Friday 31 July 2009

Short Cut: Oppose the Covenant

I am not the right person to oppose the Anglican Covenant.

The religious position I occupy now is one where I continue at the adopted nearby Anglican church in which I worship, but on its margins; this is tolerated and I won't exploit that toleration and so I become quiet. I still present some pieces for theological discussion for as long as these are wanted, and then I shall stop: I try to offer the theologies neutrally while theological events are discussed (including, later, more conservative ones).

Nevertheless, I still understand and value the potential of Anglicanism, and can still make a contribution to those who have beliefs rather more inside its boundaries (or are within them at present).

My reasons for opposing the Covenant from the beginning are the same as I oppose restrictive creeds, articles or even the Unitarian Object that was introduced some years ago to that denomination struggling with its definition or lack of definition. That Object gave the General Assembly, among statements upholding freedom of belief, a named preference to "upholding" "liberal Christianity" (whatever that means). All sorts of explanations have been given for it, from the purely descriptive of a majority position in Britain to something for the Charity Commissioners (the latter argument being utterly false). They all have something in common: they involve one form of deception or another. If it is descriptive and doesn't uphold, then don't use that language, and if it does uphold then don't say everything is as free as it was. Why introduce additional duplicity into a denomination historically creedless? By the way, I was in quite a minority and lost that battle, but I still notice people becoming ever so concerned about the statement. Once in it becomes hard to remove.

So I am not in any sense providing any Christological arguments against the Covenant, because I no longer believe in any either for or against. There are examples of these developing. My argument is simply one observing that Anglican Churches have characteristics that make them different from other Churches, though with (obviously) some core matters in common.

One is that, despite observing core creeds and orders, they are a strange mixture of Englishness (sometimes Englishy-Scottishness) exported and being culturally responsive in each situation. That means they develop their own cultural habits on top of the English inheritance, but they also build their own theological responses and may attempt from these to find universal Christian principles when making changes. Also some Anglican Churches are highly authoritarian in structure and others are towards the liberal-democratic. So Anglicanism is a sort of number of running arguments, diversified; and Anglicanism is aware of its own settings and changes. This cultural-theological condition also determines how they respond to each other as structures. They are going to do it in dialogues, each to each, according to how the theologies and cultures overlap or not.

There is an inbuilt contingency and flexibility about Anglicanism as a whole, and it can be relaxed, diverse, patient but also make some bold moves. Anglicanism has this mixing of Protestant fellowship and Catholic orders in situ, that allows a conservatism in both and a liberality in both.

The Old Catholics have become similar. They used to be very much more 'Catholic' but they have relaxed since the days of Arnold Harris Mathew moving out. Lutherans have historical points of specific identity (too), but they are broadening out. The extent of similarity comes because, of course, we in the West at least live in the same pluralist and secular world, where many of the old Christian particularities have died away, and so many Catholic-independents and once non-conformists now have reducing objections to getting on with Anglicans even in a more structural sense. These cultural and specific vessels for Christianity of course extend further beyond the West, but these are themselves influenced by the strains of poverty, authoritarianism, modernisation and education - with some blowback into the Western Churches. Aggressive mega-churches of Protestant individualism in South Korea, for example, tell us something about capitalism and development, just as churches as media and leisure centres with huge car parks tell something about aspects of North American consumer society.

Clearly a fundamental tension going on worldwide is that the old denominations and their specifics are being replaced by new ones inside them: generally the radical, the liberal, the defensive traditionalisms, the conversionist. These are going on along with the cultural settings, for example the strains of modernisation and where these churches were planted into deeply local magical cultures and still reflect such supernaturalism.

What I am suggesting is that Anglicanism has, beyond its definitions, a flexibility that brings out the best in hands-across-the-world human relationships, in that Anglicans meet for friendly fellowship, conversation, and sharing. It is a theologically human view of communion. A secular view would call it all confederal.

What a Covenant does is rewrite the structure. It introduces unification of process into shared beliefs, beliefs of the day (and not just credal), and also introduces more than strong implications that the Communion is itself a Church. Now the problem with this is that it produces the logic of many more 'oughts' and 'shoulds' and even 'musts' at a worldwide level than exist and are challenged at the moment.

I have already argued that apostolic authority - of promises to obey, when credal and doctrinal and when set against changes in theology and what people believe - cause strategies of deception. The cost to truth - the integrity of finding and discussing truth - of the Covenant is even higher. It would curtail the diversity of Anglicanism by unification of process.

