Comfortless Covenant

Geoffrey Kirk wonders if there was any point to the Texas statement

The American Church has elected and consecrated as bishop an adulterer whose present partner is another male. There have been adulterous American bishops before – one at least committed suicide as a result. There have been gay American bishops before – one at least molested his own nephew and was subsequently re-instated in office. There are many American priests, both male and female, who live openly in same sex relationships – some at least whose relationships have been blessed by their own bishops. In a high profile case the Episcopal Church decided, as long ago as 1996, that bishops who ordain practising homosexuals have not committed an offence, and that there is no canon or ‘core doctrine’ which inhibits such ordinations.

What problem?

Why, you may well ask, was the consecration of Gene Robinson such a Communion-shattering event, and why does the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church now feel obliged to make gestures and concessions towards the rest of the Anglican Communion which it has not felt obliged to make heretofore?

These are questions for which it is hard to find a coherent answer, save only for reasons of cynical political manoeuvre.

For so-called ‘traditionalists’ or ‘orthodox’ in the rest of the Communion, the answer must be, at least in part, that an openly gay bishop (though no more morally reprehensible than an openly gay priest) is simply the line in the sand beyond which they intend not to be pushed. And so they have chosen to make an ecclesiological crisis out of an ethical issue. This is neither entirely rational nor even entirely honest.

It is irrational because Article XXVI (and the whole tradition which lies behind it) does not permit moral issues of this kind to be treated ecclesiologically – and because, not to put too fine a point on it, Gene Robinson (who has not been a model of emotional stability) may yet repent of his folly and return to his wife. Or, like the Dean of St Alban’s, embrace a life of blameless celibacy.

Piece-meal objections

It is disingenuous because those who object to the consecration of Bishop Robinson are, or ought to be (on the self-same scriptural grounds to which they lay claim), opposed to all the other ‘developments’ which I have enumerated. There is no Scripture which restricts morality to bishops.

Furthermore, the structure of the Anglican Communion, such as it is, is far too loose – even informal – for people to play ecclesiological games with and within it. Many of the bishops who are now seeking to put a cordon sanitaire between themselves and Bishop Robinson and his supporters are also opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.

Yet those who now seek the withdrawal of ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada from the Anglican Consultative Council (the body which, by a narrow majority, sanctioned the 1973 Hong Kong ordinations), attended the last Lambeth Conference without demur. Numbers of them, moreover, are in favour of lay celebration – and some of those bishops already permit such in their own dioceses.

They would not, in short, recognize an ecclesiological issue if it punched them on the nose. Which it has done.


On the other hand, where the American House of Bishops is concerned, one has great difficulty in grasping why they have gone to such trouble in appeasing their opponents. Their action is neither rational nor principled.

It is irrational because unnecessary. It would only be rational to make any concessions at all, if there were any sense in which the ordination of a practising homosexual bishop was a unique or especially significant crisis in the life of the Communion. But that is clearly not the case. Enough water has flowed under the bridge for it to be clear that more water will flow. The Communion, whatever emergent ‘problem’ it is called to address, will treat the present ‘crisis’ over gay bishops in the same way.

Is it the case that the HOB of ECUSA has not yet sufficiently grasped that a dialectic of ‘crisis’ and ‘resolution’ is what defines modern Anglicanism? The Americans are, presently, on the cusp. It is nonsense to concede any power or authority whatsoever (supposing yourself to be a self-defining body) to any entity (for example ‘the Anglican Communion’) which by definition cannot know its own mind because it has no means of making that mind up.

Bogus concessions

It is unprincipled because every one of the concessions made in the above Covenant is in one sense or another bogus. The clear intention of a moratorium on all episcopal appointments is to hold to ransom to gay activists the dioceses of the Episcopal Church who are seeking new bishops – so creating impatience and discontent where it was not previously to be found. The clear intention of offers to provide some form of alternative oversight to parishes disaffected with their present bishop is to control dissent by pre-emptive policing.

If the Episcopal Church had ever intended to be the godly plurality, which its Presiding Bishop fraudulently lauds, it would never have sought to foreclose the period of reception on the ordination of women. But it did. And many bishops of the Anglican Communion Network did not speak out against that betrayal of many with whom they now seek common cause.

It is a cause of sadness, then, that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, instead of boldly proclaiming the new era of its New Gospel, has produced this mealy-mouthed palliative. If the American Bishops think they are right and their opponents are wrong (which they clearly do) then they had no alternative but to say so unequivocally. For people like them, the time to get out of the Anglican Communion is now. In the next round of doctrinal revision, which will surely come, they may be the victims.

Appropriate response?

Rowan Williams, you will recall, described the Twelve Theses of Jack Spong as the work of a clever sixth former. What Rowan, who is a gentleman, did not say of Spong’s effusion was that it was not only too clever by half, but insolent into the bargain.

All that and more is true of this statement of the American bishops. Larded with phrases from the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version, it is the work of people who have no intention of according those texts either respect or authority. The ‘Covenant’ has a litigious tone which is the very opposite of the ‘graciousness’ to which the Presiding Bishop so frequently appeals. The ‘Word to the Church’ which accompanied it mingles mawkish sentimentality with extravagant self-approval.

The tragedy of the Anglican Communion is that such a dual response is certainly as much as the authors of the Windsor Report and the communiqué from the Primates’ Meeting could expect, and probably as much as they deserved.


Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary

of Forward in Faith


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