A Two-tier Anglicanism?

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 22 - Jul 2006

The Archbishop has spoken and, obligingly, just before Signs of the Times went to press. Rowan Williams' Reflection sent to the Primates of the Anglican Communion on 27th June proposes a 'covenant' between local churches. Churches would choose whether to opt in to the covenant, and those who did would 'limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness':

We could arrive at a situation where there were 'constituent' Churches in covenant in the Anglican Communion and other 'churches in association', which were still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures.

It sounds as though there would be an inner core of covenanted Anglicans, with the uncovenanted treated as second class, fringe Anglicans. The Daily Telegraph described the proposal as a 'fried egg', a yoke surrounded by the white. Lest the hierarchical nature of the proposal should be missed, Williams emphasizes it:

The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example. The 'associated' Churches would have no direct part in the decision making of the 'constituent' Churches, though they might well be observers whose views were sought or whose expertise was shared from time to time, and with whom significant areas of co-operation might be possible.

If Anglicans who do not join the covenant are to be about as Anglican as Methodists are now, this seems to imply that they will hardly count as Anglicans at all.

Such a development would raise many practical issues. What if two covenants emerge, one for the conservatives and one for the liberals: on what basis will he decree one more Anglican than the other? What if we end up with lots of covenants?

For the MCU, the focus of interest is the theological issues. Once we accept the principle of a covenant designed to distinguish the 'constituent' churches from the 'associate' churches, the yolk from the white, the critical issue is: by what criterion will the covenanted churches distinguish themselves? What will they covenant to do, or believe, which the others do not do or believe?

Superficially, the obvious answer seems to be that they will reject homosexuality. However, as soon as this is articulated as a serious possibility, the absurdity of it hits us in the face. Homosexuality is but one of many hundreds of ethical issues. We know it is condemned in the bible; but so are many hundreds of things, including eating pork, eating shellfish, lending money at interest, and cutting one's beard off. We accept that there are good reasons for not obeying those biblical commands; why has homosexuality become the one supreme taboo? Why is this the issue over which Anglicanism must be divided?

The disagreements which would justify a two-tier Anglicanism are about how the Church makes its decisions: how we govern ourselves, and how we develop our beliefs. Most western Christians, in practice, borrow their theological ideas from a variety of sources, often inconsistently; but historically and intellectually, behind the variety of positions there lie two contrasting traditions which are now polarizing. Each has its own logic.

One is best illustrated by sectarian Calvinism. It has its roots in Reformation theology, adapted by nineteenth century anti-intellectualism and twentieth century fundamentalism. It treats the bible as a single supreme source of authority and denies the need for any other authority, at least in matters of faith and morals. The Reformers denied that anybody has the right to interpret the bible. Recently questions of hermeneutics have come to the fore as evangelicals have discovered the impossibility of granting authority to an uninterpreted bible; but the motive force behind the anti-gay campaigns remains the conversation-stopping claim that uninterpreted Scripture has spoken and that's that.

The other tradition is best illustrated by the Anglicanism derived from Hooker's theology. It affirms the authority of the bible but recognizes that how we understand and apply its insights, at different times and places, is bound to vary. Scripture, reason and tradition need to balance each other. The future is open: old answers to old questions may help us, but do not constrain us. God grants new insights to every generation. Of course evangelicals can appeal to Elizabethan Anglicanism as fundamentally Calvinist, and Anglo-catholics can reply with Henry VIII; but in practice, for four hundred years, our Church has been able to swing between catholic and evangelical while retaining that balance of Scripture, reason and tradition which Hooker recommended.

The difference between the two traditions is much wider than biblical interpretation and ethics. One system is top-down and authoritarian. It insists that all truth, at least in matters of faith, has been established in the past and the answers to all our questions are to be found by looking them up in the book. Truth is basically deduced , and thereafter known with certainty. Within that mindset, the true church has to be pure, unsullied by leaders who don't toe the line on every doctrine. This is why Calvinists refuse to tolerate a single gay bishop, even one thousands of miles away.

The other system teaches that we humans do not have certainty. We have much to learn, and it may come from any source at all. Scripture, reason and tradition are all fallible, and therefore need to be checked by each other. The checking system is not reducible to a clear set of rules. The church must therefore needs to make room for permitted disagreement, open debate and willingness to listen.

In practice, this latter is how the Church of England has operated from the seventeenth century until today. What we are now faced with is a campaign to turn it into something more closed, authoritarian and counter-cultural. They have chosen opposition to homosexuality as the rallying-cry because it has wide appeal. What is most surprising is not that they are trying to change the Church in accordance with their beliefs, but that the Archbishop of Canterbury has allowed himself to be manipulated into supporting what is, in effect, a takeover bid. If they succeed, and if liberals are demoted to 'associate' status where they cannot influence decision-making, Anglicanism could easily become just one more cranky, outdated counter-cultural sect.

If, therefore, there is to be a covenant, the criteria for joining it should be the defence of that Anglican theology and methodology which has served us so well for most of our history. The commitments to be made by covenanting churches should focus on defending it. As a first stab at the list of commitments to be made, I would suggest something like the following:

  1. Religious faith is a journey of discovery, not assent to a prescribed list of inherited doctrines.
  2. Humans are not granted certainty. We must always be open to learning, profitably, from those who belong to contrasting traditions.
  3. All church doctrines are, in principle, open to review and amendment.
  4. High quality scholarly research into the bible and Christian theology is to be welcomed, and should inform church teaching, even if it challenges the Church's traditional beliefs.
  5. Expulsion from full covenanted membership of the Anglican Communion should be restricted to those who attempt to impose their own views on others or stifle open research and debate.

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