The long wait between the events of 2003 and the forthcoming Lambeth Conference has constituted a call to patience, to prayer, to faithfulness, and - by no means least - to fresh study of the scriptures. At a time of enormous cultural and moral confusion, when shrill voices are raised on all sides, there is an urgent need for calm, prayerful biblical reflection; and, though my own feelings just now are anything but calm, I hope what I can provide this morning is at least biblical, as I assure you it is also prayerful. I have three points to make about the current context, and then three main biblical reflections, focussing particularly on the Corinthian correspondence.
1. CURRENT CONTEXTS
The Current Context (1): The Resonances of Confusion
The debates we face in the Anglican Communion resonate closely with similar debates in the larger worldwide community, within western society and our own nation. We are faced with the questions of global fellowship and local option. We want to remain united, but we all know that some local possibilities threaten that unity, even as we know that many local options enhance that unity by bringing local colour and a particular angle of vision. We are all delighted - at least, we should all be delighted - when fellow Anglicans from far-off lands praise God in their own idiomatic language, culture and musical style, even though that may be as strange to our ears as our music is to theirs. That doesn't threaten our unity, it enhances it. But if, say, someone were to suggest that because in their culture people worship God by sacrificing animals therefore they should be free to incorporate that into their Anglican worship, we would reply - I assume! - that this flies in the face of some central and non-negotiable features of Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular. But we need to notice, both for context and also for comfort, that the same questions are being raised in the wider world. Protesters have disrupted the somewhat bizarre procession of the Olympic torch through various western capitals, and political leaders have tried to hang on with one hand to the supposed Olympic ideal of global peace and fraternity, itself of course a kind of pseudo- or semi-religious post-Enlightenment construct, and with the other to the need to support poor Tibet in its longing to continue its ancient and distinctive way of life rather than be squashed by one of the coming superpowers. And, as a sideshow but with interesting parallels ecclesiologically, what do we think, I wonder, of Chinese security services being allowed to police the event, or assist in doing so, within our own country? What justifies this 'intervention'? If they don't trust us to police it ourselves, should we allow it in the first place? Some interesting echoes there.
This is of course just one of many situations where the global community is struggling with the question of the local option - and where, of course, multiple ambiguities can be found which muddle up the moral dilemmas. We are all implicated in China by our economic and business ties, and there are those who will speak up for Chinese rule in Tibet and against what they see as the restrictive nature of its traditional way of life. But we have our own local examples of similar debates. When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in February about some aspects of Sharia law being allowed within our own country - which has already happened in the case of mortgage arrangements for those unable in conscience to follow normal Western usury, a phenomenon heavy with multiple ironies granted our own scriptures and our treatment of similar Jewish scruples in the Middle Ages - the howls of protest and the fog of misinterpretation may have masked the fact that he was addressing substantially the same set of problems that we face within Anglicanism, namely, the question of how you have a united and harmonious society which, as part of that harmonious unity, allows for local options of various sorts and works at finding ways of incorporating them wisely, creatively and healthily within the larger unity. That isn't of course easy, as the Archbishop made clear; but part of the subtext of his address was the question of how Christians themselves will negotiate a place to stand in good conscience within a society which, in some respects at least, is bent on legislating its way into a more overtly and militantly secular state. What local or cultural options are to be allowed, and on what terms, and who says? It doesn't take much thought to recognise the shape of that problem as substantially the same as the one we face in the Anglican Communion. Granted we want to live together in Communion, what local options are allowable, how do we know, and who says? How do we stop the larger society bullying the local culture into unnecessary and damaging uniformity, and how do we stop the local culture claiming the right to do things which the larger society knows to be simply intolerable? That is the shape of our problem, in our wider society as well as in the church.
That alone, paradoxically perhaps, should give us comfort. Because, as I have long believed and preached on the basis of that towering chapter, Romans 8, one of the most central parts of the church's vocation is to be in prayer where the world is in pain, so that God's own Spirit may groan inarticulately at that point. The world is groaning in travail; the church is not standing off to one side, but finds that same groaning in its own heart; and God, likewise, is not detached from the groaning, but shares in it intimately, personally, through the Spirit within the church within the world. And all this, Paul assures us, points to the fact that God will one day do for the whole creation what he did for Jesus at Easter: he will rescue it from its bondage to decay, to share in the freedom of the glory of God's people. We should not, then, be surprised at what is taking place - while at the same time we shouldn't allow these larger parallels to persuade us to shrug our shoulders and imagine that we don't need to think hard about our own questions. We should interpret the present Anglican challenge as the kind of thing the church should expect if it is to be the missionary body of Christ within the world.
