Americanism and the Anglican Covenant

by Jonathan Clatworthy

This article is a response to the paper 'Anglican Covenant - Bishop's Council' by Peter Doll, Canon Librarian at Norwich Cathedral. At the Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestion it was circulated to all the bishops in the Church of England. To have been given the Archbishop's imprimatur is significant; presumably Dr Williams approves of its content, including the strong anti-American tone.

If there is one thing which holds together Doll's many criticisms it is the accusation of American exceptionalism:

Americans are strongly imbued with a sense of their own 'exceptionalism', and this is (if possible) even more true of their religious than of their political and social life.

The arguments are blended together to produce a rhetorical tour de force. In order to respond I have tried to distinguish the points and respond to each in turn, using direct quotations. This has meant rearranging their order. The headings are mine, though they aim to be faithful to Doll's case. I conclude that most of the arguments, if accepted, would present a better case against the Anglican Covenant. The two that would present a case for it are both well-established topics of debate, with strong opinions held on both sides.


There is more than an element of cultural imperialism in these American attitudes. Ironically, they resonate strongly with the gung-ho combination of domestic isolationism and foreign interventionism of American political life which so many American liberals deplore, and yet they don't seem to be able to see the parallels here.

As it stands this is a common criticism of American culture. However it loses its force when one remembers which American action is being condemned. The imperialist intervention, in this case, is the refusal to condemn same-sex partnerships. It is difficult to imagine anything less imperialistic, and less interventionist, than the refusal to condemn other people's lifestyles.

The American church is not prepared to accept further consultation or dialogue over this issue nor to wait for the rest of the church to catch up with its own understanding of the place of same-sex relationships in the life of the church. Whatever is acceptable and right in a particular American cultural context must be universally applicable to every other culture and context.

This complaint, though often made, misinterprets the nature of the Anglican Communion in two ways: firstly by describing it as a church when it is in fact a communion of churches, and secondly by presuming that what is decided in one part of this 'church' must also apply in the rest of it.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) made no attempt to make its actions 'universally applicable' or apply them to 'every other culture and context'. Its understanding of Anglicanism was (correctly) that other churches, like TEC, were free to make their own decisions. It has no intention to act in an imperialist manner towards other churches, but conversely it does not want to be itself the victim of imperialism by other churches.

Interpreting the American actions as a pan-Anglican change was a mistake by TEC's opponents, some of whom are uncomfortable with the prospect of a group of churches being in communion with each other while having different policies on some issues. If Doll wishes to resist imperialistic impositions, he should address his complaints not to TEC but to its opponents.


America is a self-referring cultural power; it does not occur to most Americans to consult others, politically or spiritually, to arrive at an understanding of truth and right.

Again this is a common criticism of American culture. It characterises empires at their height; a hundred years ago the British thought of themselves as the pinnacle of civilization, thereby convincing themselves that the brutalities their troops were inflicting on others would benefit the victims. In this instance, however, the boot is on the other foot. Given that the criticism of Americans is centred on their toleration of same-sex partnerships, any serious attempt to consult others must surely pay close attention to the experiences of gays and lesbians. It is the Americans who have done this, and it is their opponents who exclude the supporters of gays and lesbians from Anglican decision-making bodies.

The attitude of the Episcopal Church is very firmly, 'No one can tell us what to do.'

There is nothing unusual about this. In Britain it has characterised dissenters since the Reformation; indeed, as though to emphasise the point, they now prefer to describe themselves as the 'free churches'.

The other criticisms of American culture relate to Enlightenment principles.

Elections of bishops

Doll tells us that the compilers of the 1786 American Prayer Book were

deeply imbued with the contractual principles of the Enlightenment... Authority was understood to flow up from below, from the people, whereas the Church of England insisted that the episcopate was the source of authority.

The divine right of both kings and bishops did indeed retain a following in England throughout the eighteenth century. It is rare to hear the claim defended today, when England's system for appointing bishops is often criticised for its secretiveness and lack of accountability. Doll's disapproval of elections is unusual.


