Saturday, 11 April 2009

Going Back to Covenant Intentions

Before going to any in depth commentary on the RCDC (very nearly AC DC!) it is worth going back to original thoughts on the idea. This puts this RCDC into context

Episcopal Café should run my piece analysing the RCDC on Easter Monday, so entries on this topic are running up to that.

Let's go back to June 2006 and comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the Covenant. What he says is:

The idea of a 'covenant' between local Churches (developing alongside the existing work being done on harmonising the church law of different local Churches) is one method that has been suggested, and it seems to me the best way forward.

What does he want? Going around the debate at the time, there are general points made:

Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. ...what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against - and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures.

The problem with this argument is that it supposes there is a common basis possible, and that it is out of a text and historical. It is sometimes impossible to read a common basis out of even a singular text, never mind one as complicated and contradictory as the Bible. Nor is history a particular good guide for a contemporary situation, especially situations that involve new definitions and new behaviours, or new technologies with different relational and ethical problems. However, a view that there is a common outcome is essential if you want to challenge a situation of autonomy and local Churches. He did identify, of course, the existing structure:

institutionally speaking, the Communion is an association of local churches, not a single organisation with a controlling bureaucracy and a universal system of law. So everything depends on what have generally been unspoken conventions of mutual respect. Where these are felt to have been ignored, it is not surprising that deep division results, with the politicisation of a theological dispute taking the place of reasoned reflection.

One wonders if this is the first time mutual respect has been felt to be ignored. The presumption is that the relationships and their loose gathered international institutions coped until the presenting issue of a gay bishop and gay blessings, but the issue of female ordination is hardly harmonious in some places. Note he tackles that matter with this:

the Lambeth Conference did resolve that for the time being those churches that did ordain women as priests and bishops and those that did not had an equal place within the Anglican spectrum.

It wasn't enough, though, was it: but he assumes that the Lambeth Conference can make an authoritative statement to make a difference: a centralised statement. There is agreement, he says, that female ordination is within manageable diversity regarding the Bible and tradition. Not for those who would leave, there isn't! Not when, in the Church of England, an incompatible structure may have to be invented to keep them in, one part that says women are fully bishops equal with men, with no division in ministry, and another part where they are completely excluded, with division in ministry.

He emphasises unity when it comes to the Communion:

If we do still believe that unity is generally a way of coming closer to revealed truth ('only the whole Church knows the whole Truth' as someone put it), we now face some choices about what kind of Church we as Anglicans are or want to be.

This is a huge presupposition, and I would suggest is historically wrong. Finding a truth often is not brought about in unity, but in diversity and even divisions. Only after a period of action, and sometimes action in what turned out to be the 'wrong' direction, did a more whole position become made - a unity (at the cost of losing those who still maintained the other view). In this presentation he wants unity first.

He says just having autonomous Churches ignores the fact that divisions happen within them. This is right, but divisions apear at different proportions, with different means to resolve them, or not, and is of a more manageable size in a more culturally homogeneous setting, for change or resisting change.

Also he stated that having autonomous Churches for decisions ignores the mass of informal contacts. So what? They would constrain such autonomy already, but without trying to do so formally.

Eucharistic worship, said the Archbishop back in 2006, is a question of either one focussed act or local identities and personal preferences. A nice binary opposition to favour the former choice, but what about bringing local and idealised whole together? What about local responses to a common ritual?

Favouring unity of definition is what Communion means, he states, though of course it begs the question why stop at Anglicans. And if Anglicanism is a particular way through diversity of structures, why innovate to change that?

But the bizarre aspect of his proposal for a Covenant was that it should not actually be a unity, but be two tier:

It is necessarily an 'opt-in' matter. Those Churches that were prepared to take this on as an expression of their responsibility to each other would limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness; and some might not be willing to do this.

There would be Communion and association, the latter:

still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures.

So the core, the Communion, would have the same constitutional structures binding the Churches. And Anglicanism would divide into something like:

that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example.

He could see immediately one problem with this division, that was only a mirror image of the argument against diversity and autonomy:

This leaves many unanswered questions, I know, given that lines of division run within local Churches as well as between them.

There would be Churches 'in' that would have minorities that ought to be out, and Churches 'out' that would have minorities that would be in.

The division suggested could be disastrous locally:

It could mean the need for local Churches to work at ordered and mutually respectful separation between 'constituent' and 'associated' elements

Or they could work out common positions locally.

It seems strange to me that anyone thought this proposal had legs. The Archbishop thought things could not remain unchanged, but his idea for a future was just institutionalised division.

Now this Covenant proposal will have appealed to those evangelicals who thought it could put liberals into an associational category, and have a doctrinal core for all true believers. But then someone needs to draw the line and the problem is where.

It is rather like the Unitarian denomination being told it can only be an associate member of the once British Council of Churches, or observers in Churches Together in England. The division point would now come much further up the doctrinal ladder.

Those who wanted unity, though, could see that having a premier league and then a second division might have clear disciplining imperative - that any Church would want to be in the premier league, in the core, and so it would be desirous to put aside progressive notions and to sign up to more conservative notions: a common Bible, a historic tradition. Natural religion and new interpretation out of traditions and texts would be for associates, and put aside.

The Archbishop did include as historically Anglican the:

intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly.

But that emphasis would be the basis of being an associate, and look at the wording for this tendency later on:

The cultural and intellectual concern may lead to a style of Christian life aimed at giving spiritual depth to the general shape of the culture around and de-emphasising revelation and history.

Doesn't sound good enough! 'A style of Christian life' is less central than singular outcomes of the Catholic or the Reformed. But the emphasis on being fixed goes further. It would also be wrong if there was just 'a consensus of the moment'. He wants new structures to be considered at the core:

exploration of new structures, and further refinement of the covenant model - will renew our positive appreciation of the possibilities of our heritage

We presume then that the process put into place may have another outcome than a two-tier system, and that there might be a greater emphasis on parts sacrificing to the whole, to build up a Communion. Nevertheless, given realities, the suggestion is given. Anglicanism in the future may have had a full Covenant core (via central institutions) and a secondary outer ring of non-Covenant associates.

Does the RCDC measure up to this?

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