09 December 2012

Theological Analysis?

Two and a half years ago, at its triennial meeting, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada adopted Resolution A137 calling, in large part, for consultation on the proposed Anglican Covenant by the Council of General Synod (COGS) with dioceses. In order to facilitate the consultation, the resolution requested three things: a Study Guide, and, to support the study process, a Legal analysis of the Covenant and a Theological analysis of the Covenant. The latter two were to discuss the legal/canonical and theological/ecclesiological implications of adopting or not adopting the Covenant. At the end of the consultation process, COGS is to make a recommendation with respect to adoption of the Anglican Covenant to the next General Synod meeting, in 2013.

A year later, in June 2011, the Study Guide was released. At the time, in commending the study guide, I suggested that the two analysis documents would be useful background before actually embarking on a full study of the Covenant. For without expert analysis of the legal and theological meaning and implications of the Covenant, any study would be incomplete.

Within days of the Study Guide, the legal analysis was released. This very thorough study of the Covenant raised a number of serious concerns including the lack of definition of key terms which was so serious that it would be impossible to know what one was agreeing to in adopting the Covenant. Equally serious is the violation of natural justice (procedural fairness) in the dispute-settling mechanism of section 4.2. In my comments on the legal analysis, I said that I was looking forward eagerly to the theological analysis in order to have a complete picture of the proposed Covenant. As I said at the time, “the legal analysis has established a very high standard.”

And so we waited.

Then three weeks ago, published highlights from the Council of General Synod's meeting indicated that COGS had received the long-awaited theological study. I happened to be on vacation at the time, so when I returned I looked for the study. I thought it might have been posted on the Anglican Church of Canada website with the Study Guide and Legal study. But it wasn't. So I asked the General Synod office for a copy and received one by e-mail within a few minutes of my request.

It wasn't worth the wait. To say that I was disappointed is an understatement.

The report begins by saying, perhaps by way of excuse, that the anonymous group of authors “found it impossible to achieve consensus on what [the implications of adoption or non-adoption] might be.” They go on to say that “this is not a matter of interpreting the document itself differently, but rather due to the divergent perceptions of the context in which the text of the Covenant came to exist and is now being read.”

So, if I understand correctly, the committee had no trouble interpreting the text of the Covenant, and in fact agreed on that interpretation. But they couldn't agree on what it means due to “divergent contexts”. Huh?

So what does the Covenant mean, divorced from context? The committee doesn't bother to say. In fact, the report is very thin on analysis. They don’t seem to engage with the text of the Covenant, nor is there much reference to theology broadly or ecclesiology narrowly. I would have hoped that there would be some articulation of what Anglican ecclesiology is and some discussion of the extent to which the Covenant is congruent with that ecclesiology. For example, they don’t engage at all with the question of how having a dispute-settling mechanism in an interprovincial treaty impinges on our ecclesiological assumptions of autonomous Provinces governed by bishops-in-synods. Nor do they engage with the theological meaning of, say, section 1.1’s definition of the faith, which I have characterised as elastic, or the gloss on the Marks of Mission in section 2.2. Nor again do they touch on the traditional use of Hooker’s schema of Scripture, Tradition and Reason in our theologizing, or why the Covenant seems to leave out Reason. I would also have looked for some engagement with the descriptions of the Instruments of Communion in section 3.1.

In the last paragraph, the report suggests that “sections 1-3 ... articulate some of the principles of contemporary Anglicanism,” though leaving us in the dark exactly how these sections do so. But in fact this suggests a very superficial reading of the Covenant text. Sections 1.1, 2.1 and 3.1 do attempt to set out some basic principles in outline of what it means to be an Anglican Christian, though not at any depth of theological or ecclesiological analysis. But sections 1.2, 2.2 and 3.2 contain some specific commitments, which go beyond articulating principles of contemporary Anglicanism. And, as I have suggested before, there is a problem in section 1.1 with suggesting that the “historic formularies” of the Church of England can simply be transported into our modern context and assumed thus to be “contemporary.” At the very least we would need some discussion on how, exactly, these historic formularies can be received and used authentically in our own context. For the Anglican Communion of the 21st century is not the Church of England of the 16th and 17th centuries.

My overall impression is that they have not engaged with the question they were asked, having to do with the theological and ecclesiological implications of adopting or not adopting the Covenant. Instead, they have given a brief and superficial political analysis that seems to come down to a suggestion that how one reads the Covenant will depend on whether one likes it or dislikes it, and that this will influence how one might vote on it, as well as one’s interpretation of the implications of the vote.

If I were using this document to help come to an informed decision on how to vote at General Synod, I would find myself no further ahead.

The bottom line seems to be that after a two and a half year wait for a serious theological analysis of the Anglican Covenant, in order to come to some kind of informed decision as to its adoption, we have been presented with a slap-dash all-nighter reflecting the most superficial reading of the Covenant, virtually no engagement with or quotation of the actual text, and nothing that looks like theology to me in the whole document. We really do have some theologians in the Anglican Church of Canada, but you'd never guess that from this document. No wonder the authors left their names off it.

So, we are left with six months before the General Synod meets. We have a very fine study guide from the Canadian Church (which was produced in time to allow it actually to be used), and we have an equally fine legal analysis (also provided with plenty of lead time). Theological analysis? Not so much. But we can only work with what we have and what we have suggests, albeit without stating it in those terms, that we shouldn't touch the Covenant with a barge pole.

General Synod will meet in July, presumably to make a decision on the proposed Covenant, without the benefit of the theological analysis it asked for. But the legal analysis should be enough to decide that the only rational vote on the Covenant will be “no.”