Doll tells us that the compilers of the 1786 Prayer Book claimed

that 'the doctrines of the Church of England are preserved entire'

but then

This proposed Prayer Book deleted the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds and omitted the descent into hell from the Apostles' Creed... Anything that the revisers did not deem 'rational' was chopped... In his analysis of the proposed Prayer Book, Seabury rightly perceived the influence of Deism (God as a distant clock-maker), Unitarianism (denial of the Trinity), and Arianism (denial of the divinity of Christ) at work.

This may partly reflect a difference between American and English culture, but it is far more about the difference between the eighteenth century and the present day. For the first thousand years Christians often debated issues like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. In 325 Constantine did bully the bishops into establishing the Nicene Creed, not because he cared whether it was true but because he wanted unity in the empire - a motive seemingly similar to Doll's. Only later did the idea develop that Christians were duty-bound to accept inherited beliefs. Once they did it became harder to ask open questions about God, and attempts to do so could lead to schism. This is why the Reformation debates were conducted with little research but a great many wars. The Enlightenment began as a response to those wars, seeking to establish truth through reason rather than appeals to competing religious authorities. Once again it became possible, at least for the laity, to debate Christology and the Trinity without fear of reprisals, in England as well as America. Unfortunately the tide turned again in the nineteenth century, producing a renewed sense that inherited doctrines ought to be accepted without question. The effect was to treat questioners and open-minded scholars with suspicion and keep them away from the levers of ecclesiastical power. Doll's dismissal of the 1786 Prayer Book compilers as Deists, Unitarians and Arians seems to indicate that he too thinks Christians should not question inherited doctrines. If so, it is easy to understand why he supports the Covenant.


The great American literary scholar Harold Bloom, a secular Jew, has argued that virtually all Americans, whatever their religious disposition or denominational label, are Gnostics. What does he mean by this? 1) That there is no higher religious authority than the private individual. 2) That every individual can reach religious truth by his or her own efforts. 3) External expressions of formal religion (churches, worship, creeds) are unnecessary, and potentially a harmful block to true spirituality. 4) Any attempt to tell me what to believe is a threat to religious freedom.

Doll seems unaware that all four of these points were central to Protestantism at the beginning of the Reformation. Protestants denied that God had given the Catholic Church authority to interpret the Bible. Instead, they replied, the Bible alone was the supreme authority. This raised the question of how to interpret it. Eventually different traditions produced different answers, but initially Protestants argued either that the Bible should not be intepreted at all or that the Holy Spirit would guide each individual in their reading of scripture. It is true that these answers proved unsatisfactory, and it is also true that many Americans - though not only Americans - claim loyalty to them today. However, when Doll appeals to the weaknesses in early Reformation theology he should take care whose side he is on. Today the different Protestant theories have polarised into two opposing camps, usually called 'conservatives' and 'liberals'. It is those who are opposed to same-sex partnerships who still defend the view that God's will can be ascertained by individuals reading the Bible, without needing support from other Christians. It is those who accept same-sex partnerships who appeal to new insights arising within Christian communities where believers share their understandings and consciences with each other.

Doll contrasts individualism with 'Communion theology', which

assumes that hearing the Scriptures proclaimed is a communal practice, that the teachings of tradition and reason need to be communally discerned. But the assumptions of a common mind, a common listening, a common discerning in patience and love over time seem to be incompatible with the assumptions of what I've characterised here as 'American Religion'.

Presumably Doll is distinguishing 'Communion theology' from an individualism which sees no point in church services, or at least does not see any value in their communal features. If I understand him correctly, I agree that communal hearing, reasoning and discerning are indeed characteristics of healthy churches. However they are practised among American Anglicans at least as well as they are in most of Christianity.

Most philosophers and social commentators believe healthy societies combine the roles of individual and community to produce diverse interactions. Most people do not want to live solitary lives, but neither do they want to live in a Fascist or Stalinist society where the only purpose of the individual is to serve the community. Healthy communities value individual self-expression and diversity, but also set limits to individual freedom. Conversely, individuals value being part of their society, but also set limits to what they are prepared to do for it. To the extent that the argument from 'Communion theology' bears on the Anglican Covenant, it seems to be opposing an extreme individualism which no human society could in practice endure.

