31 January 2011

Living the Faith

Having defined the faith, how do the Churches of the Anglican Communion live that faith? According to the proposed Anglican Covenant, we do so “in varying contexts ... reliant on the Holy Spirit.” (Section 1.2) Actually, this section is more about developing the faith than living it, about how we decide on what new initiatives or beliefs or practices we might legitimately pursue in our “varying contexts”.

Context is essential both for the development of the faith and for the interpretation of this section of the proposed Covenant. All of us are, for better or for worse, products of our context. We are influenced by the cultures in which we live, either positively by adopting surrounding cultural norms, or negatively in rejecting surrounding cultural norms. These contextual influences shape how we read Scripture, and how we appropriate the Tradition, and our context provides many of the questions we ask of Scripture and Tradition in developing the faith. All theology is contextual.

But the proposed Covenant must also be read in its context, that of dispute and open hostility in the Anglican Communion. Without that context there would be no proposed Covenant. It is designed to address the current climate of dispute and, possibly, to address future disputes, which seem to be understood to be inevitable. And each of the first three sections of the proposed Covenant must be read in light of the fourth section, the process for settling disputes. With that in mind, we can begin to assess section 1.2.

Section 1.2.1 commits signatory churches “to teach and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition....” And section 1.2.2 commits the churches to “a pattern of Christian theological and moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in and answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the catholic tradition.” (Emphasis mine)

Four hundred years ago, Richard Hooker established the Anglican way of doing theology: we use a complex interplay of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. This is often described as a three-legged stool on which our theology rests. But here the proposed Covenant seems to have sawn off the leg of Reason. (I’m grateful to William F Hammond for drawing my attention to this point.)

Bearing in mind the context of the Covenant, it seems to me that these clauses were included because some parties to our dispute alleged that some other parties to the dispute weren’t teaching and acting “in consonance with Scripture and the catholic ... tradition.” And section 4.2 of the proposed Covenant sets up a mechanism to decide whether such an allegation is correct and, if so, to apply sanctions, or “relational consequences”. (And, in my view, any claim that the proposed Covenant isn’t punitive is poppycock.)

But as so often is the case, the devil is in the details. For the problem is that Scripture and Tradition must be interpreted. And the means by which they are interpreted is Reason. And they will be interpreted in varying ways in varying contexts.

Scripture is sometimes misrepresented as though it were a self-interpreting document, but this simplistic depiction of Scripture is both dishonest and dangerous. It’s dishonest because it ignores the fact that Scripture must be read in order for its voice to speak, and in reading we all begin from a contextually-determined perspective. And it’s dangerous because it tends to turn Scripture into a bludgeon wielded by bullies. Each of us, based on the place and time in which we live, our education and personal life experiences, our intellectual and spiritual predilections, and a myriad of other factors, approach Scripture with a set of insights and prejudices that will inevitably colour what we are likely to see in Scripture. These sorts of factors provide us with our dominant interpretive frameworks, the lenses through which we read Scripture. Yes, we can learn techniques that help us to correct for some of these factors, but there is no way to determine a universal, objective reading of any passage of Scripture (even setting aside the fact that Scripture carries many layers of meaning). Dr Donna Runnalls, who was Dean of Religious Studies at McGill University during my time there, used to say that objectivity was a mirage, and what we should aim for is “critically tutored subjectivity.” That is, we need to be aware that we are subjective, and learn how to see past our biases as best we can. This is a never-ending pursuit which requires intellectual humility, which squares well with the Anglican virtue of provisionality.

Tradition also needs to be understood. It is not simply a monolithic body of beliefs and practices from the past to which we must slavishly adhere. Tradition is alive and in constant flux. The tradition is passed on from one generation to the next, but in the process the receiving generation evaluates and sifts and reinterprets that which it receives, before adding its own contributions to the tradition that it ultimately passes to the subsequent generation. Tradition either grows and develops, or it stagnates and ossifies into the idol of traditionalism. As Jaroslav Pelikan put it, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

So the key to assessing this section of the proposed Covenant is to ask what, precisely, is meant by Scripture and Tradition (not to mention why Reason is left out). Because this is critical in assessing how any given action is “answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the catholic tradition.” (Section 1.2.2) I suspect that each signatory Church will have its own understanding of what these terms means, and these varying understandings won’t be completely compatible. Inevitably, this will give rise to future conflicts. And I really don’t like that term “answerable” because it will only increase the temperature of future conflicts.

