by Ephraim Radner
As always, I am grateful for Dr. Poon’s courtesy in deeming my remarks worth his time to comment upon. And, as has proved the case in the past, I am not sure that we disagree as much as he seems to indicate! My own discussion of the Proposed Covenant upon which he comments derives simply from my role as a sympathetic explicator of a process of which I was a part (along, for instance, with his own Archbishop, John Chew). If it appears that I was lavishing “profuse praise” upon the document, or “hailing” Rowan Williams as a hero in the process, then I have given the wrong impression. Rather, I remain generally (although not uniformly) positive and thankful about our work as the Covenant Design Group, and my hope has been simply to explain why the general thrust of the Covenant’s purpose and form is something that makes good sense within the context of our Christian communion. Along with others on the Design Group, however, I covet the comments of those around the Communion, like Dr. Poon, in large measure because we are well aware of the limitations of our initial efforts.
Dr. Poon rightly points to a central question regarding the Covenant’s purpose, the relationship between what is “new” and what is “old” in its potential existence and articulation. There are a number of ways that one can, from a Gospel perspective, approach this kind of question: “new wineskins for new wine” (Lk. 5:38), as he quotes; there is the saying on the scribe for the Kingdom of Heaven who “takes from his store treasures that are new and that are old” together (Mt. 13:52); there is Jesus’ teaching on the Law, that it shall not be abrogated, but rather fulfilled (Mt. 5:16-18). The “catholic” character of the Proposed Covenant, I argued, partakes of what is “already” given, but seeks its manifestation “more and more” in the life of the church and world. This creates a rich set of commitments, in which the “old” is constantly re-articulated “afresh”, and those who have “already” promised themselves to God’s own faithful promise are called to “renew” their commitments ever and again in an ongoing act of conversion.
Dr. Poon’s pointing to the central element of common prayer and the Prayer Book as the doxological center and context for Anglican hearing of Scripture in its “right interpretation” accurately exposes the complexity of this “old” and “new”. He calls for a return to the “ancient way”. And he is right: the Book of Common Prayer no longer functions in this anchoring and formative way for Anglicans as a Communion, much to our detriment. But I have already heard faithful (and centrally “orthodox”) Anglicans of a more catholic tradition criticize the Proposed Covenant precisely because it lifts up the 1662 Prayer Book as a “guiding” document for the Communion as a whole. Even leaving aside modern revisions and elaborations and perhaps perversions of the Prayer Book tradition within many evangelical and non-evangelical churches around the world, designating a liturgical form that is theologically oriented towards a fairly Protestant outlook (at least within an Anglican range) is seen by many “Anglo-Catholics” as highly problematic; and especially among newer churches who have never perhaps even been ordered within a history that attaches directly to the 1662 English edition. So there is a large question here: Is the “ancient way” closer to the pre-Reformation order of eucharistic life? Or is it to be found in a gathering of the Communion around an originating liturgical order whose focus in, e.g. 1662, is to be viewed as providentially integrating of our common life, even if not directly constructive of it in this or that local or national church? This is a central concern that, perhaps, the Covenant will need to address more substantively. I personally believe in the latter, and understand the draft Covenant to do the same; but I recognize that it will require some common discussion, prayer, and—frankly – effort and charity for this to be agreed upon. We will agree, I hope, as impelled by God; but that impulsion will be recognized only in a certain kind of shared openness.
Here is where the conciliar character of the Proposed Covenant is perhaps more prominent than Dr. Poon would like: the form of “Doxology-orthodoxy, right interpretation of the Word, and right and proper praise [that] underpin Christian ecclesial life” is not up for grabs, is not some human invention, but it must nonetheless be recognized and embraced by the human followers of Christ within the church. Conciliar life undergirds covenant not because councils and their members do not “err”; just the opposite. Conciliar life undergirds covenant because it is the formal agency of the erring Church’s act of constant re-conversion to the truth. It does not supersede the truth; it apprehends it within the historical life of the Church, which includes her many failures. Is there a place in this – and not simply a possible place but even a necessary place – for learning from the Global South? For all the failures and continuing failures, I believe this is already happening, precisely through these conciliar structures that have been emerging over the past few years. In this sense, the “status quo” is not so much being calcified as it is, in its uncovering of its authentic roots and purposes, being transformed.
I pray that continued conversation around these matters will be forthcoming in the months ahead. We shall need all the honesty, acumen, and “godly” counsel with which the Lord has gifted our Communion if we are to prove faithful to our promises before Him.