Personal fulfilment

I don't think it takes much knowledge or experience of the Episcopal Church to see the power that this 'American Religion' has over its life. If 'personal experience' has absolute authority, if finding the 'real me' is the central quest of human existence, then the individual requires complete freedom of choice unconstrained by any authority outside the self. A church inculturated in such a setting will affirm the individual quest in all its forms. Inclusion becomes a fundamental value for the church, the unconditional affirmation of all personal experience of whatever race, creed, gender, or sexuality. The purpose of the church is to validate those who have found their true identity and have thus found God.

Doll associates individualism with the quest for personal fulfilment. Reformation individualism was a product of sixteenth century theology; if the terrifying prospect of eternal hell awaits those who choose the wrong religion, every individual must work out their own salvation. Enlightenment individualism emphasised the value of each person, thus producing the notions of individual rights and one-man-one-vote democracy. The pursuit of personal fulfilment in this life cannot, of course, develop in a culture more anxious about eternity; it can, and usually does, when those anxieties decline. If we ask whether the pursuit of personal fulfilment is a properly Christian activity, Christianity has contained both views from its outset.

Hope for a new age

The particular extreme reformed Protestantism that arrived with the early settlers has formed the theological habits of the continent, with a conviction that in the new world the original humanity, before-the-fall humanity could be recovered. This assumption has been further shaped and expanded by Americans' experience of the land: as settlers moved west, inescapably they were always encountering new sights, new opportunities, new peoples. If ever there were a land in which humanity thought it could re-invent itself, this was it.

There is something odd about a Christian canon attributing to Enlightenment Americans the 'conviction that in the new world the original humanity, before-the-fall humanity could be recovered.' For over a century countless New Testament scholars have argued that this was the teaching of Jesus. Whether they are right about Jesus is still debated; what is not debated, because the evidence is overwhelming, is that it was believed by many early Christians. After the debate between Augustine and Pelagius the idea died down, but it was revived in the early modern era.

It is not clear how this description of American culture relates to the Anglican Covenant. It appears that the connection in Doll's mind is that toleration of same-sex partnerships is an example of humanity re-inventing itself. If so it is another exaggeration of American actions. Toleration of same-sex partnerships is hardly new: in many cultures it is as old as history. Even if it were a complete novelty, it would still be nothing to do with humanity re-inventing itself. It is, rather, about accepting what humanity is like anyway. The proposal to tolerate same-sex partnerships invites us not to change our own sexual preferences but to acknowledge the diversity of sexualities that have existed since long before humanity evolved.

Truth, justice and communion

American church leaders have claimed that communion theology puts an unacceptable priority on unity over truth and justice.

One can only respond that if church unity places limits on the search for truth and justice, there is something wrong with our concept of church unity; indeed, if the survival of a church really depends on suppressing truth and justice, the sooner it closes down the better. Doll is again confusing unity with uniformity: the way to keep churches united without suppressing the search for truth and justice is to allow differences of opinion to be aired openly and respectfully without threats of expulsion or schism.

On same-sex relations, Doll writes,

The Episcopal Church has in practice refused to be bound by communion-wide restrictions. I would argue that if the principles of communion are right, if the Gospel calls us to be subject and accountable to one another, then we must be obedient and patient and trust in the rightness of the outcome under God and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It may mean that we won't have what we want when we want it.

This text illustrates Doll's rhetoric at its most inventive. The 'communion-wide restrictions' which TEC refuses to be bound by do not as yet exist: the Anglican Covenant would create them for the first time. To say that 'we must be obedient and patient and trust in the rightness of the outcome' means no more than 'we must accept the Anglican Covenant', and 'through the guidance of the Holy Spirit' means, of course, 'through the guidance of the Anglican Covenant'. This text is an excellent example of the rhetoric oppressors use to persuade the oppressed that they have a moral duty to accept their fate. When we notice that the repeated word 'we' in the last sentence really means 'gays and lesbians and their supporters', the argument loses its devotional aura; instead it is revealed as just a way of telling people to do as they are told.

Federation or integration

I see the Covenant as offering a choice between our declining into a federation of churches sharing a common heritage or drawing ever more closely together in Christ as a real communion of churches.

