On “The Covenant”

You know the one. It was produced a few days ago and signed by many (but not all) of the leading Evangelicals in this country. Since then there’s been stuff on the web in favour, some against, and Ruth Gledhill in the middle doing her normal “telling it like it might actually be” stuff. And by far the best discussion is happening over at Stand Firm.
So what do I think? Well….. I know some people reading this won’t like it, but I’m not sure we need something like this in the Church of England at this moment. Yes, we’ve got problems here in Blighty with unorthodox bishops and clergy not backing the official party line on things like Civil Partnerships, but we’re not even vaguely in a position like the USA is where the leadership has to all intents and purposes apostatised. Over there the actions of CANA et al are perfectly reasonable. Here we’re not at that place yet.

But I think Tom Wright possibly raises some of the most serious issues in his critique of the Covenant. In particular I think he highlights what might be mistaken ecclesiology (or at the very least “un-Anglican” ecclesiology) when he says:

But the real shocker is the next section, ‘Appointments’. This begins with a breathtaking statement of congregationalism: ‘The local congregation is the initial and key seed-bed for recognizing, authorizing, raising up and releasing new leaders.’ Recognising, perhaps. Raising up, quite possibly. Authorizing? Not within any recognizable Anglican polity. The authors should read Article 23 once more: ‘It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have public authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.’ The rest of the Articles make it clear that ‘Congregation’ here cannot mean ‘the local church, doing its own thing’. The following sentences (points 2-6) concede that wider recognition and authorization are needed, but say, in effect, ‘since we don’t trust the church to select, train and ordain, we’ll do it ourselves.’ Fine, if that’s what you want to do; don’t pretend it’s Anglican, and don’t be surprised when Anglicans, including a great many evangelicals, regard you as radically out of line. It is no surprise, reading the seventh point (‘If the local Bishop unreasonably withholds authorization, we will pay for, train and commission the ministers that are needed, and seek official Anglican recognition for them’), that the two principal authors of this report were present and supportive at the irregular ordinations – with a bishop from the ‘Church of England in South Africa’, a body with whom the Church of England is not in communion – which took place in the Southwark diocese a year or so ago. Basically, this section is a way of declaring UDI and must be seen as such. Is that really what the constituency of CEEC and the other relevant bodies want? Have they reflected on the consequences of such a move – not least for those of us who don’t live in the affluent parts of the country where ‘we will pay for this’ is a cheerful, sometimes even arrogant, statement of social status?

One of the first things that led me to realise that the Anglican Church was the place for me after a few years in Neo-Baptist congregations was the understanding of the continuity of the historic Episcopate in England via the “Reformed Catholic” Anglican Church. There is a sense of deep-rootedness that I find in the Church of England that I don’t find anywhere else. Take for example this excellent video by Father Matthew on Tradition, Scripture and Reason. I might not agree with him on everything , but on authority I think he gets it.

So….. The problem I have with the Covenant is, as Tom Wright says, it’s just a tad too congregationalist and that ain’t Anglican and it certainly ain’t Episcopal. For some of us who are sold-out Evangelicals that Episcopalian part of our ecclesiology is hugely important because it gives us a direct link right back to the apostles and their teaching. The 39 Articles bear witness to that apostolic teaching (including the one on Predestination y’hear) and we can’t pick or choose which one’s we do or don’t like. I mean, no-one’s buttoning of their cassocks would be the same as another’s on Good Friday and we’d look a complete sight.

Our serious, traditional handling of Episcopal authority is why we get upset when Bishops start teaching or condoning heresy, because it’s a betrayal of the trust placed into their hands and the wider catholic church to “guard the faith once for all delivered”. To jettison Episcopal authority without a really good reason (like for example the really good reason they do have in the USA) is to throw out the baby with the bathwater, a particularly suitable metaphor at this time of year.

For the record I thought that the Southwark ordinations were very clever – no Diocesan boundaries were crossed because the ordaining Bishop wasn’t in the “official” Anglican Communion, but seeing as he was recognised as “continuing” the ordinations were valid. Sneaky but legal and Tom Butler didn’t really have a leg to stand on. Which apparently isn’t uncommon. I’ll get my coat while you tell me what you think.

5 Comments on “On “The Covenant”

  1. As I wrote over at GlobalSouthAnglican

    Tom Wright may be orthodox but he is only a little less orthprax than Tom Butler.

    Wright is certainly in communion with gay priests and bishops, and has gays licensed in leadership positions in his diocese (given the previous incumbent, and that he hasn’t removed the liscences of many of his legacy clergy, that must be the case).

    So by the Tanzanian statement, he is out of communion with the global south. Sure he wrote the Winsdsor Report, but most conservative Engelicans saw it for the weak compromise it was (permitting Gay Blessings and ordiantion of Gay Clergy, and even allowing Gene Robinson to remain a bishop – albeit one who would not be invited to Lambeth — and even letting the likes of Shori and Griswold attend Lambeth if they apologised for breaching communion… but requiring no repentance for departing from the faith).

