Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Responding to the Study Guide: Question 1

I have already posted the release by the Executive Council of a Study Guide on the Report of the Covenant Design Group and the Draft Covenant. Let me begin my own process of responding to the Study Guide.

(1) Do you think an Anglican Covenant is necessary and/or will help to strengthen the interdependent life of the Anglican Communion? Why or why not?

I have considered the possibility that a covenant document might help clarify relations and means of relating between Provinces of the Anglican Communion. I am one who has suggested that a concordat might be better, especially in light of several existing concordats that seem to be functioning well ("Call to Common Mission," for example).

However, this is an answer only in the abstract. I am concerned by the Report of the Covenant Design Group, even prior to the Draft Covenant, in that the Group’s inclination seems less to strengthen than to harden the Communion.

First, let me question the “particular factors” that moved their proposal.

1. Content
The text of the Covenant would need to hold together and strengthen the life of the Communion. To do so, it need not introduce some new development into the life of the Communion but rather be the clarification of a process of discernment which was embodied in the Windsor Report and in the recent reality of the life of the Instruments of Communion, and which was founded in and built upon the elements traditionally articulated in association with Anglicanism and the life of the Anglican Churches.

The problem I see with this factor is the failure to acknowledge that the Windsor Report and any Windsor Process are themselves “new developments into the life of the Communion.” Those portions of the Windsor Report that speak of “elements traditionally articulated in association with Anglicanism” seem the portions least observed.

2. Urgency
While a definitive text which held all such elements in balance might take time to develop in the life of the Communion, there was also an urgent need to re-establish trust between the churches of the Communion. The faithfulness of patterns of obedience to Christ were no longer recognised across the Communion, despite Paul’s call to another way of life (Romans 14.15), and its life would suffer irreparably if some measure of mutual and common commitment to the Gospel was not reasserted in a short time frame. We were mindful also of the words of the Primates at Oporto, “We are conscious that we all stand together at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ, so we know that to turn away from each other would be to turn away from the Cross”.

This paragraph harks back to an earlier statement:

It was also recognised, however, that the proposal for a covenant was born out of a specific context in which the Communion’s life was under severe strain. While the group felt that it was important that the strength of a covenant would be greater if it addressed broad principles, and did not focus on particular issues, the need for its introduction into the life of the Communion in order to restore trust was urgent.

It is the very sense of urgency that should cause us to pause and reflect. It is a truism that “big cases make bad laws;” and this is the risk we run here if we allow a sense of urgency to overtake us. Certainly, we have experienced this sufficiently here in the United States in light of the threats to individual conscience and liberties that came in poorly crafted laws in reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Indeed, there is an inconsistency within the paragraph of the second “factor.” If indeed, “to turn away from each other is to turn away from Christ,” can we trust our “measure of mutual and common commitment to the Gospel” to rest on “patterns of obedience?” At best that is an urge toward standardization across the Communion that would undermine our cherished respect for expressions of the faith (not to mention episcopacy) adapted to local needs and conditions. At worst it is essentially works righteousness. If the alternative it “to turn away from Christ,” how much grace must we be willing to offer one another? Have we not been called to forgive one another "seventy times seven?" Here, however, the call of some perceived urgency pushes for “common commitment” defined by “common patterns of obedience.”

And yet, other crises have not met this sense of urgency. Despite the distorted, sadly optimistic presentation in the Windsor Report of the process of reception of women in orders, that issue remains unsettled, and the Communion divided. This division was highlighted by those primates who refused to receive communion with Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, not because she was Episcopalian, but because she was a woman. We are only now exploring a process of discerning the variations in hermeneutics in the Communion, surely a prior, pressing issue in determining “authentic Anglicanism.”

More critically, we have not determined what we mean by “interdependence,” or “autonomy,” or “ bonds of affection.” We suggest at various times that all of these are desirable, and worth some preservation, and yet we are not agreed on their meaning or parameters. These are surely critical understandings that would precede any effort to agree on topics that are not matters of core doctrine.

Thus, while I might think in abstract that some form of agreement might “strengthen the interdependent life of the Anglican Communion,” a poorly formed agreement, entered in haste, will surely threaten either the “dependence” or the “inter-“ concepts in interdependence. The life of the Communion will be harder and more brittle, but hardly stronger. If it is indeed our prayer “that God will redeem our struggles and weakness, and renew and enrich our common life,” we cannot deny our weakness by avoiding struggles – struggles that cannot, must not be rushed or preempted. An agreement formed and entered in haste will surely be repented at leisure.

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