Saturday, November 27, 2010

Taking on the Anti-Anglican Covenant Lobby

Benjamin Guyer recently posted two very good essays on the Covenant website that take on the anti-Anglican Covenant lobby. "In Praise of Rhetoric? Anti-Covenantal Myths of Puritanism and Anglicanism" Parts One and Two should be required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the debates over the Covenant, and particularly the spin on the Covenant offered by groups such as the No Anglican Covenant Coalition (a group that I've written about before), as well as Inclusive Church and Modern Church.

In Part One, Guyer exposes the failure of the following claims made by Inclusive Church and Modern Church in a recent advertisement:

Behind the campaign for an Anglican Covenant lies an attempt to re-establish a Puritan dogmatism. Reformation Puritans believed Christians should submit to the supreme authority of the Bible and therefore agree with each other on all matters of doctrine and ethics. Refusing to allow reason a role, their disagreements have often led each side to accuse the other of not being true Christians. This is why parts of Protestantism have a history of repeated schisms.

After lengthy discussion, Guyer concludes:

To summarize all of the above, MCU/IC makes three claims about Puritans. First, they claim that Puritans had a unique view of Scripture’s authority. This has been shown to be wrong. Rather, the supremacy of Scripture was a theological conviction that extended back to the medieval era and simply continued on in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Second, MCU/IC claims that Puritans had a problematic and erroneous view of reason. This assertion, too, has been debunked; Puritan skepticism about reason was in fact a common feature among all religious groups in the sixteenth century, and in sharing such views Puritans were simply part of their own historical context. Third, MCU/IC claims that Puritans have had a history of dividing against one another, claiming that each side was not in fact Christian. This has been shown, in the American context, to be false. The American context should take primacy over the English context as New England is where those who advocated a Calvinist reform of the Church of England lived. We cannot deny that antinomianism grew out of the “left wing” of English Dissent, but we do deny that all English Dissenters were simply Puritans. The death of Puritanism in the New World came about through revivalism, with its Dissent-like preference for subjective experience over the objective, received truths of Scripture and the Christian tradition. Finally, in our penultimate paragraph, we briefly drew attention to the brightly apocalyptic strain within Puritanism, thereby showing that the claims of MCU/IC fail on every count. Puritans were not literalists, but typologists; Puritans were not anti-intellectual, but widely read and deeply imaginative; Puritans were not divided into factions, but shared a broadly apocalyptic worldview.

In Part Two, Guyer takes on the ways in which the No Anglican Covenant Coalition "misrepresents [Richard] Hooker and the structure of early Anglican orthodoxy." In his conclusion, Guyer writes:

The Anglican Covenant does not change doctrine – indeed, in the first part of its first section, the Covenant text merely restates the basic outlines of long-standing Anglican norms. Because the Church is bound by doctrine but free in matters of polity, as Hooker rightly notes, the provinces of the Anglican Communion are indeed free to change their polity by entering into a covenanted life together. This does not, of course, alter polity in the way that the Puritans argued for; the Covenant envisions complete continuity in episcopal order (1.1.6; 3.1.3), conciliar consultation (3.1.2), and the Instruments of Communion (3.1.4). One cannot claim that the Anglican Covenant envisions any changes in current Anglican structures. One must recognize, however, that a covenanted Communion will be one that recognizes the need for seeking “a shared mind” (3.2.4) and for living in a committed and robust form of “interdependence” (4.1.2; cf. 3.2.2). This is very different than envisioning constitutional changes for any province – and the Covenant in fact eschews a centralized push for such alterations (4.1.3). The only changes in polity that the Covenant envisions are those which are created locally by a given province so that it may live faithfully in covenanted interdependence (4.2.9). The Covenant thus bolsters the creative capacity of each Anglican province to enter “freely” into deeper communion with other Anglican provinces by structuring and reforming itself for the good of the whole (4.1.1).

Richard Hooker advocated reason in matters which were otherwise indifferent. There is no divine command that Anglicans enter into Covenant with one another, but there is indeed Biblical command of charity and unity (John 13:34 – 35, 17:21). The Church is free to order its common life so that charity and unity might be witnessed to, and the Anglican Covenant has been proposed as the primary means for doing so in the Anglican Communion at this point in time. If it is rejected, Anglicans must be willing to answer two questions. First, how will the Anglican Communion embody charity and unity given that the current state of the Communion is now so fractious? Before any province in the Communion rejects the Covenant, it should keep in mind how much division and chaos has ensued amidst Anglicans in the five years between the time that the Covenant was proposed, drafted, and then finalized for adoption. To reject the Covenant is to prolong this process of division and chaos.

Second, and on a more personal note for the present author, I ask each province to consider how, if it rejects the Covenant, the Anglican Communion will be passed on to the next generation. Every generation is given particular institutions on trust. Does any generation have the right to deny its own children these same gifts?

Guyer argues that because the No Anglican Covenant Coalition fails to rightly represent and appropriate Hooker's articulation of Anglican orthodoxy, their arguments actually work against their anti-Covenant agenda. "We may therefore thank NACC," Guyer writes," for they have offered us a sweeping argument for why the Anglican Communion has every right to adopt the Anglican Covenant."

One of the administrators of the Covenant website notes that Guyer "deftly demolishes the anti-Covenant lobby on the left, which is shown to be intellectually shallow (in particular: ahistorical and non-theological) and politically dangerous (because wantonly destructive of historic Anglicanism)." Regardless of whether or not one agrees with that assessment, Guyer has offered an important contribution to the discussion from a pro-Covenant perspective. I hope that his two essays will be widely read.

UPDATE: November 29, 2010

You can also read these two essays on Benjamin Guyer's blog:

In Praise of Rhetoric? Anti-Covenantal Myths of Puritanism and Anglicanism (Part One)

In Praise of Rhetoric? Anti-Covenantal Myths of Puritanism and Anglicanism (Part Two)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words. Happily, the Church of England has voted to send the Covenant on for approval by its Diocesan Synods. Let us hope!

Bryan Owen said...

You're more than welcome, Benjamin. You've made a very important contribution to the debate over the Anglican Covenant, and I thank you for it. We shall hope, indeed!