Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Anglican Covenant: Not Making it Worse

Half of all English dioceses have voted against the Anglican Covenant, and it will now be technically impossible, as it was probably already practically impossible, for the Church of England to be part of this experiment. Whether this will be fatal to the existence of the Covenant we cannot say, although there is a delicious irony to its rejection by what used to be the heart of the Communion.

The proposers of this scheme should have known, if only from their history books, that to be a Covenanter is by definition to be an opponent of the Church of England. Indeed, the victorious anti-Covenanters have been a curious alliance of those who see nothing wrong with the new liberal Anglicanism and those, more traditionally-minded on the whole, who could see that the whole idea was simply not very Church of England.

We at Plumstead Rectory are glad to have always been in the latter camp, if I may put it like that, and glad to be joined there by our own bishop. Readers will find his speech of last week on the subject above, and I commend it. We were pleased also to see today that the diocese to which I first belonged (Lincoln) had the honour of casting the last oyster-shell, rejecting the Covenant by a large margin.

But although it is always pleasant to win a victory, we predict that this will prove a storm in an episcopal silver teapot. When all the fuss has died down we will probably see that the rejection of the Covenant does not make much difference, as its acceptance would probably not have made much difference anyway. 

A clerical brother, concerned about having the Covenant imposed on him unwillingly, complained to me on the subject some months back. I comforted him with the thought that the law of the Church of England limits very strictly anyone's - even his diocesan bishop's - powers of interference in his parish. The tradition of the Church of England, which the Covenant purported to safeguard, is indeed that he should be a very pope in his own parish, subject in practice to no control except the occasional bureaucratic annoyance. 

As for the laity, he, and all the bench of bishops may tell them what to do as much as they like; they will please themselves. It is doubtful whether consistory courts will attempt to fine or imprison the laity again for non-attendance, still less for holding liberal views; although if such a proposal is made, I promise to vote for it in the deanery synod.

What we must do, however, is to stop calling ourselves "Anglican". In the first place we will probably find ourselves, after today, not entitled to do so. In the second place, we must admit that the international communion to which this horrible appelation refers is more than now dead (that could hardly be denied): it is a fiction. 

What has Sydney to do with Papua New Guinea? About as much as the Toronto Congress, the Lambeth Quadrilateral, and the Instruments of Communion mean to the Church of England people of my parish. If you have to Google these, you are far from being the only one.

These aspects of our communion have always been almost purely theoretical. What is the visible content of this communion? It is just possible, though stretching the bounds of plausibility, that the Anglican Communion could for the next few months be regarded as consisting in admiration of Rowan Williams. This could, admittedly, only be achieved by not paying too much attention to what he says, or what anyone else does. However, surveying the field, it seems unlikely that any probably successor will be able to achieve even this chimera. (Not to be confused with chimere.)

In practice, the Anglican Communion, in my corner of the country, for example, consists entirely in the goings-on of this particular parish. Those who take part are themselves a pretty rum lot, and some observers might think it a stretch even to call it Church of England. Certainly the affairs of foreigners are far from their minds, except in prayers of fellowship felt equally for papists and sectaries as well as for so-called Anglicans.

The average member of the Church of England will only in his lifetime worship in two different churches, one of which at least he will regard as suspect. His idea of communion extends only to his own fellowship, to the clergy who minister to him and to the bishop who confirms him; if so far.

Are we then to shelve the problem.   Are we to ignore the Lord's prayer, "That they may be slightly less divided than they were"? 

Μὴ γένοιτο! A solution is at hand, fully concordant with the traditions of the Church of England and the history of her daughters.

Let each province, diocese or parish of the erstwhile Anglican Communion rejoice in being at unity in itself. Their founders, be they the London Missionary Society or the S.P.C.K., taught with a clearer voice than did ever the Church of England's formularies, and the cultures to which they minister, from homophobic Uganda to depraved New Hampshire, know better what they want than does the Lambeth Conference.

