Humility, Grace and Freedom

Talk given at St Matthew's Westminster on Saturday 22 Sept 2007

The Revd Canon Dr Joseph Cassidy
St Chad's College
Durham University

I joined the Church of England because I came to appreciate its comprehensiveness: it was big enough to include me, an ex-Jesuit, married Roman Catholic priest. I was attracted to the Church of England because I was an ecclesial refugee: excommunicated, churchless, sacrament-less. While I considered other churches, the clincher for me was the ordination of women; and, while several things gave me pause about becoming Anglican, the biggest pause was the flip-side of what attracted me: Anglican catholicity — the ability of Anglicanism to contain (though only barely) groups that disagreed on such important things as ordination, episcopacy, the Eucharist, the authority of scripture, the nature (and number) of sacraments, the role of women, and sexual ethics. I joined a church that contained people in good-standing who disagreed with me on almost everything I thought was theologically important enough to take a stand on. And I was, and I remain, grateful after these 15 or so years that there was enough uncomfortable space in the Church of England for someone like me, whose theological and sacramental universe remains, for better or worse, Catholic in a Roman sort of way.

I mention all of this as a prelude because at the heart of what attracted me to Anglicanism was a kind of institutional humility, even a kind of potential holiness, that I find compelling. Despite a few loud voices now and then, Anglicans do not pretend to be the epitome of the Church. They — now we — don't think that Anglicanism on its own is the future of Christianity, though we trust that God may bring unity to his universal church by building on a few things that Anglicans have learnt over the centuries. We don't claim infallibility for our bishops or archbishops. Even though we can do so, we don't tend to excommunicate people for holding on to erroneous doctrines. We allow all sorts of people to call themselves Anglicans simply by being on a parish role, or less, no matter which church they were baptised in.

So here's what puzzles me: Given all this openness, why can't we allow or even authorise the Episcopal Church to experiment with including gay lay-people, gay deacons, gay priests and, yes, gay bishops? (I am using the term 'gay' in a horribly imprecise way to include all those who suffer ecclesial exclusion on the basis of any form of gender discrimination. Indeed, the thrust of what is argued here still applies to women in many of our churches.) Why can't we allow the Episcopal Church to experiment with same-sex/quasi-nuptual blessings? Why can't we ask the Episcopal Church to undertake, on behalf of the rest of the Church, a ministry of discernment within and alongside the various gay and lesbian communities? Why can't we enable the Episcopal Church to push their idea of baptismal inclusiveness to the hilt to see whether it enhances holiness? Why can't we do that? What is the real risk of doing so and what is the real risk of not doing so?

In one sense, the answer is obvious: we can't because many Anglicans in many provinces think the question is closed; others think the timing isn't right; others think more theological reflection needs to occur before testing things in the field; others (hopefully only a few) write off the whole thing derisively as a pandering to modernity.

I take seriously what the Episcopal Church is trying to do. Unlike some, I do not believe that the Episcopal Church are a bunch of uncritical liberals, glibly and mindlessly embracing contemporary values as if they were obvious Christian values. My own theological and ethical instincts are decidedly conservative on most issues, but I do see the Episcopal Church taking a costly road, which admittedly is capable of jolting the foundations, and which would inevitably cause friction. I cannot but see a serious attempt to act with integrity. And that goes for all sides.

In one sense, I'm not surprised that this is occurring in the US, but I wouldn't put it down to Episcopalian American liberalism. Rather, in a culture still barely coming to grips with a long and horribly-recent history of slavery, racial segregation, and racism, it should be impossible for the Church not to wonder whether we're doing it again — only this time to another group identified as different in a different sort of way. That's not American hubris, but real humility, an awareness of the possibility of grave sin. Because, if there's any chance whatsoever that we're doing it yet again, then not to take it seriously, not to take the possibility that we, the Church, might be caught in a long, deep cycle of social sin — well that's dangerous to the soul, a real sin of omission, one that can be profoundly destructive to a great many people. In any event, taking it seriously means testing it, testing the direction the Episcopal Church is moving in to see whether it is 'of the Lord.'

