In some Christian services in the week before Easter, worshippers join in the shout of the crowd when Jesus was condemned to death. It is a sobering reminder of how easily people can join in victimising minorities, or in other ways becoming accomplices to cruelty and sometimes murder, whether or not we are Christians or otherwise religious. Evil - the destructive and death-dealing impulse - can be seductive, especially when it is cloaked in the guise of righteousness.
We may be caught up in a surge of collective feeling, or afraid to oppose it in case we too are singled out by a mob or the powers-that-be. The vulnerable range from the victims of bullies in the playground to the minorities targeted by politicians, preachers or media barons, and the poor and dispossessed whose plight all too often goes unnoticed by the rest of society. Indeed, victimising others may create a sense of ‘unity’, at least for a while.
Alternatively, acts of wrong-doing may be more calculated, to protect wealth, power or reputation. Whistleblowers may be threatened, evidence of war crimes suppressed or pressure put on abused children not to tell, worsening the harm already done. The highest ideals may be corrupted, and institutions may put their own prestige above the good of those they profess to help.
If ‘the majority’ or ‘the proper authorities’ go along with a particular course of action, or it creates a certain kind of harmony, where those on the inside are united against the ‘other’, this does not always make it right.
If we are constantly aware of the risk, we have at least some chance of realising what is happening and resisting. At Baptism (and Confirmation, for those baptised as young children), Christians pledge allegiance to One who became a victim on the cross and was raised from the dead that all might be free from the old patterns in which we were trapped. Emerging from the water as if reborn, the newly-baptised publicly turn to Christ and reject evil.
They become part of a new Covenant which involves resistance, in mind and body, to the forces which dehumanise and destroy, relying on God’s help for what they are not strong enough to do alone. And though they may sometimes fail to live up to their baptismal promises, they know that forgiveness is on offer, and strength to try again.
The Anglican Covenant
There have been many criticisms of the proposed Covenant currently being considered by the various churches in the Anglican Communion. Critics have pointed out that this Covenant sets out to replace a theologically diverse fellowship, in which provinces are autonomous but seek to grow in understanding together, with a centralised structure which may discipline or exclude those who do not conform.
The importance of being open to the Holy Spirit and seeking the truth on controversial matters is not adequately recognised. The role of lay people and parish clergy is downplayed. Moreover the Covenant is widely seen as one-sided, aimed at punishing certain provinces for supposed failings while allowing all kinds of other concerns to go unheeded.
Less attention has been given to the disturbing approach to unity which ignores the problem of evil.
There is much that is theologically acceptable, indeed helpful, in the introduction and sections 1 to 3 (Our Inheritance of Faith, The Life We Share with Others: Our Anglican Vocation and Our Unity and Common Life). But in the light of section 4 (Our Covenanted Life Together), some of the most valuable aspects of what goes before are undercut. And the Covenant as a whole appears to reflect questionable beliefs about what it means to be faithful to God amid conflict.
The following set of passages from the Covenant is of course selective, and others might have a different interpretation. However I fear that many might be led to understand life in Christ in a distorted manner by the eventual point of arrival a document that states:
God has called us into communion in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1.9). This communion has been “revealed to us” by the Son as being the very divine life of God the Trinity...
Joined in one universal Church, which is Christ’s Body, spread throughout the earth, we serve his gospel even as we are enabled to be made one across the dividing walls of human sin and estrangement (Eph 2.12-22)...
In the providence of God, which holds sway even over our divisions caused by sin, various families of churches have grown up within the universal Church in the course of history. Among these families is the Anglican Communion, which provides a particular charism and identity among the many followers and servants of Jesus. We recognise the wonder, beauty and challenge of maintaining communion in this family of churches, and the need for mutual commitment and discipline as a witness to God’s promise in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation...
Each Church affirms...
that by our participation in Baptism and Eucharist, we are incorporated into the one body of the Church of Jesus Christ, and called by Christ to pursue all things that make for peace and build up our common life...
Acknowledging our interdependent life, each Church, reliant on the Holy Spirit, commits itself...
to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern...
to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission...
to have in mind that our bonds of affection and the love of Christ compel us always to uphold the highest degree of communion possible...
Where a shared mind has not been reached the matter shall be referred to the Standing Committee...
The Standing Committee may request a Church to defer a controversial action. If a Church declines to defer such action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below...
On the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, the Standing Committee may make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”...
Each Church undertakes to put into place such mechanisms, agencies or institutions, consistent with its own Constitution and Canons, as can undertake to oversee the maintenance of the affirmations and commitments of the Covenant in the life of that Church, and to relate to the Instruments of Communion on matters pertinent to the Covenant...
