Wednesday 28 March 2012

Anglican Covenant: Letter to the Archbishop of York

The following letter was sent to the Archbishop of York on 15 March 2012. The Dioceses of York and Cape Town (together with False Bay and Saldanha Bay) share a Companion Link.

My dear brother in Christ

I send my love and my prayers to you and your Diocese, our beloved partners in the gospel, as you prepare for your Diocesan Synod next month, asking that by his Spirit, God may bless you with his grace and presence, and lead you into all truth.

Reflecting on the particular link we share within the Anglican Communion has prompted me to consider further the nature of relationships within the Communion, and what indeed it means to speak of ourselves as Communion, particularly in light of current debates around the Covenant. As you know, in our last Provincial Synod, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa took the decision to proceed with adopting the Covenant – a move which we will need to ratify at our next meeting, in 2013, to complete the process. 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.

When I came to your Clergy Conference in September 2010, when people from Cape Town, Saldanha Bay and False Bay Dioceses come to York, and when we receive visits from you, we know that this is far more than merely a convenient network through which each of us stands to gain something. And though we refer to our relationship as a ‘Companion Link’, the word which comes to mind when I recall my time with you at the University of Lancaster is that of family – of flesh and blood inextricably belonging together. And of course, as Christians, we know this belonging together comes through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ whose passion and resurrection, the source of our redemption, are at the heart of our Lent observances and our Easter reaffirmation of the promises of our baptism. In these, as Scripture reminds us, we are buried and raised with him (Col 2:12). This is true koinonia, true Communion – united with one another, through being united with him.

This organic sense of belonging, of being members together of the same family, has been of intense importance to us in Southern Africa, over many decades. In my Epiphany letter to Archbishop Rowan (, I recalled how we knew we were not alone during the dark days of apartheid. There was never any question over whether or not we would have support from elsewhere in the Communion – because we were one family, and our family would always be there for us when we needed it. When then Bishop Tutu was hauled before a Commission designed to ruin him and the South African Council of Churches, the authorities were at a loss to understand how Archbishops and Bishops from around the Anglican world came of their own volition to give testimony in solidarity with him, saying ‘If you touch one of us, you touch us all.’ And just last year I was privileged to share that same assurance with Bishop Chad of Harare and his clergy and people, when I travelled to Zimbabwe with Archbishop Rowan.

We need to know that we are not alone, that we are part of a wider belonging, when life is hard. But we need it too when life is easy – requiring interaction with perspectives and preoccupations beyond our own, recognising God speaks in many ways, one of which is through other members of the body of Christ. We cannot grow into becoming the people we are called to be without also growing into the relationship to which God calls us within Christ’s body.

Now, some will say, all this can happen without the Anglican Covenant. And there is of course considerable truth in this. But it seems to me that the Covenant has the potential to help us do it far better – provided we commit ourselves to making the Covenant work. For the Covenant does not guarantee a cast iron solution to all our problems – for frankly, no alternative that we could try to devise could fully do this. And we must also accept that the Covenant has the potential to be used badly – but then again, we have seen that the Primates’ meeting, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council all have the capacity to fall far, far, short of their potential, if we are not prepared to let the grace of God rule and direct all that they are and do. They are human constructs, designed to help us express structurally the life-giving gifts with which we believe God has blessed the Anglican Communion, and through which we believe he calls us to be a blessing to the world. But we can derail all of them if we so choose.

Herein lies part of our fundamental wrestling: how it is that spiritual truths find human expression in the ordering of our lives? For on the one hand, it is true that the nature of our legislative systems means that Provinces have always been ‘legally independent’ – though in fact we do make binding commitments of accountability to bodies outside ourselves, for example in our membership of the World Council of Churches; or, as the Church of England has done, in the Porvoo Agreement. In this sense, the Covenant is asking nothing new of us, and perhaps rather less, not least in that it creates no powers to interfere in any Province’s life. Rather, it asks us to speak up and be counted, as those who explicitly declare our belief that we are called always to take council together on matters with the potential to affect one another – so we can learn from one another, and learn about the impacts that changes in one part of our Communion life might have on another. Thus we can pursue our callings within the context of sensitivity to the wider witness of God’s people to God’s world.