'Federation' would be a fair description of the Communion as it is now, and has been for a long time. Nevertheless Doll's view is common among Covenant supporters. I have two questions about it as a general preference. Firstly, why is 'drawing ever more closely together' a desirable aim at all? It is not self-evident: the question, after all, is only about how institutions relate to each other across long distances. It is hardly the stuff of the Sermon on the Mount; indeed, to English Anglicans of a certain age it seems only yesterday that we were encouraging black African dioceses to have black African bishops instead of white English ones, so that they would be truly independent. The persistent claim that we should now change direction looks suspiciously like a power struggle by ecclesiastical politicians.

Secondly, what would 'drawing ever more closely together' consist of? What would the objective be? Doll's text was written to promote the Anglican Covenant, and in the case of the Covenant we know the objective only too well: namely, uniformity of belief, with a focus on same-sex partnerships. Yet uniformity of belief has been a fault-line running through Protestant theology for five hundred years. Classic Anglicanism has traditionally resisted it. If 'drawing ever more closely together' is code for 'uniformity of belief', as it seems to be, then the 'crisis' in the Communion is more than a debate about same-sex partnerships: it is also a campaign by uniformitarians to take control of the whole Communion.

Meeting other churches and getting to understand them often has great value. It can help us learn how we could do things differently. It can help us appreciate the distinctive things about our own church, and offer advice to others. These processes, however, are at their best as simple sharings of experience and information, without any attempt to control others.

the body [of Christ] needs to speak in common to reflect its unity. This belief is reflected in the enunciation in the Covenant document of the venerable principle, 'what affects the communion of all should be decided by all'. It is an expression of what we mean by 'catholicity', that we orient our lives according to the unity of the whole Body...
Rather than living as citizens of Christ's kingdom here on earth, the advance guard of his reign of justice, mercy, and peace, we are living as creatures in a Darwinian jungle, 'red in tooth and claw', using every available legal and illegal, political and verbal means to slash and savage one another, and all for what end - the right to claim the label 'Anglican'?

Once again we are reminded of the Reformation debates. Throughout the sixteenth century Catholics argued, just like Doll today, that when people were given freedom to make their own judgements, the result was chaos. It was important therefore that there should be a single central authority. Like many Covenant supporters Doll cites the mantra 'what affects the communion of all should be decided by all' while meaning the exact opposite of what the words say. If decisions are to be 'decided by all' we would need to establish a system for democratic decision-making, and this would mean imposing democratic structures on provinces which do not currently have them. For Covenant supporters the 'all' in 'decided by all' actually means only the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council, about 115 people in total! The Covenant would indeed transform the power structures of Anglicanism, making it much more like Roman Catholicism. The remaining question is whether this is desirable. To Doll, clearly, it is.


Doll has presented many criticisms of American Anglicanism as arguments in favour of the Anglican Covenant. I have offered responses to each of them as I understand them.

The argument from hope for a new age seems to be a simple error, a lack of familiarity with New Testament scholarship. Two other arguments surprise us for appearing at all: the disapprovals, respectively, of elected bishops and the search for personal fulfilment. In these cases Doll settles for a minority view. Of the other arguments I have claimed that the majority, if accepted at all, turn out to be arguments against the Covenant. These are the arguments from imperialism, isolationism, individualism and truth, justice and communion.

This leaves two arguments which, if accepted, do present a case for the Covenant. These are the desire for greater integration at the expense of federation, and the opposition to rationalism. Greater integration can be established by two different means: uniformity of belief, or an agreed structure designed to protect diversity of belief within the one church. The Covenant would promote the former; Classic Anglican theology has in the past favoured the latter. Doll understands this only too well, and looks forward to the new authoritarianism. Others do not.

Similarly, the attack on rationalism illustrates a debate which has echoed through the centuries. Is there a proper place for individuals and communities today to question inherited religious beliefs and discover new insights? Or is it the duty of Christians to believe what they are told, accepting that divine revelation is supreme over the thoughts in the minds of mere humans? These two views have battled against each other since the later Middle Ages. The pendulum has swung back and forth, and Doll rightly sees that the Covenant would give it a decisive nudge away from human reason.

Again, some would welcome the change but others would not. Doll has, in the end, helped us to see just how high the stakes are.

Jonathan Clatworthy
26 January 2012
[email protected]

on behalf of Modern Church & No Anglican Covenant Coalition

The Peter Doll paper to which this article is a response can be found at PDF

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