December 13, 2006

The Problem with Covenants

The English Evangelical Group Reform and some collegaues have proposed a Covenant for consideration. I commend it to a careful reading, but I am far from optimistic of its adoption beyond a fairly narrow Evangelical circle.

For at base there is a problem with covenants that focus on doctrines rather than upon unity in Christ, pure and simple: the Spirit gives life and the letter kills. Christ unites, but doctrines divide. The genius of Anglicanism was to have "as few doctrines as possible while yet insisting on those doctrines." (W. R. Huntington).

The effort here to enshrine as doctrine a traditional teaching on sexual morality, now no longer the consensus, is left a bit late in the game; the arguments against this teaching have proven too persuasive to too many to pretend that there is universal consensus. So the only options are division over this issue, or patient continued dialogue in mutual admission that one side or the other is mistaken until a new consensus emerges.

At the same time, to suggest, as ++Roawn has in his own inscrutable way, that no action can properly be taken in the absence of a new consensus is to ask for the ahistorical. The Jerusalem Council didn't settle the issue of Gentile inclusion -- there were those who opposed it and they bedeviled Paul's ministry for years. Later, some die-in-the-ditch issues of the continental reformation (access to the Cup, and vernacular liturgy) were eventually adopted by Rome, after a considerable delay. This is how change works in the church, here and there rather than all at once.

Change in the church (and it has without doubt changed) comes about at various paces in various places. The Internet has short-circuited the process, literally (as ++Rowan has also noted), and the insulation that physical space once afforded (along with a clear sense of geographical autonomy) is disappearing.

The question is then, How do we handle disagreement, since it is clear we disagree? If the issues at hand are do-or-die, then some will choose not to reason why, and tear the fabric further. Others of us, South Africa, for example, are content to disagree on the sexual morality issue, but say it is not one over which we need divide the church. Whoever has the better right to the name "Anglican" is, ultimately, of little import. What is important to me is the rending of the mission that division of the institution will produce, and in this Reform suggests a course I cannot commend. It isn't ultimately, as I've said before, the institution that matters, but the work assigned to it by its Lord.

— Tobias Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

There is much irony in Anglicans working to insulate the Communion from change. The establishment of the Church of England, after all, represented a major change in the Western Church. The Episcopal Church should have nothing?let me reapeat that: nothing?to do with any convenant movement that seeks to freeze the Communion in some particular state. The notion that the Church should be changeless is neither historical nor reasonable. At what instant, I keep asking, did the Church reach the perfection that the orthodox or traditionalists are trying to preserve? Was it 70 CE? 325? 1900? We should be considering how we can manage (or perhaps even facilitate) change, not suppress it. Suppressing change is as reasonable as suppressing the weather. I think the structure of the Anglican Communion in the recent past was remarkably effective. Of course, it would be helpful to abandon the Primates Meeting and replace it with an occasional worldwide meeting of Anglican clergy and laypeople.

obadiahslope said...

one of the difficulties with the US perspective on communion polity is that it effectively ignores the poverty of some provinces.

Bluntly, democracy is expensive. Your General Convention costs millions I believe.

In a perfect world we could have lay delegates to an anglican conference.

In a perfect world poverty would be history. Your idea is a good one - but lets get the MDG's done first.