Covenantal Theology for the Anglican Communion

Paul Avis

Review by Wesley Hill

“Becoming Anglican is trendy,” a Lutheran friend once said to me, referring to evangelicals’ popular “Canterbury trail” pilgrimages, and it was clear he did not mean it as a compliment. “Anglicanism is a sinking ship,” opined a Roman Catholic friend around the same time. “Anglicanism is Protestant,” a fellow Episcopalian assured me. Guffaws greeted another friend when he made the same affirmation in a room full of Anglo-Catholics.

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“Anglicanism isn’t confessional,” a Presbyterian friend once told me, obviously feeling sad for what I was missing by not being Reformed. “Anglicanism is confessional,” said another friend, a staunch low churchman who had memorized the Thirty-nine Articles. “Anglicanism is conservative,” another Episcopalian declared to me once. “Anglicanism is progressive,” said yet another Episcopalian. Whatever else Anglicanism is, if these reminiscences are any indication, it is a tradition that remains perplexing. Or, as the renowned ecclesiologist Paul Avis puts it in his newest book, The Vocation of Anglicanism, “The Anglican Communion is currently in a state of uncertainty, confusion and turbulence.”

A few years ago, when I was preparing to be confirmed in the Church of England, having been raised Southern Baptist, a mentor of mine handed me a copy of Avis’s Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology. It was just what I needed at the time: a lucid, calm, surefooted introduction not just to the culture of Anglicanism — which indeed looked (here I had to agree with my critical friends) depressingly divided and confused — but to the theology by which Anglicanism “understands the nature and mission of the church.” For someone like me, questioning whether my attraction to the beauty and mystery of the Anglican liturgy and ethos was more than simply aesthetic, and whether my Presbyterian and Lutheran and Roman Catholic friends were right about Anglicanism’s pitiful state, Avis’s book was a godsend.

That determination to do Anglican theology, rather than mere sociological or historical description, marks The Vocation of Anglicanism as well. Those familiar with his work, including his recent Becoming a Bishop, will recognize many of Avis’s characteristic intuitions and theological habits: his ecumenical spirit, his wide reading and lightness of touch, his particular focus on Anglicanism’s charism for the whole church, his delicate limning of the Reformers’ relationship to the Tractarians and others, and his posture of humility and even penitence. (Each of the chapters in The Vocation of Anglicanism was presented previously as a conference paper or lecture.) What makes this book unique isn’t so much its topics but its approachability: Avis writes that it “is intended for an intelligent and informed general audience.” If I were getting confirmed this year, I might expect my instructor to hand me this volume before any of Avis’s other possibilities.

The Anglican calling and charism, as Avis sees it, is to seek to serve and witness to the Church’s unity in Christ. We must pray and work “for the healing of the wounds of division,” which Avis describes with painful specificity in the book’s preface. To this end, he underscores the need “for patience, for consultation [with other parts of the church], for restraint,” and, perhaps above all, for synthesis (Anglicans must continue to seek to hold together what many have put asunder) and for communion. In one of the book’s few black-and-white declarations, Avis avers, “[O]ur primary obligation to our fellow Christians is to seek to be — and to remain — in communion with them. Breaking the communion of the Church must be an absolutely last resort, one for which we will have to give an account one day.”

It is no surprise, then, that one of the chapters — in a slight departure from the book’s goal of being accessible — contains a somewhat inside-baseball discussion of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, which, Avis judged at the time of writing (2015), was not a lost cause. Although Avis locates himself “in the middle ground” on matters that are currently dividing churches of the Anglican Communion, he nonetheless does not side with those who view the Covenant as an imposition from “conservatives” onto so-called “progressives” who wish to push ahead in performing same-sex marriages. The Covenant, he believes, “is the only option that has been put forward for the future of the Communion as one body in the face of current difficulties.”

The richest part of Avis’s discussion of the Covenant, though, is not his explication of its content or his plea for it to remain on the table as a viable future for the Communion in its current distress, valuable as those things are. Rather, it is his effort, in the face of biblical exegetes’ criticism, to defend the Covenant as a seriously scriptural effort at maintaining the unity of Anglicanism. Avis points out that covenantal language in the Old Testament, far from being irrelevant to current Anglican fractures, is fraught with contemporary significance. In the first place, it is communion-oriented: Israel’s God enters into covenant with his people so that they may trust his fatherly friendship and loyalty toward them. Furthermore, God’s covenantal bond with Israel anchors Israel’s internal relationships: “The covenant makes the people to be a people. … They are to live and act as God’s covenant people in relation to each other as well as in relation to their God.” In these ways and more, the imagery and narratives of the Old Testament offer ample reason for Anglican churches to accept the Covenant.

After finishing this book, I find it is harder to have patience with some of the facile definitions of Anglicanism. I do not mean it is difficult to have patience with criticisms: indeed, we Anglicans are usually readier to offer more trenchant, and occasionally savage, judgments and laments for our Communion than anyone else is. But it is difficult to put up with shallow critiques when Avis’s pages linger in one’s memory. The Anglicanism that emerges from this book is one that longs for catholicity, that takes its bearings not only from the Fathers and the Councils but above all from “the biblical gospel of God’s free and unmerited grace in Jesus Christ, as it was rediscovered by the Reformers,” and that is prepared to shoulder the frequently debilitating burden of “the continual pursuit of truth in company with others.” No merely fissiparous and wishy-washy fare, this. But no matter the criticisms: Those who know their vocation — those who are the beneficiaries of divine covenantal fidelity and who seek to embody that same covenantal commitment to one another — may dispense with self-justification, as those who read Avis’s book will be helped to remember.

Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.


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