Let them do as they please: they will be sure to find a diocese, parish or society of the Church of England that agrees with them. Let them covenant, then, with whatever diocese, parish or society already believes as they believe, and acts as they act. That is the history of our Communion; let it also be its future.  

Our colonial cousins are not used to disunity; we have never known anything else. When we sent them missionaries it was to establish on another shore that perfect Church of England that our opponents would not let us have at home; only our opponents were doing the same on other shores. Let us take from their shoulders the burden of being at variance with one another; we, after all, are at variance with one another already. But so long as some part of the Church of England is what they wish to be, let them continue to be counted her children.

No-one will pretend this is a moral or consistent solution. But it seems more likely than most to be permanant and stable, if not exactly faithful. It does not make our situation better, but it refrains from making it worse, and who could expect more? 

We are, after all, not angels, but Church of England.


  1. If the Church of England is independent of the rest of the Anglican Communion, then the rest of the rest of the Anglican Communion is independent of the Church of England. It need not, and will not, give two hoots whether or not the Church of England joins it in signing up to the Anglican Covenant.

    If that effectively meant that, for example, the See of Canterbury was no longer in the Anglican Communion, then that would be the See of Canterbury’s loss, not the Anglican Communion’s, which would notice scarcely, if at all. The Anglican Communion was overwhelmingly created by people who did not like the Church of England, or very often the English in general.

    The Church of Ireland has provided two Presidents of the Irish Republic, including the ardently Irish-speaking first one, both of them in the days when that Republic’s Constitution still laid claim to “the whole island of Ireland”. James Ussher wrote to his Canterbury counterpart as “Brother Primate” and even “Brother Patriarch”; their equality was undoubted on either side. (Ussher’s calculations of the date of creation are by far the least interesting thing about him, and a full biography was quite recently published by Professor Alan Ford of Nottingham, who previously had the questionable pleasure of lecturing me at Durham on the Reformation.)

    Anglicans and not Presbyterians may have founded the Orange Order and the Ulster Unionist Party, but the very many who are still in them, and very many are, are fully part of the “Ulster British” culture that includes never cheering for England against anyone, and supporting the Union strictly as a means of defending and of paying for what is really the State of Ulster. Only half of the Church of Ireland is in the Northern Ireland, with the other half cheerfully in the Republic.

    The Governing Body of the Church in Wales includes Lord Elis-Thomas, the first person ever elected to the House of Commons specifically as a Welsh Nationalist before becoming the first ever such Peer, although the Leader of Plaid Cymru actively encourages his members to apply, and another previous holder of that office has in fact been ennobled. Most people assume that R S Thomas was a Chapel minister. He was not.

    The Episcopal Church in the United States is a product of the American Revolution, deriving its name and orders from the Episcopal Church in Scotland, which then had a recent history of armed insurrection against the Hanoverian monarchy, and which remains heavily concentrated in the area where the SNP is also strongest. Half of all Jacobite fighters throughout these Islands were Scottish Episcopalians, with many Lowlanders among them adopting Highland dress as a sort of Jacobite uniform, leading to the false impression among the English that they were being invaded by Highlanders rather than, as very frequently in reality, by men whose only language was English and who worshipped according to the Book of Common Prayer. Especially in the nineteenth century, American Episcopalians have provided several extremely anti-British Presidents of the United States. I should be amazed if Australian Anglicans were any more or less monarchist or anti-monarchist than the population at large.

    Most of the rest of the Anglican Communion’s founding fathers were either hardline Anglo-Catholics or hardline Evangelicals, and had deliberately gone to the ends of the earth, by no means only within the British Empire, in order to escape from the Church of England and start again from scratch, keeping in touch for purposes of spiritual and material support only with parishes whose clergy were, and are, seldom or never made bishops in England. In stark contrast to the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, the Anglican Church there is closely allied to Robert Mugabe. There were plenty of Anglican clergymen and laymen in the Mau Mau.

    And so on, and on, and on.

    The Church of England needs to get over itself.

  2. See the latest absurdity, as reported by MadPriest: