Tuesday, 9 September 2008

When a Covenant is Right

Reading an article 'The Tyger and the Lamb' in UU World, Fall 2008, Vol.XXII No. 3 indicated to me just what is going wrong with Anglicanism today.

The article itself argues that faith in authority divides the self and endangers the world whereas faith in each other, a covenantal faith, can bring personal and global peace. The article is abridged from 'Of Terrorism, Horrorism, Covenant, and Rebellion', a paper presented at the Theological Sym­posium of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists in Kolozsvár, Romania, in 2006 and published in Reed, Clifford M. and McAllister, Jill K. (eds.) (2007), The Home We Share: Globalization, Post-Modernism, and Unitarian/Universalist Theology, ICUU.

So the article is pro-covenant, but it is a covenant that is at heart ethical.

From the article I made extractions that spoke to me.

Covenantal faith is not a "theological abstraction." It's a way of living in the world. A vassal covenant with God calls people into a parity covenant with one another, into a way of living that sees each human being as created in the image of the Divine. Jesus of Nazareth's interpretation of Mosaic Law and, most importantly, his Beatitudes intensified the ethical mandate of covenantal religion.

This is quite important, that this Rabbi Jesus took the existing covenants and developed them to their ethical potential. But it went wrong:

Faith in ethical conduct and right relationship was replaced by authority-by belief in the godhood of Jesus himself. ...Authority became crucial while the ethical and relational aspects of Christianity were sacrificed.

This is what we are seeing now, again: that the ethical drive for bringing in faithful people, each recognising the other as faithful, is being lost by efforts of exclusion in order to shore up bureaucratic Church authority, even developing a Church where none existed.

The article makes a sharp division:

This difference, between ethical relationship on the one hand and authority on the other, marks the dividing line between liberal and fundamentalist religion to this day. To a religious fundamentalist, my good works toward my fellow human beings will not save me from eternal punishment. I am lost unless I accept the proper religious authority. On the other hand, a religious liberal's faith centers on the human condition, ethics, relationship, and faith in the importance of each person.

You don't need to be a fundamentalist to participate in the tendency to 'proper religious authority' - I see it in even some liberals. It gets matters the wrong way around:

The minority churches of the Radical Reforma­tion, including Polish and Transylvanian Unitarians, moved more directly toward a religion that served humanity, rather than the other way around-just as Christian progressives in many traditions have worked hard to reclaim the covenantal faith Jesus actually preached.

So how can we understand a Convenant in a positive sense, rather than being forced to reject what seems to be on offer from Anglicanland? James Luther Adams emphasised five points, the article states (here taking them with my comments):

First, human beings are at our best when we make solemn promises to one another and try hard to keep them. We are the only animal that makes promises: we are "promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing" creatures. Our very humanity lies in the way we carry out our promises to our families, our coworkers, our neighbors, and our fellow members of the human family.

In other words, it is how we get on with people. It is interesting to note how often there is a covenantal element to contracts - broader understandings and promises around the contract itelf (I just throw this point in).

His second point is that to be genuine, a covenant must be a "covenant of being." It's not just about good words, but about actions. Third, the covenant exists for the sake of each individual as well as for the whole group. It is both a gift and a responsibility. The individual is brought into just relationship with the rest of the group, but each individual is also responsible for what the whole group does. If what my church-or my nation-does is wrong, I share in that responsibility. Again, it's not just about blaming one person, one faction, or one political party. It's not enough just to say, "I didn't know what was going on," or "there's nothing I can do about it." My covenantal duty is to be informed on what is happening, and to act on that information.

This, of course, is the basis of loyal opposition. It comes to something when those who are of a loyal opposition are told that they will be demoted to being second class (The Episcopal Church, The Anglican Church of Canada, for starters), when those who walk off (GAFCON) are asked to rejoin and be at the core. This is not a Prodigal Son story: in that story the youth walks off, indulges and is welcomed back with stark generosity. In this story one youth walks off complaining about how his father manages things, the father in consequence then kicks the second youth out to the margins and shouts after the first than he can come back and the father will alter his own behaviour! Even then the son who walked stays away on his own patch of land.
Fourth, Adams says, "the covenantal responsibility is especially directed toward the deprived." Covenantal living demands that we pay attention to those who suffer from society's neglect or injustice, from war and horrorism, from the predation of Tygers and the disengagement of Lambs, and that we do something about it.

That's the point, isn't it: the Anglican Covenant is directed against the 'deprived' in this case, and towards its own aggrandisement.

He also reminds us of the difference that can exist between our covenant - our expressed ideals of how we want to live together - and our actions. One task of the covenantal church is to call attention to the gap between our high-sounding words and our low actions.

And the Anglican Covenant does not do that either. It embodies the low actions regarding the 'other' and puts these negative notions within limited, bureaucratic desires.
Finally, Adams makes the point that "the covenant . . . is not fundamentally a legal covenant. It depends on faithfulness, and faithfulness is nerved by loyalty, by love." In other words, covenantal living is not about obeying the letter of the law while we take advantage of someone. Violation of a covenant is serious not because it breaks a law, but because it's a violation of trust. It is a breach of faith.

And this is not so either with the Anglican Covenant. It is all about writing and pursuing those that do not come within its words. There is already a Covenant now between Anglicans: the one called bonds of affection.

In being lived and spoken, rather than merely assumed, this becomes a statement of saving faith which can "hold the center" in this postmodern world. Your life matters, my life matters, and the future can be better than the past. The lives of our grandchildren depend on a covenantal commitment to life, to one another, and to the future.

Such is Anglicanism, when it organically makes relationships, Church to Church, person to person, even bishop to bishop (as shown at Lambeth). Now Anglicanism is divided, but that may be something that it has to live with, as relationships get remade. Sacrificing a group of people in order to produce Anglicanism by design is not through a Covenant at all, but the very inverse of one.

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