Anglican Covenant Week: The covenant before us is not the covenant we need

During Anglican Covenant Week at Episcopal Café, we are featuring three essays from The Genius of Anglicanism, a study guide produced by the Chicago Consultation. This is the third of three articles. The full study guide, which includes eight essays, each followed by study questions, is available here Daily Episcopalian will resume after the Memorial Day Weekend.

By Winnie Varghese

I believe in a high, expansive and dreamy ecclesiology. We Anglicans are nothing less than the church of God in the tradition of the ancient Celts and Syrians, less dreamily but importantly–the fragments of the British Empire and all of the continuing national churches in their local expression of God among us. The church stands on earth as a holding place of a glimpse of the eternal city. The institution should be magnificent, egalitarian, lavish with care and justice, sweet smelling, enlivening to the senses, proving to every mortal who encounters it that the kingdom of God is for her or him. Our communion should be the statements of our most extravagant dreams of the holy city and nothing less, this generation’s attempt at building cathedrals. The gift of communion to us is relationships, across borders we might not otherwise cross: I believe that it is in these holy places of unexpected, unnecessary, frivolous, ambitious—difficult to believe we have anything real to offer but awe —conversations that God at work in us, locally, begins to be God at work in the world, globally.

A few years ago, while serving as chaplain at Columbia University, I was asked to entertain the bishop of Madras of the Church of South India (CSI) one Monday morning. I showed the bishop around campus, Union Seminary and Morningside Heights. Over lunch he asked who would be coming to their diocesan convention the following year from New York. He asked because he said he was interested in how we in the Episcopal Church in New York worked with young people to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. He thought we might send some people to offer trainings for teachers at the diocesan schools in Madras. There are wonderful educators in India, but he was interested in bringing people in from far away, people who had no pre-conceived notions about the “place” or opportunities available to certain children, and who therefore might be able to generate a different kind of conversation altogether.

The young people that the bishop was talking about were Dalits, children from what used to be known as the untouchable community, who despite some opportunities for education and economic mobility, still found, particularly in rural communities, that they were subject to prejudice, abuse and violence. The bishop said rates of unemployment, alcoholism and suicide remained high in these areas. Children com- ing to diocesan schools still lived in a society in which their lives had little or no value to those outside of their own communities. These schools gave special priority to educating Dalit children. In some cases, they were the best schools available, and because Dalit students were admitted, those from other groups who enrolled their children were making a public commitment to equality. It sounded quite revolutionary and prophetic to me. Of course, we in New York would be radically changed ourselves if we were able to participate in such a process.

My parents are from South India, far from Madras, yet from a similar kind of community, so this issue had special resonance for me. Madras is a diocese known for stepping boldly forward in support of Dalit people. It has its troubles like any diocese, but, just as the Church in South Africa became known for its leadership in the anti-apartheid movement even without the support of its entire membership, so the Diocese of Madras is famous in India for electing the first Dalit bishop and for its outspoken advocacy for Dalit education and equality. As with race in the U.S., some in India would say it’s an old- fashioned issue, one resolved decades ago, and that in speaking of prejudice against Dalits, one is speaking to old stereotypes of India. That has not been my experience.

For me, conversations such as the one the bishop and I were having that morning are at the heart of what we mean when we speak of an Anglican Communion. The only reason the bishop and I were in conversation was that I was a chaplain at a university under the authority of the Episcopal Bishop of New York, who is the obvious primary relationship in New York for the bishop of Madras of the Church of South India. The conversation would not have happened otherwise.

As the bishop and I had been talking that morning, I remembered that one of the horrors of caste prejudice was that a person who is a Dalit would have no reason to believe that another Indian would not hold caste prejudices. I have friends who have told me stories of being asked to drink water outside, or eat on disposable plates away from the central table in “mixed” company—even in church settings. The bishop had taken a risk, or might have been watching to see what I as a clueless Indian American would do as we came to the time for tea and lunch. I invited him and the priest with him to my apartment for tea; that was when he invited us to Madras. I was granted the privilege of treating my brothers in Christ with dignity, casually, and in doing so illustrated a way of being that the bishop thought might be illustrative in his diocese.

Later that morning, I asked the bishop what he thought of Gene Robinson’s consecration, what the implications had been in Tamil Nadu. I found it hard to ask. I did not want to offend him. Maybe I was inviting him to treat me with the same dignity I was trying to offer him. Even though we were just talking, and he had only been gracious, I was scared.

