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A Covenant of consideration

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Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By John C. Bauerschmidt

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).

Church means “gathering,” not just in the origin of the word, but as a matter of practical necessity. Gathering on the Lord’s Day makes the Church more of a reality than when it is dispersed, one reason that the Roman persecutions focused on the disruption of the eucharistic assembly rather than on the prohibition of beliefs. The Church’s witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a function of its public assembly and its outward and visible life.

“Neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,” as in the Letter to the Hebrews, may reflect the power of persecution, but is more likely to refer to disputes within the Christian community itself and withdrawal from fellowship on the part of some. It points toward a failure to gather not simply for worship but more fundamentally as a community. Neglecting to meet together undercuts the public witness of the Church, undermines love and good deeds, and works against the primary call to unity and concord.

Gathering is not simply a practical necessity for Christians: it is our vocation. The Church is not so much a “gathered community” as it is a community intended by God to gather all. The best witness that the Anglican Communion offers, in its outward and visible life, is the gathering of peoples in many different cultures and contexts in common witness and common life. There are practical issues of common mission and ministry that are enabled by our connection but nothing nearly as significant to the life of the world as the witness of the common life we share.

The purpose of the Anglican Covenant is to make it possible for the churches of the Communion to gather rather than to scatter. Its common life is under stress and strain, and the Covenant seeks to renew trust and repair fractures. It creates the “buy in” for a voluntary connection which is not just an accident of history but which takes our shared tradition of being Christians seriously. It creates processes for seeking the common counsel that is essential to gathering effectively, the lack of which is at the heart of our present impasse. We are in grave danger of talking past each other, and in need of means by which we can relate and seek a common mind. The Covenant represents the voluntary embrace of a common vocation and a common life. It is our present opportunity not to neglect to meet together.

One criticism of the Anglican Covenant is that it will create a centralized Communion, diminishing the distinct life of its member churches. Here it’s important to recall the vision of the Lambeth Conference of 1948, which affirmed both dispersed authority and a common life: “The positive nature of the authority which binds the Anglican Communion together is … seen to be moral and spiritual, resting on the truth of the Gospel, and on a charity which is patient and willing to defer to the common mind.” Then again: “It is … a dispersed rather than a centralized authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check each other; these elements together contributing by a process of mutual support, mutual checking, and redressing of errors and exaggerations to the many sided fullness of the authority which Christ has committed to His Church.”

The Anglican Covenant does not create structures that override the autonomy of participating churches but uses already existing structures so that our churches can live with each other. It’s about the common life of churches in communion. This is not about centralization but about consideration and mutuality. When we have a common life with others we embrace a pattern that involves common consideration by the partners. The Covenant affirms that pattern.

A related criticism claims that the Anglican Covenant will lead to the imposition of a narrow orthodoxy on Anglicans. I think there is no danger of this in a Communion so dedicated to dispersed authority. The real danger is that without common counsel and seeking a common mind we will fly apart. There is absolutely nothing un-Anglican about holding things in common; in fact, our tradition invested heavily in the 16th and 17th centuries in finding that common center, that via media, which would allow the Church of England to walk together. That required setting aside more revolutionary agendas for the sake of a common life. The Covenant commits us to the self-evident proposition that we must decide together what concerns us all and what we hold in common, so that we will be able to hold together.

How will the decentralized churches of the Anglican Communion find a way of preserving a common life? If we are serious about dispersed authority, and we are, then this makes the common center even more important. The Anglican Covenant will allow this creative tension to be preserved by clearly and voluntarily committing us both to common life and to dispersed authority. If we desire not to neglect to meet together then there are no other proposals before us that will preserve this tension.

The Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee.

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.

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