council. And this involves far more than simply being invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury. If Canterbury is to remain relevant, then let the Archbishop there continue to invite bishops to Lambeth, but the invitation should be to ALL bishops of all Churches who voluntarily affiliate with the Communion. The ABC should cease presuming to play referee. And the Churches should cease regarding the ABC as such.

    While the Archbishop of Canterbury seems determined to listen to the cranky bigots of that body who are determined to press ahead, he seems uninterested in those more moderate voices urging caution. Rowan Williams is fueling a dismissive disregard for the polity of TEC and an exalted view of bishops and primates as dictatorial headmasters of an infantilized laity. The underlying motivation for an Anglican Covenant seems oriented less around unity and more around unanimity. Yet, no covenant will promote mutual accountability. Relationship does this already. And if relationship does not exist, then nothing mutual exists, either. The Covenant reads like a tool for enforcement and punishment, and if adopted, the Anglican Communion will be very much like that single denomination that the so-called “conservatives” like to describe it as already. The autonomy of the national provinces of the Anglican Communion is Anglicanism’s unique gift to the wider body of Christianity. No reasonable argument can be made that a covenant will not thoroughly undo this. Thanks be to God, the Communion already has unity amongst those who choose to embrace and engage the challenges and blessings of Anglicanism.

    The Church of England never had a covenant. The Episcopal Church purposely has never had a covenant. No Church constituent of the Anglican Communion has ever adopted a covenant. Presumably, we have all experienced the grace of catholicity, i.e. the wisdom of doing without any more covenant than the Creeds of the Church. The very phrase Anglican Covenant is virtually a contradiction in terms. Personally, I hope and pray that the idea of an Anglican Covenant will wither and die, and that those of us who appreciate the blessing that is the Anglican Communion will press on with our respective and collective mission and ministries. (See the whole essay at

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