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.

24 January 2011

Defining the Faith

Section 1 of the proposed Anglican Covenant has received the least amount of comment or criticism of the whole document. The reason why is self-evident: there’s not much objectionable in this part of the proposal. But that doesn’t necessarily make it perfect.

Section 1 sets out “Our Inheritance of Faith”. Actually, this is a bit of a misnomer, because it really says more about who we are than about what we believe. I’ve already indicated that the term “communion” is a little fuzzy in the proposed Covenant, and we see this in section 1.1.1, in which the Churches affirm their “communion in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” I don’t think I disagree with the affirmation; I’m just not entirely certain exactly what it means. I think it might mean that we each claim to be part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” (the RCs might disagree with that, I suppose) and that we acknowledge that none of us is the whole church - that there are other parts of that one church that are not part of the Anglican Communion. Maybe that’s what it means. It clearly can’t mean that we are all “in communion” with the whole church because, sadly, we aren’t.

It’s the next bit that attracted the only question in A Lambeth Commentary. Section 1.1.2 starts out well enough. We all affirm the faith which is found in the Scriptures and attested to by the creeds. But the question asked at Lambeth was why the “formularies of the Church of England” were referenced here. The question asked and answer given are as follows:
Q: What is meant by “historic formularies of the Church of England”?  
A: There are certain texts, of varying degrees of authority, which were crucial in the formation of Anglican identity from its early days. However, not all of these (notably the 1662 Prayer Book) have played a direct role in the development of the ecclesial life of all the Provinces. Although we wish to emphasise the value of our common traditions and to pay careful attention to the historical roots of the Anglican family, we recognise that Provinces relate to these formularies and traditions in different ways, and will attend to this question in the next process of drafting.

With respect to theological discernment and teaching, the CDG agree with the comments of bishops that further clarity is needed on:
  • the teaching role of bishops and synods;
  • the role of the laity in relation to scholarship and bible study;
  • the role of reason in relation to Scripture and Tradition
  • the need to recognise up front that the mission into which we are invited is God’s mission, empowered in us by the Holy Spirit.
The Covenant Design Group is committed to further work to refine this section in light of comments received.
So the Covenant Design Group acknowledged that these “historic formularies” are seen differently in the different Churches of the Communion. Certainly the 1662 Book of Common Prayer hasn’t been used in Canada for nearly a century, in the United States for over two centuries and in Scotland ever, for example. And many Churches have long since moved to newer prayer books as the de facto norm for their worship, even if the 1662 BCP or some version of it retains status as the official prayer book.

My question is why the proposed Covenant suggests that the “historic formularies ... bear authentic witness to [the] faith.” (emphasis mine) My problem here is with the use of the present tense. These formularies were, according to the proposed Covenant, “forged in the context of the European Reformation” and it seems to me that they can only be properly understood in that context. By taking them out of their own context and placing them in our context today we make them try to speak to a context that their drafters could never have contemplated.

I don’t argue that the prayer book and the 39 Articles weren’t authentic witnesses to the faith in their day. Nor do I suggest that they have nothing to say to us today. But I do question whether decontextualizing these documents is fair either to the documents themselves or to us. I imagine most Anglicans would have very little interest, for example, in participating in a Commination service. (Many Anglicans would be surprised to discover that such a service ever existed!) And whilst the language of the 1662 wedding service sounds awfully quaint at first blush, many would blush for real at the mention of  “men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding.”

As to the 39 Articles, they are best understood as orienting the Church of England within the controversies of the 16th century. Although they continue to say some useful things, many, if not most, Anglicans would disagree, for example, with Article 37's endorsement of the death penalty. And the claim that “the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England” is both patently false today and irrelevant to the other Realms comprised by the Communion.

The formularies really should have been left in their own context rather than transported into ours as if by a Time Lord.

Taking things out of context is confusing.

