By Victoria Matthews
People are sometimes surprised that I support the proposed Anglican Covenant because there is a widespread belief that the crafters of the Covenant intend to stop new developments in the Communion. Similarly, many Anglicans believe that if there had been a Covenant 25 years ago, we would not have both sexes elected and consecrated to the episcopate. (“We would not have women bishops,” they say, without speaking of “men bishops.” Bishop is not a gender-exclusive noun, and women is not an adjective.)
The real question to consider, as we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed Anglican Covenant, is whether it would help or hinder inter-Anglican communication. The 20th and 21st centuries have restructured the way that communication happens across the world. As I write this, the rumor has begun that Rowan Williams will step down as the Archbishop of Canterbury next year. Every sort of media, from blogs to newspapers, speculates on who will succeed Archbishop Rowan, although Lambeth Palace has declined to comment on the rumor.
The situation will likely get worse before it gets better. At Communion meetings it is possible to have major points made by people who are not even in the room, let alone a member of the group, as electronic communication is so advanced. I have even heard that it is advisable not to attend certain events, as the coverage at home is always superior to what one learns by attending in person, and by staying at home you don’t have to meet the people who you know are wrong anyway. None of this is conducive to Christian fellowship and communion.
So as I consider the possibility of the Anglican Covenant, I ask if this document might just assist us in re-establishing rules of engagement as a Communion. I am the bishop of the Diocese of Christchurch, a Pakeha Diocese in the three Tikanga Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. There are very careful rules about how we must relate to the other two Tikanga, Maori and Pacifica. It is not always easy for us to talk to one another, but the protocols help a lot.
One common feature of the New Testament epistles is the list of names in another community to which salutations and messages were being sent. There was no email, not even central postal services, but through the deep, ongoing commitment to communication among the early Christians, even those whom Paul and others had yet to meet, Christians knew of each other’s lives and prayed for each other’s needs. For example, Romans 16 contains a long list of greetings and messages. How did Paul even know their names? We don’t know the answer, but we do witness his extraordinary commitment to fostering relationships with other Christians in isolated and remote Christian communities. He knows something of their struggles and their growth in grace, and it is clear he prays for them.
What would happen if the provinces of the Communion were equally dedicated to being in relationship one with another, no matter what? Archbishop Rowan commended this to the bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference’s opening retreat. The Indaba Group of the Lambeth Conference also attempted to foster it. What if the requirement of the Covenant actually enforced listening and being in relationship? I imagine you cringe at the word enforce, and so do I. But will it happen otherwise? Section 4 of the Covenant exists precisely to ensure the kind of listening, communication, and relationship that is presently missing in the Anglican Communion.
I cannot count the number of times Anglicans have told me they oppose the ordination of women, but they accept my ordination. This comment reflects two things: faulty theology, and the truth that having a relationship with a member of the “other” expands a person’s experience and thinking. If we are willing to trust the grace of Christ that is in evidence whenever two or three of us gather in his name, we may also be able to learn more about Christ, and the body of Christ on earth, from each other.
It is my prayer that the Anglican Covenant will act as a midwife for the delivery of a new Anglican Communion, a Communion that has its gestation in relationship and deep listening.
The Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews, the eighth Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand, is a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity Faith and Order.