With joy and with firm resolve, we declare our Churches to be partakers in this Anglican Communion Covenant, offering ourselves for fruitful service and binding ourselves more closely in the truth and love of Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory for ever. Amen.
This might imply that member churches seeking to be faithful to their Christian calling, and to experience and reflect the love of the Holy Trinity, should never do anything to which certain other churches strongly object, if those objecting can convince the Standing Committee that the action would be wrong or harmful to unity.
But is achievement of a ‘common mind’ – or appearance of this – and greatest possible degree of communion always the highest good? In a world where evil can often seem plausible, even moral, there are many occasions when this is not so.
Being with Christ in a place of suffering
For instance, though Nazi Germany is widely regarded as an example of how evil swept through a nation with terrible consequences, this was by no means obvious to most German people in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Anti-Semitism was, after all, part of many churches’ tradition and widely believed to be justified by the Bible (e.g. John 19.4-16). Many in that era thought racial divisions in general were ordained by God.
Even if some Christians felt the Nazis were going too far in their treatment of Jewish people and others who were victimised (for instance disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals and left-wingers), they were taught that they must always obey the authorities (Romans 13.1-7, a text also frequently cited by supporters of the South African apartheid regime).
Those who refused included the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader in the ‘schismatic’ Confessing Church. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has championed the Anglican Covenant. Yet in 2006 he said of Bonhoeffer:
[I]f we ask about the nature of the true Church, where we shall see the authentic life of Christ's Body - or if we ask about the unity of the Church, how we come together to recognise each other as disciples - Bonhoeffer's answer would have to be in the form of a further question. Does this or that person, this or that Christian community, stand where Christ is? Are they struggling to be in the place where God has chosen to be? And he would further tell us that to be in this place is to be in a place where there are no defensive walls; it must be a place where all who have faith in Jesus can stand together, and stand with all those in whose presence and in whose company Christ suffers, making room together for God's mercy to be seen.
That is how Bonhoeffer had already come to the paradox of saying - as he did in 1936 - that unity between Christians could not be the only thing that mattered - if all it meant was good will towards everyone who claimed the name of a believer or everyone who satisfied some limited definition of human decency and fluency in religious talk. His denunciation of the German Christians was the denunciation of a group that had cut itself off from the place where Christ stands by accepting the racial exclusivism of the state. Whatever might be the spiritual state of any individual - which is always unknown to anyone else - a decision to opt for the German Christian body and to decide against the Confessing Church could only be understood, Bonhoeffer argued, as a decision against salvation itself - against faith, against the place chosen by God. This frighteningly direct and uncompromising statement, so deeply controversial in 1936, was not a call to a church of 'pure' believers, separated from the sinful and compromised majority. It was the refusal to give a moment's legitimacy to a self-styled 'church' that had built the principle of separation and rejection into its very being by accepting the racial laws.
In 2009 (and in an earlier book to which he contributed) Rowan Williams described the radical US lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow as a prophet and “perhaps the greatest American theologian of the twentieth century”, though he – like his fellow-activist Martin Luther King Jr – at times strongly challenged ‘unity’ based on refusal to resist oppressive and life-negating forces.
Stringfellow warned of the risk of idolising the nation, money, respectability, status and even the church. Christians working in “churchly institutions... should be aware of the reality which confronts them and should not be romantic about it because the principality bears the name ‘church.’ Above all, they should be prepared to stomach the conflict which will surely accompany their use of the freedom from idolatry of even churchly principalities which Christ himself has secured.”
To him, Christian witness involved being “attentive to those who live on the extremities of society – to the outcast and the unpopular, to those who are least in society. The concern of the Christian for the one who is least is a way of representing his concern for everyone... Whoever the outcast is in given circumstances, the Christian is free enough from his own self-interest, from the necessities of preserving his own life, to intercede for another and to take up the other’s self-interest as over against the rest of the world.”
Acting in ways that fellow-Christians find objectionable should not be done lightly. But followers of Christ must be prepared to resist evil wherever it is found. Those who are baptised, and the institutions to which they belong, may have to grapple with hard questions, pain and loss in the course of becoming part of a church which truly embodies God’s presence, bearing healing and hope to a suffering world.
Contrary to the impression given by the Anglican Covenant, faithfulness to Christ crucified means being willing, if necessary, to refuse to conform, and instead to take a stand alongside One who was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53.12). Sometimes it is only through challenge and conflict (see e.g. Matthew 10.21-25, 34-39) that a deeper peace and unity can be achieved.
© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice, including Anglican affairs. Savi is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist. She has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (with a Preface by Desmond Tutu), published by Shoving Leopard and Ekklesia in 2008.
See also: http://noanglicancovenant.org/
Anglicans launch global coalition against 'divisive' Covenant - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13475