Paul Avis on the Covenant
Posted: 16 November 2011 08:32 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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From Fulcrum

The Anglican Covenant

By Paul Avis

Originally published in Ecclesiology 7.3 (2011) and reproduced with the permission of the author and of the publisher (BRILL).

The Anglican Communion is under stress because of disagreements about Christian morals and about what kind of mutual obligation is involved in membership of the Communion. The Windsor Report (2004)[i] tackled the problems raised by the consecration of a bishop in a same-gender partnership in The Episcopal Church in the USA, the liturgical blessing of same-gender partnerships in a diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada, and the cross-jurisdiction interventions by Anglican churches from the Global South in response to this situation.

The single most significant proposal made by The Windsor Report (2004) was for a Covenant between the churches of the Anglican Communion. It proposed that they would covenant together to commit themselves to exercise restraint in contentious areas, to consult carefully about potential developments and to strengthen processes of mutual accountability. The Covenant has since gone through various drafts and the final ‘Ridley’ draft is now being considered by the member churches of the Anglican Communion. The Covenant proposal has generated considerable nervousness among some: it is seen as moving the Anglican Communion into unknown territory and compromising the hard-won autonomy of the member churches. On the other hand, some representatives of the Global South of the Anglican Communion have already written it off as lacking teeth and unable to remedy the situation. These two responses seem to cancel each other out. So how should we assess this proposal?

First, the Covenant is the only realistic option on the table. As others have said, it is the only game in town. The future of the Anglican Communion is in jeopardy at the present time and specific measures are needed. The Anglican Covenant, centering on mutual commitment, is intended to secure the future of the Communion as one body. The Covenant is the only credible proposal that I am aware of to help hold this family of churches together. The alternative to the Covenant is to allow the present sharp tensions to be worked out in the formal separation of some Churches of the Communion from others — and that means schism and the fracture and possible break up of the Anglican Communion.

Second, the Covenant is an embodiment of mutual commitment. The Covenant is not perfect and it is not completely clear to me how the ‘Consequences’ aspect of it will be worked out, if it comes to that. But I don’t think that that is the most important thing about the Covenant. The key, for me, is that by subscribing to the Covenant, Anglican Churches will signal in a serious way their intention to remain together. They will signal this to themselves, to all the other Anglican Churches throughout the world, and to other Christian world communions, who are watching anxiously and do not want to see the Anglican Communion fail as a world-wide fellowship of Churches. Such a failure would indicate a serious weakening of Christianity and its witness on the world stage. It would also bring grief and heartbreak to millions of Anglican Christians around the world.

Third, we need to consider the challenge that the Covenant is ‘un-Anglican’. Behind that accusation lies a concern that the Covenant asks too much of member Churches and fatally compromises the autonomy of the member churches? I don’t share that concern. ‘Autonomy’ cannot be the first thing that we have to say about ourselves as Anglican Churches. The attributes of the Church of Christ that we affirm in the Creed must surely come much higher up: unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. The very first thing that we want to say about our own church, whatever that church may be, is that it belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. But if we belong, with others, to something much bigger than ourselves, then we belong together and not in autonomous isolation. So interdependence must be a key denominator of Anglican ecclesiology and polity. The Covenant seeks to flesh out in practical terms what interdependence might mean. Nevertheless, the Covenant can only be adopted by the free constitutional action of each member church of the Communion and any future consequences of the Covenant would need to be processed by each church in a similar way. Self-government is not threatened by the Covenant.

Fourth, the Covenant is orientated to the common good of the Communion. From mediaeval times, through the Reformation and right up to the present day, churches have used the language of the common good and applied it not only to the wider society, but to the Church as an institution[ii]. As Churches that exist in a relationship of interdependence, it seems not too much to ask of us that we consider the common good of the Christian Church as a whole and of the Anglican Communion as a part of that whole. This takes us to the heart of what is meant by catholicity. The word ‘catholic’ is from the Greek kat’ holon, ‘according to the whole’. To be catholic means to be deeply conscious of being part of a wider whole and to act accordingly. The virtues of forbearance, patience, restraint, willingness to consult and to accept a degree of accountability to others come into play here. As St Paul says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2).

Fifth, it is significant that the Covenant does not propose any additional doctrinal tests for the Anglican Communion. It contains doctrinal matter, but this is presented descriptively. The Covenant simply describes the existing doctrinal stance of Anglicanism in a broad and uncontroversial way. Nor does the Covenant advocate any particular ethical tests, with regard to Christian morals. It functions crucially in the realm of behaviour: how we should act towards one another when we are in a relationship of ecclesial communion. It is concerned with the virtues that belong to relationality. I think it is difficult to argue against the Covenant on this score, unless one thinks that the virtues of mutual forbearance and mutual responsibility are inappropriate for Christian churches.

