Looking at the Covenant

Just a few weeks to go until the Scottish Episcopal Church’s General Synod. As usual I’m looking forward to it and trying to get my head around the things that we will be talking about.

One of the big things on the agenda this year is a vote in principle on the Anglican Covenant. A year or two ago, when we were talking about it, it seemed like one of the most controversial things that we would ever vote on. Now we get closer to the vote, I’m less sure. A lot of water has gone under the bridge over the last couple of years. There were great fears that if we voted against the Anglican Covenant, as it always seemed we might, then this would put us at odds with the Church of England. And, notwithstanding our proud independent streak, there were dire fears as to What That Might Mean.

In the event, the Church of England beat us to it and threw it out itself.

However, all the Anglican Provinces need to make their minds up. The Covenant isn’t dead yet, though there’s no doubt it is severely wounded by the dioceses of the C of E standing up to their bishops and archbishops and refusing to fall in line.

Now, the different Provinces will all do different things. I think that what is likely in Scotland is that we will simply say no to the Covenant and then focus our energies on a second motion on the agenda which will allow us to do some creative thinking about what kind of Anglican Communion we are looking for. At least, that’s what I hope will happen.

I was surprised though recently to hear from American friends who were saying that they thought that the US based Episcopal Church was likely to affirm the first three sections of the Covenant but not the fourth section. The fourth section is the one that deals with discipline – the ability to throw a naughty Province off the councils, networks and committees and what have you that make up the Anglican Communion’s ways of working.

I was surprised because it meant that there were no apparent fears about the first section, and it is that which I think is the more dangerous. This may be because theological statements are sometimes read differently by different people.

In Scotland we used to get people saying that we should affirm the first three sections but not the fourth section only up until the time when we really got down to talking about it. At last year’s General Synod it became apparent that some of us were very troubled by section one – particularly because affirming it would mean that once again we would have to affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Now there are all kinds of reasons why affirming the Thirty-Nine Articles isn’t a good idea. I was on my feet a year ago saying that coming as I do from a city troubled by Catholic-Protestant sectarian tensions, the last thing we need to be doing is affirming once again the anti-catholic Thirty-Nine Articles. And that isn’t even to begin to deal with the things that those articles condemn which some of us hold dear in our worship still.

Now, the US-based Episcopal Church has the Thirty-Nine Articles in its Book of Common Prayer and we in Scotland don’t. (We did for a bit but we don’t affirm them any more). The Americans cope with them, I think, by thinking of them as Historical Documents – things that show us where we have come from but don’t necessarily regard them as things which should guide our faith for today.

Not so the Church of England. Or at least, not so all of the Church of England.

The release this week of a long denunciation of same-sex marriage from the Church of England Evangelical Council should give the Americans pause for thought before they affirm any part of the Covenant which promotes the Thirty-Nine Articles. Anyone reading it will be in no doubt that the Thirty Nine Articles are no mere historical document in some parts of the Church of England. For some, they are the Thirty-Nine Weapons of the Church of England in this long and tiresome culture war in which all the bullets are theological concepts ad all the collateral damage seems to be in terms of souls lost to the church and wholesome relationships between gay folk traduced by the loud, the ignorant and the shallow.

The US based church should make no assumptions at all about the nature in which the documents listed in the first section of the proposed Anglican Covenant are read in other parts of the world.

I remain convinced that we need to say No to the Covenant and say an unequivocal Yes to the Anglican Communion. And that No needs to be a clear and deliberate rejection of all the sections of the Covenant. Our American friends put themselves at some risk from those who would do them harm if they don’t understand this.