28 November 2010

Salman Rushdie and the Anglican Covenant

In a recent interview on CBC radio, Salman Rushdie said that “All kinds of interest groups have come to define themselves by what they claim offends them, and to elevate their offendedness into almost an article of faith. And it seems to me that that’s a very slippery slope. Everything offends somebody.” He wasn’t actually talking about the Anglican Covenant, but he could have been.

(The whole interview is linked from here)

Robert Ombres, OP, once wrote rather famously that “Canon Law is applied ecclesiology.” You may argue that the actual connexion between ecclesiology and canon law is more tenuous than the theory would suggest. And I would agree. As Jan van de Snepscheut put it, “in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.” But even if there is a gap between ecclesiology and canon law, I would still suggest that Ombres provides a useful theory to work backward against. In that exercise we may begin to see how far apart are the theory and the application. In other words, if the Covenant is a species of Canon Law, then it is salutary to work backward and ask of the Covenant proposal what sort of underlying assumptions of the church it implies, if any.

It’s useful to ask, then, what does the Covenant on the table say about the Church? And is that really the kind of Church to which we aspire? I think it has a very pessimistic view of the Church, and not one that would attract me to join. Four years ago, I wrote that there was a real risk “that the Covenant will reflect the context of dispute more than the hope for a fruitful partnership in the future.” I think that fear has been amply borne out in the Covenant we are being asked to consider. It reflects the Communion at its worst. As Rushdie might put it, it raises offendedness to an article of faith for the Anglican Communion. But does it have to be so?

If we should have some kind of document to draw us together, and that is very much an open question on which I have yet to be convinced, then I should prefer something of a vision of what the Communion could be at its best, which would most explicitly not include either an infallible statement of faith nor punitive mechanisms to enforce that faith, nor mechanisms for conducting or even inviting inter-Provincial conflict.

Again, four years ago, I wrote:
“At its best, the Anglican Communion is a glorious project: a world-wide family of churches each of which seeks faithfully to incarnate the Gospel with attention both to its own particular context and to the wider Communion. In recent times, the Communion has not been at its best, marked by disagreement, mistrust and even open hostility. If an Anglican Covenant is to be adopted, it will be important to attend to the balance between setting forth the vision of the Communion at its best and enshrining  mechanisms to protect the Communion from itself at its worst. In the current climate, there is a very real danger that the latter could overshadow the former. ”

(My essay is available as a PDF on the Anglican Communion website here.)
A document that describes a vision of what the Anglican Communion could be, at its best, and calls us all to live into that vision, might be worthy of consideration. Instead we have a document that encodes the fears and offendedness that we find in the Anglican Communion at its worst, and assumes those to be part of the DNA of the Church.

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband....”

Not that the Church is that, not by a long-shot; but perhaps it might be revealed to be that in the eschaton. Hope is better than fear.


  1. Yes, Ann, I could live with something like that. A call to common mission is always welcome.


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