The Anglican Communion needs some way or defining its identity
The proposed Anglican covenant seeks to reconstruct the common theology of the Anglican Communion following the theologically traumatic actions of 2003 in which a same-sex partnered man was ordained bishop in an American diocese and the blessings of such partnerships were approved in a Canadian diocese.
It is characteristic of Anglicanism to accommodate considerable theological diversity but the actions of 2003 in the eyes of many Anglicans stretched that accommodation to breaking point. The Anglican Communion has been faced with reconstructing its understanding of the theology binding its member churches together or it would break apart. The reconstruction of that theology is the Anglican covenant. Good theological work takes time and during that time, sadly, some breakage in the Communion has occurred.
In the face of a number of Anglicans who have said, ‘Problem? What problem?’ it is to the credit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and many bishops and theologians that they have said consistently since 2003, ‘we have a problem, it’s a biggie, and it needs a new kind of Anglican solution.’
Support for the covenant across the whole of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) can be described as lukewarm at best. If I and other ACANZP Anglicans part company from some of our elders in ACANZP with our enthusiastic support for the covenant, then it’s of comfort to know that the Learned One of Canterbury is our patron in this cause!
The Windsor Report and the proposed Anglican covenant (now into its second draft, more will be published during the next few years) are the Communion’s official attempt to fix the problem. In reconstructing the theology of the Communion we are seeking to state that there are limits to diversity and these limits should be observed.
That the covenant proposals have an Anglican character, offering a middling path between extremes, is seen in reactions from left and right. Liberals fear the covenant will exclude them; conservatives complain that the covenant is a toothless tiger!
Actually, both sides have a point. A covenant that tackles the question of limits to diversity has no point if it does not lead to some action when limits are breached. A covenant which the Anglican Communion agrees to in its current state of deep doctrinal difference is likely to be anodyne.
Yet here is a much more important point: all organisations define their identity around some scheme of core values and exclude those who deny that identity. Funnily enough, the Episcopal Church (TEC) neatly illustrates this point. It is as theologically diverse as any church in the Communion, yet faced with the challenge of bishops seeking to lead their dioceses out of TEC, it has decided that these actions are beyond the limits of their diversity.
If the covenant leads to the Anglican Communion determining that this or that action has breached the limits of Communion diversity, why should the Communion not exercise prerogatives enjoyed by TEC? What do liberals and conservatives who distance themselves from the covenant really want? What vision for the future of the Anglican Communion are they offering?
My best assessment is that their vision is for a world Anglican Church in which individual Anglican churches forge their own futures determined by local theological priorities.
These priorities may or may not be contiguous with historic Anglicanism. Like-minded groupings of Anglican churches may develop but their self-identity will include defining their difference from other Anglicans. The future of world Anglicanism will be a many-splintered thing if we do not commit to true union in the body of Christ bound by a common Communion theology.
What would Jesus do? Now there’s a question worth asking! I suggest Jesus would take the possibility of an Anglican covenant very seriously indeed as a viable means towards fulfilling his great prayer for the church, ‘that they may be one’. Can we do otherwise?
Peter Carrell is Ministry Educator in the Diocese of Nelson and Acting Registrar of Bishopdale Theological College. He was privileged in July 2007 to attend a Consultation on the Anglican Covenant at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, UK, organised by Wycliffe Hall and the Anglican Communion Institute.
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