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Anglican Covenant – strength of weak ties

Bible Alone

It continues to intrigue me that those who hold to a Bible-Alone, sola scriptura position regularly continue to clamour in favour of the proposed Anglican Covenant. This more protestant, “reformed” end of the Anglican spectrum on the one hand claims the Bible Alone is totally sufficient for all our Christian needs, that the Bible is totally self-explanatory, and that the Bible does not need to be supplemented by any other documents. Yet on the other hand: these same people feel that Anglicanism cannot survive without the Anglican Covenant. Ie. the Bible alone is not sufficient. Make up your mind people: is the Bible alone sufficient or isn’t it?!

Completing the Reformation

Some pro-Anglican-Covenant people speak about the need to “complete the Reformation”. Certainly, many at the Reformation created confessional denominations increasingly dividing over disagreements over interpretations of their lists of beliefs. The Anglican Covenant will either include everyone currently Anglican (and so will alter nothing, have only delayed discussion about the real issue, and wasted jet-engine fuel). Or it will complete the Reformation’s tendency towards ever-increasing fragmentation by splintering the frail bonds that bind Anglicans together.

The Anglican Communion and the strength of weak ties

Without using theological-babble (or “Rowanspeak”) it is very hard to ascertain what those who are pro-the Covenant concretely want and expect from a “Communion”. Certainly we would hope a communicant anywhere is a communicant everywhere in the Communion. Even that principle has been stretched to breaking with some provinces communicating all the baptised, some needing a rite of “admission to communion” at an age of “understanding”, and some needing episcopal confirmation before receiving communion. I am sure that toddlers from the first option may have difficulty receiving communion in provinces with the last option. Another principle is the mutual recognition of ordination, so that clergy in one province can function as clergy in another province. That principle has long been broken with women clergy, and male clergy ordained by women bishops, from one province unable to function as clergy in other provinces. Attitudes to divorce and remarriage vary from province to province, affecting communicant status and acceptability of remarried clergy. All this will not change one iota should the Anglican Covenant be accepted.

Sociologist Mark Granovetter, in the highly influential 1973 paper on social networking “The Strength of Weak Ties”, argues our close friends will be quite similar to us. Acquaintances differ more from us and will have their own networks of close friends. We have strong ties to our friends, and weak ties to acquaintances. Granovetter argues persuasively for the value of having both strong and weak ties – they have different functions, enhancing both our flourishing and theirs.

Strong ties (friends) are like an Anglican province. Weak ties (acquaintances) are like our inter-provincial ties across the Anglican Communion. Many who are pro-Covenant appear unable to articulate a difference between a diocese, a province, and a communion – these appear to be seeking that the communion function essentially in the way that most of us understand a diocese to function (or possibly a province).

A previous post: the Anglican Covenant will not do what it is meant to do

A helpful site for deeper reflection is the World Anglicanism Forum run by Bruce Kaye, an Anglican theologian, Foundation editor of the Journal of Anglican Studies. Currently a Visiting Research Fellow in History at the University of New South Wales and a Professorial Associate in Theology at Charles Sturt University.

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19 thoughts on “Anglican Covenant – strength of weak ties”

  1. Sola Scriptura sounds like a pile of artificial gibberish to me. What’s the point in making an assertion about a body of text when you don’t even have said “Scriptura” in the first place thanks to translation and copying errors? Having just read yet more Bart Ehrman, the memorable statistic is that there are more differences in translation of the NT than there are words in the NT itself, affecting not just small things but the nature of the Trinity (the Johannine Comma) and Jesus’ character (feeling anger or compassion on meeting a leper).

    I find it deeply interesting how people, in a historical-factual way, wrote a book of metaphorical-chronological subject-matter; it is deeply sad that people have taken that text, got strange unrealistic ideas in their heads about its origins and nature, leading directly to bibliolatry.

  2. Jonathan Streeter

    Love what Tim wrote.