Speaking of context, the next four clauses quote the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Context is important here, too, because it seems a lot of people have forgotten it. It’s common for some people to suggest that the Quadrilateral would be perfectly adequate as a Covenant. It certainly does mention the bare-bones essentials. We have the Scriptures, the Creeds, the dominical Sacraments, and episcopacy. What else do we need? The point here, though, is that the Quadrilateral was not developed as a definition of what it means to be an Anglican Church; it was developed as a minimalistic definition of what it means, from our perspective, to be an authentic church of any kind. The Quadrilateral was developed with the idea that we might want to negotiate “Reunion” - or merger - with some other Church at some point and we would need a basic measuring stick to determine whether such other Church met the minimum requirements of authenticity. They would certainly have other features, but they would have to have these four or there would be no point talking to them. So, for example, there would be no talk of merger with congregationalist churches because they have no episcopacy. (Whether Presbyterianism is a legitimate local adaptation of episcopacy would have to be determined.) And we certainly couldn’t merge with teetotalling Methodists who use grape juice instead of wine for communion! (And, incidentally, the Orthodox Churches don’t fit the Quadrilateral exactly, because they don’t have the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a Western creed.) Still, there’s nothing to argue with in the Quadrilateral. We’d better all fit into it or we don’t even meet the minimal requirements of an authentic Church.

Finally, section 1.1 mentions our “shared patterns of common prayer and liturgy” and participation in mission, which is shared with other Churches. Which brings us full circle.

Based on these basic affirmations, section 1.2 has the signatories commit to a whole lot of care in the use of scripture, especially in “theological and moral reasoning” in our varying contexts. (Section 1.2.2) Section 1.2 really reflects the context of the dispute in the Communion that the proposed Covenant is supposed to address. But it’s not clear how we’re meant to account for those “varying contexts” or if the tension between them is supposed to be resolved or allowed to be creative. In fact, the question of context -  cultural, political, geographic, temporal and even psycho-social - is fundamental to our current disputes. It shapes our lives as Churches, it shapes our understanding and incarnation of the faith, and it shapes the proposed Covenant.

In setting out the fundamentals of the faith, Section 1 pays lip service to context, but it really doesn’t seem to be aware of the implications of context for how we might be able to live out the same faith in different ways in different contexts, and how we might be able to build creative relationships across the apparent boundaries of our different contexts.

17 January 2011

Defining Communion

In the proposed Anglican Covenant, the word “communion” is used many times. It seems to be used in at least three different ways.
  • First, it is used capitalized to refer to the collectivity of Anglican Churches throughout the world, the Anglican Communion;
  • Second, it is used to refer to the relationship of those churches to the whole People of God, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church throughout the world;
  • Third, it is used to refer to the relationship of the Churches of the Anglican Communion to one another.
The trouble is that this word is never clearly defined in the text of the proposed Covenant.

The key question is what exactly is meant by the third use of the word. For a model we turn to ecumenical agreements of Full Communion such as the Porvoo Communion of British and Irish Anglican and Nordic and Baltic European Lutheran Churches.

The Porvoo Common Statement offers the following definition of communion at paragraph 24:
Communion with God and with fellow believers is manifested in one baptism in response to the apostolic preaching; in the common confession of the apostolic faith; in the united celebration of the eucharist which builds up the one body of Christ; and in a single ministry set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands.
Porvoo also contains this salutary warning about the nature of unity:
Visible unity ... should not be confused with uniformity. ‘Unity in Christ does not exist despite and in opposition to diversity, but is given with and in diversity’. Because this diversity corresponds with the many gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church, it is a concept of fundamental ecclesial importance, with relevance to all aspects of the life of the Church, and is not a mere concession to theological pluralism. Both the unity and the diversity of the Church are ultimately grounded in the communion of God the Holy Trinity. (Paragraph 23)
Based on that understanding, the Porvoo Declaration commits the churches, in part:
to welcome persons episcopally ordained in any of our churches to the office of bishop, priest or deacon to serve, by invitation and in accordance with any regulations which may from time to time be in force, in that ministry in the receiving church without re-ordination;
Similarly, and more clearly, the Waterloo Declaration of Full Communion between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada contains the following succinct definition of Full Communion:
Full communion is understood as a relationship between two distinct churches or communions in which each maintains its own autonomy while recognizing the catholicity and apostolicity of the other, and believing the other to hold the essentials of the Christian faith. In such a relationship, communicant members of each church would be able freely to communicate at the altar of the other, and there would be freedom of ordained ministers to officiate sacramentally in either church. Specifically, in our context, we understand this to include transferability of members; mutual recognition and interchangeability of ministries; freedom to use each other's liturgies; freedom to participate in each other's ordinations and installations of clergy, including bishops; and structures for consultation to express, strengthen, and enable our common life, witness, and service, to the glory of God and the salvation of the world. (Introduction, paragraph 7)
Communion, or being in communion, thus suggests, in part, a mutual recognition of the authenticity of the Church, and the validity of all sacramental acts, especially the sacrament of Orders. That is, we recognize that the other members of the Communion, for lack of a better word, are truly Christian Churches, in all their attributes, and that they validly confer orders, and their clergy validly administer the sacraments. Their baptism is valid, their eucharist is valid, their confirmation is valid, their ordination is valid. And, based on this recognition, we count the members of our partner churches as validly holding whatever status their “native” church says they hold: baptised, confirmed, ordained. And it is possible for a member of a partner church to transfer to another partner church retaining the same status.

The most significant example of transfer, of course, has to do with clergy. (Sorry, laity.) So it is possible for a priest in one church to transfer to and serve in another church. It is possible for a priest in one church to be elected as a bishop in another church. And so on.

All of this suggests that we each recognize as valid the canonical, administrative and liturgical processes by which orders are conferred in the various partner churches. But, and this is a big but, it also implies to me that we must accept the various canonical and administrative procedures by which orders are either inhibited (under discipline) or revoked or relinquished.

Why is this important, you might ask? There are a number of ex-clergy around North America, and possibly elsewhere, who have either been deposed or who have relinquished their ministry (that is to say, have “voluntarily relinquish[ed] the exercise of [their] orders and use [themselves] as ... lay[men]” in the words of the Church of England’s Canon C1(2)) who purport to continue to exercise ministry as Anglican clergy, having purported to have been licensed by other Provinces. Licensing as a cleric someone who is not a cleric in good standing is simply not possible canonically. For Province A to purport to license an ex-cleric from Province B breaks communion just as much as refusal to accept the validity of Province B’s orders.

The proposed Anglican Covenant assumes an understanding of Communion which is not unlike the understanding in the Waterloo Declaration, and which may be inferred from the proposed text. But it’s not clearly stated as in the above Declarations.

If the proposed Covenant is supposed to define the relationships of the Churches of the Anglican Communion, one might have thought that a good starting point would have been a clear and succinct definition of what we mean by Communion.

08 January 2011

Unanswered Questions

Four years ago this month, in an article published in the Anglican Journal, I raised a series of questions to help evaluate the question of whether a Covenant would be desirable and, if so, in what form. I think the questions are still relevant today.

First, is a Covenant of any sort desirable, or would something else (or even nothing) be better? This comes back to the question of Instrument Choice which I have written of previously. It seems to me that much of the project of drafting a Covenant has been an exercise in doing something, at a time when there has been a great deal of pressure to get on with it. That pressure, and the sense of urgency it has created, has in my view caused us to ignore some pretty fundamental questions in favour of simply being busy. But have we been going down the right path? We really haven't explored whether there was another path to begin with. Surely doing nothing would be better than doing the wrong thing? But sometimes people wind up doing the wrong thing simply in order to avoid seeming passive. Governments do it. Churches do it. Is this one of those times?

Second, what do we actually hope to achieve with the proposed Covenant? That’s a big question! Should it be a visionary statement of hope, calling us into a better future as a communion of churches? In other words, do we want a document that will inspire? Or do we hope to set up mechanisms with which to conduct future conflict? Personally, I would prefer the former, but what we have on offer now is very much the latter.

Third, what ought to be included? Should it include a confessional element? Should there be a dispute settling mechanism? Should it say something of what we mean by the term “communion”? Should there be some commitment to respect not only the constitutional autonomy of the other churches, but also the legitimacy of their canonical procedures?

Fourth, how detailed ought the Covenant to be? The dilemma here is if we say too much it may be too cumbersome, and if we say too little it may be of little use. As we evaluate the proposed Covenant, I think that in some ways the design committee has chosen to err on the side of saying too much, but then having chosen that path has paradoxically left some important things unsaid.

Fifth, what is our timeline? The authors of Towards an Anglican Covenant suggested a period of 5 to 8 years, which I thought at the time was unrealistically optimistic. Here we are after just four years pressing down the final stretch toward adoption of the final draft. What’s the rush?

