Monday, February 19, 2007

Covenant and Communion

During an informal visit with my spiritual director (and little Daniel's godfather) yesterday, I was lovingly admonished to "slow down." We've just moved to Mill Valley, which means there's a bit more space to breathe than in San Francisco, as the pace is a bit more relaxed, and pondering is more possible, even for someone who likes to move very quickly, like me!

The reaction to the draft Anglican Covenant, and late-breaking communique of the Primates has been swift in the blogosphere, but I am going to risk falling behind the curve a bit in doing some more thoughtful analysis of these documents, so I would like to offer a rolling commentary over the next few days as we enter Lent together -- mindful of a Lenten practice to be more thoughtful rather than superficially eclectic (I write that with no intention to impugn my companion bloggers, but only to note my age and relative inexperience, as well as an intentional desire to research more background before jumping to conclusions -- something that got me into trouble in seminary!)

All right, so that's enough about me. I will start with the Draft Anglican Covenant, as that, I believe will probably be the most significant text under discussion for the longer term.

An Overview

The drafters of the proposed Covenant clearly worked hard, compiling a great deal of material in drawing together a coherent document. My initial reaction worried that the result might be something edging on a confessional statement, but in keeping with the nature of the word "covenant," the group seems to have crafted a more appropriately relational document built on the conciliar traditions of Christianity -- one that lends itself well, I believe, to Anglicanism.

I remain a little concerned about the draft's overall length. To relate it to covenants most of us know in our everyday lives: committed relationships (marriage is most often cited). . .prenuptial agreements (for example) appear to me more perilous the more detailed they become. Flexibility grounded in mutual charity has marked my marriage to this point. The essentials of our marriage vows are simple, quotable, and broad.

That said, the draft covenant will only be useful inasmuch as it tries to comprehend the vast diversity of contemporary Anglicanism and the array of cultural and theological traditions embodied in our churches and brought into the life of prayer and sacrament.

To turn to the draft more in detail, here are my thoughts, section by section. (Better open up the draft in another window before reading this):

The Preamble opens the document magnificently and with a great deal of hope. Of particular note here is the acknowledgment of diversity and difference of context: "Big Tent" Anglicanism par excellence. This indicates the Covenant could be of concern in some quarters that hold to a more narrow understanding of our shared faith.

Section 2 lays out in greater detail the primary content of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, while adding acknowledgment of the historical documents and roots of our traditions around the Book of Common Prayer. Here, my cursory earlier reading was not justified -- this section makes clear that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles are not to become mandatory for member churches, but rahter point to our common heritage derived from them. (Note to the reader -- always look at footnotes!)

Section 3: Our Commitment to Confession of the Faith

This section is the first that raises some questions for me. The heading itself is what first caught my eye in that it moves us at least a bit towards implications of a confessional statement. We are not a confessional church, at least not in the same way Lutherans, Presbyterians, and other Protestant traditions have been historically. This means that preserving Anglicanism with and through this draft poses distinct challenges. That said, my more critical thoughts revolve around what might be assumed (for both the drafters and the readers) in some of the provisions constructed around scriptural authority:

  1. "Biblically derived moral values" carries with it an impressive amount of baggage, particularly in the United States, where "moral values" has become a rallying cry in recent politics. My pre-programmed cultural biases immediately lead me to ask whose "biblically derived moral values?" In other words, this phrase begs questions that will not lead to easy answers. There are clear opinions in Anglicanism right now that assume very specific knowledge about what we mean when we talk about these values, particularly in light of some of the most contentious issues on the table (i.e. human sexuality.) The assumption remains in the water that those of us who differ from these understandings are no longer following "biblically derived moral values." In short, this provision may not be ultimately helpful, and may only succeed in arming one "side" against another in current and future debates over what Scripture tells us is moral in the lives of our members, and where the church should be prophetic about (and perhaps even learn from!) what God is doing in the lives of some of our historically marginalized members, as well as even in the greater world at times!
  2. The language here about sustaining Eucharistic communion potentially works the other way to some degree, particularly in light of the recent boycott we saw when the Primates met. I've said more than enough on that point already.
  3. By itself, I find this statement about Scriptural interpretation much more helpful and practically applicable than statement 1. above. It underscores that biblical witness serves the Church best when it challenges even our most hallowed assumptions. Again, this provision could serve to work "both ways," but more importantly, it points to the reality that Scripture does not act in a vacuum (i.e. this understanding could be construed from the phrase "biblically derived moral values") but rather in the context of a community of interpretation. Put another way, this statement is more honest in that it asserts biblical authority being worked out and being alive only in the Body of Christ, rather than imposed from without, granting the Bible some supernatural ability that risks leading us into idolatry.
  4. Essential, it seems to me, is the articulation that the Gospel is at the heart of all matters as a Christian community. Gospel is not only constructed on Scripture, but also on the inherited tradition, Christ with us and among us in the sacramental life, as well as the work of the Spirit in our midst. I hope this is understood in this particular provision -- perhaps this might need more explanation.
  5. Pilgrimage is so hopeful here, and essential, it seems to me, in understanding that we are on a shared journey. I find this a very apt counterpoint to cries we have heard about an "apostolic faith inherited for all time", implying fixed and unvarying tradition (with the underlying assumption that we have the full Truth). Rather, we are part of a living tradition that is at once dynamic and imperfect, dependant on the grace of God, and are in a Church experiencing and engaging in ongoing revelation.
Section 4: The Life we Share with Others. . .

