Covenant, Contract, and Communion: Reflections on a Post-Windsor Anglicanism
Lewis, Harold T
Since the time of Richard Hooker, Anglicanism has been covenantal. In a church predicated on mutual trust, room was traditionally provided for many divergent views to find a happy home under a protective umbrella. Anglicanism was supple, and its membership guided by the wisdom of Isaiah: “Come let us reason together though our sins be like scarlet.” The Anglican Communion in this post-Windsor era seems to be characterized by distrust; it is becoming rigid and legalistic. To many, human sexuality has become the quintessential litmus test, and the views of individuals, parishes, dioceses, or provinces on that issue determine their fitness for membership. Our default position seems to be changing from a propensity to be inclusive to a tendency to remove from Anglican fellowship those who do not meet a standard of “orthodoxy.” Contract has replaced covenant as the way Anglicans live, move, and have their being.
The definition of covenant, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, is “a bond entered into voluntarily by two parties by which each pledges to do something for the other.” It would be impossible to study the Bible without grasping the importance of covenant. It characterizes, in the first instance, the relationship between the God of Israel and the people of Israel. The concept is developed further by the prophets, who make righteousness on the part of God’s people the prerequisite for our entering into true covenantal fellowship with God. Our Lord takes the concept a step further, asserting that he is the very embodiment of the perfect covenant between God and humankind, because God’s people, instead of offering animals or other sacrifices in their behalf to atone for their sins, can now depend on Jesus, the great high priest (Heb. 4:14). Superseding the offerings made in the old dispensation, he offers himself as “the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”
Throughout our lives, we enter into some kind of covenant-a covenant not only between God and the people of God, but also between ourselves and other human beings. The Prayer Book describes baptism as an indissoluble bond between ourselves and God, and then calls upon the candidate to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” It refers to Holy Matrimony as “the bond and covenant of marriage . . . which signifies the union between Christ and his Church,” but also calls upon the bride and groom to love and to cherish each other until they are parted by death. Ordination is not simply the conferral of an ontological status. The newly ordained person is called upon to “love and serve the people among whom” he/she works, “caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.” A dual covenant exists even in death. In the Burial Office, we are committed to God’s care, as a “lamb of his own flock and a sheep of his own fold,” but we are also “knit together” with the elect “in one communion and fellowship . . . in paradise and on earth.” In a covenantal life we are called to love one another, because “he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
A standard dictionary might give “contract” as a synonym for “covenant.” It is not. In a legal contract, the only pertinent relationship between the parties has to do with the specific matter outlined in the contract itself. When we obtain a mortgage, for example, everything is specified in black and white. There is no love between us and the bank. Indeed, one of the documents we have to sign states that anything that is not in writing and witnessed by both parties is not binding.
One of the positive fruits of the current situation in the Anglican Communion is that we all have a deeper knowledge of church polity. We have learned, for example, that the Episcopal Church is not simply an upscale homogeneous ghetto of rather well-heeled, well-educated, urbane Americans, but that we are part-and indeed a tiny part-of a worldwide group known as the Anglican Communion, the second largest group of Christians on the planet. The strength of the Anglican Communion is not in the British Isles, to which it traces its roots, but in the global South. This is because the cross followed the Union Jack into the uttermost parts of the British Empire, giving license to missionaries to make newly minted British subjects into Anglicans. While, over time, the Church of England has fallen into decline, the church in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies has grown by leaps and bounds. Indeed, one in ten Anglicans in the world is a Nigerian! We know that the decennial Lambeth Conference, which takes its name from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, can no longer fit in the palace and so meets at the University of Kent. We know that the Lambeth Conference photographer has to make serious adjustments to the cameras f-stop each decade, because the hue of Anglicanism is changing. At the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, there were no bishops of color; there was only one at the second. In 1998, bishops of color far outnumbered those of Anglo-Saxon stock.
