Friday, October 8, 2010

Is a Covenant UnAnglican?

It is often asserted that Anglicanism is not confessional in the same sense as are other churches of the Reformation. By extension, it is argued anything like a covenant would be foreign to the Anglican spirit. While it is arguable whether the Articles of Religion are more or less like a confession, the more interesting question is why they never had the same significance for the Church of England as confessions like the Augsburg (Lutheran) and Westminster (Presbyterian) have had for other traditions. I submit that this was because one of the main rationale for confessions was provided elsewhere.

Confessions serve as symbols of belonging which give particular communities a shared identity. As such, they are sources of cohesion and delineate communal boundaries. Every community has such symbols of cohesion and boundary. The Church of England did not need a “robust’ confession because it had another source of identity and loyalty – the crown (or more broadly, the insipient nation-state that was England). It is not so much that the C of E chose not to go the confessional/covenantal route as it is that it chose a different route – covenanting with the state. This Erastianism – the doctrine that the state is supreme over the church – is our tradition’s original and besetting sin.

The Church of England was unique among Reformation Churches in being formed primarily as a national church. The primary motivational belief was the belief in national sovereignty and national sovereignty over the church. When Elizabeth I made her famous statement about not making windows into men’s souls, she was simply declaring the crown’s part in this covenant. The state would not concern itself with what you believed in your heart of hearts as long as you were willing to participate in the common worship of the state church, thus declaring your ultimate loyalty to the state and fulfilling your part of the covenant. Even when it was required, subscription to the Articles might have had more to do with this sign of loyalty to the crown/state than to the particulars contained therein. The C of E “tolerated” more religious eccentricity than some churches whose covenants were more confessional, but that diversity never included disloyalty to the crown. That would be breaking the covenant and thus a sort of heresy.

This covenant with the state and its Established Church has been the gravitational center around which the parties within the Church of England moved together. Establishment still makes the classic balance more or less possible in England, but it is losing its gravitational force as England becomes more and more secular and pluralistic.

Of course, after the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church was not an officially established church. But, it was a key player in the unofficial, but de facto, Protestant establishment that was dominant in the United States up until the middle of the 20th century. That, along, perhaps, with a certain class affinity provided common ground enough to hold its various sub-groups together more or less. But, both class affinity and de facto establishment have come undone in the wake of a more pluralistic, increasingly post-Christian, and socially fractured context. In such a situation, what is the center that holds the sub-traditions (Evangelical, High Church/Catholic, Broad Church/Liberal, etc.) of classic Anglican comprehensiveness in anything like balance? What exists to deliver us from our own version of Erastianism in which we are fundamentally an American church (albeit, increasingly - and even more parochially - a liberal/progressive American church)?

A formal covenant might not be the only way to provide cohesion to a body as large and varied as is the Anglican Communion. But, in a post-established, post-colonial, post-Christendom, post-modern era; if we are to have a Communion instead of a loose collection of national or culture-specific churches, we need to pay careful attention to how we insure that we are able to recognize each other as speaking the same language – albeit with different accents.

I support the idea of an Anglican Communion Covenant, but not because I want to assure some sort of conservative ideal of a halcyon past. Rather, I think it is a plausible and faithful next move of the trajectory we have been on for the last 50 years as the Anglican Communion has become more aware of itself. A transnational/transcultural Communion helps us bear witness to the kingdom of God in which nation, race and culture are no longer definitive. It helps guard us against the idolatry of nation or culture or ideology. Such a witness will be harder, if not almost impossible, to offer or receive if we cease to belong to each other and dissolve into several “coalitions of the willing”.

The evolution of the Anglican Communion has provided a context for rethinking our Erastian heritage and what it means to be the Church. One way or another, in a post-Christendom, post-colonial context our Anglican heritage will be reworked. A trans-national communion of mutual respect, accountability, and responsibility to one another across the boundaries of nation and culture is the trajectory of our evolution. It is a faithful trajectory for a church that confesses to believe the Church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I do not think that trajectory takes us toward a Roman Catholic model. It does challenge modern notions of nationalism and individualism.