It seems to me that we need a clear counterweight to ‘legal independence’, so as to acknowledge that we do not have effective ways of legislating for ‘bonds of affection’ and for the sort of ties that characterise family life. For (and this is my ‘on the other hand’), we must never forget that the true essence of our identity is found in God alone. It is in him we put our trust, for who we are, and who we are called to be – not in Provincial legislation, and not in human Covenants.

This question of trust is one of profound challenge to all human beings, and especially to us as Anglicans today. To ‘believe and trust’ invariably means being prepared to be taken outside our comfort zones. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb 10:31). And, as I know all too well from my own experience, it would be hard enough to contemplate walking this path of trusting dependence if my life and ministry were merely about my own relationship with God; but realising that trusting myself to God inextricably also means trusting myself to God’s people – who I know are likely to be little better at consistent faithful obedience than I am – is a far greater risk to what I like to think of as my ability to be master of my own destiny.

But none of us are masters of our own destiny. None of us, as individuals or churches, can see ourselves as self-determining. Therefore our primary sense of identity cannot rest in our legal separateness. Our call to dependence on God, and, through this, to our mutual interdependence within the body of Christ is neither optional nor negotiable. For the promises of God of being built together as living stones (1 Pet 2:5); of both giving and receiving of the manifestation of the Spirit given to each for the common good (1 Cor 12:7); and of so much else of what Scripture teaches about the nature and vocation of the Church, lie, not in standing firm in our individuality, but through explicitly trusting ourselves to one another, and walking hand in hand into a future overflowing with God’s promises of grace and hope. It is living as those who truly believe and trust in our vocation to ‘lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:1-2).

So let us not be downhearted at our differences and disagreements, but rather let us lift our eyes with hopefulness to the promises of God’s salvific and redemptive promises – sure and certain – in Jesus Christ our Lord. For it is he who makes the Church faithful and obedient, holy and loving, since he is the one who ‘loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind – yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish’ (Eph 5:25-7). This is the one whom we trust: believing and trusting in this promise not only for our own lives, but for those in the Anglican Communion with whom we may fear we have little in common.

And here St Paul’s description of the body of Christ is helpful. For he makes clear that different members can be, and indeed often are, mutually incomprehensible: the eye cannot understand hearing, nor the hand seeing. But it is in recognising Christ as head of all that they recognise one another as belonging together. As I said at your clergy conference, we have learnt this by painful wrestling together in Southern Africa. It is something with which we continue to be challenged, across the vast ethnic, cultural, political and socio-economic differences of our Province. Yet, more than this, we have found that, even in painful difference, we are better able to discern God’s truth together than apart. All this is why we hold together in ongoing debate across the whole spectrum of views on human sexuality – we do not agree, and our differences are sharp and painful, but we will not turn our backs on brothers and sisters in Christ and instead will keep wrestling together. This is why we are proceeding towards adopting the Covenant.

All this underlines how we should not view the Covenant merely as the product of, or designed to address, disagreements over human sexuality. This is to miss the fundamental matter of our identity and calling. It seems to me that we have become far too comfortable in our superficially separate legal identities, and have neglected the far more profound nature of who we are, as Anglicans, called to live in global Communion, within the purposes of God. This is why it really will not do to say that it is better to have no Covenant. We have become content to drift apart – a drift which I fear will continue unchecked if we do not stand up and commit ourselves to return to a more godly life of true Communion.

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 disunity over sexuality merely reflects this deeper malaise within our common life. As I have said elsewhere, 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.

But thanks be to God, who calls us together, not through binding legal processes (for the Covenant does not provide for these, whatever some critics may claim), but rather through ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:2). This is the nature of the bonds of affection which we are called to re-weave and nurture – bonds that ‘constrain’ us only through the same sort of mutuality of love St Paul had in mind when he wrote ‘all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial – all things are lawful but not all things build up’ (1 Cor 10:23). It thus invites us – invites God’s Spirit – to breathe new and redemptive life into the Communion’s existing frameworks.

And so we particularly hold you in our prayers, along with those other English Dioceses, and other Provinces, who are still considering the Covenant. 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.

Yours in the service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town