Friday, January 25, 2008

Thoughts to a Friend on an Anglican Covenant

A central dimension of Anglican theological method has been to discover the Word amidst the words that are used to describe the human encounter with the living God.

Some Anglicans have relied primarily on the Scriptures as plainly understood and taught as the guide to discern the Word amidst the words. Given their commitment to the notion that the Scriptures speak plainly and are to be understood in their plain sense, these Anglicans have, over the centuries, tended to distrust any other approach to the knowledge of God.

Other Anglicans have relied primarily on tradition as the means by which we come to discern the Word. Given their commitment to the catholicity of the church and to the notion of apostolic continuity, these Anglicans have, over the centuries, tended to look to what they understand to be the consensus of the faithful.

A minority of Anglicans have relied primarily on reason as the means by which we come to discern the Word. Given their commitment to the belief that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that reason and free will are characteristics of the divine stamp on human identity, these Anglicans have, over the centuries, tended towards an appreciation of ambiguity; not the ambiguity of not knowing what they are seeking or discussing, but the ambiguity of recognizing the provisional character of all human knowing.

The roots of the present Anglican crisis are deeper than are general acknowledged. I have come to wonder whether our present difficulties are not the product of the twentieth century but rather of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At the restoration of the monarchy, the traditionalists, i.e., those who have relied primarily on continuity, whether institutional or apostolic, became the ascendant party in the Church of England. However, this party could not replace the desire of many within the Church of England for a plain Christianity, open to every Christian, whether learned or not. For this reason, the early eighteenth century saw the rise of the evangelical renewal, a movement more scripturalist in its approach and, at times, genuinely hostile to the traditionalist party.

These two parties vied for dominance in the English church and their partisanship extended far beyond the borders of England. While the American and Scottish churches tended to adopt a traditionalist position, the Irish church tended to the scripturalist as a natural reaction to the dominant Roman Catholicism of Ireland. The existence of the Church Mission Society (scripturalist) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (traditionalist) speaks to the efforts of these two parties to assert their positions into the British colonies.

On many levels these two parties did not feel the necessity to divide the church; they shared, in some ways, an uncritical approach to the Scriptures and to the tradition. The small group of Anglicans committed to reason, embodied in Hooker, Great Tew, the Cambridge Platonists and the Noetics, while respected in some circles, were, for the most part, marginalized given the relative unity of thought on the part of the scripturalists and traditionalists.

In the nineteenth century the rise of modern critical approaches to the Scriptures and to the tradition upset the relative balance between the two dominant parties. Beginning with the publication of Essays Modern and Critical in 1860, the two dominant parties recognized a genuine threat to the entente cordiale that had characterized the previous two centuries. The Gorham and Colenso controversies added more fuel to the fire; Lux Mundi and Essays Catholic and Critical, coming as they did from the catholic wing of the traditionalists (the other wing being the old Latitudinarians) caused even more concern.

What began to emerge was what some historians call the Broad Church movement, but I prefer to see it as a loose confederation of Anglicans with roots in the various wings of the scripturalist and traditionalist parties who came to see that Hooker was right: We understand the Logos primarily through the agency of God’s wisdom which, in turn, operates primarily through the faculty of human reason.

The problem faced by the scripturalists and the traditionalists as a result of this loose confederation was the loss of a genteel absolutism, i.e., an absolutism of infallible Scriptures or the absolutism of a romanticized tradition. The ‘reasonalists’, with their ‘courtesy of ignorance’, i.e., the recognition that all human knowing is provisional, could not be trusted. They were and are willing to consider that they might be wrong, that ‘time makes old truths uncouth’. In his message to the American Congress in 1862 as the Civil War raged and the Union forces were failing, Abraham Lincoln said

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

In these words I find an expression of the ‘reasonalist’ position that I believe has upset the balance.

I have come to place my hope for the future of a compassionate and balanced Anglicanism upon the ‘reasonalists’ rather than the scripturalists or the traditionalists. So long as the two dominant parties seek a false security in a covenant that cannot help but become a strait jacket and that undoes generations of synodical development in the majority of Anglican provinces, I will oppose any and all efforts to develop a covenant. I will not sacrifice my reason to satisfy the consciences of the scripturalists nor will I sacrifice my reason to satisfy the traditionalists. In my reason and the obligation to exercise informed free will lie my participation in the divine and life-giving Trinity. They are my birthright as a human being made in God’s image and likeness.

I am not unaware of the cost of this position. I hold no hope that the division of the Anglican Communion can be averted. Since the scripturalists and the traditionalists hold to positions that, in the end, are essentialist and authoritarian, there is little or no room for conscience nor for the legitimate search for the Word in the midst of the words that constitute human cultures and experience. I am confident, however, that I am Christ’s and that no one, whether primate, bishop or council, can rob me of that.

So, what does this ‘reasonalist’ say to someone to whom the responsibility has been given to participate in a process which he thinks is so fundamentally flawed and wrong-headed? Hold out for the Lambeth Quadrilateral unadulterated by attempts to tighten its language.

I believe the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation.

I believe that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to be the sufficient statements of that doctrine necessary to salvation.

I believe that baptism and holy communion, administered in recognizable fidelity to antiquity, are the only sacramental rites necessary for full life in the Body of Christ.

I believe that the apostolic continuity of the ēkklesia, episcopally-led and synodically-governed, embodying episkopē, koinōnia and diakonia expressed in communal, collegial and personal modes, is the normative polity of the catholic church.

Any Christian body, whether presently Anglican or not, that embodies these four principles is or should be in communion with the See of Canterbury.

These four principles permit the communion of ecclesial communities that do and do not permit the remarriage of divorced persons. These four principles permit the communion of ecclesial communities that do and do not ordain women. These four principles permit the communion of ecclesial bodies that do and do not permit the blessing of the life-long exclusive covenants of gay and lesbian persons. These four principles permit the communion of Christians who are scripturalist, traditionalist and reasonalist.

Any covenant that seeks to establish extra-provincial forms of government must be resisted without surcease. Just as I oppose the interference of the Archbishop of the Southern Cone in the affairs of the Anglican Church of Canada, so would I oppose with equal force the interference of the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada in the affairs of the Church of the Southern Cone. The Anglican Communion is built upon bonds of affection not legislative structures, especially any that privilege the episcopal office. Our life together is characterized by respect and persuasion rather than condemnation and coercion.

I apologize if my remarks are not ones that prove to be of value to my friends in the Communion who are engaged in the Covenant process. I am writing as one friend to another without the benefit of mature reflection and adequate research to support my case. I know that others have done far more reflection than I and are more aware of the various cases that have been made for and against the covenant process. I am not a moderate voice, a calm voice, a reasoned voice in what I see as the greatest threat to the compassionate and balanced Anglicanism I have written of above. I am an overly passionate and intemperate voice defending the costly and uncomfortable via media that the so-called ‘instruments of communion’ are, in my opinion, colluding to undermine. The only international body that I have any confidence in is the Anglican Consultative Council, but it may be that it, too, will be brought down by the spiritual greed of ‘unaccountable foreign prelates’.

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