Reflections on Covenant and the nature of unity

The Diocese of Norwich in the Church of England has a web page highlighting papers giving arguments both for and against the adoption of an Anglican Covenant. In addition to a video talk by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, there are five papers that can be downloaded in MS Word format.

One by the Andrew Davison, tutor in doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge, talks about the theology of Covenant and whether the Anglican Covenant follows the Biblical model of the concept.

Let’s admit, there is a tightrope to be walked here. On the one hand Paul enjoins us to bear with ‘the weaker brother and sister’, precisely over innovations. On the other, sometimes one needs to stick one’s head over the parapet, to take a risk: think of liturgy in the vernacular, married priests, lay people in synods. We’ve been there before and we thought it was worth it. Many of the most significant developments, social, political, or moral, drew fierce opposition from some in the church at the time: the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, even the institution of pensions. Those parallels don’t guarantee that every modern development is right: of course not. They simply show that we have to balance prophecy and towing the line.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written that the covenant ‘should not be thought a means of excluding the difficult or rebellious but as an intensification – for those who so choose – of relations that already exist’. For all I admire the Archbishop, however many times I read this – that the process is about inclusion and strengthening ties – I cannot but see it as the opposite. The Covenant will exclude churches from the Communion. That is surely the goal of some who promote it. If we are going to base our ecclesiology on covenant, then let us start instead from the transformation effected by Christ, so that it is no longer about us-and-them, but is a welcome that rests on the unearned grace of God.

Another paper comes from Adrian Chatfield, an evangelical, is posted in outline form. His closing point is notable because it shows that it is not just progressives nor those in favor of full-inclusion who are uncomfortable with the Anglican Covenant. Chatfield says:

4. Walking out and expulsion are theologically nearly as repugnant as moral turpitude, and silence debate, steer around the idea that the truth may lie in the conversation [though not in a compromise] and disable an understanding of grace. Reluctantly conservative though I am on the issue of homosexual practice in the Anglican church, I – like many – struggle with the use of 1 Corinthians 5 as a heaven-excluding ordinance.

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