I'd like to state some theological positions that I think urge us to be more experimental, to enable us to enter a proper discernment process. They admittedly present God in an anthropomorphic way, suggesting that God has ideas, expectations and what-have-you; but I'll trust you to work through the theological over-simplifications to arrive at the basic points:

1. God expects us to have to work to figure out what's right and wrong. God doesn't expect us to work it out infallibly, because we're not infallible. God doesn't expect us to be able to anticipate all the effects of our actions, because we're not omniscient. If God didn't mind our getting things wrong, even quite wrong, God would have made a different sort of universe, and certainly would not have entrusted our gradual development to evolution. God expects us to learn moral lessons the hard way, often, even usually, after the fact. It's okay for us, for the Church, to make mistakes, even moral mistakes, even big moral mistakes, and to make such mistakes for centuries, for millennia. How else are we expected to learn? But that implies (a) that we need to be open to the possibility of learning new lessons, of changing our minds; and (b) that we won't always do so overnight.

2. Growth in ethical wisdom means sometimes deciding that things we thought were right are wrong, and things we thought were wrong are right, and that some things that we thought were clearly right or wrong all the time and in every place are actually right or wrong depending on different contexts.

3. God is the consummate communicator. If Scripture is not so clear as we might like it to be on loads of tricky moral questions, that's not because God has left things ambiguous to test us; it's not because God wants us all to become top-notch biblical scholars to figure out what God was really trying to say in a supposed and characteristically-inscrutable divine manner. Nor is it because our new contemporary ethical questions are all pre-answered in code, hidden in Scripture. If God chooses not to reveal X or Y as clearly as we might like, it's perhaps because God ha snot done so (or even prefers not to): perhaps God thinks it's better that we figure out X or Y; or perhaps it's because our capacity for doing the good is emergent and developmental; or perhaps the morality of X or Y depends on contexts that cannot be predefined or codified appropriately once-for-all even in a uniquely-inspired book. Again, this is painted in theologically unsophisticated language, but the point is that there are no short cuts to the hard work of figuring out what to do: it is not a matter of looking for answers out-there-somewhere.

4. On some issues, though admittedly on only a few (say slavery, usury, the subservience of women to men, perhaps even capital punishment some day), we have departed from clear ethical prescriptions or clear permissive stances in both the New and Old Testaments. We did so for good reason, and we did so by appealing to other scripturally-based principles; but if we are to hold somehow to the inerrancy of Scripture (however we understand that), it is essential, though far from easy, to distinguish between those affirmations whose truth is revealed for the sake of our salvation and those other matters that reflect the then-current faith of the people of Israel or of the early Church as it as developing. Once a single exception is made, then the possibility of further exceptions must be considered. Of course, if individuals aren't willing to grant the need to exercise such hermeneutical judgement, then the conversation is liable to falter before it begins.

These basic, and again horribly anthropomorphised, theological points are not meant either to be exhaustive or to be rock-solid. They urge us, rather, to wonder whether a serious search for ethical truth does indeed need to have an experimental element. Another way of putting it would be: Can the search for the good always be done in an a priori (deontological) fashion, which is to say from first principles? Or do the data upon which ethical insights are based need to be concrete and practical? After all, often the first hint that we need to rethink our ethical stances is the encounter with real suffering: it wasn't ethical argumentation, but the Holocaust, that woke up the world and the Church to the horror of anti-Semitism — hard data. Is it reasonable to anticipate that sin and harm walk hand-in-hand, so that to understand whether something is sinful requires a real investigation of where harm emerges? Is there more harm caused by countenancing or encouraging monogamous gay relationships than otherwise? Is that sort of question and the resultant data morally relevant or beside the point? And if there is need to attend to hard data, can we have access to such data if we look only at gay relationships in a context where the Church defines the relationship as objectively evil? Will such a context allow gay relationships to flourish or will it contaminate the data?

