22 January 2012

Of Epiphany Letters and Archbishops

Back at the beginning of Advent, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion in which he extolled the virtues of the proposed Anglican Covenant. Nearly two weeks ago, at the beginning of the Epiphany season, the Archbishop of Cape Town responded with a letter of his own, addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but published by the Anglican Communion News Service. (Note to self: when writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury, be prepared to see your letter on ACNS.)

As with Archbishop Williams, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba speaks eloquently about the value of the Anglican Communion. Indeed, there is much of value in his letter on that score. Recalling the visit to Zimbabwe made by the two Archbishops together, Archbishop Makgoba says, “the capacity to act together – across old divides of colonisers and colonised, and contemporary differences of rich and poor, north and south, through God’s gift of unity to the Communion – gives considerable force to our joint proclamation of Christ as the Light of the World.” Indeed, it does. Coming together across divides to speak with a single authoritative voice on a matter of justice gives flesh to the gift of unity for which Jesus prayed, of which we are particularly mindful in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Archbishop Makgoba also recalls with gratitude the way in which the wider Anglican Communion gave strength to the embattled South African Church in its struggle against apartheid. I recall a motion of solidarity in the struggle against apartheid being adopted at the very first Synod I ever attended, and how I was impressed that we were called to think and speak and act outside the narrow confines of our own bailiwick.

The good Archbishop continues:
Yet such mutuality cannot be taken for granted, and indeed, the way that our disagreements on human sexuality have played out suggests we had already begun to drift from that particular sense of belonging to God and to each other, within the wider body of Christ, which was so strong in Southern Africa’s great time of need. It seems to me that the Covenant is entirely necessary, in recalling us to ourselves. Only in this way can we continue to grow in bearing this rich fruit that comes from living the life which is both God’s gift and God’s calling.
He is correct that we cannot take the kind of mutuality of which he speaks for granted. As with any other relationship, the relationships among the churches of the Anglican Communion need constant work. This is why, for example, our bishops gather in the Lambeth Conference, and why we have such programmes as diocesan partnerships. It is about being constantly called out of ourselves and the narrow confines of our own bailiwicks to learn about others in their contexts, to engage with them and to stand beside them in their joys and sorrows. What I don't understand is how Archbishop Makgoba concludes that this means the proposed Anglican Covenant is “entirely necessary” beyond his TINA assertion. But perhaps his reflections on the Covenant would help.

But the problem is that his reflections on the Covenant nowhere refer to the actual text. Like Archbishop Williams before him, Archbishop Makgoba does not seem to be interested in discussion the text on which we will all be voting, and which he depicts as “entirely necessary.” If it will help us to work at our relationships, to preserve and develop mutuality and solidarity, in what way will it do so? Which clauses in the proposed Covenant does he see as assisting these positive outcomes? In fact, I don't know what document Archbishop Makgoba is referring to at all. It doesn't seem to be the proposed Anglican Covenant that I have been reading.

He goes on:
Arguments that the Covenant is ‘not fit for purpose’ (for example through ‘going too far’ or ‘not going far enough’) are too often predicated upon an inadequate model of ‘being church’ and what it means to live as members of the body of Christ. Implicit, it seems to me, is a diminished view of God’s grace, God’s redemptive power and purposes, and God’s vision and calling upon his people and his Church, and so of Anglicanism’s place within these. Our sense of who we are, and called to become, should not principally be conveyed through legal prisms, whether of some form of centralising authority, or of Provinces’ constitutions and canon law which must be ‘safeguarded’ from external ‘interference’. Nor should we primarily look to structural or legal solutions to our undeniable difficulties or for regulating our relationships.
Yes, precisely! There is an inadequate model of being church at play here. And that model has led us to believe that the sort of “structural or legal solutions” against which Archbishop Makgoba argues are in fact a necessary part of our ecclesiology. For the proposed Covenant is nothing other than a legal solution to our difficulties. As Archbishop Makgoba himself says, “Scripture reminds us that solving our problems ultimately rests not on our efforts but on the salvific work of Jesus Christ.” Surely he is not suggesting that the proposed Covenant represents the “salvific work of Jesus Christ” rather than our own efforts?

