During the past few months, the text of the Anglican Covenant has been debated by diocesan synods in the Church of England. Enough dioceses have now rejected the Covenant to prevent its further consideration by General Synod during its present term. This doesn’t mean the the Covenant is dead either in the Church of England or in the wider communion. It’s defeat in the English dioceses has been a near thing. What emerged is that the people who busy themselves in church government at a diocesan level are almost equally divided. A majority of bishops support it, the clergy are almost divided equally, although more seem against it, and the laity are divided. The total vote of all three Orders produced a majority for the Covenant, but that fact means not a thing in a church governed by a complicated voting system, which, at diocesan level requires agreement by majorities of bishops, other clergy and the laity. The best that may be said is that among those enthusiasts who get themselves elected to diocesan synods, there is no consensus. Whether the people who attend the parish churches on Sundays agree with their representatives can’t be known. I would think that most don’t really understand or care much about the issue.
Two things stand out. The first is that archbishops and bishops, a significant majority of which support the Covenant, no longer lead as teachers and spiritual leaders. In an episcopal church, this development is troubling, to say the least. I have to attribute much of this loss of influence on a failure of the bishops to use their office to teach. Granted in a church divided by a new form of partisanship, bishops retreat to managerial roles, avoiding taking positions which might further divide their struggling flocks and often ill-equipt to assert matters of faith and practice. Despite the emergence of new liturgical forms, intended to create greater unanimity in worship, English Anglicanism has wandered into utter liturgical confusion. In many larger congregations the canons and rubrics about worship forms are ignored. Many resemble Nonconformist chapels in worship and theology, while others use rites culled from contemporary Roman Catholicism. After decades of effort to restore the Eucharist is the central form of worship, a plethora of non-sacramental worship forms seem to triumph, defended as means to attract the unchurched and children, but ill-equipt to introduce either to the doctrine, discipline or worship of Anglicanism.
The second and to my mind more worrying development has been the growth of groups structured on similar organizations typical in American politics. These single-issue groups raise money, develop tactics and create unelected or commissioned leaders, bent on influencing opinion and swaying synods. They exist on the Left and the Right in the fractured world of contemporary religious politics.Much of the influence hitherto exercised by bishops and other official clerical and lay leadership is now exercised by these pressure groups. Unconstrained by any discipline, obsessed by their own Issue, these lobbies exercise considerable power. That they tend to champion causes which in reality have little traction at parish level means not a thing. In short the church has grown more and more politicized and thus more and more divided. While they may shore up the zeal of their supporters, they quite probably further alienate less partisan parishioners. They give ample excuse to the Media to highlight conflict and ignore the daily hard work of clergy and parishioners.
Certainly as far as the Church of England is concerned, these two developments call into question the wisdom of adopting forms of legislative assemblies which emulate secular models of party-political governance rather than those appropriate for the good health of the church. Instead of creating synods that busy themselves on the good order of the church, and advancing sound religion and mission, synods have come to view themselves as bodies which create majorities, defeat minorities, and regard legislation as their true role in leading the church.
The defeat of the Covenant, at least for a few years, only highlights a deeply troubling development of ecclesiastical confusion. For the defeat of the Covenant in a majority of diocesan synods tells us little about the desirability of a Covenant. It perhaps begs the question as to whether the development of mutual accountability in world-wide Anglicanism is possible while no such mutual responsibility and accountability exists in the Provinces of the Anglican ‘West’. In short, if we cannot develop ways to identify what we have in common, in pursuit of unity and mission in a ‘national church’ how on earth may we expect to do so globally?
In the (American) Episcopal Church the problem has been solved neatly. A majority rules, free to do as it pleases, for surely that is democratic, while the minority either wanders off or settles for an insecure ghetto existence.
Of course the movement towards a Covenant isn’t dead. It’s progress has been impeded by the dog in a manger attitude of the ‘Gafcon’ Provinces, for whom the Covenant should have meant a larger influence in Communion affairs, but whose anti-‘colonialist’ (largely anti-American) passions have proven irresistible, even if bolstered by the remarkable influence of North American traditionalists, whose bitterness about TEC and oddly about +Rowan Williams drives them towards the dream of an Anglican Communion intolerant of any views but their own. The adoption of the Covenant by the Gafcon Provinces, in their present manifestation, would prove as divisive as the triumph of intolerant progressivism. Neither lobbies provides much breathing space for comprehension.
Should those of us who champion the growth of unity and accountability settle for a version of the Covenant without a mechanism for discipline? My own view is that it would move us forward. An agreement about the first sections of the Covenant’s texts would establish an Anglican norm, to which the Provinces by such an adoption would be accountable, even in default. How Anglicanism might then respond to Provinces which, for instance, contemplate lay presidency at the eucharist or communicating the non-baptized might be problematical but at least an agreed term of reference would be agreed upon from which adequate teaching responses might emerge. Our ecumenical partners would be secure in believing that Anglicans have s standard of theology and ecclesiology. Indeed Provinces which adopt policies at odd with the first three sections of the Covenant would be seen to be oddly out of step with their own formularies and those of the entire Communion.
It seems impossible at this moment to contemplate that the same-sex union matter will now devolve, at least in North America to the level of a Gamaliel judgement. It is one thing to permit something and entirely another to see over time whether that something will become normative or will achieve the desired outcome. Will a significant constituency avail themselves of whatever ‘blessing’ means? What will the practical pastoral result look like? Will such unions be as unstable as contemporary Matrimony given the pressures inherent in contemporary ‘culture’ or rather conflicting cultures? Legislation is one thing, as we know from politics. The eventual fate of legislation once adopted is something entirely different. It would be supremely ironic if the Communion divides over a matter which, like other issues, evaporates in significance in a bewilderingly changing world.
Yet the question of how our present forms of Synodical government in the West are suited to advance the work and mission of the church. Therein lies the rub.
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