It was once alleged that the provinces in the Communion were held together by the Book of Common Prayer. And although that book had been translated into Swahili and Japanese and French, and scores of other languages, the shape of the liturgy was everywhere recognizable. The Anglican Communion has historically been seen as an extended family, and each province as a nuclear family within the larger system. The extended family has traditionally made allowances for and even embraced local, cultural differences that affected the whole, and when there was a squabble among certain members of the family, the Lambeth Conference (which came into being precisely because of such a squabble) met and smoothed things out. It is interesting in this connection to note that it took a century for the church to come to some agreement about polygamy. In 1888, despite the pleadings of Bishop Crowther of Nigeria, the practice was condemned as unchristian and unbiblical. After a hundred years of debate, the Lambeth Conference of 1988 made it possible for Muslim converts to bring their wives with them, with the understanding that they would call a moratorium on additional marriages. In light of recent developments, this decision is especially significant since through it, sanction has been given to a form of Christian marriage which differs from the heterosexual monogamy long held as normative.
Now by any criterion, Anglicanism is messy. Strictly speaking, it has no unique theology. As a church guided by the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, we look to the Book of Common Prayer for our sacramental theology. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicanism has no central authority. Unlike the Reformation churches, we have no charismatic theologian like Calvin or Luther to guide our theology. Without such points of reference, it is difficult to keep disparate groups together in some harmonious whole. But until recently this has been largely achieved precisely because of a bond and covenant among Anglicans.
Richard Hooker, Anglicanism’s chief apologist, saw the church as “an integrated life of relationships which are continually being transformed by the abiding Spirit of Christ’s authority who enables its structure to become a supple and enduring framework holding the Communion together at greater depth.”1 In such a system, each group, retaining “a sense of the dynamic nature of history and of the way in which contextuality informs the intellectual process,”2 has trusted the other to run its affairs, and yet remain within the parameters of faith and practice of the Anglican Communion. In Hookers own words, “every former part gives strength unto all that followe.”3 And when difficulties arose, those constituent parts followed the counsel of the prophet Isaiah: “Come let us reason together though our sins be like scarlet” (Isa. 1:18). In recent decades, for example, the Anglican family has agreed to disagree on the question of women’s ordination. Many provinces still do not permit it, and some that do (including the Church of England) have allowed for ordination to the priesthood but not to the episcopate.
I contend that this quintessential Anglican trait of an ability to allow for such differences, this covenantal existence that has, since the time of Richard Hooker, allowed for divergent views under the Anglican umbrella, no longer obtains. Anglicanism today has ceased to be guided by covenant, which understands the church to be supple. Instead, it is beginning to be guided by contract, which understands the church to be rigid. In an assiduous and tenacious reverence for and reliance on laws-biblical, constitutional, canonical-Ecclesia Anglicana is exhibiting an unprecedented sense of distrust among the provinces that make up the Anglican mosaic today. Moreover, such distrust stems almost solely from the existence of divergent views on the subject of human sexuality. Specifically, many opine that any individual, diocese, or national church body that believes that homosexual persons can be fit for ordination, or that the church should consider recognizing same-sex blessings, has removed itself from the ranks of orthodox Christians. Questions were raised as to whether Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold should have been invited to preach at a service in Belfast that preceded the Primates’ Meeting in Ireland, because “a primate representing the historical teaching on human sexuality” had not also been invited.4 The primates requested that representatives from the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada not attend the 2005 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council. Some archbishops refused to receive communion in the presence of the primates of those churches because of their theological views on human sexuality. More recently, the invitation to a member of the Presiding Bishop’s staff to preach in a diocese in the Province of the West Indies was withdrawn because she believes that the church should participate in a dialogue on the question of same-sex unions.
What makes such actions so troubling is that the theology of those who hold such views is deemed suspect, and their very fitness for ministry is called into question. Actions arising from such suspicions can have serious consequences. As the Irish delegates to the Anglican Consultative Council commented about the proposed absence of North American delegates, “their churches [are] precluded from participating in other important discussions which could both enhance fellowship and create perspective. What better way both to cement division and to compromise the independence of the ACC?” But the basic question is whether such participation and fellowship are desired by those Anglicans who believe that their North American brothers and sisters have by their actions already severed those bonds. As Robert Duncan, Bishop of Pittsburgh, has stated, “the Episcopal Church has been . . . asked to choose between repentance marked by a real returning to the Anglican mainstream or ‘walking apart’ from the rest of the Anglican Communion.”5 But there is a more subtle problem emerging from the primates’ action. The Irish Anglican Consultative Council delegates warned that “for the ACC, a genuinely synodical international gathering [since it is the only one of the four Instruments of Unity that includes clergy and laity], to have its membership and atmosphere adjusted essentially at the behest of the Primates’ meeting would severely damage the balance of dispersed authority within Anglicanism.”6 They further caution that the Windsor Report runs the risk of becoming a Trojan horse, and that a precedent might be set for a “centralized curialization” of the Anglican Communion-in other words, it would become, in some ways, more like the Roman Catholic Church in its governance, thereby abandoning its historic Anglican ethos.