I must have looked nervous, because he smiled and asked me what I thought. I said that I thought it was a step towards greater justice in the church. He smiled and said, “Why should it matter what I think about how the church in America selects its leaders?”

The conversation in my apartment that morning supported my belief that there is unrealized potential in transformative relationships within our Anglican Communion. It would be quite something if we generated a document that strengthened or organized some of that potential, but I don’t think we’ve seen that document yet.

The proposed covenant we have in front of us does seek to be a foundational document for Anglicans across national borders, specifically the British Commonwealth and the Episcopal Churches in the Americas and Europe. The timing of the covenant project is in conjunction with the Windsor Process and the election and consent to the election of Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire. The idea of a covenant has been around for awhile, but the document we have was created in response to these specific ten- sions. It has been clear for some time that as the new, primarily nationally defined, churches of the former British Empire come into their own, the diversity of practice and polity raised the question of what we hold in common.

In some provinces the Anglican church is the national church, in others it essentially a Protestant denomination or a part of an ecumenical national church. The church in the United States is one of the most developed for the simple reason that the Revolution happened in 1776 and most of the other churches achieved autonomy in relation to independence movements in the 20th Century. In some nations, the Anglican church is a serious player in national politics and holds significant property: schools and hospitals as well as historic buildings, in some places it is associated with those who might claim to miss the good old days of Empire, in some places it is a tiny community of ex pats, in others it is a haven for unmarried mothers, indigenous persons, refugees and others rejected by the Catholic and Evangelical churches. It is this diversity we are attempting to define in the proposed covenant.

A good reason to have a covenant would be to define our communion as something other than the church that trailed the British East India Company’s engorgement of the Queen’s purse. We are, of course, much more than that. The Church in Southern Africa models for the rest of us civic engagement and social transformation from a place of profound spirituality and conviction. The churches in the Americas raise the voice of indigenous people and refugees. The Church in India stands with Dalits, slum dwellers and indigenous people. The churches in Africa raise the spectre of national indebtedness, the under-valuing and stripping of national resources, the implications of international aid tied to transnational corporations and the faces and families of those dying of hunger, thirst and disease as the cost of corporate profit. The church throughout the world, at times, stands with the poorest, those dispossessed of land or identity. The poorest of the poor. I think it is exactly this standing on the side of the least, everywhere, that leads us to the breaking point. But these conflicts are the essence of who we are. They call us to greater honesty and compassion in our personal living. We need a covenant that helps us to stand in those places in which it costs us personally to hear our brothers and sisters and guides us through ways to understand one another.

I have a lot of respect for the difficulty of the task of those who had to generate this document, but I think it has failed to capture, honestly or aspirationally, who we are or hope to become. As troubling as some of our origins are, I don’t think we can afford to lie about them. Truth telling would be step one in creating real relationships. The covenant glosses the truth in claiming that “we claim our heritage” in the UK and Ireland, acknowledging our origins honestly and creating language that moves us towards covenanted relationships could be quite powerful. The Anglican Communion is a legacy of imperialism that decimated the natural resources of a significant portion of what is now the third world where people remain mired in economic slavery to London and New York (and increasingly China) until Jesus returns. A covenant that acknowledged these international realities and worked to generate relationships or structures to overcome, not ignore, these histories would be a document radical and gospel-truth-telling enough to be worthy of calling a covenant.

On the other hand, things being what they are, those living in extreme poverty directly related to patterns of theft and aid are very often served by the local church. As self-serving as it sometimes seems, this is what we often call mission. It would be the work of God to begin to understand that most of our “mission” is about restorative justice. That kind of work would require covenanted relationship.

Standing alongside the poor on the Indian subcontinent or in Africa a good Christian must wonder how and why such profound suffering exists in a world where so many—such as us—live so well. The history of how this came to be is fairly straightforward. The crippling international order of debt, aid and relief remain rooted in the fallacy that developing countries must pay for their freedom from empire. Haiti is a prime example. Haiti’s independence treaty was written as a loss of “property” from France, a property loss the Haitians have been forced to repay. The legacy of empire—our legacy as the Anglican Communion—is filled with contracts like that, private and public that have crippled church, state and civil society internationally creating dependencies through which we can both pity the weakness and corruption of the developing state and build enormous agencies to placate the most pressing current need. Yes, there has always been disparity and suffering on this planet, but isn’t one of our gifts as a communion to open eyes to the effects of historic bigotry, now that we have the distance to consider it as the legacy of a generation past? That seems difficult and worthy enough to require a covenant.

