Some Thoughts on the Covenant Debate

Yesterday I spent a large part of the day at General Synod including observing some of the debates. The last one of the day was on the response to the St Andrews Draft of the Covenant. As well as people spotting I made notes on the debate and want to spend just a few moments responding to some of the points made.

Archbishop Sentamu opened the debate and indicated that the Covenant isn’t a new creed or commandment. Rather, it’s intention is to identify the fundamentals we have in common as Anglicans. All that Synod was doing at this point was to nod the process along.

He was followed by a number of speakers, including one or two who seemed not (to me) to be on the same theological planet as the Bible. Brian Walker of Winchester had a problem with clause 1.2.6 of the text where it said:

pursue a common pilgrimage with other Churches of the Communion to discern the Truth, that peoples from all nations may truly be set free to receive the new and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hmmm. According to our friend Brian, the Jews already have a covenant with YHWH, so that have already been set free. I’ll be sending him a copy of the Acts of the Apostles where Peter and others evangelise the Jews, for him to tear up in disgust.

Next on "Planet Licentiousness" was Ann Stevens of Southwark, who thought the Covenant had a logical and theological problems with anybody claiming someone had "relinquished the force and meaning of the covenant". According to Ann and others, you can’t talk about a covenant where the emphasis is on how it might breakdown. The covenant splitters she claimed would be anybody wanting to throw people out of a covenant, not those who were being ejected.

I guess the question I would want to ask Ann is this – if your husband cheats on you, promises not to do it again, cheats on you again and then ignores it when you ask him repeatedly not to, is it him or you who has broken the marriage covenant in the first instance when you eventually file for divorce? According to Ann’s it is the abused wife who is the covenant breaker. As long as the adulterous husband doesn’t leave the marriage the vows are intact.

For me the star turn of the debate was Angus McClay of Rochester, who pointed us to the letter of Jude and in particular to verses 2 too 4. Here Jude clearly sets out that in the Christian community there is mercy, peace and love in adundance, but that grace and truth need to be applied in matters of conflict. In particular, we must recognise that there will be those amongst us who will use love and grace as an excuse for licentiousness. We therefore need a useful vehicle to do the truth and grace thing, and the Covenant is close to that. Discipline is necessary and as Bishop Saxbee of Lincoln quoted from Hobbes, "covenants without sword are no use to secure people’s safety". Blimey – there was I agreeing with the Bishop of Lincoln!!!

Sister Rosemary of course threw us into light relief by reminding us that there were Christians who, and I quote, "think ethics apart from the Bible". Really Sister Rosemary? What would you call those people? Muslims? Buddhists? Atheists?

Finally, Rowan made some interesting points which you can read in full here. Of note are these few sentences:

More substantively and finally, just a word about the nature of Covenant. As I understand the biblical concept, Covenant is about the self-giving, the absolute self-giving of God, which calls out a self-giving on the part of human beings to whom God’s love is given. And when that response of self giving love on the human side becomes inadequate, corrupted, idle or just something that involved rejection, then something is fractured that has to be rebuilt. Not giving in response to God’s giving has consequences and in our relations with one another we try I think in the Church and I think the emphasis is biblical position, we try to find ways of mutual self-giving which in some ways keep alive, alert us to the depths of God’s own self-giving and you can say that a covenant relationship between Christians is a promise to be willing to be converted by each other. I think that works ecumenically and in the communion as well. But that’s why I think the word covenant is not so wildly inappropriate as all that.

Hmmmm… Shades of the Body’s Grace anybody? Dare I say it, but I could also use the italicised section to be a very accurate description of the problem of same-sex erotic attraction.

After Sentamu closed the debate and the Synod generally approved the Covenant process, one was left with the impression that there were deep divisions over whether there should be a Covenant in the first place. In particular, a lot of the liberals seemed to be seething at the idea of discipline. One wonders whether they would have been as vitriolic against discipline if we weren’t talking about TEC being the bad boys?

Finally, a big thank you to Dave Walker, who (even if you didn’t realise it) entertained me by being sat across the gallery from me and moving his head in slight motions every so often. I know you’re concentrating hard on cartoons and the like Dave, but you ain’t half amusing when you get a good idea!!! Also a big nod to Giles Fraser who seemed to recognise but not recognise me, and then slunk off around the journalists. Giles (known by those in the trade as "the f***ing vicar of Putney), my big tip for you is to try and smile at least once a day – it does us all a world of good. Hello also to Alastair who sat behind me and said some nice things about this blog (while he worked on his – and by the way he has a top post on electronic voting at Synod). And last but not least, good night and God bless to the Bishop of Burnley, John William Goddard, with whom I spent a thoroughly entertaining 5 minutes walking to Westminster Tube station setting the liturgical world to rights (even if the very notion of an RSS feed sends him into paralytics). Roll on those Magnificats!!!!

4 Comments on “Some Thoughts on the Covenant Debate

  1. Thanks Peter – cheered up my day no end. I did see you over the other side of the chamber with your electronic laptop there. I will attempt to remain motionless whilst having ideas from this point on.

  2. Hello again Peter,

    you highlighted these words –

    “Covenant is about the self-giving, the absolute self-giving of God, which calls out a self-giving on the part of human beings to whom God’s love is given. And when that response of self giving love on the human side becomes inadequate, corrupted, idle or just something that involved rejection, then something is fractured that has to be rebuilt”

    – and then commented that you could also use them as “a very accurate description of the problem of same-sex erotic attraction”.

    Just wondered if you could explain a bit further – what is it about “same-sex erotic attraction” that means it can only be this kind of response to God’s self-giving love?

    in friendship, Blair

  3. Blair,

    Very basically, given that we are designed to sexually relate as husband and wife, our fallenness that leads us to be same-sex attracted (amongst other sexual dysfunctions) can be seen as “inadequate, corrupted, idle or just something that involved rejection”.

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