Covenant - or Ultimatum?

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 24 - Jan 2007

The Church of England conducted its Advent preparations for Christmas with another fissiparous spell, widely reported in the press. A group claiming to represent 2000 congregations of evangelicals and charismatics, led by Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream, met the Archbishop of Canterbury on 12th December and presented a 'covenant' which they describe as 'a series of principled statements about what will need to be done in certain circumstances'. (Available here.)

The Anglican Communion, it says, is 'faced with a faulty view of revelation, false teaching and indiscipline'. In response it proposes to reaffirm the Church of England 'as a confessing church' based on biblical authority. The practical implication is that 'we can no longer associate with teaching that is contrary to the clear teaching of the Scriptures either doctrinally (for example, on the supremacy and uniqueness of Christ) or morally (for example, on issues of gender, sex and marriage), or church leadership which advocates such teaching.' They therefore intend to 'encourage new informal networks of fellowship... and will respect and support those who cannot in good conscience maintain Christian fellowship with neighbouring Anglicans who do not uphold the authority of Scripture.'

They look forward to much church planting: 'We will support mission-shaped expressions of church through prayer, finance and personnel, even when official permission is unreasonably withheld'. As for working within the Church's procedures, 'We can no longer be constrained by an over-centralised and increasingly ineffective control that is stifling the natural development of ministry. If the local Bishop unreasonably withholds authorisation, we will pay for, train and commission the ministers that are needed, and seek official Anglican recognition for them.' This will take priority: financially, 'we can no longer support ministries or structures increasingly marked by the doctrinal and ethical heterodoxy outlined above.'

Alternative episcopal oversight is to be developed; they believe in bishops, but 'this means having biblically orthodox oversight that will teach the apostolic faith, refute error and discipline the wayward. We can, therefore, no longer accept churches being denied such oversight... We are aware of those who justifiably consider that their communion with their bishops is impaired, and will support and help them to find alternative oversight.'

Two days later The Rt Revd Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, published a lengthy response. He explained that he knows the authors well and as a fellow-evangelical is sorry to dissent. His criticisms are too detailed to list here, but some are as follows. The authors 'do not seem to have consulted very fully the bodies they are taken to represent.' The Windsor process is heading towards a Covenant, so now is not a good time for new initiatives. This statement, though described as a covenant, 'reads more like what it manifestly is: a political position-statement, a sabre-rattling call to arms, a half promise and a not-quite-veiled threat.' On discipline, the document 'wants bishops to discipline those they disagree with, but wants to be free of episcopal jurisdiction in all other respects. Grant the latter, and, my friends, you can whistle for the former.' On the claim to uphold biblical doctrine: 'what the authors appear to mean is "our view of biblical truth is superior to all others, so that we possess an inside track on the real meaning of Anglicanism"; but since they don't identify anything more specific we are left to fill in the blanks.' The authors are in effect 'claiming the high moral ground of "we are the genuine Anglicans", while surreptitiously refusing to say what their real distinctives are (a sub-branch within classic evangelicalism, heavily dependent on some highly contestable readings of scripture and tradition, and consciously excluding many others who use the label "evangelical" with an equal right and good conscience).' One section 'is a way of declaring UDI and must be seen as such'; another 'is simply a way of saying, "We want to run the Church of England in our own way, and we're going to throw the crockery around the room until we're allowed to do so".'

Another response, by The Revd Canon Vincent Strudwick on behalf of Inclusive Church, was available on their website.

It is not the first time in the current debate that evangelicals have disagreed with each other about how to reform Anglicanism. They disagree with each other not only about methods but also about what kind of Anglicanism they want to establish. One thing that unites the various campaigners is a determination to rid Anglicanism of 'liberalism'.

It would be nice if liberals were heard more often. Why aren't we? Firstly, because we aren't as well organized and don't have as much money; liberals, by definition, have a wider range of interests and don't spend their lives bogged down in ecclesiastical politics. Secondly, many people who do in fact accept major tenets of liberal theology have been taught to treat 'liberal' as a boo word. Thirdly, 'liberal' is a vague term. Even when we have distinguished liberal theology from liberal politics and economics, to be a liberal may mean to support a wide range of different positions: being sympathetic to gays, abortion, experimental liturgies, evolution, divorce - the list is endless. Or if it isn't, and if we listed all the 'liberal' issues, we'd find that not a single person actually agrees with them all.

