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Article No. 187

Who will sign the Covenant? And which Covenant?

The address by the Archbishop of Canterbury  (hereafter ABC) this week to the General Synod of the Church of England was seen as an important statement by him. It did not suggest any new way forward. It was not a breakthrough in signifying any particular change in the position of any party to the dispute. Nor was it a major event in that it gave us any news about any change of heart by one side or the other. It was an important speech because it showed the ABC had accepted that we have now entered another phase of the long saga. It also showed him at his conciliatory best.  It showed us that we must now work out how the two sides of the problem can relate to each other once we enter into the Covenant. This article - forgive its length - is speculative as regards the future but outlines real problems and threats.

The draft Covenant has now started to be debated in the thirty eight Anglican Churches across the Anglican Communion.  There is only one way forward on the agenda  - the question is whether to adopt the Covenant, and what exactly shall be covenanted. There appears to be no alternative on the table - apart from deciding not to participate in the Covenant. As it deprives Churches of their autonomy, it may be that a number of Churches decide to say ‘no’ to the Covenant. When each of the three dozen churches has debated the merits and demerits of the Covenant idea they will give in their decisions and we shall then see where the body of opinion lies.

In the meantime it is perhaps worthwhile taking the problem down to its bare bones again for a moment.  What we are talking about here is a basic difference between two main groups of Christians in the same Anglican Communion concerning whether homosexuality is acceptable to God or is considered an abomination to him (Leviticus). For ease of reference I will call them the pro-gay group and the anti-gay group respectively.

The pro-gay group - which already includes one gay Bishop -  is not in conflict with the anti-gay group. Those in the pro-gay group disagree with the views of the anti-gay group but, so long as they are allowed to remain free to follow where they believe the Holy Spirit is leading them, they are content to remain in fellowship with the anti-gay group and the rest of the  Anglican Communion. They do not wish to divide from the others. They are content to agree to unity in diversity.

Those in the anti-gay group - who disagree with homosexuality - refuse to have anything to do with the other group. They believe that homosexuality is an abomination to God and say that it goes against the commands of the bible. They say they cannot stay in fellowship with those Christians who agree with homosexuality because to do so would mean they were offending against what the bible teaches. For them the bible is the supreme authority and they therefore wish to sever ties with the pro-gay group. They do not believe it is right for them to stay in fellowship with Christians who are heretical in this matter. As far as they are concerned the pro-gay group has turned its back on true Christianity.

In this situation the ABC has as his main purpose the need to maintain the unity of the Anglican Communion - all thirty eight churches. Being highly intelligent, godly and with a considerable gift of leadership, he is able to be very persuasive - indeed the Religious Correspondent for the Times says of him in today’s Times :

‘His ability to leave everyone he speaks to believing that he is on their side might in the end prove to be the saving grace of the Anglican Communion’  

This charm appears to operate to more effect on the gay Christians than it does on the more fundamentalist Christians who have been highly suspicious of him from the beginning!

So what is the ABC saying in his address to Synod on 9th February 2010?  

Now that the ABC has officially recognised that full acceptance of each other by the two groups, coupled with a desire to work alongside each other, is impossible, we are into a discussion about what terms should go in the Covenant, which, hopefully, will be the vehicle for staying and working together in the Anglican Communion. There were those of us who warned from the beginning that those opposed to homosexuality were so deeply entrenched in their approach to the bible and to Christianity generally, that the whole exercise was doomed to failure. However, it had to be tried and we have seen repeated attempts over the past decade to bring the two sides closer together - all to no avail. Now we have cleared the hurdle of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

So where now?

The ABC adumbrates how the Covenant might work - always in the hope and belief that, as Christians, both sides would operate in a spirit of love and tolerance - qualities that are essential for any covenant to be a success. ‘Success’ is defined by the ABC as producing an arrangement where each side trusts the other to act for their good. But of course that assumption by the ABC of a successful covenant arrangement will seem to many to be over optimistic!  

Indeed, one must ask what evidence or even indication there is that there is the slightest desire by the anti-gay group to relax their stance and show the same tolerance and willingness to work together with those on the pro-gay side of this debate.  Is this being pessimistic? Or even unchristian? No, it is not - and understanding why there is this insistence by the anti-gay group is crucial to understanding the whole problem.  

