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Relationship, definition, accountability

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

By Nathaniel W. Pierce

I have a special place in my heart for the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I was given a copy at birth, and baptized and confirmed in liturgies from its pages. It guided me to ordained ministry, planted the seed of liturgical renewal, and prepared me for the 1979 BCP. There we were introduced (liturgically speaking) for the first time to the “C” word, prominently displayed in the two sections of the BCP most used by Episcopalians who do not attend church services regularly. I am, of course, referring to “The Baptismal Covenant” and “the bond and covenant of marriage.” At its simplest level the concept of “covenant” includes three characteristics: relationship, definition, and accountability.

In baptism and marriage all three basic elements of a covenantal relationship are clear. The one being baptized enters into an explicit relationship with God; marriage is a public, explicit, lifelong, and mutual commitment by two persons to each other. The understanding of that relationship, its definition, is clearly stated (see the Baptismal Covenant, pp. 304-5, and the marriage vows, p. 427). Our sense of accountability is expressed every time we renew our own baptismal covenant and (for some) our own marriage vows.

What does this thinking mean for the proposed Anglican Covenant? Surely Episcopalians’ difficulties do not arise out of any disagreement about our desire to be in relationship. The preamble of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church clearly states our self-understanding as a church: we are in relationship with the Anglican Communion, something most Episcopalians value and cherish. (The constitution’s preamble eassentially quotes a portion of Resolution 49 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference.)

The other two characteristics of a covenantal relationship, definition and accountability, are problematic. Since the publication in 2004 of the Windsor Report I have identified at least ten distinct and different understandings of the essential nature of the Anglican Communion. Indeed, one is clearly articulated in the preamble of our constitution. For 144 years Anglican provinces around the world (including the Episcopal Church) were free to define for themselves what it meant to be part of the Anglican Communion. Now those many years of holy ambiguity are coming to an end. Cherished assumptions by individuals and provinces are being challenged by a definition — the proposed Covenant — written by the whole Anglican Communion, not just one part of it.

The idea of “accountability” runs against the grain of our culture. We believe that local people know what is best for their own community. When it comes to living out the Gospel, we Episcopalians know how to interpret Scripture in our modern world. When John Wesley, as a priest of the Church of England, laid hands to ordain in 1784, that sacramental action, done out of a conviction that mission priests were needed to serve American Methodists (and, may it be noted, he was right), led to a schism which has still not been healed. Like Wesley, we want to be autonomous and in communion. However, as the Windsor Report noted, “communion is, in fact, the fundamental limit to autonomy” (¶82). We can have one or the other, but not both.

Will we cling to our own definition of communion, thereby dismissing what the rest of the Anglican Communion says yet again? Will we insist on preserving a self-delusional understanding of autonomy? What does it mean to “believe in … the holy catholic Church” (see the Baptismal Covenant)? These are the questions we face as we consider the Anglican Covenant.

Covenant FAQs

What happens if the Episcopal Church does not accept the proposed Anglican Covenant?
Pretty much the same thing that happens to a couple not ready for the covenant of marriage or a person unable to embrace the Baptismal Covenant: the relationship may continue; perhaps the couple will choose to live together and the unbaptized person will attend worship services. In each case the status of the relationship will be ambiguous — not in but not out.

It feels like the definition of the Anglican Communion is being changed.
This, in my view, is correct. In response to a request from the American House of Bishops in 1859, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited the bishops of the Anglican ethos and tradition to gather at Canterbury in 1867. Building on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1886, 1888), the 1930 Lambeth Conference adopted this self-definition: “The Anglican Communion is a fellowship … of those duly constituted dioceses, Provinces, or regional Churches in communion with the see of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common: … c) They are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the Bishops in Conference” (excerpts from Resolution 49).

Note: the preamble to our constitution essentially quotes this 1930 Lambeth resolution but omits the “c” clause. Thus, our definition of being a “constituent member of the Anglican Communion” did not include a sense of accountability to the Lambeth Conference.
The problem is that the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church violated the “c” clause in that 1930 definition. We acted in a manner which clearly indicated that we were no longer bound by “the mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the Bishops in Conference.” When the 1930 self-definition failed, trust was compromised. The 2008 Lambeth Conference turned inward, its historic role of sustaining mutual loyalty no longer viable.

The wider Communion could have left things there, accepting this de facto new self-definition (1930 minus the “c” clause). Alternatively, it could craft something to augment it as recommended by the 2004 Windsor report. It chose the latter course of action. Furthermore, many argue that the proposed Anglican Covenant is yet another step toward a genuine, Christ-centered, biblical concept of communion which naturally flows from Lambeth 1867 and the self-definition put forward by Lambeth 1930. In other words, our self-definition continues to evolve on a cycle of 60 to 70 years.

I thought statements and resolutions from the Lambeth Conference were advisory.
They were and are. Yet over the years all provinces and bishops voluntarily gave such statements and resolutions great respect. This was the “glue” which held the Anglican Communion together. It worked for 136 years, enabling the Communion to navigate its way through the tricky waters of prayer book revision and ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. Recall that it was the Episcopal Church which asked the 1988 Lambeth Conference to extend the policy of “local option” to ordaining women bishops and it did so.

I believe that the 2003 General Convention’s decision to give consent to the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire was gospel-based and the right thing to do.
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb, professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary and a member of the Covenant Design Group, has suggested that the Episcopal Church accept the Covenant and continue its efforts to be fully inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. This both/and approach is quintessentially Anglican. We need not be trapped by a manufactured and artificial either/or.

The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce is a retired Episcopal priest and currently serves as worship leader of St. Philip’s Church, Quantico, Maryland, in the Diocese of Easton.

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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