Real day-to-day Christian decision-making and discipleship are often uncomfortably experimental — even risky — unless we're absolutely sure we've got it all right all of the time. If we're not sure about the rightness or wrongness of certain acts, then the Church is going to have to take risks, theological risks, moral risks and authorize the taking of such risks. Relying on past moral insights is not good enough, because not discovering the real good means putting up with real people's real suffering, with potential injustice and with cruelty. The moral relevance of a possible link between sin and harm does not arise solely from gay relationships, but also from their prohibition.

I think it necessary to say explicitly that ethical experimentation is not imperilling people's souls. To think otherwise is to challenge our Creator, who made a universe that produced fallible (and far less than omniscient) beings. We must explore and discover and actually create a 'moral' universe, because morality is all about agency: morality is not out-there-somewhere, waiting to be discovered. Morality isn't codified in the way nature operates (natural law is about something quite different and is fundamentally about reasonableness, not just normative patterns in nature). Giving credit to Aristotle, the good is what good people do, and the seeming circularity of that approach is not to be lost: the circularity points back to ourselves, to our need to attend to pertinent experiences, to understand those experiences, to sift through our understanding and our misunderstandings of those experiences, to discern what is valuable, to discern how to promote those values, to chose when conflicting values present us with challenges.  And so on. The challenge through all this is to remain true to the dynamism of Christian discipleship, to stay on the road, rather than to short-circuit everything and stop along the way. And that means testing boundaries, testing ourselves; it means sometimes re-receiving the received in a different way from the past.

I should also say that being open to ethical experimentation does not imply that we need to test everything. There is no need to shoot someone for the fun of it to confirm that it's not right. An openness to the experimental, to the permissive, only makes sense when there is some reasonable doubt about the rightness or wrongness of an act or a pattern of acts (witness the old debates about robabiliarism). That means, of course, that we have to take one another's profound doubts seriously.

So why aren't we more willing to be ethically experimental? I'd like to approach that question in terms of tomorrow's Gospel reading for Evensong, John 7.14-36.

The crowd couldn't figure out where Jesus got his authority from, where Jesus got his wisdom from. From an earlier chapter in John, we gather that Jesus had apparently broken the law by healing on the Sabbath — doing a work, albeit a good work, on the day of rest. They evidently had accused him of departing from the tradition, of doing what was prohibited by the law. And they challenged him: they wanted him to prove himself, not in terms of what he said or did, but in terms of who authorised him, who taught him. Somehow the proof was more important than what he did and what he said.

But Jesus wouldn't have it. He argued that anyone who was committed to doing the will of God would recognise the teaching as coming from God. He argued that he was entitled to heal on the Sabbath, that there was precedent, that they should be able to figure this out themselves with right judgement. To put words in his mouth, what he really seems to have been emphasising was that, if they were in tune with God, they'd recognise the goodness of what he'd done, they'd see God's hand in the truth of the preaching and the goodness of the healing. If they'd open their eyes and their hearts, they'd know where his authority came from, they'd be familiar with what he was saying, they'd recognise the Father's authority in what he was saying. If they'd put aside their prejudices, their pre-judgements, their biases, their fixed notions of what the law requires or doesn't, their presuppositions of who the Messiah was supposed to be, their ideas of whom God could speak through — if they'd simply listen, they'd know.

I realise that my use of this text can be seen as special pleading, but I wouldn't have thought of the text except that I'm preaching on it tomorrow. That caveat aside, the text does seem to suggest that one can have insights into the rightness or wrongness of an act by attending to the hard data in the concrete act itself. We need to be willing to discover or discern God's will for us: we need to learn how best to live authentic, honest, holy sexual lives, among a great, great many other things. (This obviously goes far beyond our debates about homosexuality, for it is not at all clear to me that we've got it right about sexuality in general.) We need to be willing to discover whether God's particular will is different for different people: what moral difference do other differences make? But there's no point to pretending to discern if we're already absolutely sure that we know God's will. There's no point in going through the motions if we are not willing to consider the concrete data of real-life relationships.