Bravo to the opening sentence, reminding us all that Communion is a gift from God. We may steward it, but it does not ultimately depend on us. This section is primarily about mission, and I have absolutely no qualms or quibbles with it. It appeals to the very best of what is happening in the Anglican Communion right now in each and every Province, and summons forth our prophetic call in real, incarnational ways.

Section 5: Our Unity and Common Life

As a sort of preamble to the section that will probably receive the most air time, this opens with an affirmation of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral's understanding of the place of the episcopate. But, of course, uh oh. Here we get into the subject of bishops!

Here we also see the first appearance of the word autonomy. This was something The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner hit very hard in his presentation at Epiphany West, coming right on the heals of the meeting of the Covenant Committee. Autonomy has been a big rub for us as a Communion, of course, particularly in light of the Episcopal Church's actions vis-a-vis the oft-cited Lambeth Resolution 1.10 of 1998.

The way autonomy is couched initially, understanding its reality in the distinctiveness of our provinces, and seeing our unity primarily in light of the Spirit, is something I can happily live with, though. The term moves a little bit more into an area of concern a bit later in the document.

We have here, too, the affirmation of the four Instruments of Communion, lending some structural longevity to these bodies.

My only caution here is that we must, it seems to be, be careful not to overly indulge in the development and preservation of institutions, except inasmuch as they serve our common mission in Christ. That said, I see nothing here even remotely suggesting the much-feared development of a "magisterium" that some had prognosticated when the Covenant Design process was initially unveiled.

Section 6: Unity of the Communion

This section deals most specifically about power in the Anglican Communion, how it is shared in interdependence, and how dispute may be handled in the future. This will likely receive the closest scrutiny, as it most deals with how the Instruments of Communion will engage and influence the life of our tradition.

  1. Here we see an appeal to "common good" as it relates to autonomy. Again, we are left with a potentially loaded phrase -- whose "common good" are we talking about here? And what do we mean as the Communion's "common good?" This begs important questions about the nature of unity and when it should, if ever, give way to prophetic and Spirit-led witness in a particular part of the Communion. I hope we would all agree that majority views can and have been just as heretical at times in our shared human and church history as minority ones, and probably even more oppressive in nature. In this way, I find the language here again not very helpful. It simply begs too many questions. Anyone at any time could appeal to "common good" as a way of shielding themselves or their particular theological position against potentially important developments in the life of the Church, not to mention the witness of the marginalized and the oppressed in our midst, children of God whom Christ deeply cherishes.
  2. This provision is helpful in its call to engage in relationship and patience. This cuts all ways, of course. It will probably be read by one side of the present arguments as a constraint against innovation. It will be read by the other side as a call to engage intentionally even with those who most deplore our own innovations. It appeals to the truth I hope we all continue to share: that discernment is a community effort, and whatever way we facilitate this mutuality at both the local and global level has a chance of opening us up further to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. At its best, it also helps us embrace the healthy spiritual discipline of closing our mouths and opening our ears and hearts.
  3. A bit more begging the question here: what matters are "essential?" Based on what we have seen, Church teachings on human sexuality seem to some to be an matter that is essential. Perhaps the drafters assume (and they may very well be correct) that this is something that must be worked out in the processes described in point 2 above.
  4. We are called to heed the "moral authority" of the Instruments of Communion. There can be little doubt what this responds to: the calls that the Episcopal Church is in the act of violating Lambeth 1.10. This constraint also may prove problematic if not in the adoption process itself, but in implementation. Again, it opens the door to members accusing others of not heeding the "moral authority" of the Instruments of Communion, the classically Anglican equivocation here about the Instruments having no final "juridical or executive" authority notwithstanding. This is evident in the present disagreements even now, of course.
  5. The guidance in matters of dispute here may also need to endure considerable debate, as it lends what we might call arbitration authority to the Instruments. I'm not entirely convinced this would be a bad thing. The Instruments of Communion have arbitrated disputes before, but only at the request of the Provinces involved, and generally for internal matters within the Provinces themselves. This provision offers the possibility of an umbrella authority within the Communion to arbitrate inter-provincial disputes -- something that might be clearly helpful in the situation we now find ourselves with flying bishops and archbishops, etc., and the inter-jurisdictional violations that are playing out in painful ways as I write this.
  6. Now, here's the rub. The Instruments of Communion will be the final authority to decide membership (at least covenanted membership) in the Anglican Communion. Happily, we do not see here the much-feared arrogation of authority to the Primates alone. But we do, above, see the establishment of the Primates Meeting as one of these Conciliar decision-making bodies.
Section 7: Declaration