    So, the GlobalSouth are fed up with all this, and are now out of communion with Butler – and Wright too.

    And Evangelicals who have built their churches within the CoE’s legal structures realise they need episcopal oversight from someone orthodox if they are to remain in communion. And if the CoE is unable to provide it: be assured Africa will!

  2. You write: “For some of us who are sold-out Evangelicals that Episcopalian part of our ecclesiology is hugely important because it gives us a direct link right back to the apostles and their teaching.”

    Why do you need another/a better “direct link” to the apostles and their teaching than the Bible? And anyway, how can you realistically call an episcopal structure a direct link?

    Some say “I follow Paul”, others say “I follow Apollos”, yet others say “I follow Cranmer, Calvin and Luther.” I follow Christ.


    • The Bible gives us a clear, objective understanding of God’s Revelation. Got no argument there. But having Bishops and an Episcopal Structure roots us into the history and people of the Church of God, tracing orthodox lineage back generation by generation right back to those first few apostles who stood at the entrance to the empty tomb and thought, “Blimey, that changes everything”. Bishops, when they teach and pastor correctly, somehow represent the link to Christians through all the ages who have worshipped Christ like we worship him today. They guarantee (or at least should guarantee when they bother to chase away perverse doctrine) a guardianship of the faith, so that the Christ you and your fellow Christians in your church are led to worship and follow IS the same Christ that the Apostles worshipped 2000 years ago. That’s why a dodgy Bishop is so much more serious then a dodgy vicar.

      • I agree that the more senior position a person holds within a church, then the more dangerous their dodgy views are.

        However, I cannot agree with “having Bishops and an Episcopal Structure roots us into the history and people of the Church of God, tracing orthodox lineage back generation by generation right back to those first few apostles” (or at least, not relying on the importance of that — Chuch History is interesting and we should learn from it, of course).

        Wasn’t one of the main points of the Reformation that the church no longer was orthodox? For sure, God preserved his Church through the ages, but that was in spite of, not through, the Episcopal Structure and history of the ‘official’ church.

        Moreover, even if we could point to a perfect (or even ‘sufficiently’ orthodox) church, I still do not believe that would make it a hugely important direct link — under the New Covenant, we are no longer a nation-state, we do not need to devote ourselves to endless genealogies, as if our position in the Kingdom depended on being able to trace our roots, or our function in the Kingdom depended on who we were ‘descended’ from.


  3. Peter:

    I feel a bit sorry for you, but unfortunately you, like the rest of us, will probably have to learn one of the great truths of the Protestant tradition the hard way –

    When the sold-out Evangelicals who are ideologically committed to the idea of Evangelicalism above being committed to their brethren begin to feel like they’re not being deferred to like they should, they’ll be happy to move on. And the more hardline they can be as they take their “stands” before the break-up, the better.

    I know this all too well because I used to be a die-hard evangelical who saw many congregations I was a part of, or that friends were in, divide, and sub-divide. And many life-long friends never spoke to eachother again. When I became an orthodox catholic Anglican, I was hoping that evangelical Anglicans would be different – most are, but there is a very large percentage who are not. And why should we be surprised? The great leaders on the reforming side of the Reformation were, for the mostpart, idea men who were committed to their ideas. They wanted to have little to do with eachother unless their counterparts were expressing greater interest in their particular soteriological system, and the English Reformers were the only ones who really pursued any serious kind of ecumenical effort. From 1559 forward, the English church kept itself faithful to the fullness of revelation and wisdom by doing just the opposite of the reforming bodies on the Continent: not enshrining any one of the soteriologies that was currently in vogue.

    What you are expressing is your legitimate and orthodox catholic understanding that core theology, Christology, and ecclesiology come before soteriology, and that spirituality/liturgy has a reciprocal relationship with soteriology. This is the Patristic model, and it was generally ignored by the Continental Reformers, as it had been for several generations in the Roman church and was at that time by their Roman Catholic opponents. They were both working out of the same philosophical framework, and while the Reformers were more correct, they failed to take into account one fundamental spiritual reality: we can’t reform the Church unless we are first reformed and renewed by God. Sadly, in that day, the political snowball was moving too fast, and the battle was engaged. Men tend not to ask the hard questions of themselves at this point. I pray that your orthodox leaders in the Church of England will not make the same mistake.

    Those who are taking the go-slow approach to reforming the C of E today, and respecting the historic and apostolic structures of the Church are absolutely correct: we must always be stopping along the way to check ourselves and our methods. Just because “one of our guys” has a great idea (like a proposal for a covenant) in a time of crisis doesn’t mean we should be drawing lines when those who we thought were on our team don’t completely embrace the idea. While we have a wealth of revelation from Holy Scripture, this does not mean that if we can presently arrange a quorum, we can announce ourselves to be our own authority on all things holy.

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