The refusal to attend to the concrete, to the real, is seemingly part of what Jesus was so upset about: the crowds and the Jewish religious leaders wrote Jesus off because they knew God's will: they had pre-set notions about what was permitted by the law. Something good was occurring right before their eyes, but they couldn't see it, they wouldn't see it. /div>

This goes for both sides of our current debate about homosexuality. People are talking past each other, accusing one another of not being able to see the good that's right in front of their noses: (a) the good of reading scripture in a way that takes dead seriously the belief that it is the
norma normans non normata — the norm of other norms, not subject to other norms; a normative source that should mould our experience rather than a normative source that is judged by allegedly more fundamental norms allegedly derived from experience, versus (b) the good of friendships that are more intimate than many people think they should be, and which are claimed to be more authentic than some people think they could possibly be. These are short-hand caricatures, to be sure, but the juxtaposition of formal theological language in (a) with the language of friendship in (b) suggests part of the problem: we not only can't agree on what the good is, but we don't know how to talk to each other.

It would be too easy to accuse those on one side or the other of current debates of being more like Jesus' critics. The moral point of the readings is meant for all of us: we're all like those in the crowd — none of us is entirely committed to doing God's will; we're all partially blind to what God is doing in our midst; we're all partially deaf to the real heart of Jesus' message. That should go without saying. None of us is worthy. None of us is infallible. None of us can afford to assume moral superiority. And that's especially difficult when everyone knows that he or she is right.

Again, I appreciate this is loaded, but I do wonder whether the Gospel, and not just today's gospel reading but the Gospel writ large, is constantly challenging all of us to be spiritually free enough to hear something unexpected from God, to be spiritually free enough to be open to a more profound, costly level of discipleship.

And of course it does. Who could possibly preach against the need to be free enough to hear God speak to us in ever more challenging ways? But the challenge is more tricky than that: the real challenge is how to be spiritually free while eschewing relativism, to be free while still being passionately committed to what we have received — from Scripture, from our being members of the Church that passes on teaching form one generation to the next, and from the profound transforming experiences of the Spirit. Spiritual freedom is not synonymous with the quest for radical novelty. It does not mean that we can't be sure of anything, confident of anything. Spiritual freedom doesn't mean being morally insouciant or completely anarchic. Spiritual freedom does not mean that we have to nurse a doubt about the full inclusion of everyone in the Church or vice versa. Spiritual freedom doesn't require us to be heartless and mindless. /div>

Spiritual freedom is rather a measure of whether I'd be willing to change my mind if God required it of me. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, urged his companions to aim for 'indifference': though it is a bit of a misnomer, in his terms 'indifference' is a quest for equilibrium, a desire to be inclined to one option or another solely because it is closer to God's will for us. In other words it is a desire to be swayed by nothing other than God's will. It's difficult to explain in a few words, but Ignatius realised we have all kinds of preferences, complex sets of priorities; but if we could get our motivation clear, if we really wanted to be motivated solely by whatever is more conducive to God's praise and glory, then that would have a ripple effect on all our other desires. The experience of indifference is accompanied by an exquisite sense of freedom; the sign of being indifferent is related to that sense of freedom via the absence of compulsion; and the fruit of indifference is the readiness or availability to do God's will for God's sake. If such indifference becomes a habit, a virtue, then one gets a feel for God's ways, one has an openness to being persuaded by God without requiring God to prove God's self because the Spirit animating a particular desire is recognised as coming from God —though discernment is always needed because we are perpetually capable of deceiving ourselves and because it is one thing to desire something authentically and another thing to figure out how best to fulfil the desire.

