Thursday, March 24, 2011

Opposing the Covenant in the Name of "True" Anglicanism

A few months ago, Peter Carrell posted a brilliant piece at Anglican Down Under entitled "Wrongly named international Anglican Coalition favours covenant." In that piece, he took on the No Anglican Covenant Coalition's opposition to the Anglican Covenant by showing how that coalition's rejection of the official Covenant entails an acceptance of an unofficial covenant. As I noted in my blog response, Peter shows that those who reject the proposed Anglican Covenant are themselves operating with a set of normative and perhaps even forcefully binding ideas about what it means to be "truly" Anglican, and that those ideas constitute a kind of implicit and rival covenant to the official Covenant.

Peter is making that point again, this time in response to a talk on the Anglican Covenant given by Lionel Deimel to a Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh meeting. Deimel's talk is entitled "Why the Anglican Covenant Should be Rejected," and it concludes like this:

Rejecting the Covenant may or may not derail what seems like an unstoppable express, but, at the very least, we will not be complicit in destroying Anglicanism or paying for the destruction of our own church. In the end, our mission might be to pick up the pieces of the Anglican Communion and reconstitute them as a fellowship that is truly Anglican.

Peter's response in a posting entitled "The annoying truth about the Anglican Covenant" is worth quoting at length:

Truly Anglican! What on earth is 'truly Anglican'? Since the whole of the talk is intelligent, rational, and insightful it is right and proper that the word 'truly' is understood to mean something in this context. It is not a descriptive word thrown into the sentence as a flourish. 'Truly' has to do with 'true': there is a true Anglicanism which can be distinguished from a false Anglicanism. Further, 'truly Anglican' means some kind of definition going on as to what is true Anglicanism and what is not true Anglicanism. Indeed the sentence speaks about reconstituting broken Anglicanism, a task which implies knowledge of how to go about intentional work on Anglicanism compared with (say) letting Anglicanism randomly evolve. That word 'fellowship' implies some sense of a shared definition as well as intention. So 'truly Anglican' involves definition of what being Anglican means, and a shared definition at that. A definition which Anglicans make a decision to agree to. Finally, note that implicitly the reconstituted Anglican fellowship will not include those who do not buy into the definition of what is 'truly Anglican'.

Sounds like a Covenant with disciplinary teeth by another name!

This point has been made by me before on this blog. Despite the arguments against the Covenant sounding like the choice before us is to have a Covenant or to not have a Covenant, as long as we remain committed to being 'truly Anglican' then the choice before us is to have a written Covenant or an unwritten Covenant.

The advantage of a written Covenant over an unwritten Covenant is that we know what we are agreeing to with the former. With the latter shadowy players behind the scenes have ample opportunity to change the meaning to suit the occasion. Real Anglican democracy lies in the way of transparency with a written Covenant. True Anglican justice lies with a Covenant known to all signers and not with an unwritten Covenant the contents of which no one knows for sure.

It is an annoying truth about the Anglican Covenant that there will be a Covenant as long as Anglicans wish to distinguish true from false Anglicanism. We cannot escape the Covenant, we can only make a choice as to whether it will be written down or not.

I agree that this is, indeed, an annoying truth! And it's annoying precisely because denying it means affirming it in the very act of denying it (a performative contradiction).

I also agree that it really is much better - more democratic with less room for subtle coercion - to have the norms of our common life and the distinctions between "true" and "false" Anglicanism written down so that everyone can make an informed decision about whether or not to sign on.

Many of those opposed to the official Covenant have written a great deal about what they think is wrong with the Anglican Covenant. Perhaps another contribution to the debate over the official Covenant that those opposed to it can make is to publish the normative ideas about "true" Anglicanism vs. "false" Anglicanism which drive their opposition. It would be helpful to see what the alternative covenant(s) affirmed by the opposition over and against the official Covenant actually looks like in a document that spells out the norms as clearly and concisely as possible. Comparing and contrasting the official Covenant with the unofficial covenant(s) affirmed by the opposition would make for a constructive conversation about the future of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.


Just Me said...

wow and amen!

Brit NorAm Freedom said...

Why doesn't the Church just go back to the original "True Anglicanism" found in the Holy Scriptures, the Prayer Book, the Creeds and the 39 Articles of the Church of England?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Brit NorAm Freedom. I wish that following your suggestion could resolve all of our conflicts and restore unity. Alas, things don't appear to be that "easy"!

Roland said...

Ecce Quam Bonum

"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"

Psalm 133:1

hawk said...

Here is how I understand the argument in this blogpost: by rejecting the covenant we are inadvertently accepting a covenant, so we shouldn't argue against a covenant because we will have a covenant anyway. This argument in the round is head spinning and not particularly helpful.

Using a similar logic I could argue that we already have a covenant and the proposed covenant is a deliberate attempt to undermine the existing one.

I don't know if I am for against the proposal but this argumentation is distracting and doesn't add any clarity for me.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, hawk. I hope I can offer clarification.

Part of the idea behind the Anglican Covenant is to clarify the norms and boundaries that govern our common life as a Communion. Such norms have typically been more explicit at the provincial level. In the Episcopal Church, for instance, we have a constitution, canons, and a Prayer Book that lay out the norms and boundaries of our common life as Episcopalians. But we've never had anything like that at the level of the Anglican Communion. And so the Anglican Covenant seeks to articulate what those norms and boundaries are or should be.

It may be the case that the Anglican Covenant as it currently exists is flawed, perhaps even deeply flawed. But the point that I'm trying to make in this posting (piggy-backing on Peter Carrell's arguments) is that criticizing or rejecting the official Anglican Covenant - or rejecting the very idea of a Covenant - presupposes an alternative or rival set of norms and boundaries that define what it means to be Anglican and what it means to be in communion. And those alternative norms and boundaries are not always explicitly articulated by the anti-Anglican Covenant lobby.

To put all of this another way, many of the anti-Anglican Covenant lobby want the Episcopal Church to be a part of the Anglican Communion. Indeed, from what I've read, some of the Anglican Covenant opponents argue that the official Covenant will not only damage our identity as the Episcopal Church, but also damage the Communion as a whole. And so it's precisely because they care about the Anglican Communion that they reject the Anglican Covenant.

But whether not it's explicitly spelled out in things like constitutions, canons, covenants, etc., a common life at the Communion-wide level necessarily entails norms for how we live in relation to one another. So any argument against the official Covenant necessarily entails an understanding of what's required to be a part of that common life at the Communion level, what it means to be "truly" Anglican, what it means to go off the Anglican reservation, how we deal with conflict and disagreement, etc.

If all of that were spelled out, it would look like an Anglican Covenant (albeit not the currently official one).

Jeff Marx said...

excellent reflection. I think you are absolutely right, this is not a case of neutral parties rejecting something foreign to Anglicanism. This is a group with clearly defined goals and objectives for the Anglican church (or at least TEC). They are makeing and have made dramatic changes over the years and will continue on that path. You are just asking for honesty about what is going on and that is fair.
Thanks for your work here!