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Anglican Covenant – English model

There is no central authority for the English language. There is no person, no body, no organisation, no committee that makes decisions for the world’s most successful language.

Other languages are controlled by a central body – mostly it is parliament.

Teachers of English language will argue with each other about commas and semi-colons, punctuation inside or outside single or double quotation marks, spelling, “which” or “that”, starting a sentence with “However”, the Oxford comma, the list goes on and on…

Other languages are perfectly clear on all these things. Those languages run like a single, big ship – everyone on board is going in exactly the same direction. The English language is more like a flotilla, with people sort of heading vaguely in a similar direction… Sometimes, in English, we are at the risk of some ambiguity and confusion. Others, from other languages, look at our way of doing things with some puzzlement.

There is a single, “central-authority” way of doing things. And there is a “dispersed-authority” way of doing things. In the “dispersed-authority” way of doing things, the English-language way of doing things, we decide locally about the Oxford comma, what to capitalise, and whether we can start sentence with “However”. This fleet-of-ships approach is able to adapt agilely to the local situation and context.

That “English” way of doing things is, not surprisingly, the Anglican way of doing things. Where we can hold together those who, for example, insist that marriage is for life and is an unbreakable sacrament and those who want to allow people to have another go and maybe another. And any other number of issues that spring to mind. And that haven’t yet sprung to mind.

This English style of being Christian, what we call the Anglican style of being Christian, doesn’t have a central authority. We realise that there will sometimes be ambiguity in what we do and there is the humility to acknowledge that in some decisions we might be wrong. It doesn’t have one way for all, but acknowledges context, and different situations, and the wisdom of people in their own particular situation.

Other blog posts on the “Anglican Covenant”

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Maori momentum growing against Anglican Covenant
Anglican Covenant meaningless
Maori vote against Covenant
Anglican Covenant

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24 thoughts on “Anglican Covenant – English model”

  1. Thank you for reminding me of this topic, which has slightly gone under the horizon in the UK at the moment. Not sure if we want or need any type of centralism, to much like Rome for my taste.

    It’s worked pretty well for a few hundred years, so the argument should be ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’.

    It all sounds so colonial to me. The mother church trying to direct what goes on in sister churches. And we all know what happens to empire builders.

  2. Nicely put Bosco, although I got a bit confused in the sixth paragraph.
    I wonder whether your ‘flotilla’ imagery could be applied to the approach to liturgy in our Province?:)

  3. An interesting analogy, Bosco! To pursue the metaphor, though, I wonder what happens when regional accents diverge into mutually unintelligible dialects — and eventually into utterly distinct languages.

    It seems to me that one of the things that affords some coherency to English as a global language is our reverence (or at least nominal reverence) for a corpus of classic texts that emerged when the language was relatively young and was attaining the full measure of its vigour.

    Shakespeare is the obvious example: English speakers the world over read and listen to Shakespeare, in part, to savour their language in the fulness of its potentialities of expression. I recall an episode of “The West Wing” in which the question arose of whether, to avoid “ethnic strife” and the loss of its national identity, the U.S. ought to declare English to be its official language. The sensible response of one of the characters was, “It is ludicrous to think that laws need to be created to protect the language of Shakespeare.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihZ_eYMgNF8)

    So I just wonder: does the Anglican Communion have its “Shakespeare” as a continuing touchstone to authenticate, unify, and inspire its ever developing chronological and geographical expressions? We *used* to have the Book of Common Prayer. But as you so often remark, Bosco, *common* prayer is nowadays often jettisoned in favour of the devices and desire of our own hearts.

    And here in Canada, at least, I get the feeling that most Anglicans (including not a few clergy) would make less headway delving into the traditional BCP than a thirteen-year-old Singaporean taking a first crack at The Merchant of Venice. We have become too biblically and euchologically illiterate to cope with it.

    The Anglican Covenant doesn’t solve that problem, of course. But there is nevertheless a problem to be confronted: when a people’s “English” has evolved to a point where Shakespeare is not merely difficult, but is seen as so difficult that no one wants to make the effort to learn it and pass it on as part of the native linguistic heritage, does that people really speak English at all?

    I’m unsettled by the sense that I’m emerging as a grumpy presence on your blog, Bosco! As the conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics make their exodus, people like me are waking up to discover that they’ve become, by default, the extreme, right-wing traditionalists of the Anglican Communion 🙂

    1. Firstly, Jesse, your voice is very welcome here. This is a place where we can safely discuss things. And even change our minds.

      I think your pressing of the analogy further is very thought-provoking. Sometimes, of course, analogies just won’t press too far – they will break.

      The BCP is not a single document – it is a series of books – not just stretching through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but onwards into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It also stretches back, through the Sarum and other missals into the liturgies of the earliest church and back further than that.

      The scriptures, also, IMO, alongside classic liturgical texts, and early church and later texts also can function as part of our “Shakespeare”.

      Within Canada, do you find the same sort of liturgical chaos that we find here in NZ? I do not foresee a return to common prayer in our province here in the near future – hence to try and work towards such a development internationally I think is well beyond us currently.


      1. I always appreciate your hospitality, Bosco 🙂

        Yes, it was the multiplicity of Bs CP that I was initially thinking of as “regional accents” of the same language. (Though I recall that already in his “Anglican Difficulties” lectures J. H. Newman attacked the American BCP as unacceptable for its omission of the Athanasian Creed! I read somewhere that this was actually for the convenience of the printer…) I wasn’t arguing for a global liturgy (though one of the Lambeth Conferences did argue for one in the last century); I was merely pointing out that one of our anchor points for the common intelligibility of the Communion is basically gone, and that even if the Anglican Covenant can’t supply that role something else will have to.

        Of course you’re quite right that the BCP/s has/have continuity with Sarum, etc., and aspired to catch something of the spirit of the “primitive church”; but we surely wouldn’t argue (as Cranmer lamely tried to do) that it was just the medieval liturgy done into English! It was new and distinctive (and hated by catholics and reformers alike). As for continuity into the future… well, here in Canada we have the Church of the Single OR: BCP or BAS (each of which has a few of its own “ORs”).

        The 1959/1962 BCP is virtually forgotten outside of 8am services on Sundays (and the odd monthly Evensong in Places Where They Sing), and even there its lectionary and collects (not to mention its rubrics) are routinely ignored in favour of RCL readings and BAS collects (and BAS ceremonial, for which there is precious little guidance). And I must confess that as a revision the 1959 book went just far enough to lay the foundations for its own eventual obsolescence.

        So our “common prayer” is really the BAS, and since it aspires to be an “alternative” to the BCP, there is precious little BCP in it (its “traditional language” Eucharist is an attempt to dress Gregory Dix’s Shape of the Liturgy — the explicit guiding principle of the whole book — in Cranmerian clothes, but the result is neither hot nor cold).

        Really, what the BAS aspires to is to have “common prayer” across ecumenical boundaries: that’s been the success story of the Revised Common Lectionary, and it’s what the various new Eucharistic Prayers at least try to do (why will no one use the lovely and genuinely ecumenical Anaphora of Basil, our Eucharistic Prayer #6?). There are optional litanies from Eastern sources, which sound fantastic when sung to Russian Orthodox recitation tones, and of course there’s a whole lot of “popular” (sic) material borrowed from the 1979 American BCP — not least the 1979 psalter, which even I will admit is successful in what it sets out to do.

        But to continue the Shakespeare analogy, it’s as if we took Hamlet and kept the soliloquies but changed their order, added some Hemingway and translations of Dostoevsky and Victor Hugo, and filled in the gaps with dialogue from the Oprah Winfrey Show and Coronation Street. For all I know, the whole product could be immensely entertaining and even edifying — and who knows, it might reach out to the person in the street who always found it hard to connect with Shakespeare, and even to persons who didn’t speak English as their first language. But we couldn’t really argue that this would be an example of “continuity”.

        But as I say, I’m not really talking about the BCP or Shakespeare. English is going to evolve and change until it’s no longer “English” (or until it’s “English” in the same way that Cantonese and Mandarin are both “Chinese”). Will Anglicanism also evolve until there is no longer such a thing as Anglicanism? That might be no bad thing. English-speakers will still be able to communicate if Shakespeare is forgotten, and the Christian life will still be led if Anglicanism is forgotten. And that’s why I didn’t include the scriptures in my list: for now, at least, they’re a given for *all* Christians (though even that may not last).

        But does there yet remain any distinctively “Anglican” shibboleth, something that will allow us to recognize ourselves in each other, even across ever widening doctrinal and disciplinary divides? Nothing in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral fills that role (it’s the bare minimum we would ask of *non-Anglicans* seeking re-union). Is Anglicanism’s only distinctive trait a capacity to transform endlessly into something else? Amnesia as identity?

        Part of my grumpiness comes from sharing classes at theological college with a crowd of Ukrainian Catholic seminarians. These guys are living and breathing their tradition, which for them is inexhaustibly rich. They can sing in perfect unison without looking at music, because there’s no “OR” when it comes to how a text should be intoned. When preaching, they move effortlessly between the scriptures, the Fathers, and more recent theology, always able to discern the “true voice” of their tradition.

        I look at that and think, “Dammit! Why can’t my tradition give me that? My congregation thinks it’s being traditionally Anglican when it sings Methodist hymns!” That’s a bitter pill to swallow — especially for a liturgical historian…

        1. I am not necessarily needing something to be distinctively “Anglican”, Jesse. I would like to think that part of Anglican “distinctiveness” is that there is nothing distinctive – without RC “additions” or protestant “subtractions”. Anglicanism “has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.” Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher.

          1. Or as Archbishop Runcie put it in 1989, “Our vocation as Anglicans is to put ourselves out of business.”

            Anglicanism doesn’t “need” to survive full stop. And I’m not sure that Archbishop Fisher’s Anglicanism ever existed in the first place!

            As Stephen Sykes points out, those who contend that Anglicanism has no doctrines of its own evidently don’t think that ecclesiology counts as a doctrine. I would tend to agree with him that what the Communion really needs — if it hopes to survive as a communion — is an honest attempt to work out a systematic ecclesiology. That would inevitably be something “distincively Anglican”.

          2. Help me, then, Jesse. What would be a distinctively Anglican ecclesiology? How would it/should it differ from, say, the Old Catholics, or Lutherans with bishops? Or even the Orthodox? If one cannot point to a distinctively Anglican ecclesiology then Stephen Sykes is not only wrong but offensive. Blessings.

          3. And let’s not offend the Moravians either, Bosco 🙂

            Bishop Sykes hardly needs me to defend him, and I’ve been so embarrassingly discursive already (and will be so again here, I’m afraid) that I won’t attempt even a brief summary. Paul Avis’s writings are to a great extent and expansion of Sykes’s ideas. The Anglican ecclesiology discerned by Avis, from Cranmner and Latimer onward, is a broad, baptismal ecclesiology that actually transcends mere episcopal governance, which unless I’m mistaken is the common thread in your list of denominations, Bosco.

            But here’s a passage from Avis that, to my mind, expresses the “both… and…” that I think we’re trying to reach for in this discussion:

            “The more we become aware of our common identity with Christians of other traditions, from whom we have been separated by political, geographical, linguistic and other cultural factors as much as by theological differences, the more we feel compelled to defend our hard won way of living the Christian life together. […] [A] vision of the ultimate fusion of cloned churches would spell the death of Christianity in the modern world which is strongly motivated by the quest for identity. An undifferentiated totality would be even more ideologically suspect than the present plurality of distinct communions with their patently defensive boundaries of identity. There must be another way of discovering our solidarity in Christ without sacrificing the identity constituted by our tradition, our time-tested way of being Christians together in a particular community.” (Anglicanism and the Christian Church, 302-3)

            Now of course Avis is talking about relationships between Anglicanism as a whole and other denominations. We’ve been discussing intra-Anglican relationships. On the face of it, he would appear to be a defender of ever greater particularity and local adaptation. And there’s no question that this is a “good thing” in and of itself (no one, I think, is going to suggest that New Zealand’s unique church polity, for example, is anything but a healthy and necessary local adaptation of the wider inheritance). But just as diversity within the universal church is a treasure in proportion as we come to embrace a common and holistic understanding of the Christian Gospel, so diversity within Anglicanism will have coherence as long as we remain rooted in the “vertical” (historic-global) tradition, as well as in its “horizontal” (contemporary-local) expressions. And if my two cents are worth anything, my perspective as a medievalist (like the Vatican, we think in centuries) is that at the end of a fifty-year period of explosive change we don’t yet have the critical distance to assess which, if any, of our innovations enjoy any continuity with the “vertical” tradition.

            To take an obvious example from liturgical history, the radical revision of the Roman breviary by Cardinal Quinones was commissioned and published by one pope (Paul III in 1535) and, after going through more than a hundred editions, was eventually suppressed by a later pope (Paul IV in 1558). Having been tried, and found hugely popular, it was nevertheless judged to be fundamentally foreign to the Roman tradition (though we Anglicans were happy enough to incorporate the Cardinal’s principles, and indeed his words, into our own nascent tradition).

            The current pope has done something similar with Summorum pontificum: until the “vertical” tradition can be re-asserted as the guiding principle within the Catholic Church’s modern liturgical reforms, the old liturgy must remain available as a living force of teaching, formation, and nourishment — not to mention as an instrument of unity in a communion bitterly divided on all sorts of issues.

            So I can’t help but feel that healing in the Anglican Communion will come, not only through a greater willingness to accept diversity in non-essentials (and I’m not just thinking of liturgy), but through a committed and honest ressourcement. And that would include engagement with the “vertical” dimension of the local traditions too: e.g. is our current way of being “Canadian Anglicans” in continuity with historic Canadian Anglicanism?

            C. S. Lewis put it very well in one of his Letters to an American Lady (p. 11):

            “I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are on the fringes.”

            We must, it seems to me, discover and embrace the “heart” of our divisions to find the even deeper ground of unity.

            How’s that for a manifesto? 🙂

          4. Let me first say, Jesse, do not be embarrassed about being discursive. Your thoughts, as I have already said, are very welcome here.

            While previously you were arguing that there is a distinctive Anglican ecclesiology, now you are arguing for my position for a lack of distinctiveness in claiming that there “is a broad, baptismal ecclesiology that actually transcends mere episcopal governance”.

            So, which is it to be?

            I am very much with, what is expressed in different words as, “in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are on the fringes.”

            I am not sure where you are sourcing that “no one, I think, is going to suggest that New Zealand’s unique church polity, for example, is anything but a healthy and necessary local adaptation of the wider inheritance”. This province’s “unique church polity” is certainly debated and debatable.


          5. What a pickle! I think we must be assuming different definitions of “distinctive”. You seem to be reacting as if (a) a “distinctive” ecclesiology would necessarily be offensive to other Christian; and (b) a “distinctive” ecclesiology could not be broad. As I am using the term , it refers to an ecclesiology constructed entirely with reference to historic and contemporary Anglican theology. A “homegrown” ecclesiology, true first to its own tradition. This is what Sykes and Avis attempt.

            Avis has recourse only to Anglican sources for his proposed ecclesiology, from the Reformation to the present day and from across the spectrum of Anglican theological thought. The result is a very interesting model that could be described as a hybrid of the “catholic branch theory” and a BEM-style baptismal ecclesiology.

            He bases this model in the first instance on the writings of the Reformers and the Caroline divines, who were unwilling to “unchurch” Continental reformed churches that had abandoned episcopacy, but were nevertheless persuaded that the episcopate was essential to their own “branch”. He bolsters his argument with reference to twentieth-century Anglican writers, like Michael Ramsey, who have been willing to see the Reformation as a positive inheritance. The Tractarians and later Anglo-Catholics are largely by-passed: Avis thinks they unhelpfully limited their ecclesiology to the sole question of apostolic succession and that they were too quick to dismiss Luther’s contributions as mere heresy.

            Ramsey famously rehabilitated Luther’s key ecclesiological doctrine of the Gospel as the church’s sole treasure. But where Ramsey saw the Gospel as necessarily generative of catholic ecclesiastical polity, Avis points out that the founders of Anglicanism were not nearly so committed to a single model:

            “The true treasure is not as bulky as the young Michael Ramsey would have had us believe: more the grain of mustard seed than the spreading oak of catholic Christendom.” (Anglicanism and the Christian Church, p. 308) The Gospel has in fact been generative of varied polities in different historical contexts. But our historical polity (as Anglicans) is integral to our particular living out the Gospel.

            The 1920 Lambeth Conference essentially put to bed any idea that denominations lacking the historic episcopate were not true churches. Rather, “the Anglican church’s adherence to episcopacy is in the interests of her own catholicity of order — and indispensable house-rule — but it does not imply any adverse judgement on the ministries of other communions” (p. 308).

            It is a common but “tragic mistake to assume that the Anglican theological tradition will only permit intercommunion on the basis of episcopal orders. Anglicanism could not compromise on episcopacy as a condition of structural union, because the bishop is the effective symbol of unity. But in its right mind it could never dismiss the sacraments of non-episcopal communions as no sacraments, their ministers as no ministers and their churches as no churches” (p. 309).

            One of the corollaries of this position for internal Anglican debate — if Avis has correctly identified Anglicanism’s native ecclesiology — is that a potentially “excommunicatory” issue “such as the ordination of women to the priesthood or the episcopate” should not be made “itself a condition of the church’s communion” (which is based on baptism and the Gospel, not on polity); but this has the reverse corollary that “it would be retrograde to legislate that only bishops willing to ordain women should be consecrated in the future” (p. 311).

            In other words, “the central churchmanship element should be seen, not as driving more peripheral and extreme catholics, evangelicals and liberals out into the cold, but as providing the essential ballast and stability to enable them to continue to flourish and make their contribution to the ongoing debates” (p. 310).

            That’s my attempt to summarize Avis’s position (I can make no claims to mastery of the subject), and my own feeling is that it will prove persuasive to the extent that it gains any broad circulation. What I would simply wish to stress is that it is “distinctively Anglican” in that it is grounded in Anglicanism’s native theological sources and historic ecumenical stances, and it turns out to contain resources directly applicable to today’s questions and controversies. If this ecclesiology also turns out to be the Lutheran one or the Old Catholic one or, to round out your initial list, the Orthodox one (how?), then that is a happy coincidence!

            Oh, and on the subject of New Zealand’s church polity, perhaps what I meant was that no one from outside the New Zealand church could question, with much credibility, New Zealand’s authority to make its own arrangements. Here in Canada we’ve been taking only the smallest of steps to address a somewhat comparable cultural situation (with the appointment of a First Nations “flying bishop” with pan-provincial care of aboriginal congregations).

          6. Thanks, Jesse. I use “distinctive” with the dictionary definition: “serving to distinguish it from others”.

            As to, “no one from outside the New Zealand church could question, with much credibility, New Zealand’s authority to make its own arrangements” – the ability to question a province’s authority to make its own arrangements is, in fact, the crux of the “Anglican Covenant”. I remind you that New Zealand’s church polity gave rise to the first-ever motion at a Primates’ Meeting when they voted against it.

            As to your reference to opinions of the Lambeth Conference in 1920 – Lambeth Conferences have been known to totally reverse previous Conference decisions, and not only are the opinions expressed there not binding on our province, but the Lambeth Conference is not even mentioned in our Constitution or Canons. Should the “Anglican Covenant” be accepted here, there will need to be the lengthy, complex formal processes to incorporate the “Instruments of Communion” and the “Standing Committee” into those texts.