And spiritual freedom is a real grace. Spiritual freedom is a willingness to allow the Holy Spirit within us to recognise God's often subtle hand in our world, in our choices. And the signs of whether that spiritual freedom exists are well-known — they can be summed up in such words as charity, forbearance, humility — you know them. And if these are lacking in our current debates, and it's pretty obvious that they are sorely lacking, then there is not enough spiritual freedom in the mix to enable us to trust those who are fighting, sometimes quite literally
fighting, their various corners. It's hard not to throw stones here, but if people cannot come together around the Lord's table as fellow-sinners, then something is dreadfully wrong, spiritually wrong. This is not of the Lord. Full-stop. None of us is worthy to receive the crumbs that fall from his table. None of us is a little more worthy or a little less worthy. None of us is ever worthy.

Jesus expected the crowd and their religious leaders to be able to see the good that was occurring before their eyes. That to me is the real argument the Episcopal Church is making throughout these many years. But the argument requires a prior commitment on the Communion's part to be willing to experiment ethically. Such a prior commitment requires an uncommon degree of freedom; and it's not just any old freedom that is required; it's not a reckless sort of freedom; rather it is the kind of freedom that is borne of being more concerned to conform to God's will than to confirm my own will. div>

In all this, I am reminded of Stanley Hauerwas's article in
Sanctify Them in the Truth, where he challenges us to begin to think about such issues not with theology, but through friendship; and, in this case, through close, soul-to-soul friendships with gay people. This is an eminently experimental, and an uncommonly generous, approach. Unless we're willing to do that, unless we get a chance really to see the good that is claimed to occur in gay relationships, we're lacking some crucially important hard data for doing serious theology.

It's one thing, for instance, to debate whether it's right to practise medicine on the Sabbath, whether such things shouldn't be done on another day; but it's quite another thing to witness the joy of healing on the Sabbath, and then to wonder about the rules. And Hauerwas suggests that, when you are close friends with gay people, you might experience stories that sound strangely familiar, stories of being lost, of having felt excluded from God's grace, of self-hatred and disgust; stories of all these being transformed by unearned love; stories that sound tellingly like the Christian story; stories that suggest that we might all be part of the same story and so belong together. And you may also discover that, in hearing these stories, the Christian community is built-up, strengthened, nourished — which, for Hauerwas, is key for the discernment of whether homosexual relationships are good: Do they in fact build up the community?

This sort of question can't be answered in an a priori, abstract manner — not with serious Christian brothers and sisters who are claiming conflicting data. At the very least, such experiences ought to give one pause; and if they give one pause, the theological journey begins — you've got some real data to do a bit of theology. And the theological journey isn't a matter solely for those in favour of full inclusion; it's not just up to the Episcopal Church to prove their case, as Windsor seemed to imply. No, the theological challenge is for everyone: how do we account for these data? Perhaps the theological challenge is principally for those against: How do you account for these conflicting data? These data cannot be dismissed; they can be explained differently, but not dismissed.

In the laboratory, conflicting, unexpected data are often the beginning of a discovery. It is true that experience does not lead ineluctably to understanding. Without asking the right questions, without having the right sort of hunches, without realising the significance of parts of our experience, no understanding emerges. No doubt these experiences of alleged grace can be understood in different ways, as I said; but they cannot be dismissed without risking labelling something evil that is actually gracious. And Jesus rather famously warned us about that. In fact, Jesus was himself a victim of precisely that sort of attitude.

Getting back to Hauerwas and friendship, what if huge parts of the Church refuse such offers of friendship? What are those who are calling for change to do? This is, I believe, the situation that the Episcopal Church finds itself in. Do you say, 'Like it or not, we're a part of you?' Do you say, 'Like it or not, we're part of the covenant, no matter whether you think we're unusually sinful or not?' Do you say, 'Since we have so many gay people in our midst, we're going to try to be as inclusive as we can be so that we can discern as honestly as we can about whether this builds up our community, and so discern whether this is God's will for us?' Do you elect gay bishops and so cheekily offer the possibility of friendship with gays into the international circle of bishops?

Which brings me to another problem.

Who is making these decisions? Who is talking to whom?

