Friday, 6 July 2007

General Synod and this Covenant

It seems that every pressure group and religious dog has been commenting on the new Covenant that is to be debated in the Church of England General Synod. The Synod is being asked to approve of the Covenant in principle, the trouble being that there is a text to look at and that it might all end up creating a kind of international bishops' decision making system which goes against the qualified episcopacy that is a synodical system.

I think the best argument has been made by the Modern Churchpeoples' Union, which is against it, whereas Inclusive Church is hoping for an inclusive Covenant, which amounts to wishful thinking, and Affirming Catholicism wants to uphold the dignity of differences within the Churches, which also amounts to wishful thinking. Presumably a restrictive Covenant (especially against even faithful gay relationships among people, ministers and bishops) is something they would oppose. This is the point of it, that where some African Churches are threatening to walk out the Communion because Western Churches are groaning towards a more progressive and inclusive Church, the Covenant can slow every Church to the point of the slowest via the Primates' moralising diktats.

The Open Evangelicals are for a Covenant and so are "Conversionist" Conservative Evangelicals, the ones on the warpath against progressives, in the manner of those African Churches (excludes South Africa, incidentally, which is relatively progressive). Interestingly, though, and rather more logically, the Church Society of "traditionalist" Conservative Evangelicals, is against a Covenant. They see it as weak, as it stands, its restrictiveness about process rather than about doctrine and biblical restriction. Of course the Covenant does allow for a progressive outcome, but only through a process of agreement (that could not come about if the Africans slam on the brakes all the time). No doubt though the Conversionists will approve of a Covenant and then try and bang on the restrictions via their selective literalism of the Bible.

On the balance, then, most groups seem to be against it, as it is intended to appear according to its draft text. Then there is the chap who is Chair of the Covenant Design Group who turns out to have approved of African appointments of their own bishops into the space covered by the United States own The Episcopal Church (TEC) - when the whole point of the Covenant would be to prevent such incursions given that everyone goes the speed of the slowest. Archbishop Gomez is hardly justified then to speak to General Synod on having a Covenant as he is actively undermining it. I hope someone asks him about this apparent duplicity.

The boss meanwhile is in some Roman Catholic seminary writing a book or three. While chaos takes over, the Archbishop of Canterbury's head is down. Actually, it might not be a bad idea. He reappears near a date of reporting back for The Episcopal Church and what it has done to be in the Communion (having already consecrated a man in a faithful gay relationship). However, his invites are already out for the discussions of the Lambeth Conference in 2008, and it includes those who consecrated Bishop Gene Robinson, excludes him but might have him there anyway without a vote (for what?) and also excludes all those bishops who are invading TEC's space. In other words, the deadline is not a deadline. It is rather like those that existed in Northern Ireland, and on the same principle Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wants to keep everyone talking.

The trouble is, they are already falling apart, according to the line up around the Covenant. It seems that Rowanda and Uganda are not going to Lambeth, and Nigeria says Lambeth is not necessary. There is every possibility they will have their own Communion to suit based around their own geographical centre. Meanwhile a far-out dicocese in Australia wants so called "orthodox" Churches to meet near Lambeth instead, presumably to ignore those at Lambeth, and again this could be a means to a second Communion.

Divorce is messy. If these want to leave, let them leave. It would render the point of a Covenant for the rest redundant. These others could have a really restrictive one. Others might have a statement - it could even be an inclusive one as wished by Inclusive Church and Affirming Catholicism. It could be based on old Anglican formularies or the Declaration of Assent priests read out when starting work. Actually, though, I suggest that a more progressive Church might want to classify all of these statements, including Creeds, to be more like the basis on which the 39 Articles are now regarded - as historic formularies.

Of course it will not go (national) Church by Church but will have some churches making allegiances with outsiders, demanding bishop oversight from the ideologically pure. That would be their problem, up to them to set up.

In the end, surely, most groups are against this Covenant. A more. looser, confederal style, loose spiritual communion, is a better model, and suited to cultural difference. It may be too late for this, however - a split may be inevitable now. On a confederal model there could be Churches falling in an out of communion with each other, and many bilateral agreements. It would have to evolve. There is a lot of fear about, as if having a Covenant is better than nothing. It just will, though, lead to people finding it inadequate, and divisive itself, and ineffective when the Primates get ignored. Even its run-up is divisive, with people taking up positions. Anyway, the Americans and many Churches simply will not accept "foreign" oversight of their autonomy anyway. Many will rewrite Covenants more to their liking and create loyalities to these. The Covenant is not a solution to what is a spinning and splitting ideological machine - if it continues to spin out, trying to hold it together just leads to a more massive break a little later.

The centralising and restricting strategy has been wrong for some time. The ship needs to slow its rate of spinning, and this is done by loosening and by ongoing discussion. Tension needs looseness and slackness where required, a sort of tolerant patience, and reconvening the process of complaint and understanding.

The General Synod is being asked to approve of something in principle, the approval of which will lead to a moral obligation to accept some presented text at a later stage. This makes it all the more important to say no now and try, if it is not too late, to have a process of talking. If some, though, really wish to leave, let them. It might be a shame, but sectarians will do sectarian things. The Synod vote may not make much difference now: it mgiht want more oversight but in the end a Covenant depends on its international ability to force Churches to do what they otherwise would not do, and a Synod represents what a Church believes is right to do according to the qualified episcopacy it represents.

No comments: