Elephants in the sanctuary

It may have taken some years to put together but Mark Stevens remains unconvinced that the new Anglican Covenant will achieve the task it was set

The current proposals for a Covenant between Anglican provinces represent an effort to create not a centralized decision-making executive but a ‘community of communities’ that can manage to sustain a mutually nourishing and mutually critical life, with all consenting to certain protocols of decision-making together’.

So said Rowan Williams in an address at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome. The rationale behind this description of the Covenant process was also spelled out. The Archbishop sees a ‘Western’, ‘juridical’ ecclesiology as tired and outmoded. ‘If we are not just going to reaffirm the language of rule and hierarchy established by decree, with fixed division between teacher and taught, rulers and ruled, then we must approach the question as one that has to do with the way in which the gifts of the Spirit are properly distributed.’ In words not a little reminiscent of John Henry Newman, he was pleading for a less rigid, less hierarchical Church.

The model which seems to be at the forefront of the Archbishop’s mind is set out in the work of John Zizioulas, both in The Church of the Triune God (a recent report of the Anglican Orthodox International Commission) and in books like Being as Communion [1985] and Bishop, Eucharist, Church„ [2001], which have gained a certain currency in some Anglican circles. This ecclesiology (deriving from a study of Christianity in the East in the first four centuries) seems to many to provide a rationale for structures quite different from the papal monarchy, with its reliance on increasingly complex canon law, which has obtained in the West and is so inimical to the modern liberal mind.

But are the Covenant proposals really in accord with this account of third-century praxis? Is the hierarchical structure of the Western Church self-evidently unsuited to contemporary circumstances? And (supposing that both the Archbishop’s presuppositions are correct) can the Covenant document deliver on these high-flown aspirations? ‘I do not pretend to be offering a new paradigm of ecumenical encounter,’ says Williams, ‘far from it.’ So we can confidently take such a denial as ecu-speak for ‘that is precisely what I am about’.

Anyone who has had the patience to read the proposed Covenant in its entirety (and it is a document drawn up by one who is clearly a stranger to the niceties of the English language) will immediately have noticed one thing which sets it dramatically apart from Archbishop Zizioulas’ vision of the Church of the third century. It is the virtual absence of any reference to the Holy Eucharist.There are only two such references in the Covenant itself – at 1.1.5 (a citation from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1884–8), and 1.2.7 – and none in the Introduction.

The reason for this reticence is obvious and tragic. The Eucharist is at the heart of Zizioulas’ vision of the emerging ecclesiology of the earliest Christian centuries. He takes as fundamental the single bishop’s Eucharist of Ignatius (‘Take heed then to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union with his blood, one altar as there is but one bishop, with the presbyterium and the deacons’ [Philad. 4]).

In the bishop’s Eucharist the ‘many’ are gathered into ‘one’ (a masculine ‘one’ as at I Cor. 10.17; see Being as Communion, p. 145).Through the Eucharist these dispersed communities are gathered into the fullness of the body of Christ which fills the whole world.

But this ecclesiology of a ‘communion of communions’ requires precisely what Anglicans no longer possess: a recognition of orders and sacraments which is common to all. It is this real absence which inevitably vitiates all attempts at unity; for the unity of the Church is given and not contrived, organic and not fabricated. It is the unity of a living organism – the Body – which becomes one flesh as it eats the one bread and drinks the one cup.

Of this fracture of communion the inability of bishops to share at the Lord’s Table (for example, at the recent Lambeth Conference) is an outward and visible sign. The Covenant document speaks of ‘the central role of bishops as guardians and teachers of faith, as leaders in mission, and as a visible sign of unity, representing the universal Church to the local and the local Church to the universal, and the local churches to one another.’

‘This ministry,’ it claims, ‘is exercised personally, collegially and within the eucharistic community.’

But the theory no longer accords with the reality. The ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, and the consecration to the episcopate of a divorced man in an active homosexual relationship, together constitute a destructive attack on the Pauline understanding of the unity of the Body, which is both a nuptial [Eph. 5] and a eucharistic [I Cor. 10] mystery.

Rowan Williams has argued (in his address to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, for example) that women’s ordination is a ‘second order issue’ when set beside the goal of filial and communal holiness which is the ground of current ecumenical agreement. ‘How much is that [agreement] undermined,’ he asks, ‘if individuals within the ministerial communion are of different genders? …is there a way of recognizing that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals?’

The answer to those questions (and others which might arise from them) must surely be that sacraments are both objective and symbolic. The one cannot be separated from the other. In the matter of the ordination of women, the missing element from the Covenant’s description of the episcopal role is that of persistence through time. Bishops exist to give a living assurance of apostolic continuity. It follows that wilful novelty transgresses their essential function. It is not enough to say that one is doing what the Apostles did.

