Monday, 16 February 2009

Synodical Ruminations Part 1 (Covenant)

Thinking about what's on the General Synod Blog from this group of sessions, it looks in general like a pretty fair summary - especially of that major topic of conversation as to whether or not you need a Y chromosome to be able to wear a pointy hat... There are two things, however, that I want to pick at a little more. The first is the Covenant. Fine, so you've all gone to sleep and I'm now talking to myself. I'll carry on anyway. If you don't know what the process is that I'm talking about, by the way, then you can find the official Anglican Communion page about it here. You might also like to look at the pages of the Modern Churchpeople's Union who don't like it, and Anglican Mainstream who like it a great deal.

Despite the fact that the flash-points for the Covenant process were the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the policy of the Anglican Church in Canada towards the blessing of same-sex unions, I have never really believed that the whole thing is about sexuality. It's really about a fundamental difference between two possible ways of dealing with the relationship between Church and Society. Does the Church itself need to change and adapt to continue to minister to the society in which it finds itself, or should the Church instead proclaim more firmly what it understands to be its historic orthodoxies and attempt to refute the errors it finds in society. Both alternatives have their problems: the former runs the risk of becoming post-Christian, of losing the uniqueness of the Christian message in a fog of moral relativism; the latter has to struggle with the question of what orthodoxy actually is in an institution like the Anglican Communion. Quite why the line got drawn in the sand over sexuality, as opposed to marriage after divorce or the ordination of women, for example, I have no idea, but this is the situation in which we find ourselves. At this point it has to be said that neither extreme in the current squabble has acquitted itself particularly well - in terms of intolerance there is really not a great deal to choose between the hard-line progressives and the ultra-orthodox, and frankly neither side is particularly attractive. They do, however, have a slightly different attitude to those with whom they disagree.

The caricature progressive position is that anyone who does not espouse liberal doctrines must be suffering from a deficit of intellect and education. If only their thinking can be raised above Neanderthal level then they will eventually see the light and join the liberal ranks. This is best achieved by saying the same thing over and over again to them very loudly, and squashing all counter-arguments by claiming that they demonstrate lack of understanding on the part of the arguer. The caricature orthodox position is that anyone who does not espouse orthodox doctrines has not read the Bible properly or is interpreting it wrongly. If they can be shown that the Bible contains all necessary truth, then they will see things the right way. This is best achieved by repeating the same Bible verses over and over again to them very loudly, and ignoring all counter-arguments on the grounds that they cannot be justified by reference to Scripture.

What really distinguishes them, though, is that while it is an article of faith to all progressives that anyone can eventually be persuaded to their point of view, it is an article of faith to the orthodox that those who do not follow orthodox teaching are not Christians. So, from a progressive point of view any sort of innovation is fine if the innovators all agree about it, and if there are other people who don't then they'll come round to our way of thinking eventually. On the other hand if you sincerely believe that you are guarding the orthodox traditions of the Church, and some other people start doing a whole load of things of which you do not approve, then first you must attempt to convert them back to orthodoxy. If that fails, then they must be removed from the Church until they repent of their sins, at which point they can be welcomed back. That is very much the way the Covenant seemed to stand when it was first mooted. The price of keeping traditionalist provinces within the Anglican Communion - rather than having them go their own way, possibly attempting to take traditionalists from other provinces with them - was to provide a process whereby the Communion could decide what was or was not acceptable innovation, and enforce it. If necessary, this enforcement could take the form of expulsion from the Communion.

Since that point, quite a lot seems to have changed. There has been quite a lot of consolidation in the traditionalist camp - GAFCON and the foundation of ACNA are two examples that spring immediately to mind. However, the emphasis of the Covenant process has shifted too. The most recent draft - the response to which Synod noted in its debate last week - has travelled some distance from the legalistic tone of earlier efforts. From the point of view of the Church of England this is probably a good thing. The fact that as an Established church our governance is bound up with the governance of the country makes doing things like signing up to sets of rules somewhat difficult - the Church of England cannot submit itself to an 'external power of direction' as it was put in answer to a question I asked in October last year. It was noticeable that in his speech introducing the debate last week the Bishop of Rochester described the proposed Covenant as "comparable to agreements about communion with other churches and, indeed, to some forms of ecumenical commitment into which the Church of England has entered." This means that we are to think of the Covenant in the same terms as say the Porvoo Agreement or the Bonn Agreement, or perhaps the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. None of these is anything other than a voluntary agreement of common intent - they do not enforce doctrinal uniformity, they are not in any way a set of rules.

You might have guessed from the title of this blog that I tend rather more towards the progressive side of things, so this drift away from enforcement is good news as far as I am concerned. However, I can't help remembering some of the things that were being said at the beginning of the process to the effect that there was no way a covenant can deliver unity. Either it has to have some method of enforcement - in which case it will inevitably exclude some people in its efforts to keep the rest as a cohesive whole; or it has to be sufficiently vague as to encompass everybody - in which case it will not keep any of those who hold extreme views within the fold. I suspect that we are drifting towards the latter option, and while I am personally happy to see things progressing in that direction, I can't help thinking that there might have been better uses for all the money and the tons of carbon that the process will have cost by the time it comes to an end.

No comments: