By Nathaniel W. Pierce
Imagine the following scenario for a moment: a well-educated Anglican bishop from England embarks on a missionary trip to an isolated tribe in Africa. He is kidnapped in the year 2000 and held incommunicado for twelve years. The bishop finally manages to evangelize his kidnappers and is released in January 2012. He is then given the current draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant and asked to answer two questions: briefly describe what this document says and identify whom it seeks to punish.
In response to the first, I would expect our bishop to speak of the poetic, carefully footnoted summary of 150 years of Anglican thinking and biblical understanding to be found in Sections 1-3, followed by an effort to create an Anglican process in Section 4 for resolving any differences which might arise.
As to the second question, our bishop would state the obvious: “I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”
This defines the curious paradox known as the Anglican Covenant. For those churches active in GAFCON, the Covenant is perceived as being deficient precisely because it does not punish the Episcopal Church and others who have strayed from the paths of true orthodoxy. For many Episcopalians (and others) the Covenant is deficient because it does punish (or seeks to punish) the Episcopal Church. I do not understand how any single document can do two completely opposite things at the same time, but there you have it.
Beyond that curiosity, however, lies a deeper issue: the inability of reason and/or references to the actual text to resolve the dispute.
This reminds me of the key character in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32): no, not the prodigal but his older brother, the son who stayed at home, worked hard, and perceives himself as having committed no sin. The Anglican Covenant, like the father in the parable, invites us into a deeper relationship, a covenantal relationship. Of course, you are aware of the concept of covenant; the Episcopal Church has already signed a covenantal document with at least five other, non-Anglican churches. Now we, along with the other Anglican provinces, are being invited to enter into a covenantal relationship with each other.
And because previous hurts and wrongs (and yes, profligate living) have caused difficulties, both the father in the parable and the Covenant proclaim a sort of amnesty, a forgetting (not forgiving) of the past.
The prodigal son, who recites his confession twice but to whom the father never speaks one word of forgiveness, chooses to attend the great party, itself the incarnated word of forgiveness. He is done with eating with the pigs and has come to his senses. He, along with most other poor people (see the Third World), now understands what is really important in life: being in relationship.
But will the prodigal’s older brother attend the party? I do not believe that he will. In fact, I do not believe that he can. He perceives himself as being without sin. Lo, he has worked faithfully these many years. His self-righteousness leads him to perceive the father’s act of throwing a party in honor of his brother (“this son of yours”) as a personal rebuke. Indeed, we might use the word punishment: the prodigal’s brother feels like the party (which he never got) is an intentional slight despite all the good he has done. He feels punished.
To put words in the father’s mouth: “But I am not punishing you. Here is our opportunity to move into a deeper relationship with each other. Let’s turn the page together. I so want all of my children to come and celebrate. I love you both just as you are. Please, come.”
But we, the Episcopal Church, cannot sign the Covenant, can we? We will not attend the party. Like the prodigal’s brother, we now feel wounded and hurt. We fear that in the future the rest of the Communion will act in a way that is indifferent to our own views and values, might be disrespectful of our understanding of the Gospel. In short, we fear that the wider Communion might treat us in the same way as we have treated them.
We, the Episcopal Church, will probably choose to stand apart. Can’t you see that the proposed Covenant seeks to punish us? So many of us can see that so clearly, feel it so deeply. Neither the printed word nor reason can change our minds. Like the older brother we have created this illusion and now we will act out of fear over it. And we will tell ourselves that in refusing to support the Anglican Covenant we are upholding the historical and biblical understanding of true Anglicanism.
In short, like the “good” older brother who stayed home and did no wrong, we are determined to punish ourselves.
The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce serves St. Philip’s Church in Quantico, Maryland.