Sacramental assurance (and the Eucharist as both the pledge and present reality of communion) requires that it be seen to be done. In the matter of the consecration of gay bishops, it is not possible to claim with Paul that the koinonia of the Church in Christ is like the union of man and wife in matrimony, and then – in the most solemn rite – to elevate as a symbol of that unity one who has rejected it in favour of another relationship which the Scriptures reprobate and Paul himself condemns.

As we begin to see from this analysis, not only is the Eucharist demoted from its centrality in the mystery of the Church, but there is confusion also about the very nature of the episcopate. In the ecclesiology which Zizioulas outlines and Williams seems to be embracing, the bishop is focal and crucial. He it is who effects and expresses the relationship between the one and the many. The diocese is the arena in which the universal Church is apprehended and made present.

But not so in the Covenant document, where by ‘local church’ is meant not the diocese, but the autonomous national or regional church, governed by its own polity and representative institutions. The model here is not that of the first four Christian centuries, but of parliamentary or congressional democracy as it has emerged in the post-Enlightenment West. Contemporary experience has shown that, in its ecclesial application, this democratic principle all too easily results in the tyranny of the majority. It can achieve a dogmatism which is ultramontane in its intensity. What the Pope of Rome cannot do (‘I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful’) the General Synod or Convention of an Anglican province can both do and enforce. The Archbishop of Canterbury, it is true, has sought to mitigate the totalitarian implications of this democratic dogmatism by suggesting (as in his now famous letter to John Howe of Southern Florida) that dioceses might in some way accede to the Covenant, whether or not their provinces did so. But that is small beer, and could in any case only result in other dioceses demanding an equivalent right to withdraw from an agreement into which their province had entered. An ecclesiology made up of autonomous Churches with omni-competent legislatures is not much of an ecclesiology, it has to be admitted. But the Balkanization which would inevitably result from dioceses acting in opposition to the will of those legislatures would be no ecclesiology at all.

The plain fact is that the structures of the Anglican Communion (recognized and reaffirmed in the Covenant) have, from the very start, been at least ambivalent about the role of bishops. It has become almost a matter of pride that the Lambeth Conference is powerless to take binding decisions. Its creation of a new organ of governance to meet each succeeding crisis – the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting, the various commissions (Grindrod, Eames, etc.) and now the ‘Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion’ – has rendered it more and not less ineffectual. The role of the See of Canterbury has been similarly diminished.

Eucharist, Bishop, Church: there seems to be little if anything in the proposed Anglican Covenant which is even analogous to the early Christian ecclesiology outlined by Zizioulas. There is much talk (especially among Canadians and Americans) of the dangers of erecting a quasi-papal primacy among Anglicans. It is seen as oppressive to individual consciences and stifling to mission-oriented doctrinal development. But the Covenant offers no viable alternative. Indeed it compounds the presenting problem of doctrinal disunity.

What Anglicans have historically most feared is what presently they most need: a magisterium rooted in a universal primacy. The traditional fear has been of unscriptural doctrinal innovation (the Marian dogmas and papal infallibility are usually cited). It is time to admit that the danger has shifted. The Papal Primacy (as the crisis over women’s ordination has made clear) exists (as Newman always insisted that it did) not to facilitate but to limit doctrinal novelty.

An Anglican polity made up of separate sovereign legislatures loosely linked by ‘bonds of affection’ and an historical nostalgia is manifestly a recipe for accelerating ill-considered change. It bears little or no resemblance to the ecclesiology which emerged in the first four centuries, and is clearly less suited to the crises of the modern age than the much-derided ‘juridical’ model which it seeks to replace.

But if (as, despite its veneer of theological jargon, is surely the case) the proposed Covenant is deficient both in its treatment of the Eucharist and of Holy Orders, the question remains: will it work?

The answer to the question necessarily depends on what that purpose is thought to be. Anglicans, trapped breathless on the rollercoaster of doctrinal innovation, have for the most part abandoned serious ecclesiology for the quick fix. If, as one suspects, all this Covenant is really intended to do is to hold the Communion together until the conservative majority can catch up with the North Americans, then probably it will work. We can confidently expect that, just as the Windsor Report cited the progress towards women’s ordination as an exemplary functioning of the Communion’s Instruments of Unity, so at some not very distant time, gay marriages and lesbian bishops will be claimed to have been inaugurated in full compliance with the requirements of the Covenant.There will be fall-out; but it will probably not be significant.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of the Covenant is to provide Anglicans with a self-understanding which will allow them confidently and coherently to relate to other ecclesial bodies (and in particular the ancient churches of East and West), then the answer to that leading question must be no. Rowan Williams says he is not ‘offering a new paradigm of ecumenical encounter, far from it.’ And about that, though he probably doesn’t mean it, he is absolutely right. ND