Seeing the Covenant merely as a product of disagreements over human sexuality, or in terms of whether or not it provides particular solutions to these disagreements, is therefore to miss the fundamental point. As I noted earlier, it seems that, especially in the acrimonious and bitter ways we have often handled our differences, disunity over sexuality was symptomatic of a deeper malaise within our common life.
Quite right! But again I ask, in what way does the proposed Covenant address this “deeper malaise” of which the Archbishop correctly speaks? If it does, he does not enlighten us as to how. True, he asserts that the proposed Covenant “places God’s vision for God’s Church and God’s world centre-stage; and then invites us to live into this as our ultimate and overriding context and calling.” But he doesn't indicate how the document does this, and he conveniently ignores that, even if it does do so, it does it in the context of a legal document with a punitive process at its heart.

The good Archbishop is entirely correct to speak both about the value of the Anglican Communion as a vehicle for living out God's solidarity with each other and with the world that God so loves. He is correct to draw attention to the need to preserve and develop relationships of mutuality and support across theological and cultural divides. He is correct in so many ways. Where his letter disappoints is in its depiction of the proposed Covenant as a magical panacea for all of our relational problems without a single reference to the actual document. He does not apparently see, or perhaps doesn't want us, his readers, to see, that the proposed Covenant is a legal solution to a relational problem – and not a very good legal solution at that. It is designed to empower a central group acting entirely without objective criteria to choose winners and losers by an arbitrary and intrinsically unjust process. It is based on the inadequate ecclesiological assumption that the hard work of developing and maintaining relationships in the context of the grace of God can be replaced by the facile imposition of authority, even to the point of severing those relationships.

The Anglican Communion is, has been, and can be the kind of gift that the Archbishop depicts in his letter. But here's the point: it has been such a gift in the past without a Covenant. No Covenant was required for the Communion to stand in solidarity with the South African church in its struggle against apartheid. No Covenant was required for the recent Archiepiscopal visit to Zimbabwe. And, for all his passionate eloquence, Archbishop Makgoba never once demonstrates how any Covenant, let alone the one on the table, is remotely “entirely necessary” for the Anglican Communion to grow into the kind of gift he hopes it can be in the future.

In the end, the Archbishop's letter is rather like one of those awful children's sermons about a squirrel in which the squirrel is mean to represent Jesus, but no one, least of all the preacher, is able to grasp how. It's not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with stories about squirrels, but if there is no clear connection with Jesus, the preacher would be ahead simply to leave the story in its proper context rather than force a connection. Similarly, there is much worth reading in the Archbishop's letter about the value of the Anglican Communion and about the need to work at our relationships. But the remotest connection with the proposed Covenant is forced at best.

Unless the proposed Covenant is a squirrel.


  1. Brilliant response, Alan. It's curiouser and curiouser that the proponents of the Anglican Covenant don't quote the text, the very words that if we just sign on to them will save the communion. TINA! TINA!

    Wait! As you say, Alan, there is an alternative - no Anglcan Covenant. And haven't some of us been saying so...over and over?

    To equate the Anglican Covenant with the Anglican Communion, which is what the good archbishop seems to do, because none of the 'capacity to act together' will continue without the covenant, is, to me, an egregious exercise in faulty reasoning.

    If you sent a version of this post in the form of a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, is it possible that your letter might be published by the ACNS? If so, then please do it.

  2. Thanks, Grandmère.

    Somehow, I don't think there's much danger of a letter of mine to Cantuar getting published by ACNS. I rather think I'm in his spam filters. :-)

    The alternative to the Covenant isn't simply not to adopt it, though. I think we also need to find other ways to work at relationships in the Communion. Things like indaba, for example. But that's hard, process-oriented work and not as attractive as the instant gratification of simply adopting a document, regardless how inadequate.

    The proposed Covenant is tangible and so it looks like progress to goal-oriented people. Its chief problem is that it is a badly-written legal document being pushed through without any apparent awareness of the law of unintended consequences.

  3. Alan, from what I know about indaba, I'm greatly in favor of the process and would like it to be used throughout the communion.

    If the covenant is adopted by a majority of the member provinces of the Anglican Communion, wait and see the hard work that will be involved in investigating complaints, deciding whether a complaint warrants further study, and if a complaint is deemed a threat to the communion, what 'relational consequences' will result. Indaba may come to be seen as the easy way to work at relationships.

    Look back at Lambeth 2008. Whose voice most needed to be heard in the discussion of gay clergy and bishops? And who was disinvited? Over and

  4. If the covenant is adopted by a majority of the member provinces of the Anglican Communion, wait and see the hard work that will be involved in investigating complaints...

    Let alone the hard work of haggling about the meaning of the Covenant, and arguing about the outcomes of the vague, arbitrary process.

  5. I seem not to have finished my comment, but I don't remember what I wanted to say, so I guess it wasn't important.


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