    I’m leading a course in my parish called Via Media (“the middle way”) which is based on the idea that our core Anglican belief system embraces a diversity of approaches that strengthen our communal experience. I don’t need to be in lock step with every parishioner in my church in order to participate in a faith-centered community that brings me closer to God. And I don’t need to be in a parish, diocese or communion where everyone is required to think exactly alike either. Love and respect the bible all you want, but personally I do not believe it serves as an instruction manual. While understanding the human need for structure and guidance, I’m convinced that God’s plan cannot be summed up in a book or a creed or a faith covenant.

    What’s weird to me is that I know in my heart that God’s love extends to the biblical fundamentalists and that they are worthy of my respect….yet those people don’t seem to be in any way willing to return the favor.


  3. I like bible, plus tradition, plus teachings of great minds. Jews have the bible, Mishna, Gemmorah, etc etc. Didn’t Jesus say he had much more to tell us. Hello St. Augustine, C.S Lewis, St. Theresa of Avila etc etc etc. Edith Stein. God speaks through many people. Will have to post my blog on Heysham, England where the stones speak if you listen.

    1. Frugal Dougal, you are using the present continuous tense – so you are on the way. When you use the present simple – you have arrived 🙂 Thomas Merton called Anglicanism, “catholicism for adults” 🙂

  4. Cannot quite get onto your wavelength here, Bosco! My reading of the “Bible alone” Anglicans around the world is that few if any are clamouring for the Covenant; and none that I can see think the Covenant will be the means to “complete the Reformation”. What you say here might pertain to aspects of GAFCON, but even GAFCON has been roundly critiqued recently by the Church Society (I won’t claim that CS is “Bible alone” as such, but they could be close to it). That critique seems to boil down to this: “too many Anglo-Catholics here, move on”!

    What do Anglicans in favour of the Covenant concretely want from a Communion? Well one view, my view, includes the following: a Communion which is marked more by what it holds in common that what it does not; a Communion empowered to address error in its midst (I am tired of the Spongs of this world being treated with ecclesiastical kid gloves; dioceses entertaining thoughts of lay presidency without clear response that that is ‘not Anglican’; admission of the non-baptised to Communion (a option curiously overlooked in your post above as a tolerated divergency in Anglicanism today)); a Communion which draws Anglicans together rather than presiding over their dispersal from mother churches: recognition of ministries of ACNA deacons, priests and deacons – that would be a difference the Covenant might make; a Communion which is a Communion rather than the fractured body you rightly highlight.

    Of course the Covenant might make no difference to all of that. But then no Covenant will certainly make no difference!

  5. Thanks Peter for your points. I think you are right – there appears to have been a shift recently with those who are at the sola-scriptura area of the Anglican spectrum realising issues with the latest version of Section 4 and hence withdrawing their enthusiasm for the covenant.

    We have within our provinces strong processes to deal with perceived “errors”. Any inter-provincial agreement will always be weaker than intra-provincial agreements. Expecting inter-provincial agreement to do what you are finding intra-provincial agreements are not is IMO flawed. A healthy, mature way to engage “error” is through improved study, training, and formation. It is not as fast as “from far away” discipline – but in the long run I believe it will be more effective. If you struggle with something Spong says, for example, it may be more fruitful to show where he is mistaken than to have him silenced Inquisition-style.

    There is no hidden-agenda in omitting the practice in some places of communicating the unbaptised. Posts are written, as you well know, more as a “thought for the day” rather than as a “doctoral thesis” – there are even typos in your comment 🙂 I have written about communicating the unbaptised previously.

    Yes, having no covenant will leave us with the devil we know. My fear is that having a covenant may lead to a devil many haven’t even visualised.

    I have no real idea what you are trying to suggest with: “recognition of ministries of ACNA deacons, priests and deacons”

  6. (Briefly) (1) Why should me and my Anglican church continue to belong to a Communion which includes churches which will not (e.g.) discipline Spong? Do we suffer these continuing travesties of being Anglican in silence, or move to do something about it according to an agreed procedure? I see the Covenant as helping member churches of the Communion to address concerns rather than avoid addressing them. (2) Just about everything I read from a TEC member about ACNA deacons, priests, and bishops (whoops, have just realised I wrote ‘deacons’ twice in the original comment) is that they are not Anglicans and therefore their respective ministries are not recognised Anglican ministries (this being intermixed with some confusions about whether said ministers if they once belonged to TEC have been deposed or not. Yet throughout the Anglican Communion there are many Anglicans sympathetic to the aspirations of these clergy and their congregations to be formally, officially recognised as Anglicans who belong to the Communion. The Covenant offers a means – a better means than currently exists – for ACNA to be formally recognised as an Anglican church within the Anglican Communion. Thus the ministries of ACNA deacons, priests, and bishops would be recognised.