The Current Context (2): The New Opportunities
That leads on nicely to my second opening point. Within the confusion of our present culture, we are faced with missionary opportunities the like of which we haven't known for many years. And I believe that our present crisis has a lot to do with the fire and water through which we must go if we are to grasp those opportunities and make the most of them. Whenever the gospel goes forwards, scripture and Christian experience teach us that we should expect major problems to loom up in our way, which can only be got through by fresh prayer and fasting - just in case we might have been tempted to imagine that we can stroll easily or casually forwards, announcing Jesus Christ as Lord in fresh territory where other lords already rule. The gospel challenges the enslaving principalities and powers, and they will fight back. Once again, this doesn't mean that just because we are meeting unpleasant or difficult challenges we must be getting it exactly right. Often such challenges exploit precisely our own points of weakness and inadequacy. There will need to be repentance and fresh self-awareness, as well as a bold striding forwards to meet the challenge in the power of the Spirit. But, as we see (for instance) when someone starting a new and exciting ministry suddenly has a family member struck down with a strange illness, or when, as happened last month in my patch, a local councillor wanting to make a reputation launches a planning objection to a major evangelistic initiative, we can be sure that God is indeed wanting to take something new forwards, and that the problems are there both as a sign that the powers know they are being challenged and as a call to God's people to pray, humbly, penitently but also with confidence, for the problem to be surmounted and for God's fresh work to go ahead. That, I believe, is the shape of our present opportunity and challenge.
Among the many exciting current opportunities I name three. First, there is a remarkable new ecumenical spirit of co-operation. In the north-east I have excellent relationships not only with our closest neighbours among the free churches - I am doing another joint Anglican/Methodist confirmation in a few week's time - but also with the Roman Catholics on the one hand and with the newer free churches, the so-called House Churches and similar movements, on the other. There is a wonderful openness, and in particular a wonderful willingness to work together in actual mission rather than simply sit in committees looking at our own or one another's navels.
This, second, is linked to the remarkable convergence on many sides - sadly, not all as yet - over the wholistic nature of the church's mission. Almost wherever I go I meet people who are sighing with relief that the old modernist split between what was called 'evangelism' and what was called 'social justice' is being transcended. Many ordinary Christians now simply know in their bones that God's call to repentance and faith is a call equally to every man, woman and child and to every social, cultural and political structure and movement. Some, of course, still cling to the Enlightenment's distinction between God and the world, faith and politics, whether in order to proclaim an ahistorical or depoliticized faith or an atheistic or anti-religious secular sphere. But most Christians in this country, in my recent experience, and many in America too, are eager to renounce the split as unbiblical, untheological and frankly unhelpful. I have written about this elsewhere and I simply note it here as part of the excitement of new opportunities.
Third, I note as I have done elsewhere the renewed spiritual thirst in our culture. Many people my age may still believe, as Julian Barnes indicates in his remarkable recent book Nothing to be Frightened Of, that religion in general and Christianity in particular is outdated, rapidly declining, and soon to be consigned to the scrap heap; but for many people, including Barnes himself, even those who believe in that secularist myth of a 'progress' that will eventually squeeze religion out altogether may well find that they are left with deep and strange questions which neither the shrill rhetoric of Richard Dawkins nor the stern pronouncements of atheistic philosophers will quell. 'I don't believe in God,' declares Barnes in the opening sentence of the book, 'but I miss him.' Contrast that with Kingsley Amis a generation ago, who declared that he didn't believe in God, and that he hated him. There is all the difference in the world between waking up in a single bed and waking up in a double bed with nobody the other side. Many in our western culture may be atheists or agnostics, but they still find themselves wondering why the other side of the bed still feels warm, and the sheets a little rumpled. And I think this is true in ways that were not the case even ten, let alone thirty years ago.
And the point of mentioning all these opportunities is, as I said, that if there is a new world of possibility opening up for the Christian gospel, we should expect to have to go through tumultuous trouble in order to get to it. Before you get to cross the Jordan you have to do battle not only with Amalek but with Og the king of Basan and Sihon king of the Amorites; and also, more worryingly, with the temptations which Balaam, having failed to curse Israel, persuaded Barak to put in their way. That is where we are right now, and we need to keep our eyes on the missionary opportunities the other side of the present struggles. I'm not of course suggesting that the twenty-first century is supposed to be a new sort of promised land, merely drawing a generalised, though I hope suggestive, analogy.
