Hope for the Covenant
  • Friday, May 18, 2012

By Sue Careless

Just weeks after a majority of dioceses in the Church of England rejected the proposed Anglican Covenant, a small group of international bishops and theologians gathered in Toronto to discuss the proposal’s merits. Conference organizers held out hope that the Covenant could be approved by the rest of the Communion and even eventually by the Church of England. And it was an English theologian, the Rev. Paul Avis, who offered the most cogent arguments for the case.

“Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence: Covenant, Communion and the Future of Global Anglicanism” attracted nearly 100 scholars, clergy, and lay leaders May 10-11 to Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. The Rev. George Sumner, principal of the college, said he hoped the conference would “bring some theological light to a subject that generates a good deal of heat.”

Avis, canon theologian for the Diocese of Exeter and founding editor of Ecclesiology, described the Anglican Communion as “neither a single global church” nor “a confederation of separate churches of diverse character,” but resembling most closely autocephalous (or self-governing) Eastern Orthodox churches.

Avis finds province “unsatisfactory” to describe member churches, primarily for its derogatory “provincial” overtones, as though each member church (the term he prefers) must kowtow to the head office in London. Avis affirms the autonomy of each member church but also hopes each would be not independent but mutually interdependent.

“To be a church is to be placed in relation to the Church universal,” he said. “Particular churches and the universal Church cannot exist without each other.”

He believes “bonds of affection,” the oft-quoted phrase from The Windsor Report, could not take the strain of the current crisis but added: “Communion infused with charity is the key to Anglican unity.”

Avis believes the Covenant deserves to be supported for five reasons:

  • It is the only way forward. To reject the Covenant is to opt for Communion without constraints.
  • The Covenant is an embodiment of mutual commitment.
  • It is true to the Anglican understanding of the Church.
  • It is oriented to the common good of the Communion.
  • It may be amended by due process.

“It is not set in stone,” Avis stressed. “Troubles can be ironed out.”

He also made it clear that “the Covenant does not address the substantive issues that triggered the crisis; it does not propose any doctrinal … or ethical tests for the Communion; it does not create any new structures for the Communion.”

While the Standing Committee may recommend “relational consequences” to the Instruments of Communion and to the member churches, the Covenant is not a legal mechanism. Rather, Avis said, it would “intensify our commitment to and engagement with one another as Anglicans.”

It is “an expression of what we owe each other as Christians and as churches: to listen, to consider advice, to show restraint, not to give offense, to accept accountability.” He said that “Covenant remains the strongest metaphor … for the commitment that we owe each other in Christ.”

Two African bishops and one from the Middle East offered additional perspectives. The Rt. Rev. Martin Nyaboho, Bishop of Makamba, Burundi, said many African Anglicans prefer to see the Church of England “more as a grandmother than a mother.”

The Rt. Rev. Azad Marshall, Bishop of the Diocese of Iran and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, said the adoption of the Covenant cannot come soon enough for the persecuted Church.

The Rt. Rev. Stephen Andrews, Bishop of Algoma in northern Ontario, noted how biblical pacts with God always had communal dimensions. The Rev. Alan Hayes, director of the Toronto School of Theology, gave a historical perspective on the current crisis in the Communion by examining fault lines that appeared as early as 1963 at the Toronto Anglican Congress.

To date only eight of the 38 member churches of the Anglican Communion have given their assent. But Avis holds out hope that the English church has simply “stalled” and may accept the Covenant at the next General Synod in 2015. In analyzing his church’s vote, he noted that 80 percent of the bishops had accepted the Covenant, while the houses of clergy and laity in most dioceses had both rejected it, but not by large margins.

“Communion (koinonia) is not a human construction, but a creation of the Holy Spirit,” Avis said. “It is an imperative of Christian love to seek communion with our fellow Christians.”

Sue Careless is senior editor of The Anglican Planet.

Image: Conference speakers enjoy a light moment at Wycliffe College. Sue Careless photo.

A Seminarian’s Perspective

By Jeff Boldt

Nearly 50 years ago the Toronto Anglican Congress provided a remarkable stage where the global nature of Anglicanism pressed itself on the public imagination with novel force. In May, a conference based on that gathering’s theme of “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence” met in honor of the congress at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

Conference speakers — including the Rev. Paul Avis, theological consultant to the Anglican Communion Office in London, the Rev. Christopher Seitz and Alan Hayes of Wycliffe College, Bishop Steven Andrews of the Diocese of Algoma, Bishop Azad Marshall of Iran, Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Nigeria — called for sacrificial unity.

At the panel discussion led by Ephraim Radner that the African Bishops, Martin Nyaboho of Burundi and Josiah, explained why the proposed Anglican Covenant, the main proposal for preserving Anglican unity in our time, fits well with their cultural perspective. The Anglican Communion, they said, is best understood as a family of churches. This image is crucial, they argued: in a family the members must measure their individual goods against the common good of all. Those culturally conditioned by the individualism of the West have a hard time accepting this, and as a result they find it hard to receive the Bible’s own call to a covenanted form of life, a form of life with a robust concept of the common good. Paul Avis reminded us that living in a Catholic way (“according to the whole”) is an essential mark of the Church. The more interrelated and mutually responsible local churches are, the more distinct, free, and autonomous they become as they find their vocation in relationship to all.

How might a contemporary Western Anglican understand this? My own view is that God perhaps gives us autonomy for the sake of a more voluntary sacrifice on behalf of others, and that this is the opportunity the Anglican Covenant offers us. In other words, despite the problems raised by Western individualism, our respect for the freedom of the individual may have a providential purpose for our day. More precisely, those churches in the West that have received a large measure of freedom have been given this freedom for the sake of their family members in the Global South, where freedom is restricted in more ways than one. Bishop Josiah, for example, was not the only speaker to mention terror and violence as a daily fact of life.

If the Anglican Covenant gives us in the West the opportunity to voluntarily offer ourselves on behalf of those in the Communion who have less freedom, this would have good New Testament precedent. Paul saw this as so integral to his mission that he risked his life to bring gifts to the poor Church in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17) in imitation of Christ himself, who became poor so that we might become rich (1 Cor. 8:9).

Conference speakers reminded us very clearly that it was just such sacrifices, through the apostolic self-giving of evangelists, missionaries, and Christian witnesses of all kinds, that has built the Anglican Communion. And the Covenant is only meant to articulate the mutual expectations that have arisen through years of sacrificial interdependence. Nor is the Covenant’s allusion to possible “relational consequences,” which arise when our bonds of affection are strained, anything new. Actions have always had consequences, and by speaking of consequences in relational terms the Covenant is subverting our tendency to look for easy juridical resolutions. Some will interpret this as a lack of teeth. But as Bishop Steven said, the Covenant is not supposed to be a prenuptial agreement. It is not a contract that unrealistically tries to deal with every contingency. No, what the Covenant calls for takes more commitment, much like the commitments that are given and forged in family and marriage.

It is anybody’s guess how realistic it is to expect more commitment in this Communion, in which relationships have already unraveled. Still, I commend Wycliffe College for doing its part to promote Anglican unity by bringing together these lecturers. Perhaps through gatherings like this God will even yet do a new thing to make the dry bones of our church live again.

Jeff Boldt is a doctoral theology student at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.

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