Conscience and Covenant

Guy Jamieson explains why, if we are a people of covenant,

our responsibility to one another means that proper provision must be made for us

How often has a delicate conscience been seen as a weakness? The majority of everyday conversation which surrounds us strongly suggests that we ought to let go of our scruples and questions and just ‘let live,’ but conscience cannot be quietened except at the expense of personal and community health. How we use our conscience is the means at our disposal of being instruments of grace.

There are many ways of examining conscience, but one way is to compare the way we live with the measure of ‘covenant living’ – to set our life against the expectations that covenant, which so beautifully emerges through the Scriptures, invites. Covenant is, in a nutshell, the gracious way to be in relationship with God and neighbour. It is the very opposite of the ‘move on and let live’ attitude which surrounds us. Covenant is our means of assessing relationships more closely, and it helps us to be mindful of the consequences of our everyday engagements.

Finding our way

The ‘narrow way’ of the Kingdom compels us to take a look at our motives and to see our conscience as more than a troublesome obstacle to a liberating freedom in which we assume some kind of sovereign rule over the moral life. Conscience is there to be grappled with in such a way that we are led into a finer discernment of which course of action we should follow.

The ‘easy way’ has never been an option as we search for an authentic way of discerning the Word of the Gospel and how it shapes our life. God’s gift of covenant is more than a safeguard against any individual school of thought running away with all the influence, but is a way of ensuring that something of the truth of God is still to be found in our neighbour. It isn’t possible for Christian eyes to envisage our neighbour as having nothing of the truth of God in themselves. Over the centuries, this way of being in relationship has been seen in the Benedictine tradition of welcoming the stranger as Christ himself, and for truth and wisdom to come from the most inexperienced or unexpected of places and people. Marginalization is a short-sighted danger to the health of any community.

Covenant ensures that the life of God in each other is attended to in such a way to ensure its vitality, unencumbered by suspicion or resentment, and mature enough to realize that no political victory can be so absolute as to create winners and losers if it is made up of people who are theologically of ‘one body’.

The Code of Practice

The Code of Practice is exactly the kind of demeaning consequence that comes with ignoring the above traditions so dearly held by Jewish and Christian communities over the centuries. I felt like Oliver Twist when I first read it: ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ – I can’t possibly live healthily on such a meagre diet. The lack of unity and consensus which seems to emerge from our Synodical process is a far cry from the observation of Jonathan Sacks in his book The Home We Build Together that the Bible ‘repeatedly emphasises how ‘All the people responded with one voice’ (Exodus 24:3)’. To make this point, Sacks continues, ‘in the Hebrew text the phrase, ‘the people’ appears 17 times in Exodus 19 (the covenant proposal) and 5 times in Exodus 24 (the covenant accepted).

As covenant relationship evolved with the journey of the Israelites to freedom under God, it was seen to be ‘consensual.’ When we as Christians relate this to our baptismal incorporation into Christ’s body, the point is more acutely felt, ‘social covenant creates a society; social contract creates a state.’ The key element in covenant is neither power nor the past, but a verbal declaration, a mutually binding promise.’ Again, the intimacy of how we are called to fulfil this in Christian tradition is all the more apparent in our sense of the ‘bonded-ness’ of baptism. If we were a communion who lived more consistently within a tradition of covenant, the prevailing liberal movement would seek to create a relationship with us in which they could also recognize in us the ‘liberation’ they have sought after for so long.

‘Love by contract’

The Code of Practice has seen our communion drift towards a life more in keeping with ‘love by contract’ than covenant. The following helps us to recognize this quite easily; ‘Contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework; Covenant is about how people live together despite their differences; Contract is about government; Covenant is about co-existence.’ In this latter observation we can see how the proposal of the Archbishops was getting nearer to this only to be defeated from the floor. To continue with Sacks’ observations, ‘Contract is about laws and their enforcement; Covenant is about values that we share; Contract is about the use of potentially coercive force; Covenant is about moral commitments.’

