January 12, 2010
I’ve started using the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion as the starting point for a series of talks in our GIFT (Growing In Faith Together) program. One thought that has persisted as I have been reading in preparation for that series is that Anglican statements or formularies were offered as needed as is the case with the six articles, the ten articles, the Bishops’ Book, the forty two articles and so on. They were doctrinal statements designed to articulate the beliefs of the English Church as they navigated between the twin shoals of Reform, both Lutheran and Swiss, on one hand and the Papacy and the Romish beleifs and claims to power with the traditional religious practice which supported it. At best these formularies were intended to be as inclusive of as many English Christians as possible. In this sense the proposed Anglican Covenant could be seen as one more effort, called for by the tensions of the times, to articulate some common understandings and be a basis for some kind of discipline well within Anglican Tradition and History.
The problems I have with it are not the effort or the idea that the proposed ‘agreement’ is not ‘Anglican’. First, it does not address the tensions in belief but is more juridical about how to deal with those tensions. In this sense it is set to function more as English law did during the reformation rather than as the Articles of Religion functioned. Certainly there were various laws that enforced a kind of discipline around the articles. All clergy were obligated to subscribe to them, for example. But while the articles were a basis for ecclesiastic discipline, they were not the means of that discipline. The Covenant is trying to address serious issues of belief about homosexuality on one hand. (Is it sinful practice by definition? Or is there such a thing as homosexual orientation that is fundamental and to be accepted as such?) On the other hand there are questions about the role and purpose of scripture within Anglicanism and whether such novelties as the idea that there is such a thing as a homosexual person (rather than a person committing immoral acts) are ‘contrary to the plain meaning of scripture’. The Articles would have addressed such thorny issues. The Covenant tries to find a way to stay together without taking such issues head on.
And that is my second objection to the current proposals. They are, without addressing the underlying issues trying to rule such discussions ‘out of order’ without really addressing the cultural, intellectual and imaginative worlds that are inhabited in differing ways in differing places throughout Anglicanism. (A non binding vote by Bishops all gathered in one place as the basis for what is becoming something that seems to have the level of Anglican Doctrine seems to be a pretty flimsy basis for either persuasive conversation or a move toward a more doctrine centered discipline for a communion that is increasingly referred to as a ‘Church’ in semi official pronouncements. That, in effect, is trying to offer a specifically English legal solution to an international and relational problem.