Leader: After the Covenant

28 March 2012

ANYONE offered a welcoming doughnut and a seat near the projector on arrival at church on Sunday would probably have guessed that it was one of the growing number of Messy Church services. But even if things looked normal, they weren’t. After the diocesan votes on the previous day, it is all Messy Church. The Anglican Covenant — an attempt to introduce order to the Communion — was tipped into oblivion, at least as far as the Church of England goes.

Without the Covenant, it was argued, national Churches had no formal obligation to consider the “relational consequences” (a coinage of the Covenant text) of their actions on other Churches in the Communion. Dr Williams warned that, without the Covenant, he found it “hard at present to see another way forward that would avoid further disintegration”. One of the troubling aspect of the Covenant debates — such as they have been — is the impression given by critics that they can not only live with disintegration but positively welcome it, if it means not having to relate to people with whom they disagree fundamentally.

In the end, Anglicans have discovered what another ecclesial body might have told them from the start: in the present age, a text cannot hold Churches together in the way that a person can. Given that no text will be perfect, a degree of affection is needed to persuade people to subscribe. An individual can earn that affection; a text (poetry excepted), never — especially a text monitored by a standing committee that few understand and none recognise. Time and again in the General Synod, affection for Dr Williams carried members along; but he was absent in the diocesan synods, and the link was broken.

So, what now? One of the paradoxes of our age is that, just as communication around the Communion becomes easier, attention has become more local. In the UK, as elsewhere, the perception has grown that an engagement with the surrounding culture demands more energy than before, as economic and cultural forces drive a wedge between, if not Christianity, then at least church culture as it is generally perceived. Messy Church, Fresh Expressions, etc. are some of the more obvious attempts to meet this challenge. People instinctively wish to avoid church ties that look to be time-consuming and restricting.

The dangers are obvious. The quiet agenda behind the Covenant was that it would reassure ecumenical partners, Rome in particular, that Anglicans had a mechanism to stop the sorts of surprises that have scuppered unity in the past. As for the benefits, the Communion might wish to embark on a little theological investigation into whether the Holy Spirit works through restraint or surprise, and how it ought to respond to either. But the command to see Christ in each other has not gone away. The rejection of the Covenant must not signal any loss of the affection that binds Anglicans, they have always claimed, together.

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