By Christopher Wells
Most of the time Covenant is not focused on technical matters of ecclesiology. Thank God, our business is not production of an academic journal. Sacred doctrine speaks of all things. Some of our contributors are lay persons who avoid councils at all costs, or priests immersed in parishes. Some of us are ecumenical fellow travelers. All of us, however, by writing for Covenant, profess the priority of full visible unity among Christians and hope that Anglicans may contribute along covenantal lines. Strategically, missiologically, this weblog’s work amounts to ecclesial gardening. We cultivate Anglican Faith and Order, in service of the whole. In the vision of The Windsor Report — recognizing that “Communion is, in fact, the fundamental limit to autonomy” (WR §82) — we wish to be catholics.
Should the Lord tarry, how might the history of this era of the Anglican Communion be written 100 years hence? God knows. But how we treat one another matters. How and when we show up matters. This goes to the seriousness of the work at hand, and our continuing call to it, should we feel able and willing.
I recall like it was yesterday (and then again, a long time ago) sitting with Hannah Matis one wintry weeknight in the undercroft of St. Paul’s, Mishawaka — our graduate student parish, a few short miles from the University of Notre Dame. A group of 25 had gathered to discuss the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism. Father David Ottsen asked me to report on a recent trip to Rome, during which Matthew Olver and I traipsed around the eternal city with Archbishop Rowan and Pope Benedict, praying with friends from all over the world, as one does in Rome. We sat down there on that evening for several hours drinking bad coffee and imagining what it could be like for Anglicans everywhere not only to carry on together with joy but also to grow in confidence and Christian articulation for the sake of the world. This blog was just a few months old, and concrete ecclesial service beyond Northern Indiana was only a glimmer in our eyes.
I rejoice to be able to continue pushing along the project — in new guises, within old institutions, alongside more colleagues, with others yet to be met and drawn into the labor. For this reason, I remain proud to write for, and to publish, Covenant.
Very much in the spirit of Wes Hill’s piece yesterday, we have shared here from the start a commitment to offering persistent, traditional witness concerning questions of ecclesiology without unchurching our fellow Episcopalians. The rationale of unity held a primary interest, with a view to the maturation and healing of the Anglican Communion, and this converged with a wider call to full, visible unity among all Christians, a longstanding Anglican commitment, articulated in some fashion at every Lambeth Conference since 1888. Starting at home, we have sought to urge a patient accompanying of one another across difference and division in order to inculcate real virtue and to grow in holiness.
Most of our group held — and holds — to the traditional or conservative view of marriage, but our self-description was written, as Bishop Bauerschmidt notes, to emphasize an ecclesiological point of discernment: a commitment to process and good order in decision-making among Anglicans. What was, in 2007, the right flank of Episcopalians headed for the doors and the founding of the ACNA roundly censured Covenant for its breadth in this regard. We were viewed as watered-down and compromised for including among our number several principled defenders of same-sex blessings who nonetheless held the Communion in high enough regard to support Windsor’s moratoria. Rowan Williams modeled this approach as Archbishop of Canterbury. Known to have been a so-called affirming Catholic, as archbishop he carried the water of common discernment, distinguishing his views as a theologian from those of the Communion he was charged with serving.
Windsor itself did not take up particular questions of sexuality because, it reported, the Communion has a “consensus” on point, namely, the touchstone of Lambeth Conference 1998 I.10, which would take a lot to overturn. Vindicating Windsor’s judgment on this score, nearly every meeting of the instruments of Communion after 2004, down to the present day — successive communiqués of Primates’ Meetings, statements by Archbishops Williams and Welby, Anglican Consultative Council resolutions, and the Lambeth Conference 2008 — said the same. The Anglican Covenant text, for its part, appeared as an arbitrator of order in real-ecclesial time. Prescinding from any concrete questions at issue, the Covenant pushed along the project of Anglican discernment and decision-making in a key of hope for the future, should we wish to stick together.
This goes to the “How long, O Lord?” question of The Windsor Report’s three moratoria. The very idea of a moratorium suggests it’s for a season, not forever. The answer is that the Covenant process itself must be seen through, which will issue in resolution. This, again, was Windsor’s point. The crisis at hand was, in a sense, no one’s fault, though Windsor did urge the Episcopal Church to apologize. The Communion lacked developed structures for decision-making, something the Windsor Continuation Group would subsequently dub the “ecclesial deficit” of Anglicanism.
