The St. Andrew’s Draft of the Proposed Anglican Covenant
Instrument of Oppression and Exclusion or Instrument of Inclusion and Justice?
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology
Trinity School for Ministry
Actions of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada have precipitated a crisis in the Anglican Communion. These actions have brought to the surface a deep divide in the communion which has been a long time developing. A number of provinces and dioceses have concluded that they have impaired or broken communion with the Anglican churches in North America. In the face of demands that The Episcopal Church and New Westminster be in some fashion officially sanctioned and excommunicated, the Anglican Communion through its instruments of unity established the Windsor Committee which proposed as the way forward the development of an Anglican Covenant which would identify core beliefs and the practices of ecclesial decision-making necessary to maintain a world wide communion of churches. Thus in answer to the demand to exclude from communion those churches making revolutionary innovations in a unilateral fashion, the Windsor Report proposed that the Anglican Communion engage in a process of mutual consultation leading to a consensus on the minimums of faith and practice necessary to maintain communion, and then let member churches decide for themselves whether they could abide by such common commitments.
The first thing to be said about the covenant strategy is that it is an inclusive strategy which places on local churches the responsibility to decide whether they shall or shall not be a constitutive part of the communion of a world-wide church. All the member churches have been invited to contribute to the drafting of the covenant. It is clear that the existing instruments of unity and the existing articulations of Anglican faith and practice such as the Lambeth quadrilateral are not able by themselves to hold together the communion. Without some new feature the communion is certain to break apart along racial and cultural fault lines. It is part of the Gospel that God is making a new people out of many peoples, and a church that breaks apart along a North-South fracture line would be a counter sign to the Gospel in our time. Without a new articulation of the consensus of faith and a new agreement about the means to settle serious theological disputes we will not have the tools to hold the communion together but neither will we have the tools to hold together the various provinces. The skills and spiritual disciplines that will come from striving to maintain the worldwide communion are exactly the skills and spiritual disciplines needed to hold together our own dioceses and parishes. Sacrificing global communion on the altar of local communion is certain to lead to the intensification of the local momentum toward schism.
The main debate now in The Episcopal Church is not over the content of the covenant but whether the very idea of covenant is legitimate or not. Any possible covenant is seen by many in leadership in The Episcopal Church as an immoral example of over-reaching and over-definition and as an attempt to constrain consciences in an unacceptable way. I see an emerging negative consensus in The Episcopal Church with regard to the very idea of a covenant. This emerging negative consensus about the concept of a covenant is, I believe, based on an unexamined and to a degree unconscious commitment to a paradigm of knowledge that is part of the mental furniture of the West. This paradigm has been described and critiqued by the philosopher, Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge. The missionary theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, has applied this critique to the crisis of theological confidence in the churches of the developed world in a series of books, including The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Proper Confidence.
There has arisen in the West what Polanyi calls a false scientism that divides knowledge into two categories. There is the relatively small category of facts and in this area certainty is possible. There is a larger realm of beliefs and values and in this realm by the nature of the case certainty is never possible. There may be commitments that “work” for people. In this sense there is my truth and your truth but to treat a belief as though it were certain is seen in this paradigm as a category mistake and an inherently immoral and oppressive act.
The proposed Anglican Covenant is felt by many of the leaders of The Episcopal Church to represent an improper and even backward understanding of the nature of truth. The logic as I see it goes something like this, “Everyone knows that the proposed covenant requires the submission of individual consciences to a consensus about the truth of Christian beliefs and everyone knows that there is no public truth in the arena of beliefs and faith to which all consciences should submit. Hence the very idea of a covenant is an attempt to coerce uniformity where it should not be attempted.”