The question, ultimately, is not whether or not we will have a covenant of some sort. The question is whether or not that covenant will be explicit or implicit and whether it will be global or more “provincial”. And will it be able to offer a challenge to our more parochial loyalties to nation, culture, and class.


Tony Hunt said...

Fr. Gunter,

I too support the Covenant for pretty much the same reasons as you do. But I would add the proviso that I would like to see it give way to a greater emphasis on unity through episcopacy, with Canterbury as a primus inter pares. I also would not be opposed to a 'unified' system of canon law, and even to a prima inter pares BCP w/ minor catechism taking Nicene Orthodoxy as the standard.

What are your thoughts with respect to these ideas?

Tony Hunt said...

p.s. - By this it is subtlely implied that I'd like to see the very idea of 'provinces' done away with except as a bare bones necessity for conforming to the 'natural' laws of the nation state within which such a group is situated. That is, I'd like to see Lambeth as the primary authority as opposed to the Primates, which seems seems much less 'catholic' to me.

Kip Ashmore said...

Dear Matt - Good post on the dynamics of covenant. Your analysis of the nation and state church as covenant "glue" of the C of E gives one important food for thought as we seek to discern our current Anglican Covenant. Thanks for the insight. Kip Ashmore

Anonymous said...

I think that you are spot on about the Articles. And, I wholly agree with your point about the primacy of monarch. If I may, I should like to add that monarchy was a devotional and not merely political or ecclesial point of focus for Anglicans. This is brought out quite explicitly if we turn to the study of King Charles the Martyr (see:, whose cult and remembrance was enshrined in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

However, I disagree that the CoE tolerated more diversity; rather, from the Restoration on, the CoE had a well-defined orthodoxy and a particular way of reading its own English heritage (i.e., back through King Charles the Martyr to figures such as the Four Western Doctors, Benedict, Alban, etc.). The monarchy bounded orthodoxy, for sure, although with the Glorious Revolution this began to break apart. One might recall that John Wesley was tormented for years over whether or not he should be a Jacobite (his mother was one). There was much popular (both Jacobite and High Church/Tory/Anglican) hostility to the Hanoverians, especially George I (who banned Canterbury Convocation). Those who were Low Church/Whig/Nonconformist tended to support the Hanoverians. And there was a bright line separating Whig Anglicans, who were quite few in number, for the more sacramentally and historically intensive majority of the Anglican population (which we today would call High Church - they used the same term, but it denoted Anglican orthodoxy rather than a party).

Does the Covenant create a point of focus - ecclesial, devotional, or political - or, does it strive to craft a way of life? If the latter rather than the former, it seems to me that we should in fact claim that the Covenant is not confessional, but is instead ecclesiological. There is nothing in the Covenant that we don't already believe. Because it does not attempt to bound orthodoxy in any new ways, and because it does not attempt to change devotional practices or bound the Communion's administrative machinery, I would argue that the Covenant is in fact the death of Anglican Confessionalism (a small but loud movement in recent years).

Thank you for your wonderful article. It provides much good food for thought!

Matt Gunter said...


The Covenant names the 1662 BCP as a sort of "prima inter pares." The idea of a unified system of canon law might be good if there is flexibility enough to allow for local adaptation. The ABC already functions as a sort of primus inter pares, but I am wary, as Rowan seems to be, of creeping papalism. I find the Orthodox model of the Patriarch of Constantinople more appealing myself.

Similarly, as with the OC model, I don't mind the system of provinces which allow for subsidiarity as long as we recognize that we are contitutionally part of something bigger, more global, more catholic.

Matt Gunter said...


Thanks for dropping by. I hope whatever reflections I post on this topic might aid the church's discernment.

Matt Gunter said...


My contention is not that there has always been theological tolerance meaningfully achieved between parties within the C of E. Rather, all parties have have more or less (at times more, at times less) coexisted because all were united by the mutual covenant with the state. I believe that covenant needs to be challenged. But, when it breaks down, what replaces it?