The Lambeth position being defended is that genital activity belongs only in heterosexual marriages. If agreement on this becomes a strict requirement for churches being part of the Anglican Communion, then individual non-celibate gay people are outside the Church. But I think the Communion is saying something a bit more nuanced. We're saying, at least here in the UK, that not everyone in the Church, not every bishop for instance, is absolutely sure that the Church has got it right on this, and we at least note disagreements on this issue. We also say that (a) you can in good conscience disagree and still remain part of the Church, and that (b) we can in good conscience accept you as part of the Church. (Or we could be saying that we think the Church has been right about this, but we don't think it's important enough doctrinally to justify making it a creedal requirement). Either way, if you say further that, because of such disagreements, bishops need to be chosen from the heterosexual or celibate end of the things so that they can be symbols of unity, then you need to address gay people not by having bishops talk to bishops about gay people (they're out of the loop), but by addressing gay people more directly — that is, if we're honest about gay people truly being part of the Church.

I say this because the only good reason I can think of for asking the Episcopal Church to hold back, or to turn back, is if gay members of that church authorise their church to do so, by saying that they are willing as a group to suffer continued exclusion, at least for the time-being. In other words, unless we excommunicate sexually active gay people, they are part of our church: it is not up to us to exclude them from such things as episcopal governance, for they are we — unless we have different classes of membership, say a class for the more righteous and a class for the less righteous. But if we don't segregate people in such ways, it would be for gay people to decide sacrificially to exclude themselves as the cost of being part of a worldwide communion that cannot or will not change any time soon — if that's the right thing.

I realise that even asking the question in such terms is difficult, but that's what seems to be being asked of gay people — a self-exclusion from governance. As you'll see in a moment, I don't think we can demand this of any members of the Church, but I do think that it can be asked and/or offered.

That said, I really do think we're addressingthe wrong people.  Rowan Williams, from what I can tell, has apparently decided that moving at a speed that keeps people together is actually best for everyone in the long run; and I am certain that he recognises and has suffered the cost of that prudential judgement. More than that, he has asked others to suffer some very real costs for the sake of the communion. Presumably, the Archbishop believes that moratoria on electing gay bishops and blessing gay relationships are God's particular will for us now (though this is not his sort of language), which is only to say that it is the best available option for the Communion at this time (though that arguably says more about us than about God).

But my point is that we need to find some way to put that question rather more directly to those whom it will most effect. I presume that Rowan Williams is actually addressing gay people rather more directly than he is able to let on. I suspect so, because integrity demands that we be honest about what we are requiring of one another, lest we require less of ourselves. And I'd expect him to be doing so quietly, respectfully, without grandstanding or unnecessarily fanning any flames. In any event, it seems a bit odd to exclude gay members of the Church from the episcopacy and then ask the episcopacy to decide such issues on their behalf.

We can only put that question to gay Christians with integrity if the rest of the Church is willing to act as sacrificially as we are calling others to act — which means, I think, that the Church has to be willing to abide by the answer gay people will give to such a request — an invitation to everyone to exercise real spiritual freedom, to reach for real holiness, to act as though we all had profound trust in our God who wants us, who requires us, to work our way through tough ethical issues. I say this because it may be supremely difficult for those who have been excluded to sanctify their continued exclusion by accepting this as a cross to be borne, as God's will for them for the time-being. Because that's what we're asking. If the Church has got it wrong, we, the Church, are asking those whom we have victimised to let us victimise them a bit (or a lot) longer for the sake of the Church; and we're saying that this is God's will for the time-being. And, strange as it may sound, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, this may well be what is being asked of them, of us. But they need to be asked.  It cannot be demanded. And if it were asked, I do think the Church then has an obligation to outline quite concretely how it plans to discern anew, how it plans to be open to the spiritually-experimental process of discerning the good.