Everyone knows? Everyone who lives uncritically within the paradigm that Polanyi calls scientism or objectivism. But this is not the only paradigm of knowledge going and it is among other things, including its inability to actually account for the demonstrable nature of scientific knowing, inadequate to the sort of knowing which is the knowledge of faith. This paradigm is inadequate to what Leslie Newbigin calls the proper confidence of faith. It is not so that belief is an inferior sort of knowledge but rather belief is the necessary prerequisite of knowing anything at all. Scientists are able to discover and know because of preceding beliefs. Their famous methodological doubt is based on deeper commitments and beliefs. Science does not provide certainty but proper confidence, and in a similar way faith produces its own proper confidence. Both Polanyi and Newbigin think that Augustine got it just right, “I believe in order that I may understand.” It is necessary for Christians to articulate their common beliefs just so they can engage together in a common search for a more comprehensive truth and so they can adjudicate true and false implications of the faith.
Radical pluralism is an inevitable consequence of the theory of knowledge that makes belief into an inferior sort of knowledge. If there is no way to establish a proper confidence about particular beliefs, then any attempt to establish authoritative beliefs will be thought an exercise in tyranny. This conviction is often expressed in what has now become the canonic parable of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men so the story goes are exploring an elephant by touch. One feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope and one feels the leg and says the elephant is like a tree and one feels the ear and says the elephant is like a large leaf. Each has a piece of the truth. No one of them has it all. To apply the parable to our current controversy, many in The Episcopal Church see the establishment of a covenant as an attempt by one of the blind men to make his perspective the one authoritative perspective and thus a power play and an immoral case of over-reaching. Lesslie Newbigin points out that there is a problem with this parable. The parable is told from the point of view of the King and his courtiers who take in the whole scene. The parable is told from the point of view of a supposedly neutral observer who is able to see the partial and limited nature of all other perspectives from the vantage point of the one perspective which is not subject to any critique. The parable is told from the imperial point of view of the theory of knowledge that Polanyi critiques as scientism. The teller of the parable adopts the pose of tolerance but this is surface camouflage behind which the King asserts the right to relativize and marginalize all other claims to truth but his own. Of this Newbigin says, “In a pluralist society such as ours. . .any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation. It itself rests on assumptions which are open to radical criticisms, but which are not criticized because they are part of the reigning plausibility structure.” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, page 10.)
The established churches of the West are deeply permeated by the philosophy of pluralism and the epistemology which generates it. The established churches of the West are profoundly influenced by an understanding of tolerance which is really tyranny in disguise, a tyranny which is inherently hostile to the confident expression of apostolic faith. If the very concept of an Anglican Covenant is rejected in the name of Western pseudo-tolerance, it will be an exercise not of inclusion but of exclusion and what will be excluded will be the very possibility of building a consensus and proper confidence about the essentials of Christian faith and practice necessary to maintain the life and order of a world-wide church.
Without the renewal of consensus in faith and practice that a covenant represents, the imperial pluralism that really governs much of the common life of the churches in the West will continue without challenge. The result will be Orwellian. There will be continuing talk about the provisional quality of all truth claims and the need for tolerance and respect for conscience while unilateral innovations which ride roughshod over the consciences of others continue apace. I predict that the pace will in fact accelerate. If theological argument cannot by definition come to a consensus about the minimally authoritative truths of Christian faith and practice, and it cannot under the aegis of the sort of imperial pluralism I have described, what is to restrain the one who perceives that personal conscience demands unilateral action?
The adoption of an Anglican Covenant allows us a chance to renew our commitment to the basics of the apostolic faith and to develop a suitably Christian and Anglican process for engaging and settling debates about the common boundaries of faith and practice. Within the parameters set by a common covenant real tolerance of differing opinions is possible with the confidence that they can be adjudicated justly according to mutually agreed principles. In the West the alternative is a church life based on a pseudo-tolerance behind which lurks the intolerance of an imperial pluralism which will inevitably encourage those who happen to be in power toward the unilateral imposition of their enthusiasms over what they see as the blind commitments of others. It is life under the reign of imperial pluralism that is unjust and exclusionary. The logic of church life under this sort of pluralism is the logic of finesse and fait accompli and power politics. The adoption of an appropriate Anglican Covenant has the chance of creating a more just and inclusive community and a global church which is not merely the extension of a Western cultural hegemony.