04 July 2011

Blame Canada?

The Revd Canon Dr Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity, Faith and Order for the Anglican Communion, has written a defence of the proposed Anglican Covenant. If I am reading her correctly, she is suggesting that this document is just a natural development in a series of events that began nearly a century and a half ago at the instigation of the Canadian Church.

Canon Barnett-Cowan rehearses the history of the origins of the Lambeth Conference: Bishop Colenso of Natal had some controversial ideas that upset some bishops in Canada. The Canadian bishops suggested to the Archbishop of Canterbury that he had to do something and the Lambeth Conference was born. Actually, Canon Barnett-Cowan has left out a few salient points. First, Colenso's ideas upset more than just the Canadians. He also upset the other bishops in South Africa. And his metropolitan, Bishop Gray of Cape Town, deposed him for heresy. In fact, Colenso's ideas were generally panned around the world, except by serious biblical scholars, and a cottage industry sprang up producing books against Colenso.

Nor did the Canadian bishops act on their own. They took a motion to the Synod of the Province of Canada, which was endorsed by the clergy and laity of that Synod, requesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury convene a “national” meeting of all bishops to discuss the situation. Although the initial idea was to invite only bishops from the British Empire, thus excluding the Episcopal Church, eventually all Anglican and Episcopal bishops (except Colenso) were invited. But this invitation was not without controversy itself. Despite assurances that the meeting would claim no authority over the Churches, the Archbishop of York, among others, refused to attend for fear that the Conference would develop into a Synod with legislative powers, and centralized authority was undesirable.

So in fact, it is a bit odd to say that setting up a centralized authority with coercive powers by way of a Covenant (legislation) is in continuity with setting up a deliberative (not legislative) body with no claim to any power whatsoever, coercive or otherwise.

Canon Barnett-Cowan suggests that “the idea of having a comprehensive, coherent, agreed-upon understanding of how the Anglican family works has been around for a long time.” And it might be a good idea. But the proposed Covenant is not such a document. It is neither comprehensive nor coherent. Rather it is ambiguous, and so vague that it is impossible to understand what it commits Churches to. And although it makes passing reference to the Instruments of Communion, it does nothing to describe “how the Anglican family works.” It does contain a vague and fundamentally unjust process for resolving disputes, but that's a different matter.

Canon Barnett-Cowan suggests, correctly I think, that the Virginia Report, presented to the Lambeth Conference of 1998, did not get the attention it deserved. The bishops seemed much more interested in discussing sex than governance. The result, says Canon Barnett-Cowan, was that “when, in the first years of the new millennium, three things happened that triggered a crisis of Anglican coherence, there was not an agreed-upon mechanism to consult and decide on what to do.” Actually, I'm not sure that's completely accurate. In fact there were already three Instruments of Communion (still then called Instruments of Unity) that could deal with the events of the turn of the millennium. It is true that none of them had coercive power, which some of the protagonists wished for, but that was by design. Centralized coercive power had never been felt desirable in the Anglican Communion.

Ah, says Canon Barnett-Cowan, but if only the Virginia Report had been given due attention, “there might have been better mechanisms in place for all to come to the table to discern the way ahead.” Better than the proposed Covenant, she means. So, in fact, the Anglican Communion Office is aware of better mechanisms than the Covenant. So why aren't we pursuing them rather than pushing the Covenant? And for that matter, why not use the mechanisms that were already in place? Simple: some people wanted coercive authority and none was on offer.

And so we have the proposed Covenant before us. But, some people are suggesting that it's punitive, so Canon Barnett-Cowan wants to correct that misconception. “It is not about punishment; it is about mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.” As I've written previously, it may not be about retribution, but it's certainly about coercive power, which is one definition of punishment. Just ask Bishop Colenso.

And what of Bishop Colenso? What were his dangerous and radical ideas? He was condemned for two basic ideas: that the Old Testament should not always be read as literal history; and that the Church needed to account for the local context when entering a polygamous culture. He added a third issue: that Bishop Gray should not be able to wield coercive power over him.

Colenso was vindicated on all counts. On the question of a literal reading of the Old Testament has has been vindicated by history and by scholarship. His basic idea is quite unremarkable in any seminary. On the question of polygamy, he was vindicated by the same Lambeth Conference that was set up to deal with him in the first place, which resolved in 1988 that there should be a limited acceptance of polygamy by the Church where culturally appropriate. And on the question of coercive jurisdiction he was vindicated by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which ruled that Bishop Gray had no coercive jurisdiction over Colenso.

What will history say about the proposed Covenant in a hundred years?


  1. "Grasping at straws" and other metaphors for defending the indefensible come to mind. My heart goes out to anyone who has to make the case for this Curate's Egg.

  2. Most likely, Alan+, there will still be 'Windsor and Flying Bishops'. If Canon Alyson gets her way.

  3. I make no claim to know what would constitute Canon Alyson getting her way, but if we assume for a minute that it is widespread adoption of the proposed Covenant, I daresay that the document is sufficiently vague that there is no way to predict the outcome. It is likely to be very different from the outcome that each Church hopes for in adopting it.

    I suspect that there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

  4. Alan, you missed out other delicious(?) parts of the story. The support of the Lambeth Bishops allowed Gray to establish the see of Pietermaritzburg over the same territory as Colenso's see of Natal.
    In time some of the churches that did not join Gray's CPSA formed the conservative Church of England in South Africa. Curious parallels to today

  5. Good point, John. There continues to be much to learn from the Colenso affair. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history....


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