By Marilyn McCord Adams
Actions speak louder than words!
The new draft covenant speaks softly. Its text has mostly lost the strident tone of The Windsor Report and successive pro-Windsor polemical documents. It has mostly dropped the fiction that pan-Anglicanism has ‘always been synodal’ and the urgent recommendation that pan-Anglican ‘instruments of union’ be given legal teeth–at least for the reason that kept the first Lambeth Conference from being a synod, that it would be illegal for the Church of England (St. Andrew’s Draft 3.1.2)!
If The Windsor Report expresses the righteous indignation of its authors in the face of a perceived emergency and represents the purpose of the ‘instruments of union’ primarily in terms of preventing change, the new draft at least nods approval of the notion that Gospel proclamation has a social justice dimension–that ‘hungering and thirsting for righteousness’ involves not only striving for individual holiness but carries a mandate to work for social transformation and institutional reform (SAD 1.2.5, 2.2.2.a, 3.2.3).
The new draft covenant repeatedly acknowledges the legal autonomy of the provinces and accepts that deliverances of the instruments of union will have no legal–legislative or judicial–force (SAD 3.1.2, 3.2.2).
The archishops rewrite, and the new draft covenant speak softly. But let the covenanter beware! The big stick has not been thrown away but rather closeted in the appendix, where the machinery and timetables for ‘relinquishment’ are laid out. True, the language is of ‘request’ rather than ‘judicial injunction’ or ‘ultimatum’. Yet, it is enough for one ‘church’ to accuse another to set the ball rolling towards a request for compliance that would have the same effect as a demand to cease and desist on pain of excommunication!
Actions speak louder than words! Recent experience should make us wary. Just how much difference will the lack of legal authority make to the behavior of the ‘instruments of union’ in handling intra-Anglican disputes?
Look at how–without any legal basis whatever–Lambeth 1.10 (on Human Sexaulity) has been elevated to almost credal status, canonized as the teaching of the Anglican communion on sexuality. Consider how study documents such as Issues in Human Sexuality and Some Issues in Human Sexuality have been elevated to rub shoulders with patristic authors.
Remember how–without any legal basis whatever–the primates behaved in Tanzania: ‘requesting’ moratoria, creating ‘instruments’ to interfere in the internal affairs of TEC. The ABC said they weren’t ‘ultimata’, but they sure fooled the American House of Bishops!
Consider how the ‘instruments of union’ continue to give aid and comfort to North American secessionists, with the Archibhsop of Canterbury’s comments that they might be recognized as pan-Anglican Communion members and archepiscopal speculations about whether it is dioceses or provinces that are the intended covenanters.
How, we may ask, have the primates demonstrated their hungering and thirsting for justice, when Archbishop Akinola’s promotion in Nigeria of severe criminal penalties for homosexuality has gone without Communion investigation or sanction?
Actions speak louder than words! Recent past performance by the ‘instruments of union’ raise serious questions about whether they should be trusted with so much gate-keeping power.
Here in the Church of England, this recent track record will be welcomed with rejoicing in some quarters and greeted with indifference in others. Isn’t The Episcopal Church guilty by association with the rebellious colony whose present international arrogance deserves to be cut down!
Let the covenanter beware! Strong gatekeeping institutions can be turned in more than one direction. We may be happy when they move to enforce our viewpoint on others. But what about when our turn comes?
What if an English diocese should wish to secede? What if English dioceses demanded local option on signing the covenant?
What if African provinces started planting parishes and ordaining bishops on English soil? what if Anglican churches in England sought alternative primatial oversight? What if parishes and dioceses started exploiting legal loopholes to take the property with them?
What international machinery would be set in motion then?
What if another province complained that our permission of civil partnerships was contrary to biblical morality?
What if the international community insisted on a moratorium and reversal of the ordination of women?
What if persecuted churches maintained that our participation in Interfaith Councils and insistance on civil rights for non-Christian religious groups, undermined martyrs’ morale and jeopardized their mission?
What if other provinces accused us of betraying tradition by allowing anything but services from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer? What if we were ‘requested’ to ban free church-style fresh expressions or missel-based “smells and bells” worship and to discipline participating clergy?
What if other provinces declared certain forms of biblical scholarship unfaithful and ‘requested’ that we forbid ordinands to study them?
What if our faithfulness to the Gospel leads us in directions that provinces in the pan-Anglican Communion can’t countenance? Are we assuming that we are different, because we are the organizers of the club?
Covenant ‘relinquishment’ clauses and machinery still contradict the Reformation insight that Adam’s fall means that groups of sinners are just as fallible as individual sinners. Covenant clericalism still fails to reckon with the priesthood of all believers. Just as it would be unfaithful for individual lower house members to delegate discernment to the House of Bishops or the archbishops, so it is unfaithful for the Church of England to delegate its discernment about Christian mission and social justice in England to international bodies that are not accountable to General Synod, much less to Parliament or the Queen.
Let the covenanter beware! These documents, like their enactments, remain deeply flawed.
The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams is Regius Professor of Divinity, Christ Church, Oxford.