    1. It’s my turn to struggle to get onto your wavelength, Peter. By “my Anglican church” I guess you mean the province? Please correct me, Peter, but I am not even aware of a General Synod motion of your Anglican Church pertaining to Spong. If your province is agreed it has issues with Spong, the first step surely is to formulate that into an agreed General Synod statement and communicated to him and then to TEC. That IMO is healthy, mature, and a biblical process. Don’t expect some “out there” covenant to deal with the issues “for us”. I do not see anything within the proposed covenant that will work to “fix that sort of stuff” – but if there is, I think having a sort of Anglican version of the Spanish Inquisition would increase rather than decrease opposition to the covenant.

      You are confused about the Covenant in any way relating to welcoming ACNA into the Anglican Communion. The process is crystal clear – the covenant will only be offered to existing provinces of the Anglican Communion to sign. There is a protocol for becoming a member of the Anglican Communion. ACNA can follow that protocol and if it becomes a member of the Communion and there is a covenant, then they will be offered the opportunity to sign up to it. The covenant does not offer a means “for ACNA to be formally recognised as an Anglican church within the Anglican Communion” whatsoever.

      As to “recognition of ministries of ACNA bishops [now clarified], priests and deacons” you appear confused again. I have not read any reasonable theological material that doubts the validity of their orders. If an ACNA bishop was elected to be a bishop of a diocese in our province, I do not believe they would need to be ordained bishop. If an ACNA priest was invited to be, say, a vicar in one of our dioceses, I do not believe they would need any further ordination.

  7. I think perhaps the view you hold of sola scriptura is not the same as those whom you criticise; they do not usually advocate the position of discarding everything in favour of the Bible, more usually and historically the position is to ensure that doctrine is founded in scripture. This does not in any way diminish the role of doctrine, creeds or confessions but rather strengthens them by asserting their authority results only from the scripture upon which they are founded.

    Regarding the completion of the reformation; it is indeed true that it is unfinished, and this was the historical position of both Church and Parliament. From this admission came the Westminster Assembly, and from thence the Westminster Confession of Faith. If we take that Confession as the basis of the Anglican Covenant, albeit reviewed to ensure that the historical theology remains well founded, then it is my belief that the result will be both throughly Anglican (as is the WCF) and reformed (as too is the WCF).

    At the heart of the communion I believe is not the physical manifestation in eligibility to approach the table, but rather the spiritual manifestation of a shared agreement on what the Gospel is and what it means to us, particularly in terms of our salvation.

    Many of the problems today in the Anglican Communion result from a failure of many parties to acknowledge the authority of scripture; and rather to determine they are able to disregard sections which they feel do not fit the current cultural conditions. If there is only one point in the Covenant, let it be an acknowledgement of the absolute infallible supremacy of scripture over tradition, church, pope, culture, law, non-inspired writings and politics.

  8. Thanks Vincent for your points. Might it not be fair to say that those who call themselves “sola scriptura” are of a mind that within the scriptures alone you can find all the teachings one needs and that the scriptures on these teachings are clear and self-evident? Yet, as you point out, there has not just been overlaying scriptures currently with a suggested covenant, but also historically. It seems such overlaying is required as those who hold to this position disagree with each other about what scripture actually teaches about such things as women in ministry, divorce, baptism, usury, slavery, ordination, etc. Hence, there is a manifest lack of communion between those who hold to sola scriptura.

    I am fascinated by your point that the Westminster Confession is “the basis of the Anglican Covenant”.

    In terms of the place of scripture within Anglicanism, I see nothing in the current draft covenant that in any way alters the authority of scripture as understood in the formularies of the constituent provinces of the Anglican Communion. Is there any province’s formularies/constitutions/canons that do not acknowledge the place of the scriptures?

