Response to Neal Mitchell

by Jonathan Clatworthy

This is a response to Neal Michell's article on the Covenant website Is the Anglican Covenant Non-Anglican? from an opponent of the proposed Anglican Covenant.

The article, like most arguments in favour of the Covenant - and especially the writings of Rowan Williams - reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with the refreshments trolley supervisor on a train. Birmingham New Street Station is huge. I only had a couple of minutes before the Liverpool train was due to leave. I ran as fast as I could. I got there in time. But the train remained in the station for another 20 minutes. When the trolley arrived, I asked the supervisor why we weren't moving.

"The signals are on red", he explained.

I asked whether he had any more information. He added "The trains aren't allowed to go if the signals are on red".

And - realising that I remained unsatisfied, he explained: "It would be very, very silly to drive the train while the signal is on red".

In a sense he had answered my question with perfect accuracy. But he hadn't engaged at all with the information I was seeking. Somebody had decided to keep the signal on red, and I wanted to know the information on which that decision was based. It was as though the trolley supervisor was so focused on how trains work that he failed to connect with why they exist at all, namely to get people like me to where we want to go.

So with the case for the Anglican Covenant. Neal's argument, like the Windsor Report, successive Primates' Meetings and commentaries on them, asks about the true nature of Anglicanism as though the protection of the Church as it always has been is the main issue. I have argued elsewhere (Liberal Faith in a Divided Church, O Books 2008, but see also that the Covenant proposals conflict with classic Anglican theology, but here I want to argue that supporting the Covenant on the basis of Anglican ecclesiology or canon law is to make the same mistake as that trolley supervisor. It loses touch with the fact that the rules governing how the Church operates are not self-justifying: they are supposed to serve the purposes why the Church exists at all.

This is not a new development. I think of it as primarily a nineteenth-century phenomenon, though one can rarely pinpoint the origins of ideas and attitudes. Central to Neal's argument, and also the arguments of the Windsor Report and the centralising 'establishment', is the claim that making an open homosexual a bishop contravenes Anglicanism's consensus that homosexuality is immoral. Without this claim, the case for an Anglican Covenant reduces to a minor bureaucratic tidying-up exercise. This is why the change in perception of the Church's purpose generates such an impasse. The medieval scholastics, the Reformers, the Counter-Reformers, the Enlightenment natural theologians and the nineteenth century liberal theologians all took it for granted that Christian ethical debate was debate about how God wanted humans to live. The Church's ethical teaching was designed to instruct not just a minority of churchgoers who attend the churches of particular denominations, but all people. In Christian countries it was a leading contributor to public debate on these matters. It was even the case in the early Church when Christianity was still a new minority faith.

An example would be the debate on slavery 200 years ago. There were Anglicans on both sides, including slave-owners and abolitionists. There is no doubt that the slave-owners had on their side not only the Church's consistent teaching but also the lion's share of biblical texts. Nevertheless the abolitionists eventually won the argument; biblical texts and the Church's teaching were outweighed by personal stories about what life was actually like for slaves.

Here we are again, this time with homosexuality. Again, biblical texts (though far fewer) ally themselves with Christian tradition against modern awareness that many people have homosexual orientations given to them from birth, and that repressing it ruins the lives of many of them. Again, the big question is the ethical one: how does God want us to live? Does God disapprove of homosexual activity or not? This is the question to which TEC and its allies are responding.

But here the comparison ends. The supporters of the Covenant, unlike the supporters of slavery, have a new card to play: the Church as a private, self-contained institution. The appeal to postmodern 'incommensurability' enables an alliance of Anglo-Catholic high ecclesiology with Puritan sectarianism, in which the ethical question for homosexuals in general fades into the background. What takes its place is an obsession with church procedures in the name of ecclesiastical purity. Primates in Uganda, the West Indies and elsewhere can see it as their responsibility to campaign against homosexuality in the name of Christianity; but not to campaign, in the name of that same Christianity, against those in their provinces who make a point of attacking, and sometimes even murdering, homosexuals. The Windsor Report does not discuss whether homosexuality is indeed immoral; it contents itself with the statement that Anglicanism has decreed it immoral (at the 1998 Lambeth Conference). The aim, in these stances, is to help Anglicanism stay as it is, not to help homosexuals understand how God expects them to live. Like the trolley operator, these stances are so focused on the internal procedures of the organisation that they are ignoring whether it is fulfilling its purpose in the wider world.

The bizarre results of this approach are illustrated later in the article. Neal writes:

There have been only four times in the history of the Anglican Communion when issues have threatened to disrupt or even destroy the unity of the Anglican Communion: (1) the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America and the first American Book of Common Prayer; (2) the Colenso Affair and the calling of the First Lambeth Conference; (3) the ordination to the priesthood of Florence Li Tim-Oi in the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao; and (4) the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.