At the parish level I have experienced firsthand the shifting sands of Anglicanism from covenant to contract. Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, is the flagship of those parishes representing a moderate theology in a diocese known (not least because of the presence of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry) for its conservative bent. Our bishop, Robert Duncan, is also the Moderator of the Anglican Communion Network of Dioceses and Parishes. He has consistently maintained that through the actions taken at the 74th General Convention, the Episcopal Church has erred, has superseded its own jurisdiction, and has broken ranks with historic catholic faith and practice. He has likened the Episcopal Church to a lifeboat drifting about in perilous seas, while he and other members of the Network are staying with the mother ship of Anglicanism. His theological stance has led him to take actions, through the convention of the diocese, to (a) declare that in the event of any kind of secession or formation of a new entity (for example, a new province of Anglicanism) the parishes who made such a move would be entitled to their property, both in terms of real estate and financial assets; and (b) that on those occasions when the local diocese and the national church differed on matters of faith and doctrine, the local opinion would prevail. Calvary Church and St. Stephens Church, Wilkinsburg, another parish in the diocese, have challenged these positions in a pending lawsuit.
In retaliation for our actions, the bishop has announced that he may invoke a canon which allows the convention to dissolve the relationship between itself and the two parishes by a two-thirds vote. He has maintained that the diocesan canon is intended to punish congregations who challenge the authority of the bishop and other officers of the diocese, although the language of that canon does not suggest that it was intended to be used for disciplinary purposes. I mention this because it allows our parish to identify, in some respects, with the American and Canadian delegations to the Anglican Consultative Council. No longer guided by a sense of covenant, which might lead to greater mutual understanding if not reconciliation, conservative forces within Anglicanism at the local or international level seem more inclined to resolve difficulties by removing from the fellowship of Christ’s body those who disagree with them.
Richard Hooker, in a statement authoritatively attributed to him, expressed his vision of the church as “an inn where all are received joyously, rather than a cottage where some few friends of the family are to be received.”7 Anglicanism today, with the specter of Donatism looming overhead, seems to be metamorphosing from commodious inn to cramped cottage.
I remember well our seminary dean telling the seniors, “If you insist on appealing to the canons to assert your authority as rector, you have already lost the battle, if not the war.” In other words, any leader should command and not demand respect. People should respect a rector’s leadership because they have trust and confidence in him or her, because they are engaged in a covenantal relationship with their pastor, not because they are told that certain inalienable rights inhere to the rectors office.
What our dean warned about at the parish level now seems to be working itself out at the diocesan and even global levels. It would appear that those who are threatened by the winds of change, by the spirit that blows “where it listeth,” by that Spirit who would lead us into all truth, are seeking refuge in canonical and legal maneuvers to ensure that their agenda is advanced. We trust that before it is too late, we might restore a sense of covenant to our common life, so that we rescue the church from a course of action which has placed her on a very slippery slope.
1 Lorraine Cavanagh, “The Freeing of Anglican Identities,” Theology Wales. Special issue: The Church and Homosexuality: A Contribution to the Debate (Cardiff, 2004).
2 Cavanagh, “The Freeing of Anglican Identities.”
3 Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I.1.2.
4 “PB’s Choice to Preach in Belfast Doubted,” The Living Church, February 14, 2005.
5 “Bishop Duncan Welcomes Primates’ Statement,” Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh website, February 25, 2005.
6 “Irish Anglican Consultative Council Members Comment on Recent Developments in the Anglican Communion,” The Church of Ireland News Index, February 26, 2005.
7 Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, Presidential Address, September 2004; J. Rebecca Lyinan, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, at the 98th Convention of the Diocese of Utah; Michael B. Curry, in Bishop’s Pastoral Address of the 188th Convention of the Diocese of North Carolina, January 29, 2004.
HAROLD T. LEWIS*
* Harold T. Lewis is Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Adjunct Professor of Church and Society at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 2005
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