05 March 2007

Covenant: Theory & Practice.


The Rev'd Dr. Ephraim Radner, a member of the Covenant Design Group, speaks - at length and in depth - concerning the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion:

To covenant with one another, therefore, cannot possibly contradict Anglicanism. Otherwise it contradicts God himself. I cannot put it more strongly. Any canonical law, any provincial property, any theological program can only bow before this fundamental reality. That does not speak to particulars, but it does speak to what we are about.

We should also note in this light how any covenant ought therefore properly to function. I mention this, in particular, in response to those criticisms that the Proposed Covenant is too “bland” and has no “teeth”. The active character of any covenant is, as I have said, “trustworthiness”; it is about keeping promises. The notion of “teeth” is, in a sense, ill-suited to such a context. Obviously, there are consequences to promise-breaking. The main consequence is a loss of trust – something that the Primates themselves spoke to in their Communiqué (9), following the Windsor Report, as the “illness” that has infected the Communion. And with a loss of trust comes a host of other consequences. But you cannot “make” people either enter into promises or “make” people keep them. One can only acknowledge promise-keeping and promise-breaking, and live with the outcome of their choices, where trust has either strengthened a life together or its loss has torn it apart. The consequence of all good is the fruit of righteousness; the consequence of all evil the envelopment by the sinner of sin itself.

A key question in this regard, and one that is more limited, that some have raised is this: would the Proposed Covenant (or any other version of a covenant) in and of itself have prevented the current “illness”, if you will? Certainly, it would not have done so in the sense that no covenant can prevent people from breaking their word, in one way or another. A mechanism of the imposition of “sanctions” within a covenant makes of it no longer a covenant; and furthermore, sanctions themselves do not beget a change of will or engender trustworthiness. It is true that the Windsor Report made it clear that a covenant was in fact needed in order to avoid future “crippling” conflicts. But how did they mean this? What a covenant can do is to make explicit that to which one is committed, and to which one makes a promise and to the character of that promise, and therefore the character of the consequences to be expected if promises are broken. Here, I think, the Proposed Covenant is clear enough, and fair enough, both positively and negatively (as section 6 spells it out). When covenants are made and then broken – and this the Proposed Covenant describes – the fruit and reality of trustworthiness and the conversion to which it leads are squandered and slip into the waters of isolated drift. The Covenant provides a way of describing this and articulating – judging – when this has taken place. To this degree, it lays out a method of adjudication.

Finally, we can see how, in light of the trustworthy promising of covenant that binds communion, the actual “content” of a covenant, at least as I have outlined its meaning, cannot be primarily propositional, although it is full of implications that can indeed be put in propositional form (although that is the task for bishops, pastors, and catechists). Rather the content of the Covenant has to do with articulating a way of embodying the truth of God’s promises and of our Yes to them. The question is not first of all “can a liberal or a conservative sign on to this set of doctrines”—and thereby, can we test whether the doctrines are orthodox or progressive or this or that. Rather the question is “can this church keep its word in its life in communion as it says ‘yes’ to the gift of God’s own life given in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, that is to God’s actual love?”

 

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