What a list! The first is dubious; to suggest that the disagreements over the founding of the American church threatened a pre-existing international consensus is to presuppose that that consensus already existed; the idea of an 'Anglican Communion' did not develop until the nineteenth century. The second is the most revealing. Few Anglicans today would defend Colenso's critics; on the major issues, he was right. In retrospect the threats of schism - nowhere near as international, or as bitter, as today's - were foolish: it would have been far better to let the debate continue and let the scholars examine whether Moses had written the Pentateuch. The ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi is endlessly cited by supporters of the Covenant, but only to argue that the ordination took place after different international consultation procedures - again, we are redirected away from the substantive issue to questions of ecclesiastical procedure.

If these controversies generated threats of schism, it is worth asking why others did not. Here is my alternative list. (1) The slavery debate, already mentioned. (2) The 19th and early 20th century debates on contraception, where the 1938 Lambeth Conference contradicted its predecessors. (3) The Second World War, when pacifists knelt at the altar rail next to the war wounded and parents of dead soldiers. (4) The 1960s UK capital punishment debate. All clergy of the Church of England were required to sign assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles, one of which specifically approves of capital punishment. Nevertheless the Archbishop of Canterbury led the bishops in the House of Lords in voting for abolition.

One could hardly claim that Neal's list are more substantial issues than mine. Why, then, did his list generate threats of schism while mine did not? Whenever there is the possibility of schism, those who oppose change blame the supporters of change. However this is to presuppose that churches normally remain unchanged. In fact churches, like all organisations, keep changing. Located in a changing world, they need to. So when there is a threat of schism, we should not jump to the conclusion that the proponents of change are to blame.

On the contrary, Neal's list reveals the opposite: in the cases of Colenso, and the ordination of women, and homosexuality, the threats of schism have come from the opponents of change. In each of these cases, the proponents of change have perceived the role of the Church in its wider social context, as a contributor to public debate on the true nature of reality and ethical standards, and have therefore been willing to draw on information from the wider society and contribute to the wider society. To that end they have been prepared to change the Church's procedures and teachings when necessary. It was the opponents of change who, in each case, lost interest in the substantive wider questions, focused instead on protecting the institution against change, and therefore played those familiar identity games which run 'If you don't accept what this church teaches, you can't be one of us'. This has been most clearly the case with homosexuality: the threats first became public, and aggressive, not when Gene Robinson was elected, nor even when Jeffrey John's appointment to Reading was announced, but when Rowan Williams' appointment to Canterbury was announced. Williams was accused not of being a homosexual but of taking a liberal view of homosexuality: and that was trigger enough for the campaign to get nasty.

What Neal's list reveals, therefore, is that the threat of schism has become a tool, used by those determined to prevent selected changes. It expresses a theological division familiar since the Reformation. Many Protestants insisted that the true Church must accept the Bible as God's Word on all matters, but also believed that individual Christians who could read should be able to understand the Bible for themselves. This combination of doctrines produced that sectarian spirit which has generated schism upon schism within the Calvinist tradition, as every disagreement about the meaning of a biblical text threatened to split a congregation in two. Those who stand in that tradition think nothing of splitting, as they are used to it. Their anglo-catholic allies, desperate to avoid splits because of their ecclesiastical theories, submit. Nobody else thinks one gay bishop is cause for schism.

The Church of England has so far been spared this fate. From the start, as a geographically based church, it aimed to incorporate most of the people who lived in that geographical area, and therefore permitted doctrinal diversity. This was Elizabeth I's policy for political reasons, Richard Hooker's for theological reasons. Hooker established that classic Anglican system of a balance between Scripture, reason and tradition which is still recognised today as 'classic Anglican theology'. It is not so much a doctrine as a method of judging doctrine. This method enables Anglicanism to change without schism: unlike many denominations, it does not claim infallibility and is not top-heavy with obligatory outdated dogmas. Differences of opinion on ethical matters is normal: according to the classic Anglican method, the way to deal with them is to encourage open debate, using all available sources of information, until a consensus is reached.

The tragedy of the present situation is that classic Anglicanism has lost out to the more aggressive dogmatists of evangelicalism and anglo-catholicism. If the Anglican Communion was still committed to Anglican theology, we would have had the confidence to face the real issue: does God really disapprove of homosexual activity, and if so, why did God make gays like that? Instead our leaders are determined to avoid it. They prefer to theorise about the nature of the Church, establish new processes for preventing change, and turn a blind eye to the suffering caused to gays and lesbians.

We could do better than this. Like the opponents of slavery and capital punishment, we could acknowledge that sometimes God is leading us to new insights which are not in either the Bible or the Church's tradition. In the past it has been the Church's finest moments when it has had the courage to take these steps. The present debate could be one more.

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