Some Reflections on the Anglican Covenant Conference at GTS, April 10-12, 2008

Some Reflections on the Anglican Covenant Conference at GTS, April 10-12, 2008


The conference was sponsored by the Tutu Center at General which has a mandate for conferences that address reconciliation and peace. The conference conveners were Titus Pressler, the subdean at General and the venerable J. Robert Wright, canon theologian for the diocese of New York, who teaches Patristics among other things and has had a high profile in ecumenical theology for many years. Canon Wright broke his ankle on Easter day and was not present, though his paper was read.

The format of the conference had a major address each day by one of the keynote speakers, Archbishop Drexel Gomez, head of the covenant design group, Canon Jenny Te Paa from New Zealand and a member of the Windsor Committee, and Canon Gregory Cameron, Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. After the major address there were each day several panels made up of faculty from each of the Anglican seminaries in North America. All were represented save Nashotah House. Each faculty person gave a ten minute presentation. At the end of the panel of four presentations, four students gave two or three minute reactions to the papers and the faculty responded and the floor was open for questions. You can read my presentation below.


All in all the atmosphere was civil and courteous. Archbishop Gomez was subjected to some discourtesy which he handled with great charity and a sharp intellect. The whole conference can be listened to at The General Theological Seminary website.

General is a very beautiful seminary and it was a treat to worship in the chapel there. The office is sung every evening with great care though I found the feminist canticles that were inserted from time to time a little trying. “Our mother Jesus”  and so forth. The seminary has a massive challenge to keep the premises up and there is much work going on. Still like a lot of places in mainline Christendom in North America there is a poignant sense of faded glory.

Trinity and Wycliffe represented the reasserter point of view and the rest the reappraiser. As I predicted the issue was not what was in the covenant but the very idea of covenant. The majority of the faculty presentations were hostile to the very idea of covenant. A notable exception was Dean Kevern of Bexley. Throughout the conference I was reminded of Mouneer Anis’ comments on his meeting with the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion that there was little evidence that these leaders were really registering the state of crisis in the communion. There was a common confidence in the presenters, the confidence I suppose of the winners in a dispute. There was denial that the communion would come apart and that the life of the churches represented was in any serious way threatened. It was clear that for most of the people present the justice issues which they perceived in the Gay agenda were of more moment than any desire to maintain communion with the Anglican world. There was even a conviction that the breaking of communion was not really possible, that no one could tell them that they were not members of the communion. It was in a word, unreal.

I thought my presentation about what I called imperial pluralism and intolerance masquerading as tolerance would create some discussion. It didn’t. In passing I mentioned that I thought there was a corollary to pseudo-tolerance which was pseudo-democracy. I said that despite much rhetoric about representation and our democratic polity, the leadership style of TEC was one of finesse and fait accompli. I was challenged strongly on this by several members of the executive committee who pointed out all the studies and reports of the House of Bishops and General Convention. One member of the Executive Committee quoted a report that I have never seen which she claimed showed that a majority of the members of the church were in favor of 2003 et al. Earlier in the program Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski had given a presentation in which he made a distinction between history from above and history from below. I responded to my questioners that it was true that there had been many official studies and reports at the institutional level, at the history from above level, but that was not the same as the sacrificial work needed to create a true mind of the church. This we have not engaged either at the parish, diocesan, provincial or communion level. The history from above is out of touch with the history from below. I sensed an incredulousness at my answer. This exchange and others gave me a sense of leadership really disconnected from the mass of people in the church, of a head out of touch with its body. I think that compliance and resignation are widely taken as affirmation and support. The cost of this mistake is only beginning to emerge.

One of the more startling themes that ran through several of the presentations was an antipathy to the office of bishop. Joe Britton of Yale, for example, diagnosed that part of the crisis is that too much is being made of bishops. It was all alright until we elected a Gay bishop. Clearly we put too much emphasis in Anglicanism on the office of bishop. The office needs to be downgraded and seen as merely facilitative to the ministry of the baptized. He proposed a long moratorium on the election of bishops while the whole office is reconsidered. Jenny Te Paa described the Primates of the Anglican Communion in terms of “dominant male power” without any reference to their teaching office. The bishop as a guardian of apostolic teaching and of the communion of the church was certainly not in view. There is a certain logical consistency here. If as I have suggested any authoritative articulation of the faith is suspect on the basis of the radical pluralism that is now the reigning ideology in TEC, then the office whose purpose is to articulate the tradition must needs be deconstructed. I predict that there will be several members of the House of Bishops who will take up this cause without any sense of irony and who will seek to out do each other in their low estimation of the significance of the office they hold. In a way the House of Bishops has already done this by demurring to give assurances to Canterbury which were entirely within their power to give both canonically and morally.

As I surveyed the faded glory of the General Seminary and the disconnect from the reality on the ground of many of the members of the conference, many of them important leaders in TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada, the thought came to me that it would be impossible to contain the Holy Spirit in such a church. The Spirit was bound to break out and foster new forms of Anglicanism and mission. However we might regret the break-up of the church, the chaotic multiplying of new jurisdictions and bishops, the dangers and temptations that these moves were bound to bring in their wake, there was simply no way that it could be contained and stopped. Jesus was asked to silence his disciples and he answered that if they were quieted the very stones would cry out. The reliance on canons and legal strategies and appeals to family loyalty to try to keep the church together suddenly seemed to me very poignant, like trying to make water flow uphill. 

I stayed over for a few days and did a fundraising gathering for Trinity. We had about forty people at the Harvard Club. Some were in TEC parishes and some were in parishes that were planted by refugees from TEC. Two of our best recent grads talked about their work in liberal East Coast dioceses and of the fruitfulness of their ministry and their good relations with more liberal colleagues. There were rectors there from several established New York parishes that were working hard with the support of faithful laity to teach the apostolic faith and they were attracting new people to their parishes and thriving despite the hostile environment around them. The thought came to me that just as you could not keep the Holy Spirit in TEC neither could you keep it out. God was not going to abandon these churches and he was going to continue to call faithful people into them in the same way as the Spirit raised up prophets in Israel when Israel was unfaithful. It is very clear to me that Trinity needs to serve both these constituencies and that we need to have great charity with each other about the decision to stay or leave TEC, either of which may be driven by the Spirit or by our own frailty or by a combination of both to be bent to God’s plans in His good providence.

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