The Current Context (3): Eschatology-Shaped Church
This leads in turn to the third of my points about our current context. We have all by now heard of 'Mission-Shaped Church', both as a report and as an idea, and I hope we are all more or less signed up to it, granted certain residual questions. But, as I have argued recently, if this is to make sense our mission itself must be properly shaped; and the wholistic agenda I mentioned a moment ago indicates how. If the church is to be shaped by mission, mission is to be shaped by eschatology, and eschatology by the Bible itself, not by the late-western worldview in which biblical eschatology is pulled apart and locked into two separate rooms. This biblical shaping of eschatology, leading in turn to a missional ecclesiology, is the subject of the first chapter of Ephesians, and I have often reflected that if the Western church had been as much shaped by Ephesians as it has been by Romans and Galatians we wouldn't be in some of the messes we are in. Ephesians 1.10 declares that God's plan is to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth; and the rest of the chapter, rooted in Paul's richest creational and Exodus-shaped celebratory story, highlights the church as the place where, and the means by which, this coming together of heaven and earth is already being accomplished. And this, in turn, is the foundation for that coming together of Jew and Gentile in chapter 2 which, in chapter 3, he claims as the sign to the rulers and authorities of the world of the many-splendoured wisdom of God. Ecclesiology, in other words, is not simply the extrapolation of a historical community from the first apostolic foundations: it is also the anticipation in the present time of what God intends as the summing up of all things in Christ. 'Mission-shaped church' doesn't mean you can reduce ecclesiology to functional categories. Ephesians offers a deep ecclesial ontology which is, to be frank, what we're going to need in the next generation. I suspect, actually, that this is the main reason why much liberal Protestantism has rejected the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, and why much conservative Protestantism, while accepting Pauline authorship for quite other reasons, has done its best to avoid the head-on challenge of its super-high ecclesiology, preferring to do with Ephesians what it does with the gospels, namely, dismember it in search of verses which can provide footnotes to a truncated reading of Romans and Galatians...
But if this is so we must be careful, as we face the present controversies, to ground all our thinking, hoping, praying and working in the wholistic vision of God's future we find in Ephesians - and also, of course, in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 21 and 22, and the whole 'new creation' theme which grows directly from the resurrection of Jesus himself. And this, as the Windsor Report insisted, means that the unity and holiness of the church, both highlighted of course in Ephesians 4, are not just ideals or rules that must be obeyed because for some reason God wants it like that. They are the ontological anticipation in the present time of the new world that is to be. It is of course easy to produce something that looks like unity if you decide that holiness isn't important. And it is very easy to produce something that looks like holiness if you decide that unity isn't important. But to generate and sustain a community that embodies both unity and holiness - well, that takes, as Paul insists, all the ministries that God gives to his church through the Holy Spirit, and all the teaching, wisdom, love, prayer and spiritual struggle that he describes and commends as the letter comes towards its close. And all this in turn enables the church, in its very life as well as in what it says to communities and individuals, to be indeed the missionary body of Christ, the community at which the principalities and powers look and realise, perhaps with an angry shock, that Jesus is Lord and they are not; the community at which ordinary people look and realise, perhaps with an eager start, that there is after all a different way to be human and that they want to find out what makes it tick. Let the Bible shape your eschatology; let that biblical eschatology shape your mission; and then let that eschatologically-shaped mission shape your view of the church; and you'll find that, instead of the shrill functional pragmatism of today's muddled left, insisting on breaking old rules because they're outdated, and the equally shrill and functional pragmatism of today's muddled right, insisting on keeping old rules because they're the old rules even at the cost of unity, you will have a robust, biblical, Christ-centred, Spirit-led, costly ecclesiology that will be in good shape to take forward God's mission into the next generation.
And all that will be so if, and perhaps only if, we can find a way, prayerfully and wisely, through the present impasse, within which whether we like it or not (and I don't, much) this summer's Lambeth Conference may prove to be a turning-point. But in order to address this we now need to move to the second part of this lecture.
2. CURRENT BIBLICAL CHALLENGES
i. Covenant, Scripture and Tomorrow's Church
When the Archbishop of Canterbury invited bishops from around the world to this summer's Lambeth Conference, he made it clear that those who accepted the invitation were accepting the Windsor Report and the proposed Covenant as the tools with which to shape our common future. There has been enormous confusion about both of these. Yesterday's New Statesman, alongside an otherwise accurate article, stated in a sidebar that the Windsor Report 'took [a] strong line against homosexuality'. That is doubly wrong. First, the Windsor Report was not about homosexuality, but about good and bad decision-making within the church when faced with contentious issues. Second, the presenting case was not 'homosexuality', not even 'homosexual behaviour' (though that remains a vital and usually ignored distinction), but that of the ordination to the episcopate of non-celibate persons of homosexual inclination, and of the church's official blessing of the unions of such persons.
In the same way, people have grossly misunderstood the proposed Covenant. It has been smeared as a way of achieving uniformity at the cost of valuable local options. It has been sneered at as a bit of ecclesial control-freakery. But, though it is of course an innovative proposal, it commended itself to the Lambeth Commission, and has commended itself in outline to our own General Synod, not without some misgivings. And the Archbishop has said that the Covenant, alongside the Windsor Report, is the tool we have with which we must shape our future. What are the biblical roots of all this?
At this point I may perhaps be allowed to quote an early version of a document which the IATDC produced eighteen months ago at its meeting in Limuru, Kenya. You might just find this on the Anglican Communion website if you try hard enough, but it's well hidden (why?) and its argument hasn't found its way into either the IATDC's report or the work of the Covenant Drafting Group. Yet I believe these biblical roots, expressed in something like this way, are the vital basis for any fruitful work down these lines. There isn't time here to quote it all but I will leave the full text in the version of this lecture that appears on the website.
- Everything about being Christian - worship, prayer, mission, fellowship, holiness, works of mercy and justice - is rooted in the basic belief that the one God who made the world has acted in sovereign love to call out a people for himself, a people through whom he is already at work to anticipate his final purpose of reconciling all things to himself, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1.10). This is what the creator God has done, climactically and decisively, in and through Jesus Christ, and is now implementing through the Holy Spirit. But this notion of God calling a people to be his own, a people through whom he will advance his ultimate purposes for the world, did not begin with Jesus. Jesus himself speaks of the time being fulfilled, and his message and ministry look back, as does the whole of earliest Christianity, to the purposes of God in, through and for his people Israel. The gospels tell the story of Jesus as the story of how God's purposes for Israel and the world reach their intended goal. Paul writes of the gospel of Jesus being 'promised beforehand through God's prophets in the holy scriptures', and argues that what has been accomplished in Jesus Christ is what God always had in mind when he called Abraham (Galatians 3; Romans 4). The earliest Christian writers, in their different ways, all bear witness to this belief: that those who follow Jesus, those who trust in his saving death and believe in his resurrection, are carrying forward the purposes for which God called Abraham and his family long before. And those purposes are not for God's people only: they are for the whole world. God calls a people so that through this people - or, better, through the unique work of Jesus Christ which is put into effect in and through this people in the power of the Spirit - the whole world may be reconciled to its creator.
- A key term which emerges from much Jewish and Christian writings and which brings into sharp focus this whole understanding of God and God's purposes is covenant. The word has various uses in today's world (in relation, for instance, to financial matters, or to marriage), but its widespread biblical use goes way beyond such analogies. God established a covenant (berit) with Abraham (Genesis 15), and the writer(s) or at least redactor(s) of Genesis, in the way they tell that story, indicate clearly enough that God's call of Abraham, and the covenant established with him, was intended to be the means whereby God would address the problem of the human race and so of the entire created order. Genesis 12, 15 and the whole story address the problem set out in Genesis 3-11: the problem, that is, of human rebellion and death and the consequent apparent thwarting of the creator's plan for his human creatures and the whole of creation (Genesis 1-2). And they claim - and this claim is echoed right across the Old Testament - that God has in principle solved that problem with the establishment of this covenant. Already the story offers itself as the story of God's uncaused, gracious and generous love: God is under no obligation to rescue humans, and the world, from their plight, but chooses to do so and takes the initiative to bring it about. As the story develops throughout the Old Testament this covenant love is referred to in various terms, eg hesed.
- The covenant with Abraham is then dramatically developed as God fulfils a promise made in Genesis 15, namely that he would rescue Abraham's family from slavery in Egypt. The story of the Exodus, with God bringing the Israelites through the Red Sea and pointing them towards their promised land, reaches a climax when they arrive at Mount Sinai and are given the Law (Torah) as the covenant charter, prefaced by God's declaration that Israel is to be his holy people, a nation of priests chosen out of and on behalf of the whole world (Exodus 19). The Law is meant to sustain Israel as the covenant community, the people who are bound to the creator God as in a solemn marriage vow (as in Hosea), and to one another as God's people, and through whom God's purposes are to be extended in the world. This vocation and intention is sorely tested as Israel repeatedly rebels against God, and the covenant is repeatedly renewed (Deuteronomy 31; Joshua 9, 24; 2 Kings 11.17; some have suggested that the Psalms provide evidence of frequent, perhaps annual, 'covenant renewal'). The prophets regularly call Israel back to the obligations of the covenant, obligations both to God and to one another. But Israel, the bearer of God's covenant promises which ultimately envisage the whole world, proves unfaithful, and is driven into exile - which the prophets interpret in terms of the covenant, understanding exile as covenantal punishment for covenantal disobedience. This is the more striking in that the covenant always envisaged Israel's being given the promised land, and the land being blessed when Israel is obedient to the covenant (see Deuteronomy, and e.g. Psalm 67).
- iv. It is at this point that there emerges the promise of a new covenant, through which (this is the point) God will at last do in and through Israel what the earlier covenants intended but did not bring about. Jeremiah 31 (similarly, Ezekiel 36) speaks both of the forgiveness of the sins which had brought the earlier plans to ruin and also of a new knowledge of God which will come to characterise God's people. It is this ancient promise which the earliest Christians saw as having been fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus himself, indeed, spoke at the Last Supper of his forthcoming death as establishing the new, sin-forgiving covenant, and of the bread and the wine as somehow symbolizing that event, with that significance - and thus also effectively symbolizing the way in which his followers could find new life, together as a community and as individuals, through feeding on him and his saving death. From that moment on, believing in Jesus, following him, seeking to live out his accomplishment through mission in God's world (bringing it to new fruitfulness and justice, as Israel's obedience was to bring blessing to the land), take place within what can with deep appropriateness be described as the new covenant community, constituted and reconstituted as such again and again not least precisely through sharing (koinonia, 'communion' or 'fellowship') at his table. According to Paul, all those who believe in Jesus belong at this table, no matter what their personal, moral, ethnic or other background, and are thereby to be renewed in faith and holiness and energised for God's mission in the world. Baptism, the sign of entry into the renewed covenant, marks out not just individuals but the whole community of the baptized. To live as God's covenant people is thus the basic call of Christians, of the church of God. To speak of being in covenant with God and with one another is nothing new for Christians. Indeed, not to do so - even by implication - is to call into question the classic model of Christian faith and life.
iv a. [We recognise that this early Christian understanding of the new covenant community raises sharply the question of the relationship between the emerging Christian family - most of whom, in the early period, were of course themselves Jewish - and the continuing community of those Jews who did not recognise Jesus as Messiah and Lord; and, today, the question of the relationship between Christians and Jews. This is not the place to discuss this complex issue, but it would be inappropriate not to mention it.]
- There are indications that the earliest Christians drew on existing models within Judaism of what a 'new covenant community' might look like. In a way markedly similar to what we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Jerusalem Church held their possessions in common, and those in any individual family who were in need were the responsibility of all (hence the problems about widows in e.g. Acts 6 and 1 Timothy). Though a strict sharing of everything was not followed in the Pauline churches, we should not underplay the practical meaning of agape, 'love', in Paul, but rather give it its full meaning of mutual practical support (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12). Paul chooses a special term ('koinonia') that has both commercial and social implications to describe his covenant friendship with the Philippians. They were in 'partnership' together for the spreading of the gospel and the mission of the church to the Gentiles in God's name. Although Paul and the Philippians are in different locations doing different tasks, they are nevertheless partners 'in Christ', sharing the risks as well as celebrating the successes of the gospel. The point is that Christians are to think of themselves as a single family, in a world where 'family' means a good deal more in terms of mutual obligations and expectations than in many parts of today's Western world at least. The community of the new covenant thus quickly came to see itself - and to be seen by the watching, puzzled and often hostile world - as marked out from all other social, cultural and religious groupings, with the marking-out being primarily its devotion and loyalty to Jesus as Lord and its belief that the one God of Abraham had, by raising Jesus from the dead, fulfilled his ancient promises and launched the final stage of his world-transforming purpose. The new covenant community thus exists to set forward the mission of God in the power of the Spirit, and is therefore called to a shared, common life of holiness and reconciliation. The message of forgiveness and healing for the world must be enacted and embodied by the community that bears the message.
- From the beginning, this vocation constituted a severe challenge for Jesus' followers, and there never was a time when they met it perfectly. The early church proceeded by a series of puzzles, mistakes, infidelities, quarrels, disputes, personality clashes and a host of other unfortunate events as well as by faithful witness, martyrdom, generous love, notable holiness (remarked on with great surprise by some pagan observers, who didn't know such lifestyles were possible), and a genuine openness and obedience to God's often surprising and dangerous call. Since (in other words) being an early Christian seems to have been no less challenging and often perplexing than being a modern one, it is no surprise that the early Christians quickly developed a sense of how God guided his people and enabled them to discern the way forward both in new mission initiatives and in matters of dispute within their common life. Central to it all was the sense of the presence of the risen Jesus Christ in their midst ('where two or three are gathered in his name', as Jesus himself puts it in Matthew 18), so that the covenant community is not a mere human institution following an agenda but a fellowship of disciples together seeking to know, listen to, worship, love and serve their Lord. In particular, the community we see in Acts, the Epistles and the writings of the second century was constantly concerned to invoke, celebrate and be deeply sensitive to the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. Repeatedly this involved fresh searchings of scripture (for the earliest Christians, the Old Testament; for the next generation, the apostolic traditions as well) and serious prayer and fasting, waiting for a common mind to emerge.
- In and through it all the unity of the church - unity both within local churches and between different churches - emerges as a vital strand, not least as persecution mounts and the church finds itself under dire threat. Indeed, the koinonia of the new covenant community, as the people who give allegiance to Jesus as 'Lord' in a world where there were many 'Lords', notably the Roman emperor, meant that from the beginning there was a necessary (and dangerous) political implication to the founding and maintaining of a trans-ethnic and trans-national covenant community. All kinds of attempts were made to fracture this unity, and many early writers devote attention to maintaining it, to guard it, and to re-establish it when broken. It is at that point (for instance) that Paul works out his position about 'things indifferent' (those aspects of common life about which the community should be able to tolerate different practice), as well as his position about those things (e.g. incest) which the community should not tolerate at any price (1 Corinthians 5, 8). The vital unity of the covenant community needs the careful and prayerful use of quite sophisticated tools of discernment, tools that were already developed in the earliest church and are needed still.
- It is this complex yet essentially simple vision of the people of God which is invoked when the church today thinks of itself as a 'covenant community'. That is not to say that all uses of the word 'covenant' in today's discussions necessarily imply that the 'covenants' we enter into (for instance, those between different Christian denominations) are somehow the same as the essential covenant between God and the people who, beginning with Abraham and renewed in Jesus Christ, are called to belong to him and to take forward his mission in the world. But the use of the word in today's church carries, and honours, the memory of the biblical covenant(s). It seeks to invoke and be faithful to the themes we have just explored: the sovereign call of God to belong to him and to work in the power of his Spirit for his purposes in the world, and the consequent call to the unity, reconciliation, and holiness which serve that mission.
- There is no sense, of course, that introducing the notion of 'covenant' into talk of mutual relationships between Christians implies the establishment of a further 'new covenant' over and above the 'new covenant' inaugurated by Jesus Christ. Rather, all use of covenantal language in relation to the church today must be seen as a proposal for specific kind of recommitment within that same covenant, in particular situations and in relation to particular communities. And that in turn reminds us that, once we start talking of being in covenant with one another, we are immediately reminded of our participation in the covenant which God has made with us in Jesus Christ. The horizontal relationship with one another is dependent, theologically and practically, on the vertical relationship with the creating, loving and reconciling God we know in Jesus and by the Spirit.
- The notion of 'covenant' has not been prominent to date within Anglican traditions of polity and organisation ('covenantal' language has, of course, been familiar from teachings on, for instance, baptism and marriage). But the picture of the church developed by the sixteenth-century Reformers, by great theoreticians like Hooker (who explored the notion of 'contract'), and by many subsequent writers, sets out models of church life for which 'covenant', with the biblical overtones explored briefly above, may serve as a convenient, accurate and evocative shorthand. Recent discussions of Anglican identity, addressing the uncertainty as to how Anglicans are bound together around the world, have explored the notion of 'bonds of affection', the powerful though elusive ties that hold us together in friendship and fellowship. This kind of relational bonding, we believe, remains central to any appropriate understanding of our shared communion.
- It is out of that relational understanding of worldwide Anglicanism that the proposal for a 'covenant' has now grown, and it is in that sense that the proposal is to be understood. The IATDC, the Windsor Report, and the Primates, have all suggested that we seek to work towards a more explicit 'Anglican Covenant', not in order to bind us to new, strange and unhelpful obligations, but rather to set us free both from disputes which become damaging and dishonouring and from the distraction which comes about when, lacking an agreed method, we flail around in awkward attempts to resolve them. This is not seeking to introduce an alien notion into an Anglicanism which has never thought like this before. Rather, it seeks to draw from the deep scriptural roots in which Anglicanism has always rejoiced, and from the more recent awareness of 'bonds of affection', a more explicit awareness of those covenantal beliefs and practices which resonate deeply with many aspects of Anglican tradition and which urgently need to be refreshed and clarified if the church is to serve God's mission in coming generations. To the suggestion that such a new move appears to be restrictive or cumbersome, there is an easy reply. When the ground is soft and easy, we can walk on it with light or flimsy shoes. When it gets stony, muddy or steep we put on walking boots, not because we don't want to be free to walk but because we do.
This is the line of biblical thought which sustains the covenant proposals which the Archbishop's invitation has highlighted. But, as I have already hinted, all this moves us into one rather obvious and striking biblical location. It's all very well to say what a fine idea a covenant would be, but how do we get there with any credibility? This is the point at which we are living, in our own muddled way, through the stormy relationship between Paul and Corinth. I will only say a few words about 1 Corinthians, and then move to what I believe to be the heart of the matter, the re-enactment today of 2 Corinthians.
ii. Covenant and Corinth: Phase One
Ever since it became clear in summer 2003 that the Episcopal Church in the United States was likely both to make Gene Robinson a bishop and to authorize public rites of same-sex blessings, there have naturally been groups who wanted someone, probably the Archbishop of Canterbury or, failing that, the Primates as a whole, to write the equivalent of 1 Corinthians, putting the Americans and others straight with some clear teaching on what is acceptable and what is not. Many, indeed, hoped that the Windsor Report would contain that sort of teaching, and were disappointed when it didn't. But this was always a misunderstanding. The whole point of having the Lambeth Commission in the first place - forgive me reminding you of this but I find people keep on forgetting - was that Lambeth, the ACC, the Primates and Canterbury had already made the position abundantly clear, and the Americans had chosen to go their own way. If they did not hear Lambeth and the Primates, neither would they have been convinced even if Robin Eames should write another report.
But what Windsor did, of course, was another part of the classic 1 Corinthians material: not giving ethical instruction, but articulating the principle of adiaphora. The question is, which differences make a difference and which don't, how d'you tell, and who says? 1 Corinthians gives, of course, some pretty sharp examples of differences which do make a difference (incest, greed in business, etc.) and of differences which don't (especially dietary laws and customs), and of what to do with the latter (don't force them on people, and don't offend someone by presuming on your liberty when their conscience is at risk). What's more, as I argued some years ago, the so-called 'New Perspective on Paul' has enabled us to see more clearly why some things are adiaphora and others are not: the things which are adiaphora are those things which would otherwise have come between Jews and Gentiles. It isn't the case, as some low-grade would-be exegesis has sometimes suggested, that Paul simply chopped and changed biblical standards (e.g. circumcision) when he felt like it or for merely pragmatic reasons. This needs to be explored further, but not here. The point is that 1 Corinthians gives a wonderful, classic exposition of Christian love (chapter 13) at the heart of a whole section about the nature of the church in which it is abundantly clear that the multiplicity of gifts, and for that matter cultures, in the church are to be held together in a larger order corresponding to the God-given order of the human body. Clearly, this offers a model for unity and holiness with plenty of room for local variation and no room at all for unholiness - begging the question, of course, as what constitutes holiness and how you might tell.
But to live with 1 Corinthians invites the progression to 2 Corinthians, and that is of course exactly what has happened, and is happening as we speak. This brings me to the last main section of this lecture.
iii. Covenant and Corinth: Phase Two
Many things about 2 Corinthians are exegetically controversial, but nobody would deny that it is the most heart-wrenchingly human letter of Paul that we possess. Not only does he wear his heart on his sleeve, wounds and all, but he actually says he's doing so (6.11). And the reason for this is not far to seek: the Corinthian church, or most of them anyway, have rejected him, choosing to go with others whom he darkly terms 'super-apostles' or other less complimentary terms (I am parking one of the many controversies here). The church has made it clear to Paul that if he wants to come back to Corinth he'll have to prove himself, have to present his credentials, have to obtain 'letters of recommendation'! In other words, the main theological question of the letter highlights a deep personal problem: the very apostolic authority which enabled Paul to do what he did was being called into question, and he had to find a way of reasserting it, and that at a time when for other reasons he had been at the lowest ebb of his life. Having suffered in Ephesus something like a nervous breakdown (see 1.8f.), quite probably as part of the strong local opposition to his message, he now finds that having faced the pagan hordes he has to face the shiny, successful Christian hordes, and he may well wonder which is worse. At least the pagans aren't supposed to be your friends!
Time forbids full treatment, but let me sketch some features of this '2 Corinthians moment', which is I believe where we are right now in the Anglican Communion. We haven't had much of a formal 'authority structure', just as Paul didn't. Things were assumed as the mission grew; it was clear who the leader was and things could go forward from there. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians he was in the position that the Anglican Communion thought it was in until 2003: though we didn't have a formal legal or constitutional position, we all more or less knew how things stood, and an appeal to the Apostle in the first century, or to Lambeth in the twentieth, more or less clinched things. But now it had all gone pear-shaped. Pagan behaviour to the left, and ultra-Christian heroism to the right, had left Paul having fought the battles on the one hand only to appear outflanked on the other. What was his answer? Four things, briefly, all within the context of some brilliant as well as deeply personal writing, including some of the cleverest and actually funniest irony anywhere in scripture.
First and foremost, Paul argues for the nature of apostolic authority, rooted and grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The 'super-apostles' appear to want Christian leadership to be a matter of heroism, of people who are above suffering, whose testimony to the power of God is clear and bright, unsullied with moments of pain or despair. That actually conforms only too well to a different aspect of pagan culture, the culture of success, of an essentially imperial model of human flourishing (Corinth prided itself on being 'more Roman than Rome'), of a way of being Christian which had left the cross behind. And Paul will have none of it. For him, the cross is not simply the salvific event, a moment in the past which, its work done, can then be put behind the apostle as he goes forward from glory to glory. That latter phrase, at the end of 2 Corinthians 3, is deeply ironic, because the glory is seen precisely in the suffering, as chapters 4 and 6 make clear. The point is this: apostolic authority is rooted not only in the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also in the living out of that death and resurrection - which Paul, clearly, had done, and which, we are left to infer, the super-apostles had not. And, at the heart of it all, Paul embraced and celebrated the shame of the cross, so offensive to those who wanted their Christian faith to be cut and dried and clean and shiny (and conforming to the culture of imperial success), and so essential to genuine apostleship. This is the point of Paul's spectacular piece of inverted boasting in chapters 11 and 12, where he boasts of all the wrong things, like someone today producing a curriculum vitae of the jobs they didn't get and the books they didn't write, or perhaps someone writing a family Christmas letter about failed exams, getting sacked from work, and so on, all in the tone of voice of 'what a wonderful year we've had'. Applied to our current situation, I believe we need to ponder very seriously the notions of human and Christian flourishing that we sometimes take for granted, and which condition many of our ecclesial debates, and reassess them in the light of the foundation gospel events.
Second, Paul argues precisely for the establishment, under his cross-and-resurrection-shaped apostolic authority, of the new covenant. As I said earlier, this can't of course be equated directly with any covenants we may make amongst ourselves today, but it speaks volumes that it is at this point, when he is struggling to re-establish his apostolic authority on gospel lines, that he reaches for 'covenant' as his key category. And, within that, membership in the covenant involves the remarkable face-to-face recognition, as in the end of chapter 3, of the glory of Jesus Christ. It is in the actual face-to-face meeting of those who recognise Jesus in one another that covenant membership is enacted, is known for what it is. This chapter should lie near the heart of all discussion of koinonia, of the nature of Christian fellowship.