The reason the anti-gay group refuses to have anything to do with the others is that acceptance of homosexuality offends against their most precious tenet - that the commands of the bible must be followed. The bible in Leviticus expressly forbids homosexual acts as an abomination to the Lord. The anti-gay group believes that to accept those who support homosexuality would mean going back on all they believe about the bible. They think that to accept homosexuality in fellow Christians in the same church would mean that they had to accept an interpretation of the biblical text that they believe goes directly contrary to the plain meaning of the words of the bible. While the anti-gay group holds onto their present view of the bible they cannot accept homosexuality. Nor can they accept Christians who accept homosexuality or have fellowship with them. For them homosexuality taints everything and has to be avoided at all costs.  

To expect the fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to change their view (interpretation) of the bible - and to accommodate those who are sometimes called trendy liberals - is just asking too much. These views are deeply embedded in these sincere and passionate Christians, who are often either fundamentalist or evangelical in outlook. They cannot change unless and until they are prepared to see the bible in a different light.

It is for this reason that the two sides cannot be reconciled through the Covenant. The essential problem remains for the anti-gay group - they cannot accept partnership with Christians who accept homosexuality.

It follows that the only workable outcome of the Covenant solution has to be two separate groups - an inner circle of churches which acts in the name of Anglicanism (and to which the anti-gay group of churches can be members without offending their principles) and an outer circle of churches that has a lesser status - we shall call them ‘observers’.

In the definition of their relevant status and powers (or lack of them) in the Covenant, the anti-homosexual group will need to limit the pro-gay group so that they do not have any power to make decisions for the whole group of Anglicans. If the anti-gay group did not ensure that, then they would  betray their principles - they cannot give power over decision making to churches that accept homosexuality .

Until this point is firmly grasped the whole subject of the terms of the Covenant is clouded.  Evangelicals do not want fellowship with those who accept homosexuality. The outer circle of churches (i.e. those churches that cannot subscribe to the beliefs of the anti-gay churches) that result from the adoption of a Covenant must be deprived of power to influence decisions affecting the policy or practice of the whole Anglican Communion. They must be relegated to observer status only. The power of the inner group - the anti-gay group of churches - must be total. To accept any other system would be to bind themselves wrongly to those who, in their view, have compromised their Christianity.

Now that this central issue in deciding the terms of the Covenant is clear, it is worth asking whether it is worthwhile to have a covenant arrangement at all.  If one group has all the power to speak in the name of Anglicanism and the other group is stripped of any power to interfere - as would be desired by all the anti-gay Churches in accordance with what I have shown above - then what is the point of having the outer circle of observer Churches? What is their role and function? Are they meant merely to comment?  Will they offer advice? Perhaps they will be allowed to pray jointly with the others? It might seem to some that they would exist to justify the claim that the Anglican Communion was still in existence and had not fragmented!

The controlling group - the inner circle of churches - may tolerate the outer circle of churches, but their belief is that homosexuality as shown in the bible, is an offence to God. The events now unfolding in Uganda demonstrate the virulence of the hatred of homosexuality in the countries of some of these anti-gay Churches. We must expect the inner group of Churches to move against homosexuality wherever and whenever they can. In due course - perhaps in  a few year’s time - it might be that they would rule that no church can call itself Anglican or consider itself part of the Anglican Communion that allows gay Priests or Bishops. In due course that might be extended to a general ruling against gay people in Anglican Churches - perhaps barring them from various lay offices. It is impossible to see exactly in advance the course that could be taken in the future but the general direction is very clear.

All of this will be the result of the failure of the Churches in the Anglican Communion to stand fast on the principle that homosexuals are not an offence to God. And it will be a direct consequence of attempting to bind together in one body two elements that have separated in a fundamental way.

It is sometimes suggested that a loose federation of Anglican Churches might solve some of the problem of the division between the anti-gay and the pro-gay sections of the Communion. A loose federation of churches, centred by their relationship with someone - say, the ABC,  has some attraction, but the anti-gay churches will be unlikely to accept the stigma of associating with churches that accept gay people. Thus they would see themselves as in a compromised situation.

