Consider facts about proposed covenant, not myths

June 25, 2009

Regarding the idea of a proposed Anglican covenant, it bears repeating that the assumption that our "Anglican roots" involve "re-affirming together the essential doctrines of Christianity" is thoroughly mistaken. Yes, there are roots in the Church of England, but the roots of the churches that grew from the Church of England's colonial expansion have nothing to do with a desire to create a global allegiance of independent churches. At this juncture, it seems to me of critical importance that we reflect upon the facts, not the myth.

Clearly, the embrace of the idea of "covenant" among so-called "conservatives" is driven by hope for punitive powers that they can exercise against the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and eventually even the Church of England.

I think it serves us also to examine why it is that some so-called "liberals" are embracing the notion of a covenant. At the risk of being overly-simplistic, I suggest that much of the motivation for their zeal is rooted in the myth of a unity that has never really existed amongst the churches whose roots are "Anglican," i.e., churches emerging from the Church of England.

Evidence that this idealized unity is indeed myth is found in the fact that there is no such thing as a singular and distinct Anglican theology, or a singular Anglican ethos, common to all the independent and autocephalous churches of the Communion.

For instance, just as there is wide diversity among dioceses of the Episcopal Church, some of the churches of the communion are far more "Romish" in their respective theologies of the sacraments than are other "Anglican" churches. There is no such thing, not yet anyway, as a global Anglican Church.

Rather than lamenting the fact, I have to wonder why it is that we're not reclaiming and celebrating the liberty from which this arrangement springs and which it serves. A covenant beyond the purely voluntary bonds of fellowship only destroys the privileges and responsibilities of our mutual freedom. This point is wonderfully demonstrated by a review of the origins of the growing demand that the churches of the Anglican Communion surrender their autonomy and become in effect a single covenanting denomination.

It appears to me that the liberalism of an older generation is helping to drive this obsession with a covenant. Once upon a time, in the America and Europe of the 1960's, reality wasn't real, success wasn't achieved, conversion not genuine, unless and until there existed a document that said so.

Perhaps those of older generations still hold the view that a document matters. But when I look around at the world of my teenage daughters, of those freshly graduated from college, of those trudging all week at work or looking for work, I notice that the signing of a document makes for a seven-second sound byte on a cable news show, perhaps repeated for a single 24-hour news cycle. Then the document fades quickly into irrelevance. Some may wish to believe that "the whole world is watching," but it isn't. Coupled with the departures of the disgruntled whose ranting instigated it, the covenant is now, in my opinion, fantastically useless.

Few are noting that the very primates whose rancor disturbed Lambeth Palace as far back as 1998 are now spinning further and further away from anything that can be identified as Anglican. They are now claiming to recognize a "new Anglican entity" in North America, presuming that they have the authority to validate the thing as Anglican.

They are constantly demonstrating their utter lack of interest in participating honestly and collegially with fellow primates of some churches of the Anglican Communion, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, much less with the lay leadership of any of these churches.

Simultaneously, they succeed in distracting the Episcopal Church and other churches of the communion from the genuine mission of the church. They have succeeded in convincing us that our collective mission is to formalize some codified documentary unity, causing us to dismiss completely the mystical reality that we are one in Christ already.

Classic liberalism has fallen right into step, responding with utopian disregard for these folks as they are, and instead trying to impose upon them by force of their response a manner and behavior that they think they ought to adopt.

It is a form of colonialism still at work. The most honest loving thing to do is to honor the rights of the malcontents to choose who and how to be. They need not continue to be Anglican in order to serve Christ as they believe themselves called to do.

I can sympathize with people who clearly have a favorable disposition to the establishment of a covenant. I would ask them, with all due respect: What relevance does this covenant, and the consuming process to drive it through, have to the wider world around us and to this church's mission and ministry?

The rest of the world does not care if Anglicans cannot play nicely with others who like to identify themselves as fellow Anglicans. What the world around us cares about is whether or not we care about the world around us.

The proposed covenant does pay lip service to rightful concern for the needs of the wider world. But it is preoccupied with encouraging, then enforcing, uniformity. It's time we refuse to be distracted with this covenant nonsense. The Church of England seems constitutionally incapable of leading on this edge; but the Episcopal Church can and should set the pace and lead the way back to mission.

The Episcopal Church, as well as the Anglican Church of Canada, is capable of leading the communion back to its roots, its "Anglican roots" if you must: a collegial fellowship of independent churches, working and praying interdependently to bring Christ to the wider world around us, and to find Christ there waiting for us.

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