Monday, September 17, 2007


Editor's Note: This essay was submitted by Bishop Theuner and accepted for publication on September 10, 2007.

COVENANT – with Whom? and Why?
by the Right Rev. Douglas Theuner

Under the entry “covenant,” my dictionary first lists a definition under the category of “Law”: “a contract drawn up by deed.” Then it lists a second definition under the category of “Theology”: "an agreement that brings about a relationship of commitment between God and his [sic] people”.

The proposed “Anglican Covenant” is surely intended to be a legal device – that is, “a contract drawn up by deed.” However, since the preamble to the Anglican Covenant does not even mention “GOD,” it can hardly qualify for the dictionary’s “Theology” definition according to which the “agreement” is between God and his [sic.] people and not merely among individual members or groups of members of “his [sic.] people.”

The historical definition of “covenant” in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that of a relationship between God and God’s people. Although the use of “covenant” as a description of how people deal with one another, under God, holds an honored position in the Reformed tradition, it is not so conceived in the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures.

It would appear that the framers of the proposed “Anglican Covenant” have opted for “Law” over “Theology.” Dare we even speculate about the place of “Grace”?

It is being suggested that Anglicans think in the language of “law.” Therefore, let us consider the great heritage of English Common Law from which our manner of governing ourselves derives.

The “crown jewel” of English law is the “unwritten constitution” by which the British people have governed themselves for the past eight centuries (using Magna Carta as an arbitrary starting point). It is from within this tradition that Anglicanism, particularly its polity, has developed. It would appear that the desire of some contemporary British politicians to compromise this concept in the United Kingdom also infects some of the Anglican Communion’s leadership.

The Anglican Communion is a rather modern invention created at the time of the American Revolution by the necessity of those previously loyal to the Church of England to restructure their governance after the abolition here of the monarchy whose incumbent was Head of both the English Church and State. (No matter that a majority of those Americans loyal to the Church of England were also political Loyalists.)

For a very brief period of time, between the Revolution and the acquiescence of King, Parliament, and Archbishop of Canterbury to the consecration of Bishops William White and Samuel Provoost in 1786, American Anglicans can be said to have been “out of communion” (again for purely political reasons over which church people had no control) with Archbishop Moore of Canterbury, who, nevertheless, considered the consecration of Samuel Seabury by the Scottish non-juring bishops in 1784 to be valid. So, effectually, began the Anglican Communion, a quarter of a millennium after Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

Membership in what we call the “Anglican Communion” continued to be defined by being “in communion” with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was afforded a “primacy of honor” with no metropolitan jurisdiction outside the Church of England. There were no other “Instruments of Unity” until the Lambeth Conference was established eighty years later as a result of church-state concerns in England and questions raised by the teachings of Bishop William Colenso of Natal in South Africa. But at its third meeting, the bishop/bureaucrats [or is that a redundancy in an increasingly institutionalized church?] decided for a permanent consultative body, the realization of which finally came over sixty years later with the establishment of the Anglican Consultative Council in 1968.

With the founding of the Anglican Consultative Council, lay people finally had a place at the table with the hierarchs. But, then, just 20 years ago, the Lambeth Conference established the so-called Primate’s Meeting [so much for the emergence of the laity] as a periodic “get-together,” “kaffe klatch,” “meeting,” or whatever, of the chief doorkeepers of the communion. [That must be what the Psalmist meant when he said that he’d “rather be a door keeper in the House of the lord, …]

And so, the “Instruments of Unity” were complete. Well, not exactly, as both of the last two groups have executive committees of sorts. Then there’s the Anglican Communion Office and various networks, not to mention the ever-proliferating self-interest groups which all purport to know better than the others what God wants for God’s Church. There’s that arcane word “God” again!

Now, coming next to a church near you, is …The Anglican Covenant”!!! (Whoops, there goes “GOD” again… That’s what they must mean by a deus absconditus !)

Our “unwritten” Anglican constitution is to be superceded by an increasing number of bureaucratic and legalistic “instruments.” Someone needs to be in control, lest we run amok with the Gospel and the institution degenerate back into merely being the “way, the truth and the life”!

Since we’re talking the language of “law,” it might do us well to consider the wisdom of the legal, civic arena. For instance, the “Father of our Country” – himself a cultural Episcopalian, though not one that would be considered “orthodox,” “catholic,” or “evangelical” by any definition of this or any other era - notably warned us about “foreign entanglements” in his famous Farewell Address, delivered virtually 221 years ago to the day the Archbishop of Canterbury comes to meet with the American bishops in New Orleans. After all, we are Americans, and that experience has helped to shape the way we experience and witness to GOD in our own time and place. (Yes, GOD is back!) Just to set the context for Washington’s famous remark, he also said in that famous speech:

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest…constantly keeping in view that it is folly for one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance it may place itself in the condition of being given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.
Such honest wisdom from an American President boggles the contemporary mind! But those among us who see things from a theological perspective, those of us who seek covenants with GOD, might be more moved by the words of the Son of God, who surely respected the Scriptures, obeyed Him whom He understood to be His Father and founded the Church as His Body. How might He who founded no institution and appeared to have no great faith in them -- He who is at perfect unity with the Creator and Sustainer of life -- look upon the “Instruments of Unity” drawn up by people who cry “peace, peace, where there is no peace”? Might He say of us “Covenanters,” as he did of our ecclesiastical forbearers:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market place and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widow’s houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. (Mark 12:38-40)
The Anglican mansion may be a bit dowdy and in need of rejuvenation but, if it is built neither of straw nor upon sand, but upon the Rock of Jesus Christ, neither the winds of change nor the gates of hell shall prevail against it.

We don’t need another legal document, another covenant with one another, another “Instrument of Unity,” another long robe, salutation, best seat, or place of honor. We need only the grace [Ah, there it is!] of GOD as revealed in Jesus Christ: “the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

About the Author: Douglas Theuner is retired bishop of New Hampshire. He has previously written for The Episcopal Majority in this essay.


Blogger Tom said...

Thank you! This is a prophetic piece, fully grounded in the vision of our Lord. Can't ask for more than that!

9/19/2007 12:37 PM  

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