The question might be asked: why have the anti-gay churches not already left the Anglican Communion? One reason why the two sides have not parted is that Anglican Churches have always been constituted legally in their various countries and it is difficult to effect a schism. There have been a number of legal battles in the United States, where some local churches have split away, resulting in disputes about property and money. The anti-gay Churches also see themselves as the true Anglicans and ask why they should be the ones to leave.

So although the battle lines are not often set out in quite these stark terms, the crux of the battle is to ascertain who will finish up with the authority to act, work and spend in the name of the Anglican Communion.  Who are the ‘true’ Anglicans is the question that is being contested here.

If those who are anti-gay move to the centre then they will speak for Anglicanism on the world wide stage, and they will surely move to isolate and exclude those Anglican Churches that accept homosexuality. If the pro-gay group wins the day then they will allow the others to stay in - but will refuse to stop the development of gay ministries - including gay bishops. If indecision prevails then, of course, neither side will be seen to have a victory.

 The policy to date  has been to make more and more time for discussion and reflection - in effect to spin the whole affair out as long as possible in the hope, no doubt, that the anti-gay churches would come round to the idea of co-existence with the liberals. As mentioned above - it was always a vain  hope, but it had to be tried.   

The forthcoming act of signing up to the Covenant is pivotal. By that act the churches will sign away their right to autonomy. They then become bound by the decisions of the churches engaging in the Covenant. This is crucial because it is the only way that the majority of the churches can evict or sideline a member church. At present each Church is autonomous - but once they sign up to the Covenant they agree to be bound by the decision of the majority. They thus cannot disagree or object when an inner circle of churches is formed - all of which agree with the anti-gay position. This will leave the remainder of the churches - which adopt an pro-gay stance - to be relegated into an ‘outer’ group - the outer circle of churches that will have no decision-making power. They will become the ‘observers’.

A Church either votes with the majority - against the pro-gay group - or it relegates itself to the outer group of churches which are exempted from speaking or acting for the Anglican Communion. That is the choice presented to the thirty eight Churches of the Anglican Communion. The alternative is to decline to sign up to the Covenant. Or to agree to the Covenant only subject to some detailed conditions that might, for example, guarantee the right to retain or regain autonomy in certain circumstances. The final effect of such a move is as yet unclear.

If some of those thirty eight Churches lay down conditions under which they are prepared to sign up to the Covenant - or if they refuse to sign up to it at all - then clearly there will have to be a rethink and it will be more difficult for the anti-gay Churches to simply form their inner circle of power. My guess, however, is that it would still not stop them trying to do just that!

After the present ‘Covenant assessment’ phase the thirty eight churches are required to report back. Then there will be an assessment and we shall have to await to see what happens next.

The next few years will see the development of the Anglican Communion one way or the other. Either it will go down the route of a centrally organised group that is dominated by a group of churches at its heart. Or it will refuse to go down the Covenant route to an authoritative type of organisation and stay, instead, in a loosely knit group or federation of churches of some sort - a group that attempts to pray and move together along the route that they believe the Holy Spirit is showing them. Such a group would work by consensus and tolerance and would mirror the historical stance of the Anglican tradition.

The depressing scenario for the liberal churches is that once the anti-gay churches get into the position of directing the way the Anglican Communion goes in the future, they will rule that homosexuality is wrong. That would stop there being any new gay clergy anywhere in churches in the central core Anglican Churches. Then they might rule that homosexuality, being condemned in the bible, is a sin and an offence to God and was not to be tolerated. That might mean that gay clergy would have to accept restrictions or even lose their jobs. Next there might be a ruling that homosexuality and Anglicanism do not go together - and that would start a movement against gay laity being in the church. Then it might even be that we start to see what has been happening in Uganda recently - an attempted move against homosexuals and acceptance of persecution of gay people.  All of this may seem far fetched or at least a very long way off. But that is what is happening at the present moment in Uganda and should give us all pause to consider which direction we want the Anglican Communion to go.

Tony Cross
February 2010

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