Finally, I noted
Even if an Anglican covenant is desirable, there is a very real danger that the current climate of conflict and the sense of urgency to resolve it would so shape the finished product that we would lose an opportunity to produce a visionary statement of hope for the Anglican Communion in favour of the development of processes with which to conduct our present and future conflicts. In other words, even if a covenant is a good idea, it may be an inopportune time to draft one.
You can read the original article here.

It seems to me that those who would introduce a significant change into the life of the Anglican Communion have a responsibility to make a serious case for the proposed changes. And the rest of us should be asking the sorts of questions I have been trying to ask so we don’t wind up sleepwalking into a change that we will awake to discover, too late, has been disastrous.

04 January 2011

Church of England Reference to Dioceses

The Church of England is bravely soldiering on with the reference of its draft Act of Synod to adopt the proposed Anglican Covenant, as required by its constitution. The November meeting of the General Synod voted to consider the motion, which has put this process in motion. As a constitutional matter, of course the reference to the dioceses must run its course. But we can hardly pretend that the project hasn't lost some of its glamour now that the GAFCON Primates have rejected the proposed Covenant as "fatally flawed."

An interesting point with respect to this reference to the dioceses is that it is predicated on Article 8. The paper explaining the process states that this is required for "a scheme for … a permanent and substantial change of relationship between the Church of England and another Christian body, being a body a substantial number of whose members reside in Great Britain" notably in this case the Church in Wales and the Episcopal Church of Scotland. (I won’t mention here that “scheme” is rarely used in North American English for anything but a nefarious plot!)

This reference to Article 8 is interesting because of the narrative in support of the proposed Covenant that it will not cause any significant changes, other than to fix the whole conflict in the Anglican Communion. But the Article 8 reference suggests in fact that the adoption of the proposed Covenant will be "a permanent and substantial change". So which is it?

The question facing the diocesan synods is: what, exactly, does this "permanent and substantial change" imply, and is it desirable? All sorts of reasons have been put forward to vote for the proposed Covenant: it’s a way to support the Archbishop of Canterbury; everybody has politely supported it previously; it will fix things without changing anything. What seems to be missing in the sales pitch is a compelling reason to implement this international treaty with a clear explanation of what, precisely, it will accomplish in what manner and at what cost.

The papers sent to the dioceses includes the background paper sent to the General Synod explaining the proposed Covenant. A few points stand out from that paper.

In the background paper GS Misc 966, at paragraph 38, it says "As the Archbishop of Canterbury has commented, 'The Covenant text sets out the basis on which the Anglican family works and prays and lives and hopes.'"  Actually it most significantly sets out the basis on which the Anglican family will fight in future. And if that process is found wanting then family fights will escalate and spill out beyond the bounds of the process. We should ask ourselves whether we want to establish processes to fight, or would it be preferable to find ways of transcending our differences. Fighting has not proven very satisfactory in recent years.

Paragraph 46 states, rather comfortingly, that:
The Standing Committee of the Communion has no power to enforce any of these declarations or recommendations within any province or in any of the Instruments and all it may recommend are responses which already exist in the life of the Communion, several of which have been used by member Churches and the Instruments during recent difficulties. There are no fixed penalties or new “star chamber”. The Covenant text simply offers an ordered way of managing the consequences when a church is held by its Covenant partners to have denied its Covenantal affirmations or breached its Covenantal commitments.
So, all the Standing Committee may do is make recommendations. But bear in mind that it is recommending things to the very people who form the pool of the membership of the Standing Committee. (See my comments on overlapping roles with respect to Natural Justice). And it makes those recommendations in light of the commitment in section 3.2.1 to "endeavour to accommodate [the] recommendations [of the Instruments of Communion]." So there is a built-in expectation that Churches will implement recommendations that will emanate from the Standing Committee through the ACC and PM. These are not simply recommendations from disinterested parties that can be taken or left, they are intrinsically authoritative. This is like a parent to a child saying "I recommend you eat your broccoli."

In addition, the recommendations have to do with relational consequences, but they follow from a definitive declaration by the Standing Committee that an action is incompatible with the Covenant. This declaration is problematic in itself, and is not subject to appeal or question. It is not an opinion, but a definitive and apparently irrevocable statement.

I hope the English dioceses are given the chance to do their homework before they must vote, and that they avail themselves of the opportunity.