Covenant creates a vibrant, healthy, creative life where the idolizing need for one group to be right makes way for a discerning obedience to life in Christ’s body, in whom ‘we live and move and have our being.’ We share one another’s life because we are inextricably bound up with one another in baptism. Far from being claustrophobic, this is how we are led to find ‘life in its fullness’. The Code of Practice is a weak form of responsibility towards one another which seems unable to perceive the heart of our concerns. As Sacks observes in Joseph Allen’s book, Love and Conflict; A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics, ‘in a moral community each of us has enduring responsibility to all the others.’ Where we are today with the General Synod is far from this. The very nature of Christian relationship has been sidelined.

Sacks goes on, ‘unlike contracts which are about interests, covenants are about identity. They turn a plurality of ‘I’s into a collective ‘we’. The simplest example of covenant is marriage.’

The waters of baptism

It seems completely in line with Christian teaching to ask that the liberal movement are reminded of their covenantal responsibility towards us which began the moment they were baptized. The consequences of baptism do not include choosing the company you keep in your Church; the waters of baptism do not wash away the people we don’t like, but immerse us in the company of saints – and that company includes some pretty difficult people – the waters of baptism wash away the obstacles in the way of love, and the language of this action of love, is covenant.

People like me have been examined by the appropriate Church authorities and our vocation has been found to be authentic. The vocation called into existence within us is of God. If it is of God then it is that which the Church is called to accommodate; it is a gift of God we are legislating for and a gift of God we are creating parameters for.

Judgements made are therefore judgements about God. Our Synodical process seems to have confused covenant with contract. Where do you recognize the following observations of Sacks in the current dilemma? ‘Covenants and contracts are different things and address different aspects of our humanity. In a contract what matters is that both gain. In a covenant what matters is that both give.’

Confusion

He continues with words which expose yet further our shortcomings towards one another: ‘contracts are agreements entered into for mutual advantage ... undertaken by individuals or groups on the basis of self-interest. They have specific purposes. They can be terminated by mutual consent. They end once both parties have fulfilled their obligations. By contrast, covenants are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest, but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness.’

Although we are losing the votes in the Deanery debates about provision, we are, in my experience at least, receiving some comments which show that there is some discomfort about the way we do things. The ‘way’ we are called to find, and about which few people seem aware or prepared to enter into, is the way of covenant. Being of God, covenant living cannot collaborate with an attempt to fence
conscience into a relationship of power.

I have drawn strongly on the knowledge and wisdom of Jonathan Sacks, and now I want to finish with that of the current Pope. Benedict XVI reminds us that there is a thread of continuity which runs between the Church of this and any age and the covenant of Abraham.

In his book, Covenant and Communion, in which Scott Hahn explores Pope Benedict’s biblical theology, he notes that unless we discern ‘the unity of the Bible’ the threat of a ‘discontinuity between the Church and the Word’ becomes apparent and we lose our place in the unfolding of Christian revelation.

The way of covenant living is an inherent part of Christian life. As Hahn discovers in Benedict’s work, the directness of our origins in covenant living are expressed in the ‘beautiful words of his predecessor, Pope Pius XI, who said of Christians, ‘Spiritually we are Semites.’ By this Benedict understands that ‘the Church herself is situated within the eternal covenant of the Almighty, whose plans are immutable’. ‘Right from the beginning, the promise to Abraham guarantees salvation history’s inner continuity from the patriarchs of Israel down to Christ and to the Church of Jew and Gentiles.’

Fidelity

Finding its summary in the Lord’s teaching on the commandments, faithfulness to God is coupled with a fidelity to one another. To love one’s neighbour as oneself. It seems painfully obvious and simple, and yet look at us!

If we are a people of covenant then there is a responsibility on the part of those with whom we differ to ensure that proper provision is assured for us. If this does not happen we go into an era where covenant living becomes increasingly unrecognizable and our relationship with God becomes yet further estranged.

We are a missionary people locking ourselves and each other into corners from where no mission can come. If we live outside the character of covenant then we will be chaplains to decline, always fighting against the God who gives us life. Grace and fidelity go hand in hand. ND

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  1. The Walsingham Festival of Flowers