The Anglican Covenant

By way of conclusion, I want to make a few points about the Anglican covenant, and I strongly commend Archbishop Barry Morgan's recent address, as he raised some very significant points, not least about how a covenant may be used. Rather than raising the same points, I am going to point to a similar range of concerns.

I'd be reluctantly in favour of some sort of covenant, but I'd like it to be short and to address some of the following concerns:

1. We need somehow to embrace the unconditionality of the Noahide, Abrahamic and Davidic covenants (to name several). These ancient covenants were not one-sided; they expected certain ways of complying; they could be dishonoured by disobedience, but they could not be withdrawn. Like it or not, the people of Israel are God's people. And despite a long history of various groups trying to do so, no one sub-group can rightly claim to be God's people to the exclusion of others. It's not a tribal matter, it's not a matter of figuring out who the real Hasedim are.

2. Related to this, we need to take on board that a covenant is a grace; it is not earned; it is not achieved; there is an irreducible givenness to a covenant when theologically-conceived. Otherwise, it's just a contract with theological wrapping-paper on top. In other words, you don't earn a right to be part of the covenanted group; rather you acknowledge that you're an utterly unworthy recipient of a divine invitation to be part of the Church, part of the new covenant established not by us, but by Jesus' life, death and resurrection, which you entered into by baptism and which is sustained through the Eucharist and through a life of shared discipleship.

3. The Anglican Communion must be convinced that they are the Church if they're to claim any right to use covenant language. I don't mean this in any iumphalistic way, but in an inclusive way. If we are not the Church, an authentic historic branch of the Church, then we cannot claim any right to define such a covenant. It would be falsely claiming a grace that is not ours. We should instead speak of 'contract'.

4. But if we are the Church, if we embrace a covenant that begins with unearned grace, we need to acknowledge what we're saying when we envisage mechanisms for identifying communities that have moved beyond the bounds of the covenant. We need to wonder whether canon law is the best way of defining covenants. Are we saying that we will define the bounds of grace, the bounds not just of Anglicanism, but also of the Church? Do we dare?

5. But if we want to claim less than that, if we want a mechanism to draw a different boundary, a boundary say around Anglican Christians that does not make a judgement about those outside the boundary, are we justified in using the language of covenant, using God's language? Isn't this again presumptuous? Shouldn't we just be more honest and talk about a legal contract, with guidelines for what to do if the contract is broken. Isn't that more honest?

6. If, however, we still want to use the language of covenant, if we honestly want to start with grace, then any covenant must maintain the priority of grace over response: it must be a means of keeping Anglican communities and churches together, rather than be a means of excluding communities. And we ought to be able to do that with confidence, rather than with presumption, because we do know that God's will for God's Church is unity: we are, whether we like it or not, one body in Christ — that's the new covenant celebrated in every Eucharist, that's the eschatological dream that ought to fire our communal life and apostolic work. If the unity of the Anglican Communion is jeopardised by the actions of one or another province, then a covenant ought to be a way of reminding us of our inseparability, not a means of separating us. It ought to allow us to recognise communion when it is hard to see evident signs, rather than give us exit strategies. It ought to strengthen ties in times of tension, not offer us ways to untie ourselves from one another. Perhaps, the covenant should require that, when the communion is suffering, the whole communion go into prayer and fasting, that we redouble collaboration in non-contentious areas, that we insist on praying and sharing the Eucharist together more frequently so that the pain of having to receive communion together reminds us of what's at stake — that sort of thing. I'm serious. Why not?


At the end of the day, if we're going to have a covenant worth anything, it ought to be the fruit of real discernment, a discernment borne of real spiritual freedom, which is but another name for real holiness. No doubt, God will make do with something less, as God always has to do. But just as I wondered whether there is enough spiritual freedom in the Church to allow the Episcopal Church to experiment for the Church, I do also wonder whether there's enough spiritual freedom in the Church to be drawing up covenant documents at this time. Just as we all need to examine ourselves, perhaps the primates need to put that question honestly to one another next time they meet. They could make decisions without such freedom, but they cannot discern.