The Archbishop of Cape Town on the Anglican Covenant

The Archbishop of Cape Town, The Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba has written a longish letter to the Archbishop of York, working to keep the fires burning for the Anglican Covenant both in England and elsewhere. It is an interesting read and can be found HERE on the Episcopal Cafe. 

Whatever the merits of the Archbishop's letter, he carefully chooses his words. He makes a serious charge near the end of the letter, one that requires our attention:

"I feel we have failed to take seriously the commitments to ‘Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ’ made at the 1963 Toronto Congress. We said then ‘our unity in Christ, expressed in our full communion, is the most profound bond among us, in all our political and racial and cultural diversity’ and in consequence, ‘our need is … to understand how God has led us, through the sometimes painful history of our time, to see the gifts of freedom and communion in their great terms, and to live up to them.’ The Congress warned ‘if we are not responsible stewards of what Christ has given us, we will lose even what we have.’ But it appears we have not been responsible, taking one another for granted, being content to do our own thing, allowing ourselves to be preoccupied with our own concerns, so that when differences arose we had lost our ability to connect and work through them in love together....

The Communion, and all it has the potential to be and become, under God, matters. Echoing St Paul, we affirm that we cannot say ‘We have no need of you’ (1 Cor 12:21). Rather, all of you, as partners covenanting to go forward in newness of life together, are ‘indispensable’ (v.22) to our own ability to grow in faithful obedience to what we believe is God’s vocation for all Anglicans, and ultimately towards the fullness of his vision for his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. "

The charge is that we have forgotten the call of MRI - Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ - the call to attend to the unity we have in Christ, and that we have somehow said, "We have no need of you" to others in the Communion.

Now, to the Archbishop's credit he does not single out this or that community of believers as the "we" who have failed MRI or have said, "we have no need of you."  His "we" includes himself, perhaps, and more widely perhaps his Province and the Province of York within the Church of England. He is, after all one Archbishop writing to another (howbeit that one is head of a "Church" in the Anglican Communion, the other Archbishop of a province within the Church of England.)

And more to his credit, the Archbishop gives a weighted argument for the Anglican Covenant, not an absolute one. He does not say destruction lies in one direction and grace in the other.  Rather he believes churches have come to see the world through the lens of autonomy and not through the lens of community, and he suggests "There are many reasons why we feel that far greater potential to walk in the paths God has prepared for us both as a Province, and within the Communion as a whole, lies in adopting the Covenant than in doing otherwise."  His letter in support of the Anglican Covenant is a reasoned argument for moderation in a time when moderation is hard to come by.

It fails to convince on several counts.

(i) Moderation is a good Anglican ideal, but it is, after all a virtue, and the problem with the virtues are that they are silken and ephemeral when held up against the hard demands of justice making or truth telling. The virtues are not hard and cold, the goals are more so.

Barry Goldwater got into a lot of trouble saying "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"  His rhetoric got the better of him - extremism is not the opposite of moderation.  The opposite of moderation is passionate (not extremist) engagement.   If he had said something like "the passionate desire to defend liberty is no vice! And lack of passion in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,"perhaps he might have had better luck.

One of the problems with the preaching of moderation in the Anglican Communion is that the call of faith is, in some real world sense, immoderate. Which is, I suppose, why churches are always splitting and reforming and finding new avenues to unity and so forth.  
I believe, on the whole, that immoderation, as a witness to passionate engagement in the concerns for justice and truth, has its place in the building of a community of churches worthy of being called a "Communion."  At one time or another given churches (Provinces) act in ways immoderate to others, sometimes to the good, sometimes to the sorrow of us all. 

(ii) The Archbishop is absolutely right to say we cannot say "I have no need of you" and remain committed to a life of unity in Christ.  He is right to remind us that MRI was and is an important insight - that mutuality and interdependence IS the life we seek as the body of Christ. 

But I believe he is wrong to point to the Anglican Covenant as the appropriate sign in our time of our pledge to mutuality and our need of one another. Those signs are all around us, there in spite of the angers and deep differences in what we consider important and necessary in this time.  He points to such signs in his mention of the real experiences that are behind diocesan links, found in the support needed in times of great stress, and in the friendships across boundaries, real or imagined.

The Archbishop believes the Anglican Covenant is an aid to the moderation of  autonomy ( by which apparently he means separation.)  He is concerned that the Anglican Communion will fly apart. Maybe yes, maybe no. But the glue that will hold us together is not the Anglican Covenant any more than it was MRI. It is our desire to live through it all together that will do it.  It is that immoderate thing - passion - in this case the passionate desire to remain at the table with those whose opinions we find difficult - that will suffice.

The letter is a good one, and I would almost be convinced, believing that his "we" is about all sorts and conditions of Anglicans in the world. But then there is this:  The Archbishop says, "The disunity over sexuality merely reflects this deeper malaise within our common life."

"This deeper malaise" refers to what immediately preceded this,namely, "Allowing secular legal norms to define us in our separate identities, without counterbalancing commitments of mutual interdependence, and the drifting apart that has followed, are, it seems to me, what have particularly allowed such sharp bitterness in handling our differences."

