Saturday, August 1, 2009

No Anglican Covenant!

Peter Paul Rubens, Triumph of the Church Over Fury and Discord

I've never wanted to run an Episcopal Church blog, or a religious blog. My interests lie largely elsewhere. I'm not well-read enough to argue theology, and candidly, I'm a very agnostic believer. I give God the benefit of the doubt more often than I'm unshakably convinced of the truth of this or that. I say the Creeds sincerely with uncrossed fingers, but I agree with Luther's famous comment about the Bible being a manger full of straw.

Better minds than mine have parsed in detail the specifics of the proposed Anglican Covenant being pushed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I direct you to Mark Harris' blog at Preludium, and the comprehensive coverage of the issue at Thinking Anglicans.

The Anglican Covenant is a bad idea whose time has come.

For those of you who read this blog who are not Episcopalian or in the Anglican Communion, you may have heard that we are in a tizzy over the ordination of openly gay clergy. The issue became "urgent" for some when the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay man living with a partner, to be their bishop. Bishops in our church are elected by their dioceses, and their elections are confirmed by both houses (a House of Bishops and another house of laity and other clergy) of the General Convention of our church which meets every 3 years. It happened to be meeting in 2003, and the necessary canonical (legal) consents were given. The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop. I've tried to keep the church-speak to a minimum in this explanation.

All hell broke loose in the Anglican Communion, especially from central Africa. The bishops of the central African churches called for sanctions against the Episcopal Church and even for its expulsion from the Communion. The African bishops effectively excommunicated our bishops by refusing to join them in the all important rite of Eucharist. Robinson's consecration emboldened a right-wing faction of the church to go forward with plans to begin another Anglican church with the intention of overthrowing and replacing the Episcopal Church as the Anglican presence in the USA. This schism, aided and abetted by right-wing American money and by foreign bishops, has since spread to Canada, and is now spreading to England.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is backing a proposed Covenant to mend the ruptures between churches in the Anglican Communion. In a nutshell, this proposed covenant would transform the Communion, a voluntary association of independent churches with common historic ties to the Church of England dating back to the late 19th century. That voluntary organization would be changed into something like a confessional church along the lines of the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox. It would be a binding statement of religious doctrine enforced from a central authority. That central authority would be the Archbishop of Canterbury together with the head bishops of the various national churches, known in our Communion by the wonderfully evocative term, "primates."

The individual polities and constitutions of the member churches would effectively be mooted. Their synods and legislatures would be transformed into debating societies. No real change in any direction in any church could take place without the consent of all the other churches. All movement foreward (and backward) would come to a halt.

I see this as a bishops' coup at the expense of the laity and the lower clergy. It is ultimately a power grab. It is being strongly pushed by most (but not all) conservative bishops in order to "punish" the Episcopal Church (read Americans) for stepping out of line. A lot of the fury in this fight is driven by a host of different emotional factors; fear of modernity, fear of change, anti-American resentment, and dare I say, a large measure of homophobia.

I illustrate this post with that frothy allegory by Rubens at the top as an image of everything I DON'T want in the church. I don't think it's the business of the Church to be driving triumphal chariots over anyone, not even Fury and Discord. I'm not interested in a Church Militant (Catholic or Evangelical) out to conquer an empire of souls. I don't want to go out there and transform the infinite diversity of humankind into cookie-cutter clones of me and my fellow believers. I don't want to steal anyone's soul, or to turn people into good Christians, American citizens, or subjects of the Spanish Crown.

Andrea da Firenze, The Church Militant and Triumphant from the Spanish Chapel
in Sta Maria Novella, Florence

This is another image of what I DON'T want the Church to become. This was an allegory painted in the mid 14th century to encourage the Dominicans, those enforcers of church doctrine. It is an elaborate painting about salvation through correctness of belief. The black and white hounds at the bottom of the painting attacking the wolves of heresy are a Latin pun; the Domini canes, the Hounds of the Lord driving out heresy. As one Episcopal blogger put it recently, salvation through correctness of belief is the spiritual equivalent of Russian roulette. ALL the thousands of Christian churches and denominations claim to be the One and Only True Church. Why bet your soul on any of those horses?

The world already has a surplus of confessional churches with authoritarian structures to enforce uniformity of belief. The Roman Catholic Church "works" after a fashion. Institutional identity, unity, and conformity are preserved, but at a high price. Evangelical churches led by the iron hand of charismatic and authoritarian preachers "work" as well, but also at a high price. That high price is individual responsibility and institutional accountability. These rigid confessional churches have a tendency to infantilize responsible adults into dependents. Both Catholic and Evangelical churches practice unaccountable clericalism which as we've seen becomes license for scandal, exploitation, and crime.

I remember hearing Bishop Neil Alexander (before he became a bishop) describe the Episcopal Church, and Anglicanism in general, as a place where all these different people who thought they were traveling alone and independently found themselves gathered together, and decided to travel together. Yes, I suppose this is very American, that idea that we can make up our lives as we go along and choose our traveling companions. But, I think there is more to it than that.

Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe Altarpiece.

Here is a painting by Bellini that is about harmony and concord. If you look carefully, the assembled saints are all opposites, or complements, of each other. Elderly Job had his complement in youthful Sebastian. Dominic absorbed in his book is complemented by Francis who turns to invite us into their company. Ascetic unworldly John the Baptist has his complement in splendidly mitered and coped Louis of Toulouse. They are all different from each other, yet they come together around the Virgin Child voluntarily. There is a wide variety of opposite colors in this painting from warm yellows to cool blues, all harmonized into an over-all silvery tonality. The angel musicians, all wearing different colors, beautifully summarize the theme of harmony. Agreement in this picture does not come through conformity or coercion. It comes through mutual consent.

This painting was made to assist the prayers of the sick in Venice. Job and Sebastian were saints invoked in time of plague in Venice, which goes to another picture that I think beautifully describes the task of the Church and of Christians.

Rembrandt, the "Hundred Guilder Print," etching.

Rembrandt illustrates the entire 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. The Scribes and Pharisees are there plotting how to trick Jesus. The disappointed rich young man is there as are the children prevented from approaching Jesus. There is a huge crowd of the suffering and sick washing up upon Christ like a wave on a rock. Rembrandt puts Christ, not behind an altar rail or in a shrine or a book, but in the flesh in the midst of suffering and sinful humanity. Christ is not there to give them a doctrinal pop quiz, or to separate out sinners and the unclean from the elect. He's not there to win any converts. He is there in solidarity with flawed and suffering humankind, correcting them when they need to be corrected, challenging them when they need to be challenged, but always there to heal their sickness and to bear their sufferings with them no matter what.

That is the task of Christians and the Church.

We will not get there with a Covenant that seeks to hold together by legislation what is supposed to be held together by consent and trust. When that consent and trust are gone, then no amount of legislation and coercion in the world can bring it back, nor should it.

*Some links to more thoughtful reflections by the professionals:

Malcolm in Canada argues that the Archbishop will kill the Communion in his efforts to save it.

Here is Lionel Demiel's very thorough critique of the Archbishop's letter.

A very learned critique of the Archbishop's conception of catholicity can be found at Christopher's blog Betwixt and Between.

Here are the views of Rev. Jonathan Hagger, the "Madpriest" of Newcastle on the Covenant proposal, and their consequences for the Church of England.


June Butler said...

Counterlight, this entire post is brilliant and inspired. If the bonds of affection are not alive and well, the covenant will not serve to bring them back to life.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Thanks for this dear friend. And I second what Grand'mère wrote!

JimB said...

I agree completely. The covenant is a disaster waiting for a victim.

Well said indeed.


Leonard said...

¨These rigid confessional churches have a tendency to infantilize responsible adults into dependents. Both Catholic and Evangelical churches practice unaccountable clericalism which as we've seen becomes license for scandal, exploitation, and crime.¨

To think that I would put my personal conviction to be ¨responsible and accountable¨ under the spiritual guidance of the likes of Orombi, Akinola, Gomez, Venables, Bul and various other fear/hatedriven dangerous Primates is nonsense...distancing myself from wrongdoing and ¨wrongdoers¨ is the responsible option for me (besides making myself available to be of service to those they torment and persecute at The Body of Christ)...the whole ¨Covenant¨ idea underscores the lack of basic common sense, good judgement and responsible leadership by the Archbishop of Canterbury...the man ought resign and take Drexel Gomez with him.

SCG said...

A very thoughtful post, and eloquent argument about why the Covenant is not a covenant, but a coercion.

Rick+ said...

Incredibly well-written and, of course, illustrated, Doug! Thank you!

Wilfried said...

On an entirely tangential note, last year I took the 10 year old daughter of the then new Bishop of Matlosane, South Africa to the Museum of Natural History. We passed the Hall of Primates, and she asked, "What are primates?" I replied, "Well, they're animals closely related to humans, like apes, chimps, monkeys... and archbishops..." She laughed. She was far too young to get that joke.

Davis said...

Perfectly illustrated, Doug.

John said...

Very well said, my brother in XC!