Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series
By Michael Cover
On Nov. 24, 2010, two dueling voices were raised in the ongoing reception of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant. On the one hand, the Church of England’s General Synod voted in favor of sending the Covenant on to its dioceses for approval. On the same day, GAFCON bishops issued the Oxford Statement, which rejected the Covenant’s usefulness as an instrument of reconciliation in the Communion.
Since this dual announcement, myriad voices have been raised expressing hopes and misgivings about the future of the Covenant, even as several additional provinces, including South East Asia and Ireland, have formally affirmed the Covenant.
More recently, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council released a report from the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons, which voiced concerns about TEC’s canonical ability to adopt the Covenant. The recent launch of the Anglican Mission in England likewise portends that the road to Anglican unity will be long and winding. And so the question remains: can the Covenant process, with its roots in The Windsor Report, still bear good fruit?
Amid this welter of voices I recently reread the Didache. The Didache, or the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” is an anonymous work of the late first or early second century A.D. A church order of composite character, the work as a whole resembles an early Christian manual of discipline.
It is composed of 16 short chapters, which echo teachings from the synoptic Gospels and New Testament epistles, while also being salted with snatches from the Old Testament and more than a pinch of previously unwritten Christian tradition. Like a monastic rule, but written for a more universal audience of lay and ordained alike, the Didache can be read in less than 20 minutes. It is like a work of Christian wisdom or a rabbinic tractate: in it one finds a kind of guide for the perplexed, a simple distillation of our Lord’s teaching for the common man.
As I read the Didache, I was struck by the overwhelming simplicity of its vision. Here were the fundamentals of our faith, laid out in a familiar format, but speaking with a poetic freshness uncommon in such catechetical material. I became convinced that here was a voice which can contribute to our current debates about the Anglican Covenant and its potential fruitfulness.
In particular, I was drawn to the following verse:
Ou poiēseis schisma, eirēneueis de machomenous.
You shall not make schism, but make peace among those who are fighting. (Didache 4.3)
The command comes in a section of the Didache which was probably a baptismal catechesis. It is thus not a special imperative to bishops and priests, but an articulation of the core of our catholic faith, one that therefore bears a special relevance for common discernment as we struggle to determine whether we will live together or apart.
The command is marked by its stylistic parallelism which resembles the poetics of the psalter. The two lines, or stichs, form a complete thought unit. In the use of the future imperative “you shall not,” one hears echoes of the Decalogue, the sounding of the shofar, rumblings of the divine voice (qôlōt) at Sinai (Ex. 20:18).
There is minor textual uncertainty about whether the first phrase ought to read, “You shall not desire schism” (pothēseis) or “make schism” (poiēseis). While the latter is probably original, both have relevance in our current situation. Of course, opponents of the Covenant, whether from GAFCON, the Episcopal Church, or elsewhere, would doubtless point out that they do not desire schism. If they have made schism, it was because they have been strained beyond what their consciences could bear.
Here, I think, one can see a particular genius of the Covenant’s design which is wholly in accord with the Didache. The very mechanism of an opt-in Covenant gives us all the grace no longer to be “makers” of schism. It represents a kind of blanket proclamation of amnesty for all parties involved, a chance to repent of our sins against God and one another. If schism occurs, it will be by a passive refusal to sign, not by act of departure.
Of course, critics may object that this reading of the Anglican Covenant, with its attendant invitation to “intensify” our communion, is simply an ecclesial fiction, an optimistic metanarrative which we would superimpose upon the battles we have fought and the schism we have wrought. Communion has been broken: why talk of intensification? This critique can be granted to a point. But what are we to do in the situation where schism has been made?
The genius of the architecture of our opt-in Covenant is that it both simplifies reconciliation for past grievances and intensifies our interdependence in a single stroke. It looks to a remnant and reconstituted people of God. It hopes for a new creation, which nonetheless maintains continuity with the old. By merely adopting the Covenant, churches offer one another forgiveness and the chance to no longer actively make schism.
But what is truly revolutionary in the Didache is not the command to avoid schism, but its poetic twin, the command to make peace actively among those who are fighting. Here, the Anglican Covenant plainly bears fruit worthy of the apostles’ teaching. In a world where the catholic Church’s witness is “sore oppressed / by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” the Covenant bears witness that the Lord of the Anglican Communion is still the Prince of Peace. To make peace is not a glib euphemism for a return to the status quo. When wars are ended, there are clearly terms of armistice and casualties on every side. The Covenant offers the Anglican Communion a way forward to make its peace agreement and a way to keep future national skirmishes from becoming world wars.
There is much else in the Didache that would repay careful study, not least the statement which immediately precedes the verse I have been discussing:
Seek daily the presence of the saints, so that you may find rest in their words. (Didache 4.2)
The present reflection has been an attempt to do just that: to seek, in prayer, the guidance of the communion of saints as a means of spiritual refreshment. If the reader will indulge me in quoting a perhaps hackneyed idea from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, the Didache is exhorting us to give voice and vote to the saints of the past, to uphold “the democracy of the dead.” Its voice is unflaggingly devoted to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and his longing for the unity of the Church. Although we must sadly admit the fractured state of our communion with other Anglicans (and indeed, other Christians), the Didache makes it plain that the vote of the early Church is a vote for unity, a vote against further division.
If I have not touched upon the moral or doctrinal differences which divide Anglicans, it is not because I think that these theological issues are matters of secondary importance. To the contrary, they are the very substance of our common life together. We have been baptized into “one faith.” The first section of the Covenant goes a long way to helping us articulate the faith we have received. But unless we first find grounds upon which to moderate our common life in charity as “one body,” all our angelic tongues and prophetic powers will be forfeit, our voices mute, and nothing heard from our discordant train but the sound of a noisy gong.
The Rev. Michael Cover is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Notre Dame and an assisting priest at St. Paul’s Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.
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.