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.