The genius of Anglicanism is its gracious comprehensiveness in allowing for pluriform, contextually responsive theologies and hermeneutics throughout the global Church. Our heritage and our Christian witness are enriched by the presence of evangelicals, conservatives, moderates, and progressives in our midst, engaging in spirited dialogue that respects the culture and insights of each believer and each local church. The Baptismal Covenant, the Creeds, and the Eucharistic liturgies we use have all been developed with extraordinary care over the centuries and are sufficient as the “fundamentals” that bind us together officially. To suggest that we need another covenantal authority beyond those is not only to innovate in an undesirable way regarding the central characteristic of Anglicanism. It is also to dishonor, however unwittingly, those ancient and great instruments of unity.
Historical precedents in adiaphora””such as the Church’s positions on various social questions and liturgical options over the centuries””should be mulled with respect, but they should never be bowed to as if they were idols. The truth of this claim should be transparently obvious just on the face of it, but I would add a particular reason in light of our current debates: the voices of women, the poor, and openly gay persons have been suppressed in the councils and other judicatory bodies of the Church since its inception. I am astonished whenever anyone, progressive or conservative, suggests that the fact that the Church has “always” done something or “always” said something means that the Church has necessarily been correct on the matter. It is abundantly clear that the Church has made disastrous missteps in its history””the Crusades, colonialism, and chattel slavery are only three examples out of many that could be cited. Creating a covenant that enshrines any historical status quo as such would be a dangerous and harmful move in our polity.
It is politically naÃ¯ve and theologically suspect to suggest, as some have, that having an Anglican Covenant will keep us in conversation on divisive issues. Our commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ should already keep us in loving and patient conversation on every issue of importance to the Church and the world. Those for whom our unity in Christ is not sufficient reason to remain in dialogue will not be one iota more inclined to listen to Christians with whom they disagree if we establish a new and weak political instrument.
It has also been suggested that a Covenant could serve a spiritual-formation purpose as a rule of discipline that fosters virtue in the life of the Church. To propose that a juridical instrument could serve that purpose effectively is to gravely misunderstand what polity is for and how spiritual formation in community may be nurtured. In my view, that suggestion also subtly denigrates the rich traditions of spiritual formation on which Anglicans already draw.
The concern of some that global mission and relief work will be fatally compromised if we do not have a Covenant is understandable, but in that case, the terms of the issue are being illogically framed. Service delivery systems are already in place within the Anglican Communion and outside of it. Those who are committed to relief of the poor and to mission work will continue to minister in those arenas, and where collaborative relationships have (already) broken down, new relationships with other partners can be forged. The problem should be understood for what it is: the unconscionable refusal of some Global South primates to accept resources from provinces that do not hew to their own particular patriarchal, misogynistic, and homophobic views. If relief work suffers in the short term””which will be a tragedy””it will be because of the intransigence of those primates, not because of the absence of an Anglican Covenant or the failure of the Episcopal Church to yield to pressure on one or another matter of our local polity.
There can be no question that the proposed Covenant will be used in pragmatic terms to derail local autonomy, threatening discipline or exclusion of those whose Christian witness does not conform to androcentric and heteronormative values (which are by no means as obviously “scriptural” as their adherents claim). The causes of our current divisions are many and complex. As all agree, a fundamental disjuncture has to do with divergent ways of conceiving Scriptural authority in different cultural contexts. The uneven deployment of economic resources globally and reactions against Christian and secular Western colonialism are also in play here. I see little reason to expect that the innovation of a potentially punitive instrument of extra-provincial polity will help us to address these challenges more effectively. To the contrary, such a Covenant would likely only exacerbate the bitter struggles for power that we are currently experiencing.
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