Saturday, May 12, 2007

Responding to the Study Guide: Question 3

There have been some interesting distractions, but it's time to get back to the work of responding to the Study Guide questions about the draft Anglican Covenant. (You can also read my earlier thoughts on the process, and on questions 1 and 2.)

(3) Is this a sufficient rationale for entering into a Covenant? Why or why not?

This question refers to the Preamble to the Draft, a paragraph short enough that it can be included entire:

“We, the Churches of the Anglican Communion, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ , solemnly covenant together in these articles, in order to proclaim more effectively in our different contexts the Grace of God revealed in the Gospel, to offer God’s love in responding to the needs of the world, to maintain the unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace, and to grow up together as a worldwide Communion to the full stature of Christ.”

Provided with this is a series of scripture citations. It must be supposed that these illustrate the understanding the Covenant Draft Committee has of the Preamble: “(Psalm 127.1-2, Ezekiel 37.1-14, Mark 1.1, John 10.10; Romans 5.1-5, Ephesians 4:1-16, Revelation 2-3)" (Italics in the original)

With regard to the question specific to the Study Guide, let’s look first at the Preamble text itself. The statement is at first glance unobjectionable enough. It hits certain notes that I think are important: “to proclaim in our different contexts the Grace of God;” “to offer God’s love… to the needs of the world;” and “to grow up together… to the full stature of Christ.” (Emphases mine.) We might explore what the Committee means, and what we might mean when we say, “in the bonds of peace.” These days both “bonds” and “peace” seem matters of some dispute.

At the same time, I wouldn’t want to place too much emphasis on the content of a Preamble. This has, after all, become something of a question with regard to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. When we say in the Preamble to our Constitution, “The Episcopal Church… is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion,” some have wanted to make that statement foundational rather than descriptive, hoping perhaps to retain an Anglican “concession” that the Episcopal Church might lose if excommunicated by Canterbury or the Anglican Consultative Council. If we are clear that the Preamble of our Constitution is about intent and not content, as it were, we can hardly require more of the Preamble of a Covenant.

So, one could argue that the Preamble is a reasonable rationale, and not require too great a measure of “sufficiency.” However, I think that could be reasonably measured against the scriptural passages that are offered, again, presumably as foundation or interpretation.

And there’s the rub. I think we can appropriately question some of these scripture passages. For example, I wonder about the citation of Mark 1:1. Certainly, it emphasizes that we proclaim “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” At the same time, it provides no content.

I have more concern about several of the selections that seem more oriented toward the current atmosphere of controversy, and less about growing together into the future. Consider the passage from Ephesians. It has much to commend it. It speaks of the unity of the body, formed by “grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” It speaks to the varieties of gifts and culminates in the image of the growing into the body of which Christ is the head. At the same time, to embrace this image we are also called to embrace verse 14: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” This approaches all too closely, and all too unfortunately, those allegations that the Episcopal Church has introduced some “new religion” or fallen into heresy. In that context, “speaking the truth in love” in verse 15 becomes reproof within the community, and not proclamation to the world. Similar images from 1 Corinthians 12 would have offered images of unity in diversity in one body without the defensive connotation.

This is reinforced by the selection of John 10.10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” There is much to be embraced in the “Good Shepherd” passages in John 10. Selecting verse 10, to the exclusion of so much of the rest of the “Good Shepherd” parables, seems clearly contentious, focused on the thief. What about verse 9: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”? And what about verses 14 through 18?

"I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

With so much to choose from that speaks of our unity in one flock, and the servant leadership of Christ the Good Shepherd, to raise up only verse 10 seems quite pointed.

The citation of chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation raises concerns. These chapters are the messages of the Spirit to the seven churches. With only one of them is God pleased: the Philadelphians, of whom the Spirit says, “I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God.” (3:12) Each of the other churches has something to repent, whether it is the weak faith of the Laodiceans (3:15), or the weak love of the Ephesians (2:4), or the Thyatirans’ tolerance of “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants” (2:20; surely something to raise eyebrows in the American church). There is no image of unity here. Instead we have a call to repentance and accountability to God. Perhaps the intent was to uphold for the entire Communion all those things of which we might repent. However, it does not bear any apparent relationship to the text of the Preamble itself. Instead, it offers temptation: each may say, “I am with the Philadelphians. Who are you?”

Even the Valley of Dry Bones from Ephesians would require some explication. Certainly, it provides that wonderful image of the faithful resurrected, called to new life that is visceral, tangible, through the power of the Spirit. At the same time, who in this context is the dead community? It should speak of all Christians, and certainly all in the Anglican Communion. If we are a body, if we are alive either as individuals or as a Communion, it is through God’s breath moving in and through us. In context of these other lessons, however, it might be construed to indicate the Episcopal Church, dead now and waiting for the correct, the true prophetic word that can give life again. We must be clear that any embrace of this passage to illuminate the intent of a covenant that it applies equally to all, as all are fallen save for Christ’s indwelling spirit; and not only to some.

Thus, while the language of the draft Preamble seems straightforward enough, the scriptural references on which it is supposedly based, or by which it should be illuminated and understood, take a different tone. Rather than coming together “to proclaim… the Grace of God revealed in the Gospel, to offer God’s love…, to maintain the unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace, and to grow up together…to the full stature of Christ,” these passages suggest a covenant focused subtly on resisting thieves and Jezebels, and repenting weak faith and false teaching. I’m not opposed to resisting thieves and Jezebels, and repenting weak faith and false teaching, once we have some shared understanding of our categories. However, that seems a clear reflection of one perspective on our current difficulties and struggles. These lessons illustrating the draft Preamble focus the intent of the Covenant on a specific time and a specific concern. If we are to grow together as a Communion, we must reflect intent focused on an open future, and not on a specific historical “problem.” The text of the draft Covenant on its own may well have something to offer. The theme of the illustrating lessons is theologically and historically quite limited to our current time and our current situation; and that is certainly not a sufficient rationale for entering into a covenant.

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