This is the next question asked of General Convention Deputies reviewing the St, Andrew’s Draft of an Anglican Covenant:
II. Second Level of Engagement with the Text (continued)
Section 1.2: This section describes how the above historical affirmations are lived out in various contexts. It also speaks about the nature of authority at various levels.
• Does this section appropriately describe how you understand a) the authority of the Bible, and b) the exercise of episcope in The Episcopal Church?
So, let’s look at section 1.2:
1.2 In living out this inheritance of faith together in varying contexts, each Church of the Communion commits itself:
(1.2.1) to uphold and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition;
(1.2.2) to uphold and proclaim a pattern of Christian theological and moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in and answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the catholic tradition and that reflects the renewal of humanity and the whole created order through the death and resurrection of Christ and the holiness that in consequence God gives to, and requires from, his people;
(1.2.3) to seek in all things to uphold the solemn obligation to sustain Eucharistic communion, in accordance with existing canonical disciplines as we strive under God for the fuller realisation of the Communion of all Christians;
(1.2.4) to ensure that biblical texts are handled faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and coherently, primarily through the teaching and initiative of bishops and synods, and building on habits and disciplines of Bible study across the Church and on rigorous scholarship, believing that scriptural revelation continues to illuminate and transform individuals, cultures and societies;
(1.2.5) nurture and respond to prophetic and faithful leadership in ministry and mission to equip God’s people to be courageous witnesses to the power of the Gospel in the world.
(1.2.6) pursue a common pilgrimage with other Churches of the Communion to discern the Truth, that peoples from all nations may truly be set free to receive the new and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I actually find myself wondering about the first part of the question put to us as Deputies. This section says little explicit about “the authority of Scripture.” Sections 1.2.1 set as equivalent and apparently complementary “Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith, order, and tradition.” Much more is made explicit in the Affirmations in Section 1 as it makes some reference to the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral. The role of Scripture in Section 1 emphasizes Scripture “as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith;” and I use the word “emphasizes” advisedly, feeling that the description that follows of the “catholic creeds” and the “historic formularies” marks both as subsidiary to and dependent on Scripture. The Commitments in Section 1.2 appears to assume that understanding of Scripture without restating it explicitly.
Now, if we understand the tone of Section 1 to follow through in Section 1.2, we can ask what it means “to uphold and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture and [its extension in] the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition;” or what “a pattern of Christian theological and moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in and answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture [extended in] the catholic tradition” might look like. However, I certainly agree that our Christian living (moral and otherwise) should be consonant with and rooted in Scripture, as well as in the Christian tradition; and that it should look toward “the renewal of humanity and the whole created order through the death and resurrection of Christ and the holiness that in consequence God gives to, and requires from, his people” (and work toward it, too, to whatever extent we are able to cooperate with God’s work in the world).
So, as I look back toward my concern about the question about Scripture, I find these commitments don’t speak to my understanding of the authority of Scripture to any great extent. To the extent I see questions from the Affirmations in Section 1, I have some concern. To the extent I continue to see the Christian faith, and our Anglican corner of it, rooted in and reflective of Scripture, I can agree with these Commitments in Section 1.2. That said, I would fear that these Commitments would continue our current discussions without resolving our current disagreements. I think we will need to consider further sections of the St. Andrew’s Draft to know more.
Now, looking at the second part of the question, that of episcope, there is more to work with. Explicitly, it is “primarily through the teaching and initiative of bishops and synods” that “biblical texts are handled faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and coherently.” Other documents in recent years have emphasized the teaching ministry of bishops, and especially their role in overseeing appropriate interpretation of Scripture, and it is not a surprise to see it emphasized here.
However, there are other commitments that we have historically seen as particularly (though not exclusively, at least in the American Church) within the purview of bishops. First, upholding continuity, especially with the catholic and apostolic tradition, has been an essential function of the historic episcopate. Second, sustaining Eucharistic communion is centered in the office of the Bishop, not least inasmuch as the functions of baptizing and celebrating Eucharist are not inherent in the presbyterate but are rather delegated from the episcopate. Finally, nurturing and responding to “faithful and prophetic ministry” involves bishops, if, again, not bishops alone.
According to “An Outline of the Faith,” the catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer,
The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ’s ministry.
Interestingly enough, there is no explicit reference to interpreting Scripture per se, or to overseeing the interpretations of others. While I won’t quote in detail, the same is true of the 1979 rite for the ordination of a bishop. Granted, there is some implication of interpretation in the responsibilities “to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; [and] to proclaim the Word of God.” There is something closer in the ordination rite, where the bishop asked to commit to “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people.” The implication of this commitment seems more homiletic, however, than academic; for surely “interpreting the Gospel of Christ” is a broader activity that interpretation of Scripture per se. Moreover, we have no sense in the Episcopal Church of a bishop’s authority, much less responsibility, to offer an imprimatur.
It seems to me, then, that the Commitments in Section 1.2 differ from our current practice in the Episcopal Church in specifying interpreting of Scripture and overseeing the interpretations of others as explicit responsibilities of bishops. It would seem to imply, if not explicitly to add, the sort of “nihil obstat” and “imprimatur” authority that our bishops have not claimed. Over all, I think the description of the authority of the bishop isn’t that different; but this seems to me a difference that makes a difference. It seems to establish, or at least to presage some sense of an Anglican “magisterium,” with a defined content of official teachings to which all would subscribe, and for which bishops would be particularly responsible.
I have written before of differences between our contemporary Episcopal understanding of bishops and those in other Anglican provinces; and of the difficulties we might have in speaking of bishops ordained “for the whole Church.” The process to develop an Anglican covenant must surely address these differences. These Commitments have much we might agree with, with some difference focused largely on the importance of Scripture and who might interpret with authority. There is much we might agree with; but also much we still need to talk about.
Okay: so, what’s next?