The device in the argument given by the Archbishop of Canterbury is that of a "local Church" [he does not capitalise]; and just as gay people now have a "lifestyle choice" that is purely secular and rights based, and for which there is no basic theology (he says), so "local Churches" are cultural and they are either more or less cultural when more or less local, with again no theology of place (he implies). His argument is also ecumenical, though it is only really Roman Catholic ecumenical. With the Orthodox, for example, they are all in place, but they are so slow and conserving that their responses to each other over relative trivia are excommunications! They lack Anglican flexibility. But there are many other denominations and Churches that have such flexibility, including those with Catholic theologies, Protestant theologies and mixtures.

Nevertheless, the Covenant should also be seen another way. It is of opportunistic use by hardline evangelicals. They lost the argument in the West a long time ago, and lost it to Open Evangelicals and liberals. However, by going around other 'local' Anglicanisms they can build up the numbers and, of course, if there is centralisation they start to have a bigger impact than they would otherwise - and back into the West. This has been the whole strategy of international oversight by the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, spreading tentacles where impact can be increased. Now the FCA has been both dismissive of the Covenant (it is too moderate; it is based on current structures) and finds it useful (because of its potential already to slice off several degrees of believers as heterodox). Having set up a competitor Church in North America, the Covenant suddenly becomes useful as a way of upping the anti regarding the progress of Conservative Evangelicalism. And it is working: already, a bishop who branded the FCA types as super-apostles is warmer than ever about the competitor Church. Come into my parlour says the spider: because the agenda will be the FCA's, not that of Open Evangelicalism, its first line opposition. And indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury himself has made statements about gay people that have the approval of Conservative Evangelicals (in the basic terms about lifestyle choices, and about the impossibility of them 'representing' the Church in any ministry).

But let's be clear. The Covenant is a means to an end for the Conservative Evangelicals; the FCA approach will continue regardless of the Covenant or not: it will just be another weapon in their armoury for as long as it remains one.

Whatever happens, the intention of the Covenant is to restrict, to slow, to unify, and is ecumenical towards Roman Catholicism.

Now some groups have seen the Covenant as the coming centre, and thus argued for inclusion in the Covenant and for a Covenant that is inclusive. This would, of course, mean it would not be as in all the features intended for it as present in the Ridley-Cambridge draft plus its Section 4. Some have said the Covenant is a good idea if it is just as statement of, say, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and some additional bits more of Anglican flavour. But, then, why have such a statement of no additional impact?

The Covenant is not about this: it is about raising to the level of process-doctrine the exclusion of people in faithful gay relationships out of the Christian family. It is, in addition, the process that the international Anglican Church should decide what is international and what is national (read local). In other words, it argues for federation of Anglicanism into its instruments rather than the confederal friendly arrangements as of now. It innovates a new Anglicanism based around an international hub. It does this, even while a Conservative Evangelical group is innovating its own Anglican definition around its own international hub.

Now when it comes to the European Union, I am a near-federalist, and I am because Western liberal-democracies have a need to function at high level on matters of multinational economics and other environments with fully democratic structures, and not Councils of Ministers (representatives of government executives) starting to take more and more majority votes without adequate challenge. The European Parliament needs more power. There also has to be initiation of legislation at European level - it's what the Commission does, and there democratic accountability has to develop ever more. There also needs to be as much decentralisation as possible, and I would still have sovereignty fundamentally at the nation state (for the ability to withdraw). I would have an English Parliament to join the other three of the UK, and then keep decentralising. Europe is mixing its economies regardless of national boundaries, but we also live in communities.

What the Covenant does is federate by the equivalent of extracted executives, and it decides what is international on the basis of expediency, according to the ongoing issue. But Anglicanism is confederal by its Churches, and there has been nothing like the necessary thorough debate - no equivalent of those referenda or the debate in the news media - about this intended yet happening, ongoing, transference to an ecclesiastical federation. And we know in the media just how resistant people are regarding the EU, and is one reason why the Lisbon Treaty has considerable confederal elements within it (including new roles for national parliaments and rights to secede). What Anglicanism is seeing, otherwise, is the top deciding that the top should have the chief decision making functions, taking to itself any controversial matter, including the obsession with sexuality as one 'presenting issue' at this time, and then displaying itself as a unified body to Rome.

This is why, if people do value Anglicanism as special, different, with a witness that combines core belief and flexibility of actions, then they should oppose the Covenant completely. They should not seek a Covenant that 'includes', because that will only then add to the paper pile; it has to be opposed: to take away the means of centralising and, additionally, imposing Conservative Evangelicalism where it has ceased to be.

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