Finally, we need to ask, ‘Does it matter?’ Is the Anglican Communion important enough to be worth saving? Is the Communion worth fighting for? My answer to that question is an unequivocal, ‘Yes’, and there is a profound theological reason for saying that. Communion (koinonia) is not something that is man-made. It is not a human construction and is not at our disposal to accept or reject. Communion — whether between individual Christians in the Body of Christ, or between particular churches within the universal Church — is something given in the realm of grace. It is intimately connected to the sacraments. In baptism we are brought into communion sacramentally with the Triune God and with one another; in the Eucharist — Holy Communion — we are continuously sustained and strengthened in that communion. Communion is God’s greatest gift to us in this life and it will be perfected and fulfilled in the next. Any expression of communion is to be treated with great respect and care. It is an imperative of Christian love to seek communion with our fellow Christians. We are called to seek, maintain and extend communion. To do that we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is often conceived as the bond of communion between the Father and the Son. Ultimately, then, the future of the Anglican Communion is not a merely political matter, but an essentially spiritual issue. I believe that Anglicans — and our ecumenical partners and friends — should look at the Covenant in that light.

[i] Published by the Anglican Communion Office, London, in 2004

[ii] See P. Avis, Beyond the Reformation? Authority, Primacy and Unity in the Conciliar Tradition (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006).

The Rev. Dr. Paul Avis is the general secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and canon theologian of Exeter Cathedral. He is the editor of the journal Ecclesiology and the author of several books on Anglicanism, including The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (T&T Clark, 2008).
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Posted: 16 November 2011 05:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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It seems that the number of us who care about the fate of the Covenant has been reduced to a very small number. I am glad that people like Rev Dr Avis are out there, making a good case.

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Posted: 16 November 2011 05:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Whatever one might think about the worthiness of the current Covenant, I would take issue with the following statement in that I don’t think it is based in the reality of what is actually going on:

First, the Covenant is the only realistic option on the table….The Covenant is the only credible proposal that I am aware of to help hold this family of churches together.

Again, I am not intending to criticize advocacy of the Covenant here, but it seems to me that it is exceedingly unrealistic to think that the current Covenant, which has been, or most certainly will be, rejected by the liberal western provinces and either ignored by or adopted with significant reservations and conditions by the influential Global South provinces (including the “moderate” ones) has any chance of success.  How is this a “realistic” option?  How is this a “credible” proposal?  Maybe it was a couple of years ago, but surely not anymore.

The alternative to the Covenant is to allow the present sharp tensions to be worked out in the formal separation of some Churches of the Communion from others — and that means schism and the fracture and possible break up of the Anglican Communion.

And this is what is actually happening on the ground.  So for those of us who would like to preserve the Anglican Communion in some way that preserves the best of a robust, orthodox, comprehensive, global Anglicanism, I think we need to admit that the Covenant is dead.  It isn’t going to happen.  That’s just reality.  So instead of trying to revive a dead horse, we need to move on.  What’s next?

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Posted: 16 November 2011 06:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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If the Covenant is dead (and you a very likely correct), then for me as one who would like “to preserve the Anglican Communion in some way that preserves the best of a robust, orthodox, comprehensive, global Anglicanism,” the answer to the question, “What’s next” would most probably be “nothing.”

The disease that infected the Anglican Communion (a radical autonomous individualism) will kill off all further efforts to hold the Communion together.

I continue to believe that the Windsor report, and the subsequent Covenant ware a “God thing,” and that even if they humanly speaking come to naught, they will serve to lay bare the hearts and intentions of many.

And besides, _dead_ is never an obstacle for God. wink

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Posted: 16 November 2011 08:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Charlie:  I believe that, as sad and unfortunate as it is, the reality is that the Anglican Communion - as we know it - is breaking apart.  We have the politically most powerful, but numerically weakest, components acting in a way that makes continued communion impossible.  We have the numerically strongest, but politically weak, components throwing up their hands and walking away in all but name.  We have the top leadership of the Communion undermining the Instruments of Unity, and discrediting the only remaining Instrument of Unity.  The trajectory is clear.  I am not sure that God will keep united what man is so determined to tear asunder.

So the question of “what next” needs to be addressed, and I don’t think that the answer is nothing.  Mind you, I also believe that the there is no comprehensive solution out there.  The Communion is collapsing and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Before we can answer the question of “what next” we need to realistically assess the situation and what can be done.  So first thing to accept is that the Communion is collapsing.  The second thing to accept is that the continuation of the collapse is to be expected, and that this collapse will have consequences.  The third thing is that we need to have all the broken down walls, beams, etc., collapse before we can begin to salvage what remains.  The fourth thing to realize is that while the Communion as a structure will collapse, and even many Provincial structures will also collapse, this doesn’t mean that all structures, Provinces and alliances will collapse.