The MCU doesn't attempt to support every 'liberal' position; what it does support is liberal method. This is best characterized by the traditional Anglican appeal to a balance of authorities - Scripture, reason, tradition, experience. Within Anglicanism this is rooted in the theology of Richard Hooker, admired by far more Anglicans than would describe themselves as liberals.

The distinctive features of liberal method in theology are that we do not derive our doctrines by deduction from a single authority; instead, we reflect on the interaction between different authorities. This means that we can never claim certainty; and this in turn means that we always have something to learn, and the people we disagree with may have something to teach us. The pursuit of truth in theology, like the pursuit of truth in physics, history, and pretty well anything else, is characterized by a tradition which welcomes valid new insights from any source, uses them to reflect on the tradition which has developed so far, and is prepared to add to the tradition or subtract from it according to the evidence received.

From this perspective, the recent statement by Sugden and his colleagues cannot be accused of being liberal. We might note the following features, all of which are symptomatic of the 'conservative' campaign.

  1. Among conservative evangelicals a sense of certainty in doctrine is often encouraged, and associated with claims about 'the clear teaching of Scripture'. Historically, this terminology has its roots in the Reformation doctrine of perspicuity, which taught that every biblical text is so easy to understand that no interpretation is necessary. Nobody believes this now, but the rhetoric remains, encouraging a sense that anybody who disagrees with them simply hasn't read the Bible. This sense of certainty devalues any attempt to listen to those with whom they disagree; and those who do not so listen do not, of course, find out what their opponents are really saying.
  2. The presumption of certainty leads to denying that there is anything new to learn. Theological conservatives, whether Catholic or Protestant, characteristically deny 'progressive revelation'; they believe that God has run out of things to reveal. When this happened is a matter of debate - at the completion of the Bible, or the Creeds, or the Thirty-Nine Articles - but the principle is that, in matters of religion, new ideas must be wrong. The result is a static view of what it means to be Anglican. It cannot change. When, in a thousand million years' time, the sun turns into a supernova and life on earth is extinguished, the last Anglican to perish will even then be committed to the Thirty-Nine Articles.
  3. The sense of certainty, and the systematic rejection of change, leads to the conviction that there is a clear, sharp dividing line between those who possess the truth and those in error. This paves the way to the notion of 'those who cannot in good conscience maintain Christian fellowship with neighbouring Anglicans' (as above) - that is to say, sectarianism. It has been used to awesome effect over the past few years, but in the long term is very dangerous. To say that true Christians cannot belong to the same church as those who do not agree with them is to condemn the church to split, split and split again.
  4. The statement remembers to include the usual catchwords: its authors are orthodox, committed to biblical truths and so on. By now, unfortunately, we all know what that means. At the time of Christ all Jews accepted the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as holy scripture, and they knew it contained 613 commandments. Two of them condemn homosexuality. Of the other 611, many condemn activities which are common practice today even among conservative evangelicals. How, we wonder, has 'being biblical' come to be reduced to opposing homosexuality? Whose campaign produced this situation? The statement, like so many 'conservative' contributions to the current debate, presents its own theory of biblical interpretation as though it were the only one, and thereby misdescribes its opponents as though they did not accept the authority of the Bible.
  5. Finally we might also note how the statement treats Anglican due process instrumentally. The authors accept the authority of bishops and canon law to the extent that it suits them, but not when it stops them doing what they perceive as 'gospel growth and church planting'. This, of course, is a recipe for anarchy. The authors have not sufficiently pondered what would happen if liberals and Anglo-Catholics all took this view and acted on it. The reason why they have not pondered this point is, I suspect, the usual one: that with their excessive sense of certainty they have not noticed that Christians who disagree with them are equally committed to the Christian faith, and care equally that truth should prevail.

No doubt there will be many more statements like this one, demanding that Anglicanism excludes those who do not agree with them, and threatening as much havoc as they can wreak if they do not get their way. I keep hoping that the Primates come to appreciate that acceding to their demands would mean abandoning Anglicanism's characteristically inclusive theological tradition. As a consequence, far from averting a split, it would make further splits inevitable every time people felt strongly enough to fall out with each other.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.