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Anglicans Online last updated 27 July 2014

an essay for Anglicans Online
5 August 2009

Covenant—was ist das auf Deutsch?
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Being on vacation does not preclude writing (though perhaps it should). I have been thinking about how things have different meanings in different languages, both from a strictly linguistic point of view and from the perspective of culture. Consider today’s date in the calendrier révolutionnaire, for instance. French writers to make a point still occasionally use it.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a carefully-worded statement following General Convention 2009. (My own analysis of that event is here.) Entitled Communion, Covenant, and Our Anglican Future, it has already engendered an enormous amount of commentary, a great deal of which is collected at Simon Sarmiento’s very helpful website, Thinking Anglicans. Episcopal News Service also offers a compendium. Being as I said on vacation, I had thought to just let it all go by. But as I have been writing for quite some time on the various topics raised in the Archbishop’s statement, a few thoughts keep popping up in my still-tired brain, and as usual, they will not leave me be until I have inflicted them upon you, Gentle Reader…

First, we Francophones have been discussing how to translate “covenant.” Is it alliance, as in a biblical covenant? Or should it be rather pacte?  Spanish seems easier: covenant is pacto, alianza meaning rather a political or social alliance. Since the proposed Anglican Covenant is made among Anglican churches, and not between God and us (as in the biblical covenants), pacte seems better in French.

But then there is that marvelously synthetic language, German. There are a significant number of Anglican congregations in Germany, and many Germans belonging to them—there is even a Council of Anglican-Episcopal Churches in Germany. So how can we translate “covenant” auf Deutsch?

Turns out there are a lot of candidates (see here, for instance). Not being proficient enough in the language of Goethe to pick out the perfect translation, I will leave it to other, better germanophones (though I am rather taken by verpflichtende Erklärung). My point is that “covenant” means a lot of things, and depending on where a commentator is coming from, even linguistically, the meaning ascribed to an “Anglican Covenant” changes. Thus the Left tends to see this Covenant process and final result (whenever it becomes available) as a cudgel with which to bring back into line The Episcopal Church and other provinces favorably inclined toward full inclusion of gay people in all orders of the church (“all the sacraments for all the baptized,” read the Integrity buttons at General Convention). The Right sees it as a ineffectual corrective without any teeth, or else as a veiled power grab of a different sort—to eventually legitimize the Left’s agenda. Some Asians, lacking any translation for “covenant” other than “contract,” oppose it for the resonances that both the word itself and the concept of a covenant among Anglicans have for them.

Et cetera. For what it’s worth, I do not believe the Covenant process deserves a full-blown hermeneutic of suspicion—that the process secretly seeks to subvert local autonomy in favor of a Curia-type structure. Skepticism about its ultimate value to the Communion might be better placed, but it is I think worth playing out the process to the end, as I have argued elsewhere. Archbishop Williams has once again stated his goal for it in his latest piece referenced above, and he has been quite consistent.

A few thoughts which keep popping up, therefore, and I can go back to vacationing…

1.) Back in 2006, when the Archbishop first evoked the specter of a “two-tier” Communion, he viewed it as a very negative outcome, though the very British style he uses led many non-Brits to misinterpret him. Now he seems to have come around to believing there can be “two tracks” of Anglicans, held together by Covenant and—or—Canterbury, Conference, Consultative Council and Primates, and that this might be a Good Thing after all. I disagree. I agreed with him three years ago that a grouping of “constitutive” and “associate” churches might be the unfortunate outcome of our present tensions, and my mind hasn’t changed. If Anglicanism is functionally unable to achieve a deeper, richer sense of communion among Anglicans, then it is what its critics have always insisted: not a via media, but a via mediocritatis. Make no mistake: the Spirit is inviting us Anglicans in our time to a richer way of being church together, not into yet another schism among Christians, not even such a hemidemisemischism. The Holy Spirit is no author of division—that dubious honor belongs to another spirit, who as usual has been having a hell of a good time at our expense.

2.) Rowan Williams has again reiterated the fact that the case for “all the sacraments for all the baptized” has not been made theologically in any official way. This invariably raises a chorus of complaints that yes, we’ve done our theology, sorry about you, but the case is settled. (See Bishop Tom Wright’s “Unpacking” especially point 6.) The Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori, has made the same point, and supported strongly the process underway in fits and starts in our House of Bishops since 2004. But however much individual theologians have made arguments, the church’s official position has not changed. Rowan Williams continues to point out that a case to change it could be possible, if it is made convincingly from the Tradition. But I think what drives him (and others) crazy about TEC is that we seem always to argue from decisions of the General Convention—fiat by legislation—rather than a legislatively decided-upon teaching. God willing, that will change.

That said, I along with many others found it odd that the Archbishop refers to a “chosen lifestyle.” Perhaps he means that gay (and straight) folks can indeed choose to lead celibate lives. In any event, his reflection is not so much about homosexuality as it is finding a way to deal with all contentious issues of global import.

3.) Reactions to his writings in general, and addressing the Covenant process in particular, tend to be fairly predictable, not along hemispheric lines (“Global South”, ”First World”, &c.) but churchmanship. While Archbishop Williams is comfortable addressing High- and Low-church proponents, he seems less at ease with the Broad-church party (and its members with him). It can be argued that the American Civil War marks the end of Calvinist Low-church leadership and the rise of Broad-church leaders whose long-term influence on the whole of The Episcopal Church, if not decisive, has been major. (This writer considers himself to be an Old High-churchman, by the way.) This might explain some mutual misunderstandings…

4.) Some people (for instance, A.S. Haley, alias Anglican Curmudgeon) consider that the Archbishop’s underlying concern is relations with Rome. I disagree, despite Curmudgeon’s elegant arguments. Although Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI have a lot in common as theology professors and authors, and therefore seem to enjoy each other’s company, I do not think that Cantuar believes that Rome will reverse its negative position on Anglican Orders within our lifetimes. Rather, it seems to me that he has consistently worked to encourage the development of a theologically literate global Anglicanism and a functioning Anglican Communion that can tackle together very serious issues of a worldwide import without requiring a centralized authority. As the Roman Catholic Church’s only global ecumenical partner, the Anglican Communion can model a different form of catholicity that does not depend on a single man’s unassailable rule to be coherent and faithful both to the Gospel and the catholic Tradition, speaking a Word of grace and truth to a world that desperately needs to hear it, in a language it can understand. That would be good not only for the two communions, but for the whole Church.

5.) Finally, I think the extremists in the Communion must oppose the proposed Covenant, for if it is widely accepted, both extremes would be held to account. For both, accepting it would require above all having to continue to live and work together. Both would be required to join in doing real theology for the life of the world, instead of the triumphalist trumpetings destined for in-house consumption that all too often pass for serious reflection.

In their revulsion of the Other, the extremes tend to resemble each other, even rhetorically. And therefore they deserve nothing better than to have to stay together. For in Paradise, we will have to live together anyway—no two tracks there. Might as well get used to it now—in whatever language we speak now, or will speak then. So, further up and further in—Recht vorwärts!

Now then, Gentle Reader, what is your favorite suntan lotion?

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.