  9. All those defenders of ‘sola scriptura’ are happy to read say Barth, ‘The Centrality of the Cross’ and so on. Their point, which seems to me valid, is that replacing the Bible with modern American liberalism, leads rather quickly to the dismissal of inconvenient parts of, for instance, St Paul’s Letters. The liberals also challenge John’s Gospel for its apparent anti-Semitism. As one who prefers ‘Scripture’ over say liberal dogmatism or cocktail party cute homilies, I admit that I do not read the Bible as a historical or geological text book but I do read it in the sense of the Holy Spirit talking to me. Today the skepticism of the modern intellectual has done immense damage to our society in its persistent destruction of belief in Jesus Christ, demoting Him to the status of ‘a good man’. So there is nothing wrong with divorce, abortion, free homosexual or heterosexual sex etc. If you ever tutor backward kids, it is surprising how many come from divorced couples, or if you prepare taxes for the poor, how many unmarried young girls have babies. At least Rowan is attempting to state Anglican Theology in language that recognizes the existence of people like Wittgenstein or Cupitt. At least he recognizes the Jesus died and rose again for our salvation, and this means each day we examine our conscience in humility, rather than trying to persuade our politicians to take money from someone else richer than us and give it to someone poorer than us. It seems to me that Jesus’ lesson is about us, what we do. People who do this come from both the Spong like Episcopalian church as well as the conservatives. Let us honor them!

  10. Michael: please be careful what crimes you lay at the door of liberalism. The potential wrong-ness of divorce, abortion and so on are not inherent in those acts from an externally-imposed Morality, as conservatives seem to believe, but rather in their potential to cause hurt. For example, I[0]’d say that a same-sex relationship *can* be fine or it *can* be abusive – but so can a heterosexual relationship be fine or abusive too.

    I’d also correct what you say about “dismissing St Paul’s letters”. Two things: one, you should be careful that what you quote as Paul actually goes back to him at all (so 2Thess, the Timothies, Titus, obviously Hebrews, and others with varying degrees of certainty, are all by other writers). Better minds than mine have analysed NT texts, come up with writing-styles, historical analysis of the times in which scripture was written, and other reasons, whereby it is thought that these books are not Paul’s writing at all.

    Second, there’s nothing wrong with taking an attitude that appears “dismissive”; arguably this happens all the time. The point is, in calling oneself Christian, one is choosing to adopt a tradition, saying the great biblical stories (themes of Exodus/Exile, Temple worship, etc) are in some essence “our story”, putting oneself in the frame, extracting Truth from the stories for us today, as it were. The ways in which that story is adopted vary on an individual basis.
    The fact is, culture is an ongoing evolving animal, bigger than the one Jewish culture that produced what-we-call-Scripture. You can insert well-rehearsed arguments such as “I hope you’re not wearing a shirt of mixed fibres, then!” here, because that one demonstrates that Christians happily dismiss some parts of OT law to taste already. Modern society quite correctly points the finger at discrimination, be it anti-semitism, slavery, racism or homophobia; it is the bounden duty of the Bible-reader to read the text, with critical faculties enabled, in as *charitable* a fashion as they can in the light of their current society[1]. That is why one steps back from literal/verbatim readings, let alone from treating a so-called “plain-text” reading as somehow instructive for life today.
    I believe today’s modern skepticism (by which I prefer to read rigorous historical analysis/criticism) is valid, valuable and not yet practised enough to move on from it already. We must deal in realism, not in peddling stories of unrealistic magic, which means knowing what this bible thing *is* first before opening the cover. At the risk of getting back on-topic, that means Sola Scriptura is a preconception or assumption/assertion.

    What I will agree with you wholeheartedly about, of course, is the idea that “Jesus’ lesson is about us, what we do”. It has always been the case that “true religion…is caring for widows” (understood widely as those less privileged than us), and therefore eminently practical.

    [0] I’m some kind of semi-post-liberal/Progressive type chap, in case that’s not obvious!