And is it really necessary to sign a formal agreement to take Scripture and Tradition seriously? No Anglican would claim to do otherwise. Each of us, in our “varying contexts,” seeks to apply Scripture and Tradition, with Reason, to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The trouble is that in recent times Anglicans from other contexts have questioned whether certain Anglicans have come to valid conclusions about the application of the faith in the latters’ contexts.

We all have mechanisms to explore and decide what it means, for example, to be an authentic 21st-century Canadian Anglican. (To speak of my own context.) In Canada those mechanisms include well-established processes of study, consultation, prayer, and eventual Synodical decision. And when the General Synod is deciding on a Canonical matter of Doctrine or Discipline, then it requires two readings in separate sittings of the Synod, which normally take place at three-year intervals. This is not a recipe for rash or hasty decisions!

Can we not trust each other to apply Scripture, Tradition and Reason in a responsible manner in our varying contexts? The proponents of the proposed Covenant seem to believe that we can’t.

Some critics of the proposed Covenant have suggested that it is tantamount to imposing a Confession on the churches of the Anglican Communion, not unlike, say, the Westminster or Augsburg Confessions. I disagree. It’s worse. Because at least with a clear Confession you know exactly where you stand. Rather than a clear Confession, the proposed Covenant provides rather ill-defined parameters against which any proposed action may be tested by a process that is vague, without criteria and demonstrably unfair.

An important question is whether the lack of precision here is useful or not. Theologically, it probably leaves room for some diversity (even if the amount of diversity is strictly limited) and even for the movement of the Holy Spirit. It leaves room to “be open to prophetic ... leadership”. (Section 1.2.6) But this is not a theological document. It is a legal document, binding the churches of the Anglican Communion together in an international treaty. In the absence of any dispute-settling process, section 1.2 would look a whole lot better. Not perfect, but better. But given that it provides the standard against which churches may be judged, its lack of precision is not helpful. It’s one more reason to reject this proposed Covenant.


  1. Well, let's be honest: there are many allegations from one national/regional church that the actions of another national/regional church are "incompatible with Scripture." So, I suppose on the one hand the Covenant Design Group wanted to have a commitment, however redundant it might seem on first impression; while on the other hand they would indeed want to avoid appearing to endorse one hermeneutic over another. Sadly, your point is well taken about the inadequacy of that position.

  2. Quite right, Marshall. We all claim to be acting in consonance with our reading of Scripture and in continuity (even if with some element of discontinuity) with Tradition. The clause is there because allegations have arisen that those claims are false in some cases.

    The difficulty will be assessing the claims and counterclaims. Not a recipe for unity in my view.

  3. You shouldn't be so broadly critical of calling Scripture a self-interpreting document. Number one, it is a self-interpreting document, plain and simple. Number two, you clearly don't know what a self-interpreting document is, you don't know what it means for a document to be self-interpreting, and if pressed to do so, you'd be unable to produce any examples of other documents that are self-interpreting and the situations in which they might arise. You need to avoid this issue until you're able to do these things.
    I'll help you out a little bit by giving you a starting point. If you know anyone who knows some stuff about law, legislation, courts/trials, and so forth, they'll be able to give you examples of self-interpreting documents that can factor is as evidence. Find out why the adjective "self-interpreting" is attached to them and why they are referred to as such.

  4. I'm not sure I grasp your point, Mike. Perhaps you have a peculiar definition of "self-interpreting". I think it's pretty clear from my post what I mean by a self-interpreting text. All texts need to be interpreted, and Scripture is no exception.

    If laws didn't need to be interpreted there would be neither lawyers nor law courts. And if Scripture needed no interpretation, then we would have no need of biblical scholars and the work for theologians would be so reduced they might as well pack up their tents, too.

    Scripture itself suggests that it needs to be interpreted. Consider as just one example the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They meet what they first take to be a stranger, who interprets passages from the Old Testament in light of the recent events in Jerusalem. If these texts were self-interpreting, the conversation would have been superfluous.


Comments are welcome, but moderated. Please use a name, any name or alias, or your comment will be deleted. I welcome constructive criticisms, profusive praise, and intelligent interjections. Abusive, nasty or libellous comments will be ruthlessly deleted. Hey, it's my blog and I get to be as arbitrary as I want!