Nothing of substance to note here, except the word "partners" is used for the first time to describe what sounds to me to indicate the collegial and conciliar relationship of our provinces. All-in-all a hopeful sign that this draft says nothing about the formulation of anything even remotely close to a major shift in the way the Communion is structured.

Questions that need answers

I remain uncertain about a number of things stemming from this first draft:

  • How would local (provincial) Churches that might not sign on to this Covenant be in relationship with the Anglican Communion?
  • Likewise, how would Provinces or other groups later willing to enter this Covenant open a conversation with the Instruments of Unity to "sign on"?
  • Language, as I outlined above, in some parts of this Covenant, needs further definition. Here, of course, the covenant itself runs in the perennial problem of being glossed into obfuscation or a narrow reading that could be used as a wedge of division. This dilemma may not be ultimately solvable in any case, but "loaded" language, I believe, should be weighed very carefully before it makes its way into any final form for ratification.
  • How might the Covenant be amended in the future, if necessary (i.e., changes in the structure or nature of the Instruments of Communion?)
  • Where and how should appeals to the Covenant's inherent authority first be made? Or can they be made in any of the Instruments as they meet as a body?
  • How would the Covenant support, in any practical way, the intra-provincial disputes with inter-provincial consequences, as we presently see occurring in, say, Virginia or San Joaquin? (I recognize, of course, that the Covenant Design Committee intentionally avoided addressing present disputes, but the general configuration of appeals for alternative primatial oversight, etc., could well arise again in other theological disputes.) Put another way, then, how does the Covenant ensure a reasonable assurance that local churches will not appeal for inter-provincial intervention?
  • In echoing some of *christopher's comments elsewhere, another very important question is how would this covenant, both in terms of process and in its adoption and implementation through the Instruments of Communion, intentionally involve more lay leadership and the diaconate? In its present form, it heavily focuses on the episcopate.

Some Preliminary Conclusions

All in all, I think this document is both realistic and forward-looking. It avoided the pitfalls many of us were dreading: trying to "fix" the present impasse in any specific way, holding to our shared traditions as a resource for theological language, and, however much it lends some arbitration authority to the Instruments of Unity, does not seem to me to engage the slippery slope of a developing magisterial authority. There will be consternation in some places that it does not produce an "Anglican Church" with worldwide authority over local affairs. Thankfully, it seeks to preserve local authority and autonomy while fulfilling the mandate to make the Communion as viable and life-giving as possible.

Put in an even more positive way, I think this Draft Covenant is viable for consideration, and it might help forward a life-giving direction forward in acknowledging our shared interdependence as independent churches while nourishing relationships already existing in a post-colonial world. It seems to broadly address some of the present confusion over what should happen when Provinces come into conflict, and it maps out, in a fairly positive way, what might best be called "rules of engagement." Behavior in some quarters right now is called pastorally but clearly to account in light of this covenant. And the Covenant begins to map out how accountability, short of canonical provisions, might be brought to bear in these cases. And there seems little room here for any attempt to undermine the authority of any Province in its own jurisdiction, something that will likely cause additional concern amongst some of those holding extreme views in the present situation.

So, kudos to the Design Committee. Their clear diligence and fidelity to longstanding traditions of the Communion as well as navigating the contentious environment we presently experience without falling into overly partisan positions has created, it seems to me, something well worth very serious discussion at the highest levels of the Communion and in each Province.

No doubt, we will see the Draft Covenant become increasingly important in the coming days of our common life as Anglican Christians. It may well supersede the Windsor Report as a locus of ongoing discussion in building our common life in Christ, as it probably should.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Richard, for your kind and thoughtful comments. At least I'm not the only one on the more progressive side that has tried to see some of the positive sides to this. Polarization gets so tiring.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to polarize, but you might want to take a look at the appendix and the steps TEC is expected to take prior to the covenant.


Joe H.

R said...

Joe H.,

Are you referring to the draft covenant and accompanying report or the Primates' communique and timetable (which I hope to handle tomorrow, I have not read them with any depth yet)?