Monday, December 21, 2009

Anglican Covenant (i): Why?

The Anglican Communion as a working communion of Anglican churches committed to work together to the glory of God is bruised, battered, and, if not broken in pieces, certainly has a broken limb or two. What is to be done? "Nothing" is a possible answer. The Communion might recover to one degree or another as some illnesses are healed through the passage of time. Or, the Communion might simply evolve without further intervention into a new set of bodies (say, a (much diminished) Communion, a Conference, and a network or two, including one which lies within the jurisdiction of Rome). Or, the Communion may remain a communion in name only, its effective status that of a federation, an entity, that is, consisting of independent churches that share a few things in common, but do not share any willingness to be accountable to one another.

Another answer is that "something" ought to be done to enhance and to develop the life of the Anglican Communion. The "ought" being driven by a theology of unity, fellowship, body, love, and christology: the church under Christ is both an organically growing body of believers and a communion of believers united in Christ. A divided Anglican Communion (whether formally into several Anglican groupings, or effectively by virtue of being a federation) represents a failure to attempt to live up to the vision of the church in the New Testament. An Anglican Communion which made this attempt would, consistent with the underlying theology, be a Communion of churches intent on seeking an even greater unity with all churches, beginning first with those it has most in common (e.g. Methodist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox). An Anglican Communion which gave up making the attempt would be contributing to the disunity of the church. Thus, something ought to be done!

For some Anglicans, what ought to be done is simply renewing our commitment to doing things the way they have been done. Whether we follow Desmond Tutu's simple but profound description of the Anglican Communion, "We meet", or the more detailed description in terms of the Instruments of Unity, this presumes that "bonds of affection" flowing in and through these Instruments are sufficient to bind us together. Renewal might work. One difficulty, however, is that this way has not worked to this point. Under this 'business as usual' model we have become a Communion out of sorts: divided as to whether or not we should have bishops in same-sex partnerships, stretched by a diversity of theology which means we keep waking to headlines about priests and bishops who do not believe this core doctrine of the church, and strained to breaking point by an increasing lack of any commonality in our liturgical worship.

I suggest the Anglican Communion needs a Covenant in order to define itself in a manner agreed by all. Otherwise the Communion is defined, and will keep being defined according to media headlines, and/or local assertions of what 'Anglican' means. The bonds of affection which have held us together now require the bounds of covenanting lest ‘Anglican’ mean everything to everyone and therefore nothing to anyone. Constant harping against the Covenant is either nostalgia or an effective call for the Communion to become a federation. If people wish to express sorrow that things have come to this pass they should look back in anger at the consistent attempts on the part of a series of bishops, clergy and academics to define ‘Anglican’ in a manner which was always liable to lead to a broken Communion.

The billboard blunder in Auckland last week is a powerful reminder that the media can take up the antics of the few and present to the world a version of what being Anglican means which has not been determined by the majority of Anglicans. The Covenant, in principle at least, is an opportunity for the Communion to define itself. Some fear it will be used to punish Anglicans. I suggest it could be used as a means of self-discipline, which would lead to less headlines about distracting controversies, and better coordinated, coherent mission on the ground.

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