Liberal or Libertine and other questions beyond Covenant

The Archbishop of Canterbury stated in his remarks to the General Synod,

“… at the very least we must recognise that Anglicanism as we have experienced it has never been just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties. Argue for this if you will, but recognise that it represents something other than the tradition we have received and been nourished by in God's providence. And only if we can articulate some coherent core for this tradition in present practice can we continue to engage plausibly in any kind of ecumenical endeavour, local or international.”

That comment was picked up by the Living Church online with the unfortunate title: “Archbishop Williams: Communion of Libertine Churches Unrealistic” The Living Church online has been often extremely helpful in providing timely news and opinion but in this case it has done a disservice to the Archbishop, or if it is an accurate read of the Archbishop’s position, he himself has done a disservice.

The phrase in the Archbishop’s comments that is at the core of this question is, “Anglicanism as we have experienced it has never been just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties.” I believe I understand what he is getting at, and I think I agree. We are not “free-thinkers” in the sense that Denis Diderot, Anthony Collins, or even the citizens of Comfort, Texas are “free-thinkers.”

We Anglicans are constrained by belief and community in a variety of ways: By the centrality of the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the governance by holy overseers, the episcopate. The character of such constraints is of course precisely what occupies us in the current struggles in the Anglican Communion, although I believe the actual basis of the current struggles lie elsewhere, in a more profound and dark corner of the religious psyche.

The problem with the Archbishop’s remark is that it supposes an either / or sort of situation: either there is “just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties,” or there are the real Anglicans, who do not “enjoy unconfined local liberties.” If the either / or were indeed the choice, an all or nothing choice, the gang “describing themselves as Anglicans” would perhaps rightly be called, as the Living Church article announce, “libertine.”

But this is not the situation in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church, acting in General Convention, our notion of a synod, does not “enjoy unconfined local liberties.” To think that that was what General Convention had in mind in its difficult and bloodied debates on the issues presented in the Windsor Report requests would be an insult to the faithfulness of that gathering. To think it of the Episcopal Church as a whole is simply false.

Unpacking “unconfined local liberties” takes a bit of doing. “Unconfined liberties” is pretty understandable. It means doing what you want without any sense of limits. “Local” presents a problem. Does the Archbishop mean by “local” the sorts of liberties exercised by autonomous churches in the Communion? Or by “local” does he mean the liberties exercised on a diocesan or even parochial level? “Unconfined local liberties” has something to do with the sense that liberty exercised by individuals or “local” communities drifts into license or libertine behavior unless somehow confined by a wider law, a higher law, or perhaps a higher authority. In the church I suppose it is another argument for confinement in actions beyond what a province can muster as a rule of law. But I do not think the argument is advanced by the suggestion that what we have done in The Episcopal Church constitutes “unconfined local liberties.”

In any event, the Archbishop, made it clear that “historic links to Canterbury have no canonical force, and we do not have (and I hope we don't develop) an international executive. We depend upon consent. My argument was and is that such consent may now need a more tangible form than it has hitherto had; hence the Covenant idea in Windsor.” I think he is right. And some sort of compact among the provinces, a compact related to common mission and common understandings of mission in location, is both realistic to hope for and worthy of our efforts.

The Archbishop touches on several things, some well, some badly. It is true that, “Some mischievous forces are quite capable of using the debates over sexuality as an alibi for divisive action whose roots are in other conflicts.” It is true that, “churches in disadvantaged or conflict-ridden settings cannot afford such distractions.” But the response requires that those be mischievous be held to account, and the distractions be removed.

If being part of the Anglican Communion is defined by membership in the Anglican Consultative Council or by invitation to the Lambeth Conference, such definitive declarations can be made and have already been made. Much of what we need to be cohesive in this sense is already in place. The problem is that the so called “instruments of Communion” are not equipped to deal with the question of whether or not this or that Province has correctly understood the Scriptures which we all swear contains all things necessary to salvation. In order for that to be dealt with, some instrument of unity which commands allegiance beyond the bonds of affection may indeed be needed. The problems with that are huge. How is that instrument to be produced, signed, mandated and obeyed? I am not sure that an adequate covenant can be pieced together in the present state of Christendom.

The primary problem with the Archbishop’s further responses on the reason for developing a covenant is that they present mostly fair and reasoned responses to a real set of problems having to do with coherence within the Anglican Communion. But the problem on the ground is that that coherence does not at present exist. We are beyond covenant.

Now we must be up for an even more difficult task: we must learn to accept the fact that the Episcopal Church will be rejected by, say, the Church of Nigeria and our kinship denied before the authorities. We may find that the Church of England is declared no longer kin by some Provinces. The question is how do we work beyond kinship?

I believe we must seek a compact beyond communion, in which it is the Resurrected Christ that calls us to common action beyond our divisions. The only way back to communion is through a sharing in the sufferings of the world, clearly distinguished from the sufferings of the church of the church's own making.


  1. The biggest problem with the Archbishop's thoughts is that the Anglican Communion is barely a part of 'Anglican Tradition.' Even the phrase is barely more than a century old,

    'Communion' was never a thought of the Henrican-Elizabethan church, and certainly the CofE had no thought for 'Communion' of any sort when North America was colonized.

    So, I'd propose dropping the romantic but unreal notion that the 'Anglican Communion' deserves to be treated as some kind of sacred cow. I'd even propose dropping the phrase from our vocabulary.

    Right now, the idea that such a thing exists, or should be preserved in anything approaching a historic form worthy of the name 'tradition', is hindering rather than helping any kind of dialogue.