But such a covenant is not on the table.

The Anglican Church in those countries in which the church is closely allied with government wishes for a powerful, testosterone- addled ecclesiology that can compete with Rome or the megachurch movements. The church in those places where it is in opposition to government or is sidelined or insignificant and stands with the poor couldn’t be bothered with this business and seems to sign whatever document appears, assuming the best and understanding the utter impossibility of enforcement locally. We in the U.S. are indignant that anyone would try to tell us what to do, and the chiefs of the Church in England fail to understand that we in the U.S. experience their preferred mode of governance as hypocritical. To most of us, this covenant appears to be an obvious attempt to appease those who see how weak our system is. It is weak. Nostalgia is not holding us together. Yet, those who are attempting to strengthen it by this document, I think, will destroy what little is left in their attempt to create a conformity and a unity where there is none.

We must be very careful. In the North and West we support institutions that crush our brothers and sisters in the South. Some of the corporations that employ our faithful members are stripping away local autonomy and resources in other parts of the world. The list is almost every corporation you can name: Nestle, big oil, Cargill, Monsanto, Dow. We make our money as hard-working Americans and keep our endowments in good shape as faithful vestry and board members in the U.S., but these same corporations are the agents of the defeat of local economies around the world, driving people to refugee camps and urban slums, where we might create an outreach program to serve them or send our children on a mission trip. What the covenant process gets very right is that we are already living in these webs of relationship internationally, and it would be great to figure out how to do it as Jesus might.

So, how do we do this? I’ve missed every deadline on this essay, because I don’t have an alternative proposal, but I can say that I don’t think the answer lies in stating the obvious: the creeds, scripture, the approved interpretation of texts, and governance. We already have these things in place, all of us. These are our least common denominators. If you divide us by them, you’ll get a whole number, we all already agree upon, and it does not make any difference to where we find ourselves today. While essential, these structures and documents offer a defi- nition of communion so minimal as to be almost cynical. They accomplish the purpose of unity, while all but encouraging provinces to seek discipline against one another when they take a prophetic stance on behalf of the least among us. For example, under this covenant, the Episcopal Church could argue for discipline of the Church in Nigeria because Texaco is a well-respected and essential institution in the U.S., and protests by Nigerian Anglicans in response to Texaco oil spills contaminating their rivers and destroying their livelihood is an improperly po- litical use of church authority that threatens the stability of an important U.S.-based institution.

I thought, when I began this essay, that I was going to write something about prayer as the thing that holds us together, but in my experience we actually pray very differently and often mean very different things, even when our words are the same. Prayer, like everything else is local. Though tied to the same foundational texts and creeds, prayer is a profoundly local experience influenced by local imagination, local history, the memory of ancient religious prac- tices and the nuances of language. In prayer I am an American person. The breviary of Episcopal monastic communities does it for me. I was raised on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and I love it enough to enjoy experimenting with it to further its imaginative possibilities, but I do not think that it is what holds us together, even in the United States.

The gospels are about so much more than nostalgia and familiarity. I believe the hope in us that these sort of “common” experiences of prayer develop is realized when we stand with the least among us—whether least is defined by mental illness, addiction, poverty, race, hunger, accent, sexual orientation, thoughtfulness, or immigration status. It is in opposing whatever sort of oppression flourishes in our local context, that we are most truly the church in the world. This work unavoidably brings us into conflict with those who believe that the marginalized and their ways of being are not the ways of God. That is the nature of the gospel. The good news, especially when it is good news for those who need a word of liberation, will not be such good news to those who hadn’t yet thought those people should be free. If standing in the place in the world that our prayer calls us to stand as witnesses to God at work among us is a punishable offense by Section Four of the Anglican covenant, I suspect this covenant gets something wrong. And I can guarantee, that we will all find ourselves there, camped out in Section Four, as long as the Spirit is alive in the church.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese is priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s-Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City. She serves on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and the board of directors of the Episcopal Service Corps and was the voting secretary of General Convention in 2009.

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