Third, however, all this has come about not least because Paul has written a painful letter (2.3f.). This too is of course historically controversial: is the 'painful letter' 1 Corinthians itself, or is it one of the somewhat disjointed sections of 2 Corinthians itself, perhaps chapters 10-13? I am cautiously with those who think that it is a letter written between the two epistles, and now lost, but that doesn't take away from the remarkable relevance of 2 Corinthians for our present moment. When the Archbishop issued his invitations, he made it clear as I said that their basis was Windsor and the Covenant as the tools to shape our future common life. That invitation was issued only three months after the remarkable joint statement from the Primates issued in Tanzania in February 2007. After a summer and autumn of various tangled and unsatisfactory events, the Archbishop then wrote an Advent pastoral letter in which he reiterated the terms of his initial invitation and declared that he would be writing to those bishops who might be thought particularly unsympathetic to Windsor and the Covenant to ask them whether they were really prepared to build on this dual foundation. Those letters, I understand, are in the post as we speak, written with apostolic pain and heart-searching but also with apostolic necessity. I am well aware that many will say this is far too little, far too late - just as many others will be livid to think that the Archbishop, having already not invited Gene Robinson to Lambeth, should be suggesting that some others might absent themselves as well. But this is what he promised he would do, and he is doing it. If I know anything about anything, I know that he deserves our prayers at this most difficult and fraught moment in the run-up to Lambeth itself.
Fourth, we have seen, predictably but sadly, the rise of the super-apostles, who have wanted everything to be cut and dried in ways for which our existing polity simply did not, and does not, allow. Please note, I do not for one moment underestimate the awful situation that many of our American and Canadian friends have found themselves in, vilified, attacked and undermined by ecclesiastical authority figures who seem to have lost all grip on the gospel of Jesus Christ and to be eager only for lawsuits and property squabbles. I pray daily for many friends over there who are in intolerable situations and I don't underestimate the pressures and strains. But I do have to say, as well, that these situations have been exploited by those who have long wanted to shift the balance of power in the Anglican Communion and who have used this awful situation as an opportunity to do so. And now, just as the super-apostles were conveying the message to Paul that if he wanted to return to Corinth he'd need letters of recommendation, we are told that, if we want to go on being thought of as evangelicals, we should withdraw from Lambeth and join the super-gathering which, though not officially, is clearly designed as an alternative, and which of course hands an apparent moral victory to those who can cheerfully wave goodbye to the 'secessionists'. I have written about this elsewhere, and it is of course a very sad situation which none of us (I trust) would wish but which seems to be worsening by the day.
Apostolic authority, covenant, painful letters and super-apostles: the parallels are not of course exact, but they are striking none the less. And my counsel to those who want to be 'biblical' in their approach to Lambeth is to live within 2 Corinthians, to pray it in, to struggle with its meaning then and now, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to pray to the Father that the pattern of the crucified and risen Son may be made known in our Communion, particularly in Lambeth itself this summer and in all that will follow from it. There is much more that could be said, but my task was to provide a biblical foundation for our thought, and I trust I have gone some way towards that.
But let me conclude with one more word. This is the Easter season, and Easter is about the surprising springtime, the moment when hope rose again after hope had been cruelly killed. Like (I guess) most if not all of you, I have had many hopes and fears these last five years. There are many things I hoped for that have not happened, and some things I feared might happen which have happened. After all, it wasn't just Paul who people thought had let them down by his suffering and his imminent death in Ephesus; it was Jesus himself. 'We had hoped,' say the two on the road to Emmaus, 'that he would be the one to redeem Israel.' And that hope had been horribly snuffed out. Perhaps the way we Evangelicals - yes, please, let's still use the word, it's far too good a word to be taken from us by any small group - perhaps the way we Evangelicals have hoped things would turn out has itself been less than the best, has pointed into a somewhat narrow cultural or theological cul-de-sac when the glorious gospel itself would lead us into the larger world that the Bible itself opens up even if our tradition has chosen not to notice it. And perhaps, as we walk on the road, not now to Emmaus but to Lambeth, we need to be alert for the stranger who comes alongside, who gives us a fresh perspective on the scriptures themselves, and then leaves with a broken loaf to remind them of who he was and is, and of what koinonia with him and with one another would mean. My prayer is that as we approach Lambeth, which the Archbishop himself will open by leading a retreat so that all that we then do is framed in prayer and waiting on God in humility and hope, our hearts will again burn within us at fresh wisdom from the scriptures, so that we are ready to recognise Jesus in one another and commit ourselves again to holiness and unity.
The late, great Lesslie Newbigin was once asked whether, when he looked at the church, he was an optimist or a pessimist. I make his reply my own. I am neither an optimist, nor a pessimist: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, is research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews