Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series
By Matthew A. Gunter
It is often asserted that Anglicanism is not confessional in the same sense as are other churches of the Reformation. By extension, it is argued that anything like a covenant would be foreign to the Anglican spirit. While it is debatable whether the Articles of Religion are more or less like a confession, the more interesting question is why they have not had the same significance for the Church of England as confessions like the Augsburg (Lutheran) and Westminster (Presbyterian) have had for other traditions. I submit that this was because a principal rationale for confessions was provided elsewhere.
Confessions serve as symbols of belonging which give particular communities a shared identity. As such, they are sources of cohesion and delineate communal boundaries. Every community has such symbols of cohesion and boundary. The Church of England did not need a “robust” confession because it had another source of identity and loyalty, the crown (or more broadly, the incipient nation-state that was England). It is not so much that the C of E chose not to go the confessional/covenantal route as that it chose a different form of covenant — covenanting with the state. This Erastianism — the doctrine that the state is supreme over the church — is our tradition’s original and besetting sin.
The Church of England was unique among Reformation churches in being formed primarily as a national church. The primary motivational belief was the belief in national sovereignty over the church. This was the foundational covenant. When Elizabeth I made her famous statement about not making windows into men’s souls, she was simply declaring the crown’s part in this covenant. The state — and the monarch as the head of the church — would not concern itself with what you believed in your heart of hearts as long as you demonstrated your loyalty by outwardly participating in the common worship of the state church, thus fulfilling your part of the covenant.
Those who refused this covenant were fined and held suspect. Even when it was required, subscription to the Articles might have had more to do with this sign of loyalty to the crown/state than to the particulars contained therein. The C of E “tolerated” more religious eccentricity than some churches whose covenants were more confessional, but that diversity never included disloyalty to the crown. That would be breaking the covenant and thus a sort of heresy. The deposition of non-juror bishops in 1690 was about faithfulness to this covenant.
This covenant with the state and its established church has been the gravitational center around which the parties within the Church of England moved together. Establishment still makes the classic balance more or less possible in England. But, even there, it is losing its gravitational force as England becomes more and more secular and pluralistic.
Of course, after the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church was not an officially established church. But it was a key player in the unofficial, but de facto, Protestant establishment that was dominant in the United States up until the middle of the 20th century. That, along perhaps with a certain class affinity, provided common ground enough to more or less hold its various subgroups together. But both class affinity and de facto establishment have come undone as we have entered a more pluralistic, increasingly post-Christian, and socially fractured context. In such a situation, what is the center that holds the subtraditions (evangelical, high church/Catholic, broad church/liberal, etc.) of classic Anglican comprehensiveness in anything like balance? What exists to deliver us from our own version of Erastianism in which we are fundamentally an American church (and increasingly — and even more parochially — a liberal/progressive American church)?
Over the last century, Anglicans have become more aware of and embraced an identity as a transnational/transcultural communion. This is a welcome development that helps us bear witness to the kingdom of God in which nation, race and culture are no longer definitive. It helps guard us against the idolatry of nation or culture or ideology. It undoes the covenant with the state that has been the bane of our tradition. Such a witness will be harder, if not nearly impossible, to offer or receive if we cease to belong robustly to each other and dissolve into several “coalitions of the willing.”
A formal covenant might not be the only way to provide cohesion to a body as large and varied as the Anglican Communion. But, in a post-established, postcolonial, post-Christendom, postmodern era, if we are to have a Communion instead of a loose collection of national or culture-specific churches, we need to pay careful attention to how we assure that we are able to recognize each other as speaking the same language — albeit with different accents. An Anglican Communion Covenant is a plausible and faithful next move along the trajectory the Anglican Communion has been on as it has become more aware of itself.
The evolution of the Anglican Communion has provided a context for rethinking our Erastian heritage and what it means to be the Church. One way or another, in a post-Christendom, postcolonial context, our Anglican heritage will be reworked. A transnational Communion of mutual respect, accountability, and responsibility to one another across the boundaries of nation and culture is the trajectory of our evolution. It is a faithful trajectory for a church that confesses to believe the Church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I do not think that trajectory takes us toward a Roman Catholic model. It does challenge modern notions of nationalism and individualism.
The question, ultimately, is not whether we will have a covenant of some sort. The question is whether that covenant will be explicit or implicit and whether it will be global or more “provincial.” And will it be able to challenge our more parochial loyalties to nation, culture, and class?
The Rev. Matthew A. Gunter is rector of St. Barnabas Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.