Fulcrum Newsletter March 2012
The Anglican Communion Covenant: Fighting to preserve and enhance something deeply valuable
by Stephen Kuhrt
Co-published with the Church of England Newspaper by permission 9th March 2012
Anyone involved in pastoral ministry for any length of time will recognise the exhaustion and anxiety involved in trying to save a marriage. Long evenings in conversation, sometimes in homes, sometimes in the pub, sometimes with the couple, often with each partner individually; listening, imploring and seeking to do everything possible to keep them together. Not at all costs, particularly when abuse has been involved. Nor in a way that imagines the past can simply be returned to. Particularly when a serious breach of trust has occurred, a deeper level of commitment has to be agreed if there is to be any hope of genuine reconciliation. Firmer boundaries than before are needed, especially at the start of a recommitted marriage, with the pain of what has occurred needing to inform a greater realism of the practicalities of commitment needed to make a marriage work. And the goal of all this hard work, usually undergirded by frantic prayer? Not just to salvage the continued existence of a marriage but to see that marriage become stronger than it was before and the wonderful, life enhancing relationship that God made it to be.
Idealistic to the point of being laughable? Definitely to some, with one of the frustrations of such situations being those telling either spouse it’s no big deal to cut their losses. Likely to succeed? Not necessarily, as every pastor will sadly attest. Worth seeking with every bit of energy we possess? Totally! Because what is being fought for in trying to preserve a marriage is deeply precious. Marriages do end and, sadly, they sometimes have to. But it is always a tragedy and the norm should surely be us fighting to preserve and indeed enhance something that is deeply valuable.
Like a marriage that has hit the rocks, the Anglican Communion is on the brink of separation with many on its extremes citing an ‘irretrievable breakdown’ and therefore divorce as the only credible option. And throughout this process, Rowan Williams has been rather similar to a pastor trying to save a marriage; weighed down with the anxiety and stress of the constant conversations and disappointments, deeply realistic about the accelerated levels of commitment needed if the ‘marriage’ is to be truly saved and knowing all the time that his (and others’) efforts may eventually turn out to be in vain. But as a faithful pastor must, the Archbishop is carrying on and still doing all he can with the goal of not only preserving but actually enhancing the Anglican Communion.
And at the heart of these efforts is the Anglican Communion Covenant – a very marriage-like bond designed to express the firm commitment of its members to stay together. Rather than reflecting the vague idealism that is sometimes seen at the start of marriages, the covenant is intensely practical recognising, through the pain of what has gone wrong, the stronger commitment or ‘intensification’ that is now needed for the Communion relationships to be restored. Members of the Communion, like a couple re-pledging themselves to one another, will promise not to act unilaterally when such actions will damage their fellow communion partners. And the much vilified clause on the ‘relational consequences’ reflects the seriousness with which the covenant commitment is understood as well as recognising the damage that will come from breaking this.
Many, of course, are rubbishing the Covenant and claiming that it is unduly restrictive and won’t allow the freedom for provinces to ‘be themselves’ and flourish. The covenant of marriage is also sometimes presented that way. But in neither case is this true. ‘Opting in’ to the intensification of relationships that these covenants provide is, on the contrary, life-giving. This is because the self-denial integral to our love for one another is the key to not only staying together but also flourishing. The different gifts and insights that each of us possess are then allowed to function creatively together rather than being driven apart. And even on the horrendously complicated and controversial issue of homosexuality, we are theologically bound to believe that if we can stay together and continue talking and listening then the different insights of both conservatives and liberals can yet come together to help us find a working solution. Many will see that as idealistic to the point of being laughable. But as Jim Wallis once said ‘faith is believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change’!
Like all marriages, the Anglican Communion is deeply precious. What it is meant to enshrine is a unity of Christians across all those boundaries that usually divide the outside world – nationality, culture, race and wealth. Something, in other words, uniquely and authentically Christian. And if we stay together and pledge to become a real Communion rather than a loose federation our very diversity (including our different insights on sexuality) can actually come together in an amazing way to bless this world with all its pain and difficulties. This may mean that some of us will have to slow down with our agendas and recognise that being an Anglican involves waiting for our brothers and sisters in a way that wouldn’t be the case if we were, for instance, in a free evangelical or independent Baptist church. But we will also be changed for the better in the process. And whilst the weight of influence upon the world that staying together will bring may take longer, it will far outweigh the ‘quick wins’ that will come from further fragmentation.
And all of this is why the Anglican Communion Covenant is vital and needs every ounce of our support rather than cynicism. As with marriage, we are called to be both intensely idealistic and intensely practical and to fight hard to preserve and enhance something deeply valuable.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and Chair of Fulcrum
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden.