The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, March 24, 2012

End of a Line

Well, sometimes things work out better than we fear:
The Church of England cannot sign up to a plan aimed at preventing the global Anglican Church from splitting up after half its 44 dioceses voted against it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury backed the Anglican Covenant in a bid to ensure divisive issues - such as gay bishops - did not cause the Communion to split.

A vote by the diocesan synod of Lincoln meant 22 dioceses had opposed the plan.
I have long been opposed to the proposed Covenant, dating back to September 2010; as I wrote then, there were two flaws with the Covenant. First, it was promulgated in order to create a disciplinary procedure against erring provinces. As the great debate of that time centered around claims the the Episcopal Church was an erring product, against which, alas, no penal sanction existed to bring to bear, the Episcopal Church would be pretty damn foolish to submit to a document that, after a string of platitudes created such a penal sanction, savvy?

More fundamentally, it just wasn't Anglican:
True though all of these objections are, the Covenant is more fundamentally an affront to Anglicanism's foundational ethos as formulated in both the 39 Articles and in the writings of Richard Hooker. Briefly, the Covenant reflects Canterbury's effort to "ride the tiger" of American far-right and Global South hostility to the decision of TEC to honor the ministry of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to reify a new creation: An international Anglican Church, rather than a loose confederation of churches, creating a Magisterium. More here.

The problem with all this is that, as Hooker makes clear in his Preface to the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the evolution of churches in their places of planting reflects the needs of those among whom the church grows up and that even the means of organization may properly vary from place to place. Moreover, the foibles as well as the virtues of great figures (such as Calvin, in Hooker's time) may be reflected in not only their own churches, but those which adopt their teaching. Institutionally, local control and autonomy is a way of allowing for the correction of error, as discerned over time.

And that, not simple anti-Roman Catholic spite, is the justification for Article 37, stating that "The King's Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction."

Simply put, the Anglican understanding has held, in delicate balance, the values catholicity and autonomy. Autonomy is necessary to prevent the handing down from on high of bulls which, as Hooker cautions, may result from the universalizing of an insight appropriate to one time and one place, or the over-veneration of a great leader, and simply force a solution to one locale's problem onto a different place and situation, creating a new problem.

The Anglican Covenant upsets that balance, and is indeed intended to do so, reducing the local scope of autonomy. Worst of all, it has no inherent limitation. As Hooker described the mounting demands of the Puritans from respect for conscience, to conformity, to the overthrow of all social institutions which would not conform to their will, the Covenant replaces the delicate balance of communion with a limitless perpetual synod with coercive power whose only limit is its own moderation. We may be expelled from the Communion, no doubt; but we should not sign our own death warrant.
Sorry for the long quote, and from myself, no less. But I stand by this analysis. Rowan Williams, admirable academic though he was made the same mistake that both the Tractarians (especially Newman) did: he holds too high a vision of church unity and authority. The craving for a Magisterium is an understandable escape from the muddle of conflicting imperatives; but we Anglicans have not accepted one and should not now.

The Church of England's rejection of the Covenant should take much of the wind out of the sails of its proponents. (Or, you know, not, but this sounds to me like whistling past the graveyard.) It's hard to envision an Anglican Covenant without the mother province of Anglicanism as a first tier member, with the Archbishop barred from leadership roles due to his province's "second tier" status. So I suspect--and hope--that this is the end of the line for it.

It is perhaps premature to "shroud" the Covenant, but that moment may be at hand.

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