The Archbishop apparently believes "secular legal norms" identify us in ways that can separate us. Does he mean that addressing already "defined..separate identities" by legal means (say different community "norms" regarding rights for men and women, gay and straight people, people of the predominant culture, class or color and others, etc) is divisive and must be countered mutual interdependence?  Is this a malaise?  

Secular legal norms don't make interdependence happen, but they reduce the distance induced by injustices shared mutually. They make it possible to build new relationships where social norms of prejudice and injustice have before existed.  Malaise? 

If separation is the problem then "secular legal norms" that make the rights and duties of all persons equal are a force for reunion. Secular legal norms that recognize social divisiveness and overcome those with affirmations of the rights of all people are not the problem.

The Archbishop almost makes the Anglican Covenant seem attractive, and then he fails. "Disunity over sexuality" is a variation on our precisely taking one another seriously. It is not "disunity" that we have here, dear Archbishop, it is disagreement. It looks like disunity because our legal and moral norms are for a while different in various parts of the Communion.

To say "Yes" to Communion is to have the disagreements but cherish the unity that makes such disagreements possible.

To say "No" to the Anglican Covenant is not to say we are disunited, but to say that disagreements are a sign of passionate engagement.



  1. He is, after all the head of one province writing the head of another.

    Father Mark, I beg to differ. The provinces of which they each are the head are as similar as an apple is to an orange. The one is the head of a sovereign, autonomous Anglican church, the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, while the other is not. (And hopefully never will be!) The two provinces of the CoE are similar to the 10 provinces of TEC.

  2. Brother David... of course you are right. So I corrected it. But in doing so other problems will be pointed out, particularly by our friends in the CofE. At any rate two Archbishops are talking to each other.

    My language did not make it clear that one was of a Province, the other of an internal Province.


  3. Now that we have the minor issue of protocols clarified (sort of), 'good letter.'


    PS--I would dispute the sharp apple/orange distinction being introduced. +York has recently represented CofE. +Canterbury Chairs on behalf of the communion as such. I also seriously doubt that +South Africa felt there was some big distinction...

  4. Three comments, s'il vous plaƮt. First, Abp Makgoba referred to "disagreements over human sexuality" in one paragraph and "the disunity over sexuality" in the very next. Why the shift in terminology? I become suspicious when a writer reframes the topic in this way.

    Secondly, you are to be commended for your gracious reading of the Abp's letter. However, when Abp Makgoba asserts that, by inclusion, TEC is being "content to do our own thing, allowing ourselves to be preoccupied with our own concerns," I become decidedly less charitable. The journey of TEC to recognition of the humanity and the dignity of LGBT persons has been agonizing for all of us. It is most definitely not some hedonistic excursion, nor a diversion into narcissism. I believe the Abp is seriously understating our experience in this discussion.

    Finally, no quantity of verbiage about "our call to dependence on God," or "God's salvific and redemptive promises" can remove the "relational consequences" promised by Part 4 of the Covenant to those intent on replacing TEC with ACNA in the Anglican Communion.

    I look forward to seeing the vote in Abp. Sentamu's province, and to how open the discussions were in his jurisdiction.

  5. Greetings from Cape Town!

    You raise the question of whom the Archbishop is addressing, in referring to 'secular legal norms' and 'separate identities'. Please be assured that this is intended to refer to the relationship between Member Churches of the Anglican Communion - the main topic of his letter. It is certainly not meant to apply to individuals in the way you query, which would of course be quite another matter altogether.

    wishing you a blessed Holy Week and all the joys of Easter,

    Revd Canon Dr Sarah Rowland Jones
    Researcher to Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

  6. The discussion of "provinces" raises the serious deficiency in using that term for the churches of the Communion. It suggests that we are, like the provinces in the Roman Empire, not autonomous churches. It is say best time for us to retire the label.

  7. Dear Canon Sarah Rowland Jones: ...honored to have your comment and clarification. It does go to show how English is a bit slippery.

    I suppose in part I am thinking about a bit of our own less than honorable history of moderation. In the lead up to and indeed the follow-up from the Civil War The Episcopal Church was mostly silent on the matter of slavery (prior to the war) and segregation laws. Segregation was in some form everywhere the norm and the Church was widely complicit. But the pride of the church was its moderation. The effect was its silence. All this was soundly condemned by Dr. King from jail.

    It turned out that moderation in the Church related to the wider issues of the day did not serve us well. Our moderation played out badly in the Church and muted our moral voice in the world.

    I would suggest that passionate engagement with opponents as well as friends would have (and finally did) serve the Church better.

    The intersection between matters of civil and ecclesial life are mightily intertwined here. I perhaps made too quick a jump from the one to the other in this blog entry, not remembering the differences in the burdens we carry.

    Still I stand by the matter as a whole.

    Again, thanks for the note and clarification.

  8. The letter is a chess piece in the Canterbury succession stakes.

    General reaction in England, even from those supporting it, like the bishop of Oxford, "Yes to the Covenant's" principal front man (whose own clergy were solid in opposition), is that the Covenant is dead. Good riddance.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.