          7. I find the Anglican ecclesiology outlined by Avis entirely distinctive in the sense of its being a “distinguishing characteristic”. But perhaps I am quite wrong, and other communions of episcopal polity have historically understood the universal church to be “visible” and sacramentally constituted in baptism (rather than “invisible” and/or “functionally” constituted) subsisting in historic branches whose separate developments in polity (not necessarily episcopal) are seen as legitimate outworkings in history of one and the same Gospel. Perhaps that would describe some of the episcopal Lutheran bodies?

            Yes, Anglicanism’s prerogative to change its mind does make grappling with the “vertical” tradition problematic. But that makes it all the more worth doing, especially when we’re being asked to try something very new (e.g. the Covenant). At the very least, Lambeth 1920 continued the official stance whereby “the Anglican churches have never made a negative declaration on the efficacy of non-episcopal ministries” (Avis, p. 308; my italics).

            It seems I shall have to keep my nose well out of New Zealand. 🙂

          8. I would have thought, Jesse, that your first paragraph could certainly be applied to the Old Catholic Communion.

            Since you and I use “distinctive” differently, I would wonder how we understand “efficacy” differently. Certainly by its actions (whether we agree with this or not) Anglican Churches declare that orders of non-episcopal churches are not that of priests/presbyters or bishops. But heading off into that discussion really will take us way beyond this thread.


          9. It’s a real balancing act, isn’t it! If I read him right, Avis’s starting point is to work out how it is that the foundational Anglican divines (Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, etc.) could say that when travelling on the Continent they would in good conscience receive the Eucharist at the hand of a Calvinist minister while at the same time insisting that such a minister would not, could not, and should not be able to exercise priestly ministry in the Church of England without first submitting to episcopal ordination.

            The Tractarians rather swept that apparent contradiction under the carpet, and subsequent Anglican ecumenical relationships have usually followed suit. Avis’s distinction between “intercommunion” and “structural union” is an interesting one.

            I must say, I find Avis’s view very exciting and liberating. If he’s wrong, I’d despair of finding an equally rigorous explanation for how we Anglicans have ended up as we are. If our ecclesiology can’t account for our historical manifestation, then we really must be the vaguely ridiculous chimaera that one finds portrayed in, for instance, Aidan Nichols’s The Panther and the Hind.

            And yes, let’s leave “efficacy” to another time… I’ll await that instructive pleasure.

          10. Jesse, if I was looking for foundational Anglican figures, I would go back many more centuries than Jewel et al. We are now moving away from the discussion of the “Anglican Covenant” into the validity of orders, a thread that usually ends up with more heat than light, and understandably so. I am not at all convinced, however, by your/Avis’s interpretation that receiving communion in a church is thereby recognising the validity of that Eucharist. Blessings.

        2. It seems to me that the things that “distinguish” some purported “Anglicanism” from other strands of Christendom must perforce assume that there is some stable “Anglicanism” — other than is found in its particular manifestations in each of the particular churches. We could, on this, replay the whole Realist and Nominalist debate! This is at the heart of the whole Covenant debate and the tension between unity and uniformity.

          That being said, I do think there are some shared “characteristics” of the various Anglican churches, which while not at all “unique” may still be understood as “distinctive.” I limned them out in a blog post some years ago, and I think it holds up fairly well — and also offers pointers to why the Covenant presents difficulties, as it goes against some of these “distinctive” (not unique) marks of identity.

    2. The English that was Shakespeare’s has changed because that is the nature of living things–just look at photos of yourself as a young person and now. Much as we may feel pain and loss at these marks of living, they cannot be avoided. Language is no different. Shakespearean English was a younger, more robust, more complex instrument, designed for imagery and nuance as much as for efficiency. Different times, different needs. It’s one thing to be a grumpy presence remembering a lovely thing gone; it’s another to think time can flow backward.

  4. Thanks, Bosco. Let me also add that Shakespeare knew and reveled in the richness of regional dialects and made use of them in his plays. That, and the fact that it is the ambiguity of English that allows for such rich a mine for puns and wordplay.

    As to “things that hold us together” I would also suggest the Creeds and the Lambeth Quadrilateral as touchstones.

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