Ecumenical types had been talking about this since the early 1970s. All of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s work may be read as a sifting of the problem of authority, the one topic ARCIC has returned to three times, in a bid to move the ball down the field. In general, ARCIC has urged both Anglicans and Roman Catholics not to be afraid of decision-making. On our side, the issue is deciding anything at all. For the RCs, it is a question of parceling out authority in a more dispersed manner.
Pope Francis’s synodical project makes perfect sense in this context; but the Anglican call, similarly, is to synod, if we could ever get there. When Archbishop Rowan wrote his important 2006 pastoral letter “Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today,” in which he put his thumb on the scale for a Covenant, he pointed out that we lack structures capable of handling difficult questions as they arise. Of course, the Anglican Communion would need to want to answer these questions and commit to a way forward. The jury remains out on that, which means deliberations are still underway.
For this reason, we here at Covenant remain committed to the Anglican Covenant and the principles of The Windsor Report precisely on the way to needed ecclesiological developments. The moratoria are neither an end nor a static teaching. They should be understood as active, propelling us forward in the work that Windsor sketched, and the Covenant initiated. The call was, and is, to commit to abiding by a common faith and order (described in sections 1-3 of the Covenant), including patient discernment and adjudication as questions arise and decisions need to be made (a process for which was proposed in section 4).
We do not have all the time in the world for this work, but the time we have is God’s gift to us, and it is enough. I think of this in terms of the parable of the barren fig tree. Our Master says to us, in effect: “For 17 years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree (and before that I gave you The Virginia Report and the 1920 Lambeth Conference), and still, I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” But we say: “Let it alone for one more year, until we dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (see Luke 13:7-9). The moratoria serve as one of our spades for tending to the tree’s health, digging around in hope that it may again flourish. Just as the time is the Lord’s, so is the work. We serve at his pleasure and strive to be faithful — always “for another year,” year by year, even as we anticipate his imminent return. We prepare by tending to his body in the hope of salvation, counting on his mercy within the time allotted.
Predictions and timelines remain speculative and belong to another conversation. But as a placeholder, I hope that next summer’s Lambeth Conference will reaffirm the touchstone of 1998 I.10 and give a steer toward continued ecclesial labor and reform for the coming decade, on the way to Lambeth Conference 2032. If that happens, then the field is wide open for suggestions, and we will need many laborers to push along the project, which is vast and daunting (Matt. 9:37).
In this work, we should first and finally be teachers, encouragers, friends, and servants; also, decision makers, when we find ourselves in such positions. I marvel at God’s faithfulness as he places capable persons in persuasive, pedagogical offices, throughout the Anglican Communion. Humility, winsome debate, historical recollecting, and gracious accompanying of Anglicans who are different from us, who even live all the way around the world, remains our task and means of grace. We are called to this in our parishes and dioceses, seminaries, and publications. Tending to nothing less than this whole, we “wait for one another” (1 Cor. 11:33).
Sadly, American — and Global North — political divisions threaten the health of the Communion at every turn. The antidote is old-fashioned, clear-eyed thinking about the one Church in an ecumenical key. What do visibility and validity come to after the 16th century? How might St. Augustine’s teaching about the mixed body of the Church be critical for our reforming purposes? If, in my ideal, GAFCON would embrace a full-blooded Augustinian ecclesiology, our liberal American, Canadian, and British friends need to do the same. Anglicans in the Global South, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the Communion, have urged renewed pursuit of an Anglican Covenant. Turning to this work, I pray that our global family can work through the classical sources together, ordered by the Holy Scriptures.
This Covenant blog should be placed in service of such pedagogy and partnership, and prescind from party identification. In the long history of the Living Church Foundation (which publishes Covenant), we have sometimes, under pressure of decline and anxiety, defaulted to reactionary conservatism. At our best, however, we have been catholic hence evangelical, and not illiberal. There’s a tagline. This has always meant moderation and hosting many voices. Covenant’s focused work of ecclesial reform fits well here. The compromise of the Episcopal Church’s last General Convention was brokered by current Covenant contributors working closely with Covenant alumni who helped to propose Resolution B012: the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island and the Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh. The Lord works in mysterious ways and calls many sojourners, not all of one mind, to seek agreement-in-affection as far as possible. He will complete the work in the end through the passion and resurrection of his Son, in whom we hope to be healed and made whole.
May the Lord bless this ministry, as an offering of Christian friends, focused on particular Anglican needs — not as ends in themselves, but in service of the one Church of Christ, that she may flourish!