Diagnosis of a Stalled Covenant

Pro Communione
Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant
Edited by Benjamin M. Guyer. Pickwick Publications.
Pp. xxx + 214. $27

Review by Colin Podmore

The Anglican Covenant already binds together one fifth of the Anglican churches, making explicit the basis of their unity and the nature of the common life to which they are committed. But sadly, it has been unable to escape from the context that gave rise to it — the crisis sparked in 2003 when a divorcé in an avowedly sexual same-sex relationship was consecrated to the episcopate despite the primates’ warning that this would put “the future of the Communion itself … in jeopardy.”

Several essays in this important volume point to the mismanagement of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and subsequent failure to implement its resolutions, as significant contributory causes of the crisis. As Andrew Goddard shows, the Covenant reflects the growth of inter-Anglican structures and responds to needs recognized in the 1980s and ’90s: to identify the limits of acceptable teaching and practice, formulate an expression of shared faith, and balance what the 1908 Conference had called “the just freedom of [the Communion’s] several parts” and “the just claims of the whole Communion upon its every part.” Lambeth 1998 failed to give sufficient consideration and weight to the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission’s Virginia Report, which addressed these deficits. It also failed to draw on Rowan Williams’s keynote address on “making moral decisions” (outlining themes later developed in his study of Dostoevsky — which, Nathan Humphrey suggests, illuminates Williams’s support for the Covenant). Its botched discussion of homosexuality might also have been mentioned.

Lambeth 1998 asked Archbishop George Carey to appoint a commission to consider the archbishop’s role regarding developments in individual churches that threaten communion within and between them. Another resolution called on the primates to initiate study, in the light of Virginia, on whether communion required “instruments, with due safeguards, not only for legislation, but also for oversight.” For five years nothing was done. Consequently, the Covenant had to be devised in response to a crisis, and many responses to it have been conditioned by the politics of the crisis rather than the long-identified structural deficits.

Three essays reflect on the Covenant in the light of the Anglican theological tradition. Edmund Newey relates it to the Anglican via media — “a way of pursuing the Christian faith that seeks comprehension, not in the sense of toleration of divergences from doctrinal orthodoxy … but in the sense of catholicity or wholeness.” Richard Hooker, he notes, commended a “civill societie” promoting “mutuall participation,” involving what Newey calls “delight … in difference.” He demolishes the notion of a “three-legged stool” (never mentioned by Hooker). Scripture, tradition, and reason are not equal sources of revelation: “encounter with scripture is clearly primary, but that encounter is served by the tools of reason and the Church’s living tradition of interpretation.”

Benjamin Guyer relates the Covenant to Hooker’s thinking about law — the order essential to a society. He asks, “What does the Anglican Communion offer the Anglican Communion as a society?” or as “a singular family of churches” but does not broach the underlying question: whether the Communion in fact wishes to be a single society (rather than a loose network of societies) at all.

Jeff Boldt draws on the thought of L.S. Thornton for an impressive critique of the thinking of Bruce Kaye, a leading critic of the Windsor Report which originally proposed a Covenant. For Kaye, Boldt suggests, “the three persons of the Trinity are defined by an abstract relational principle (diversity) that does not distinguish between them in any important way.” Kaye’s argument that cultural difference renders global institutions untenable Boldt characterizes as a “brand of congregationalism” — “the atomization of local churches.” To Kaye’s advocacy of a Communion held together not by institutions or order but by “persuasion and listening” he responds: could persuasion issue in commitments, or is listening the end in itself? As Boldt suggests, “Order and agreement must come from somewhere.” The volume locates the Covenant firmly in the ecumenical tradition of Anglican ecclesiology embodied in Virginia, on which Windsor drew. One might add that the crisis of ecclesiology sparked by the Episcopal Church’s defiance of the primates was not the most propitious context for putting it into effect.

Guyer traces the Covenant’s ecumenical roots, from the 1948 WCC Assembly, through multilateral covenants encouraged by the 1964 British Conference on Faith and Order, to recent Anglican-Methodist covenants. Both Christopher Wells and Matthew Olver highlight its vision of the “one universal Church.” Wells observes that Virginia’s discussion of trinitarian communion is “free of denominational reference”: if transposed to another setting, “there would be no indication of its provenance.” This is “a catholic doctrine of the Church.”

