An Uneasy Fit

Covenants and Anglicans have never gone together
April 9, 2007

"Covenant" is a word that recently has entered the vocabulary of Anglicans. Covenants enjoyed a brief heyday during the Continental Reformation, but never appealed to Anglicans. There is little reason why they should now.

The problem is the difficulty of reducing unresolved issues like the role of Scripture, the relationship of autonomous provinces and the place of gender and sexuality to brief statements of black-letter law. To cut off the healthy evolution of discussion with restrictive covenants now is to risk producing a document the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Apiah described as having "the quality of those horoscopes that seem wonderfully precise while being vague enough to suit all comers."

Anglicans already have an impressive collection of carefully crafted historical statements enumerating our fundamental beliefs, including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886, 1888; and the Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer of 1979.

The modern idea of a church covenant originated with Heinrich Bullinger, a Swiss theologian during the Reformation. Covenants provided needed credentials for newly emerging Northern European monarchs and state churches, but Anglicans developed a distinctive way of resolving differences, as expounded in anti-covenant, anti-Puritan works like Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593) and in the writings of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667).

Taylor placed a high premium on Christian reasoning. He wrote, "Scripture, tradition, councils, and the fathers, are the evidence in a question, but reason is the judge." For Taylor, "The heart of reason, that vital and most sensible part ... is an ambulatory essence, and not fixed."

Additionally, proponents of religious covenants then and now never solved the central problem of God's unbounded love, given to humanity through Christ. "God loves you. Full stop," is how Desmond Tutu often puts it.

Reformation covenant writers got stuck in deciding who was saved and who was damned, assuming for themselves the self-appointed role of gatekeepers. Articles 5.5 and 5.6 of the proposed Anglican covenant set up the same exclusionary role for today's Primates.

Like its predecessors, the Tanzanian covenant of February 19, 2007, is a fatally flawed document, long, dull and tediously obvious, except for its invidious final provisions, which change the character of the historic Anglican deliberative process and turn the Primates into a judicial body. The Covenant Design Group, in Trollopian language, says the document emerged from a specific, "stressful" setting, meaning the place of gays and lesbians in the wider communion. But that matter is addressed nowhere in the document.

Four general comments highlight the document's problems:

  1. Despite the "everybody wants a covenant" language introducing the document in the Anglican Communion website, nobody really wants a covenant except proponents of centralized authority.
  2. Article 5 misrepresents newly named "Instruments of Communion" by changing three loosely organized, collegial consultative bodies -- the Lambeth Conference, Primates' Meeting, and Anglican Consultative Council -- into quasi-judicial agencies.
  3. Article 5.5 then makes the primates judges, and Article 5.6 adds the door-slamming clause, giving primates policy and legal control over what they decide are controversial decisions of autonomous provinces, sharply changing the robust regional diversity that has been our distinctive hallmark for centuries.
  4. What is amazing is, although the triggering issue for the larger dispute is sex, the proposed remedy is a power coup. How unAnglican can you get? The document should be rejected outright.

What then? At several key historical junctures, Anglicans with sharply differing viewpoints sought to make common cause through sets of issue-oriented essays. Some of the most remembered volumes include Lux Mundi (1889), Foundations (1912) and Soundings (1962).

If a set of essays was commissioned on the current issues facing the Anglican Communion -- what would the subject matter be? Obvious topics are: the religious impact of postcolonial globalization, the authority and use of Scripture, religious education, the role of bishops (including the spread of Episcopal poaching) and the place of women, homosexuals and other marginalized peoples in the church.

Such essays should be accompanied by a media educational plan using the Internet, electronic communications facilities such as Trinity Church, Wall Street, employs, and printed educational materials for global use. The articles would represent a set of markings, a roadmap rather than a final destination. They are not for a moment intended to substitute for other forms of robust non-covenantal dialogue at all levels within our broader polity.

Covenants historically were rejected by Anglicanism, as they should be today. It is time to heed the restless prodding of the Holy Spirit and move the wider church to a fuller sense of witness and mission.

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