    All it's doing is causing people to bellow about who has the 'right' to be called 'Anglican', and who should be recognised as such, and who should get to pitch others out of the club.

    The Episcopal Church, in both its most liberal and its most conservative expressions, is authentically 'Anglican', depending on which parts of 'tradition' are chosen as proof-texts. Some days, I'm not so sure about the Church of England.

    At the moment, I think anyone who is claiming the right to say who/what is Anglican is full of something other than the Holy Spirit, and everybody ought perhaps to stop yakking for a while.

    It might be best if Lambeth 2008 didn't happen, if the ACC shut down for a while, and the Primates didn't meet over the next couple of years. And during that time, perhaps we can all learn parts of the 'tradition' we don't know well, or that make us a little uncomfortable.

    Maybe when everyone's out in the cold and starving, we can learn that we need each other to keep warm and fed.

  2. Anglicanism as we have experienced it has never been just a loose grouping of people who care to describe themselves as Anglicans but enjoy unconfined local liberties

    Actually, assuming "local" means the national and not the provincial level, I'd say this is exactly what it has been and exactly what the C of E separated from Rome to maintain. All that is required to be Anglican is to be able to trace apostolic succession through the C or E. After that, it is all unconfined local liberty, even liberty to change doctrine, which is exactly what the 39 Articles did.

  3. Sorry, in that last comment, "provincial" should read "parochial".

  4. Bill Carroll9/7/06 12:47 PM

    As long as we can say "No," I see no reason not to admit that our freedom should be constrained (not coerced) by our relationships with other Anglicans. I believe we paid proper heed to their concerns and went ahead with what we believed God was calling us to do. There is nothing libertine about that. We were obeying our own polity, which heretofore the Anglican Communion has been willing to acknowledge, even if it turns out they didn't understand it very well. It is a proper use of our God-given fredom in the Gospel, which Williams seems all to willing to get rid of in order to advance some communitarian and Anglo-Catholic fantasies about a worldwide Church. The Anglican Communion has never been wordwide, and it only got as close as it did because of the British Empire.

    Love for God and neighbor, as defined by the teaching and example of Jesus, does place constraints on our liberty. Angry, fundamentalist prelates, on the other hand, should be ignored. As should their apologists, even if they sit in the chair of St. Augustine. What I fail to see from Rowan Williams is a single good reason why we should abandon our autonomy. For what, to help him out in the difficult domestic situation he faces. To help African primates oppress and in some cases condone violence against lbgt folk. The Anglican Communion simply should not survive at any price.

  5. The Episcopal Church, acting in General Convention, our notion of a synod, does not “enjoy unconfined local liberties.”

    Well, perhaps not, but on the other hand, in practice, since +Pike, ECUSA has shown itself utterly incapable of disciplining its Bishops in any meaningful way, either through the HoB or the GC. And since bishops enjoy effectively plenary power in their diocese -- witness Bennison's defiance of his Standing Committee, for example, aside from the fact that in a great many diocese the SC is merely a rubber stamp for the Bishop's intentions -- in what way, precisely, is local liberty constrained? If a Bishop and SC were to allow, for example, readings from the Koran or the Rigveda to be used instead of the biblical lessons during worship, realistically, what discipline would be imposed?

  6. the confining of local liberties, both provincial and diocesan, is the result not so much of specific canons, but of the education, the interior need to make sense of what we say, and day to day prayer life of the people involved. We are mostly constrained and confined by our own expectations of church life and belief.
    Bishop Pike was confined, not by episcopal discipline, but by episcopal forgetting. We forget some of the extradordinary things he did as well as some of the more difficult challenges he made about the faith. Pike was amazingly on target on ecumenical life, pushed for the recognition of women in leadership in the church, constantly worked at the theological questions he felt people found difficult, and challenged the racism of the church. Those things are lost along with the memory of what he actually did that made people mad. The constraint on Pike was the constraint of church memory.
    Craig's last question, "If a Bishop and SC were to allow, for example, readings from the Koran or the Rigveda to be used instead of the biblical lessons during worship, realistically, what discipline would be imposed?" is interesting. If the Bishop required such readings, I suspect his clergy would simply not do as he commanded or asked. If he allowed such readings I am not sure many would take it up. If he had good and specific reasons for allowing such readings in particular circumstances, the matter would drop from view. The question then really only makes sense if it has to do, now with allow, but with require. If the bishop were to require readings from the Koran or Rigveda at all Sunday services, there would be a mess. But that is not likely to happen because the constraints on the person who would become a bishop is such that they would probably never think of doing such a thing.

    I think on the whole the church gets on with its work in more or less orthodox ways because the constraints on those with power is that they had to practice such constraint when the were not in high position.

    This is both good and bad. Good because it keeps the ecclesiastical courts cleared, bad because it produces sometimes dulled imaginations in our leaders.

  7. I should just like to reiterate what lizw said -- the fatal flaw in The Windsor Report (& I do mean FATAL) was its historical dishonesty (I thought I was reading a document from Rome!) -- it seems that ++Rowan, like the Bourbons, learns nothing from his mistakes.

    I suspect that many ongoing problems in Church history stem from the presupposition that honesty would make things worse. Perhaps it would, but maybe we shgould try it once & find out!

  8. Dear Mark,
    I just read your poem "Wine in the glass, blood in the sky". Wanted to thank you for it and to let you know that it is the most beautiful, most meaningful and relevant thing I've read in a long while. Do you have any more poems?


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