So it seems to me that what we can do is work to preserving those healthy pockets of Anglicanism, and work towards health in those pockets that might be rehabilitated.  Sort of bloom where we are planted for now, and try to create a truly Christian, Anglican presence amidst the rubble of the collapse.  This goes for whether we are in TEC, CofE, ACNA, Nigeria, etc.  Work towards building relationships which can bear fruit years down the road.  Structurally, we can work towards a covenant amongst the surviving conservative and moderate Provinces, dioceses and parishes of the Communion - not to “replace” the structures still collapsing, but rather to build relationships and accountability that will - years down the road - make a revitalized Anglican Communion possible.  We all need to model an orthodox, open, comprehensive and global Anglicanism where “we are planted.”  This means avoiding party politics, egos, power grabs, etc., which seem to be a problem in Anglican bodies no matter which side of the fence they are on.

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Posted: 16 November 2011 11:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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The Evangelical Anglican in me could live in this time of waiting for the dust to settle. It won’t be long (10-20 years) before TEC is a shell that Evangelicals will be able to rehabilitate. I posted about Bishop Budde’s program for growth in a different thread. That plan is unsustainable in the long term - it has no spiritual resources to draw on. This is one side of the “What’s next” question.

The Catholic Anglican in me sees the breaking of the Communion as “The End.” There probably will be a new structure that will rise in the next (50?) years, but I can’t see how it will retain much Catholic-ness. The history of the Church suggests that the multiplication of schism will continue. If we cannot marshal the will *now* to uphold a Communion that values Catholic understandings of things like ecclesiology, it is hard to imagine that the will will exist in the future.

It may be that Global Anglicanism will ultimately resist the corrosive nature of Western radical autonomous individualism. The Catholic component in the rest of the world might be strong (but then why have they “throw[n] up their hands and walk[ed] away in all but name”?).

At the end of the day, your council of “bloom where we are planted for now” is wisdom, and the only reasonable and realistic course of action. And because my hope rests in a great God, and not in any structures, programs, plans or schemes, I can (mostly) wait (the active sort of waiting) and see what happens.

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Posted: 17 November 2011 05:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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The history of the Church suggests that the multiplication of schism will continue. If we cannot marshal the will *now* to uphold a Communion that values Catholic understandings of things like ecclesiology, it is hard to imagine that the will will exist in the future.

Yeah, can’t argue with this, but this is the very reason why we need to focus on building relationships now.

The Catholic component in the rest of the world might be strong (but then why have they “throw[n] up their hands and walk[ed] away in all but name”?).

Well, let’s be clear on what they “have walked away from” and what they HAVEN’T “walked away from.”  Herein lies some hope still.  They HAVE walked away from continued marginalization, corruption, power grabs, deception, double dealing, and heresy.  They have NOT walked away from that organization which we call “The Anglican Communion”.  I see some Catholic hope there.  What if during the worst excesses of the Renaissance papacy, part of the Roman Catholic Church could have said “we separate ourselves from the corruption coming out of Rome, but we will remain a formal part of the Church and bide our time until we can reform the Church from within”.

I see the Global South response as being similar to that of the Diocese of South Carolina, and to my mind, it is the best - and dare I say only - available course of action that holds out hope for the future catholicity of the Anglican Communion.  Thus I think the catholic hope is this - that the Global South provinces can covenant amongst each other and begin to build the something that - in time - can lead to the nucleus for a renewed Anglican Communion (and I don’t mean covenant to create some sort of replacement organs for the AC).  This group should also covenant with both orthodox TEC dioceses but also with groups such as the ACNA on issues such as faith definition and relationships, with the long term goal of reunification under a renewed Anglican Communion.  The key is not to think that we can write a covenant right now that will fix everything.

A comparison might be made to a group of orthodox parishes within a liberal TEC diocese that still respects dissenter consciences.  They could meet, agree that the diocese is realistically going to remain under liberal domination for the foreseeable future, agree that there is nothing that they can do to stop the diocesan decline, agree that they have no interest in forming a “replacement” diocese or leaving to join ACNA, but that they might want to have relationships with the local ACNA parishes.  They could positively agree to things such as meet together for mutual support, sponsor theological education events and youth group activities together, perhaps have the clergy meet together as an informal clericus, etc.  Don’t violate any of the “rules” but build relationships such that when institutional TEC collapses, there will be informal Anglican networks that have been formed and that are working together.

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