As Guyer observes, Windsor “directed the Anglican Communion to consider its future in the light of its ecumenical past.” Olver notes that the Covenant is “literally held together by generations of ecumenical work” — nearly half of the citations coming from ecumenical texts. He comments: “The irony is thick and bitter: the Communion that long ago discerned an ecumenical vocation for itself now has nothing strong enough to hold her together in the face of internal disagreements and must instead rely on the ecclesial foundations of her ecumenical work to restore internal unity.”

Wells highlights the contrast between the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical vision (seemingly content with communion between separate, denominationally different, bodies) and that espoused by the Communion as a whole (full visible unity, implying “structures of mutual accountability”) but refrains from asking whether these different understandings of “unity” might explain contrasting reactions to a Covenant involving structured mutual accountability within the Anglican Communion. Only Evan Kuehn strikes a jarring note, out of tune with the others on both the vision of unity and the role of bishops. He defends the Lutheran-Reformed Leuenberg Agreement (by which European churches in the same territories entered into communion yet remained separate), describes the Anglican Consultative Council as “synodical” (even though bishops have no distinct role in it), and claims that Anglicanism has “no established episcopal role for inter-provincial governance” (ignoring the fact that for 80 years, from 1867, no official inter-Anglican body had non-episcopal members).

Several essayists demonstrate the Covenant’s roots in Anglican theology, ecclesiology, and ecumenism in order to counter claims that it is somehow “un-Anglican.” But herein lies also at least part of the reason for the widespread lack of interest in it, if not outright opposition to it. (A table in this volume misstates the Church of England’s diocesan voting figures and, by treating recorded abstentions as votes, slightly understates percentages both in favour and against. See the official report GS 1878 [PDF].)

Only in passing do the authors hint that it is in the decline of the Anglican theological tradition, the eclipse of ecumenism and catholic ecclesiology within Anglicanism, and the resulting widespread lack among contemporary Anglicans of any vision of the Church or its visible unity that the explanation is to be sought. Olver admits that Anglicanism’s ecumenical history is “a fading memory for many”; Guyer notes that both conservative and liberal criticism is “divorced from … Anglican history, tradition, and ecumenical commitments”; and Wells observes that in critiques from both “right” and “left” (GAFCON and the Chicago Consultation) concern for “one Church visibly reconciled” recedes or disappears completely. But the causal link between the decline of Anglican theology, ecclesiology, and ecumenism and rejection of the Covenant is never fully made. In such a context, however, the emergence in this volume of a new generation of Anglicans — mostly within the Episcopal Church — who are concerned to defend the Covenant as reflecting historic Anglicanism and pointing to an ecumenical future is a hopeful sign.

The volume is not uncritical of the Covenant. Nathan Jennings offers an important corrective: the Church’s primary purpose is not mission but the worship of God; mission is not an end in itself. As Ephraim Radner notes in his foreword, the Covenant has been subject to “the projections of many, born of both optimistic and fearful imaginations.” GAFCON offers “no clear reason” for rejecting it, Guyer argues, while liberal critiques are “too often built upon the insecure but imaginative ground of conspiracy” and “provide textbook examples of logical fallacies, such as the appeal to emotion and the use of loaded language.” In his “Orthodox response” Augustine Casiday comments: “It is hard to imagine how problems among the Orthodox Churches and within the Anglican Communion can be resolved for as long as Christians in those respective communities perpetuate resistance to co-ordination, administration, and appeals by caricaturing such things as the detestable excesses of Rome.”

The Covenant has never recovered from the impression, given by the legalistic draft appended to Windsor, that its character would be juridical rather than relational. This was problematic not least because the Anglican crisis is ultimately spiritual, a failure of love. Humphrey understands the Covenant as a framework for self-emptying engagement. As he says, “In the end, if one claims to abide by the Anglican Covenant but is unrecognizable as one who speaks the language of Christian love, one has failed the challenge — and the opportunity — that the Anglican Covenant presents.”

Perhaps the volume’s most pointed question comes in Radner’s foreword, however: “Is it really possible,” he asks, “to claim that there is a way without covenant that is still on the way of Christ?”

Colin Podmore served on the staff of the General Synod of the Church of England for almost 25 years, latterly as Clerk to the Synod, and left at Easter to become director of Forward in Faith (UK).


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