    [1] Karen Armstrong has a relevant book or two here, explaining how, historically around the time of Jesus, rabbis and other Jewish leaders would find Torah study *delightful*, playing around with the wording to see what it meant by how they could bend the meaning. (The process of peer-acceptance of new understandings was known as “binding and loosing”; let *that* cast a different light on Matt.16:19!).

    1. Might I just insert into the Michael/Tim dialogue that I clearly have no issue with a scholarly approach that looks at the process of authorship of certain texts in the Bible; that, interesting as it is, does not IMO alter the status of those texts within the scriptures. It may, of course, help in their better interpretation. As to any “challenge John’s Gospel for its apparent anti-Semitism” – there has been another thread recently on this site on translation. IMO John’s Gospel can read significantly differently if Ἰουδαῖοι is translated as “Judeans” (the geographic region distinct from Jesus and his disciples Galilean origin) than as it regularly is: “Jews”. Now back to the thread 🙂

  11. One Gestalt I have of the preaching and ministry of Jesus from the synoptic Gospels esp. is that minding anyone else’s spiritual business is dangerous territory, and is the hallmark of being off-track, of missing the mark, of sin. It is an easy, self-satisfying, self-righteous, sanctimonious, smug approach that manifests over and over and over in salvation history, and now. May we be saved from this wild, self-willed sin again and again as need be by the loving Grace of God.

    Much, much more difficult instead to act in love, to do justice and to walk in honesty and humility. To be moved to critique from this orientation is likely genuine prophetic charism. To be moved to critique from the former position is likely Phariseeism.

    If we were to set about working to make the Kingdom of God arise in our midst our full-time job, as I think we were explicitly told to do by our Savior, then we’d have no time or energy to worry about anyone’s orthodoxy or heresy. Communion then would take care of itself; it would be lived.

  12. ‘Sola Scriptura’ is another way of saying ‘my interpretation alone, who cares what the Church has, is or will say on the matter.’ Of course, it didn’t mean that during the debates of the Reformation, but it certainly does these days.

  13. I’m worried about “my interpretation alone” decisions on important questions, including those disguised as Church-wide when they come from a powerful central think-tank for “Tsar”. Anglicans don’t have Tsars. But I also think people supporting the Covenant often do so with good intentions, and there is a problem behind all this to solve – and if the Anglican Covenant isn’t it (and it does seem a tad messed-up), then what is better?

    Is there any alternative to the Anglican Covenant on the horizon? The question of whether the local churches support or not isn’t the end to the matter, there is still a problem there… and I’m not sure if it’s definition is exactly agreed upon, but it might be something people really don’t want to put into clear wording because it might sound too much like “we’d like to decide who is in, and who is out (of The Kingdom)”. At one level that is a valid worry; I wouldn’t like to be associated with a group that claims to be a Christian church yet is (say) really a front for white supremacists. But ignoring the “judge not” part of the Bible is a slippery slope. Even trying to “help” groups of fellow Christians by pointing out where they are wrong is difficult with wood in one’s eyes. But simply giving up on the problem because it is too hard doesn’t sound healthy either, and seeing the problems with the covenant without trying hard to find a replacement could end up being a form of giving up on a problem that is a source of pain for some people.

    Personally, I’d like an approach that puts a lot of emphasis on Scripture and Prayer, but little on meetings that are blown about by storms of anger and excessive zeal for whatever is doctrine-of-the-month. The big question comes when people cannot agree… I wouldn’t like to see a powerful bureaucratic clobbering machine, but a system that ensures the best efforts – experts, lots of prayer, etc – are put onto the question until it is agreed that a real understanding of God’s intentions has been reached (by some sensibly defined standards).

    1. Thanks, Mark. I think what you write very helpful. I guess under the Christian religion there are several ways of attempting to hold communities together. The Roman Catholic way is clear and functions. The Eastern Orthodox way is another way – possibly a bit more difficult to delineate. The Protestant way of confessional lists is a way – but manifestly a failure for keeping communities together. Recently there’s been quite a bit of “Worldwide Church of God” energy around – the old Plain Truth group. Apparently that has split into about 900 different sects. And that’s just one collection of differing confessions! There is another way, allowing a breadth of understanding of the jewel of God’s revelation and being united around shared spiritual practice. I think it is attractive and workable.

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