A response to the conservative evangelical Covenant

On Tuesday December 12th 2006 a small group from Reform, Anglican Mainstream and other conservative evangelical groups met with the Archbishop of Canterbury and presented ‘A Covenant for the Church of England‘.

Changing Attitude interprets the Covenant as a further step in the attempt by certain Anglican groups to exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Anglicans who fall in love and commit themselves to faithful, intimate relationship, from the life and ministry of the church.

Changing Attitude is an organisation of lay people, priests and bishops who are members of the Church of England, part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, sharing with others throughout the world a commitment to biblical truth and the Anglican Communion. We are in fellowship with Anglicans historically and globally. We are committed to strengthen this fellowship, praying, believing and working for a restored, reformed and renewed Church of England, holding its traditional convictions, confident in the truth of God in his Word, in the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ for the world and for the whole of creation. In the power of God’s Spirit we are committed to continue the transforming work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Most of these phrases can be found in the Covenant statement. We use them too, with integrity, because we too are committed Anglicans. The Covenant asserts that the authors are authentic, orthodox Anglicans as if we are not. We are! With them we are authentic, orthodox Anglicans; authentic because we are members not of a narrow, exclusive, confessional sect but a broad, inclusive, holy people of God; orthodox because we too are committed to the classic formularies of our tradition. Such is the sometimes disparate but honest nature of Anglicanism.

Changing Attitude is also committed to the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. We are committed to the listening process authorised by the Windsor Report. We are committed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, our bishops and the structure of our church, not uncritically, but conforming to the authority of our bishops, canons and church teaching. Without these authorities we risk becoming an undisciplined, independent sect. We are committed to work for creative change within the church, not to the formation of an alternative or parallel Anglican church. We challenge church thinking and tradition about LGBT people and we are still committed Anglicans.

Covenant or manifesto?

The Covenant is not a covenant so much as a manifesto for an understanding of mission designed to exclude particular categories of Anglicans. The manifesto is intended to put pressure on the Archbishop of Canterbury and intimidate other Anglicans who have been drawn by God to different patterns of faith and worship.

The proposed Covenant has a threatening quality rather than the qualities of promise and faithfulness found in God‘s covenant with us. It is individualistic and selfish in intent, a statement of narcissistic factional self-concern. It seems to arise from the unhealthy cultural tendency of our secular society to individualism, a statement about individual needs, about what we want from the church on our terms. It suggests that any one group has the right to patrol the space and its parameters.

Changing Attitude has a wider vision, not limited by God’s call to mission alone or the human failure to capture the immense and unfathomable riches of God’s glory. Our vision is of the goodness and love of God, poured out on human kind, sinners on the way, open to grasp in human weakness ‘the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge.’ We do this, hoping that we too may be filled with the very fullness of God. (Ephesians 3.18,19)

Mission

Changing Attitude is a missionary organisation. God came near to us on earth in vulnerable human form in Jesus Christ who commanded us to “go … to all nations and make them my disciples; baptise them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.“ …because he promised in Jesus Christ to be “’with you always, to the end of time’” (Matthew 28.19,20). Jesus invited his followers to do all that he commanded us but not to bind ourselves unthinkingly to rules and laws. Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you. Changing Attitude follows this commandment and this is the missionary Gospel we take to the world.

Human systems and structures

All human systems, religious and secular, are subject to misdirection and failure and are therefore at risk of being sinful. The history of the church can be written as the story of those who thought they could recover purity and truth, only to be thwarted by the inevitable failures of their own vision. When this Covenant refers to those with a faulty view of revelation, false teaching and indiscipline, the authors may as well be referring to themselves rather than other Anglican groups such as Changing Attitude, who are presumably in their sights.

The historic structures and systems of the Church of England are not always well adapted to change. The inertia and bureaucracy of our church can be frustrating and frustrate mission. Yet our church is radically different from the church of 1900 or 1800. Our church adapts and changes organically in response to God’s activity in human hearts and minds and in the world. The Covenant dreams of a church freed from an over-centralised structure which stifles the natural development of ministry – it is a seductive dream.

Change happens slowly in bureaucratic, top-down systems. Synodical government works through a mechanism of checks and balances. This enables the church to formulate new ideas and structures that evolve organically. Changing Attitude wishes that the evolution of church policy to fully include LGBT Anglicans were happening more quickly. We are at the same time committed to work for change with our bishops and within the system, valuing the creative work undertaken in Church House.

The Covenant advocates permeable ecclesiastical legal boundaries so that there cannot be any no-go areas for gospel growth and church planting. ‘Set us free from the stifling effect of timid, unimaginative structures’ is the rallying cry of the Covenant authors. Parish boundaries are already being ignored by leaders who believe they have a right to provide alternative, ‘pure’ pastoral care and teaching where they deem a parish or priest to be in error. The Communion is also being subjected to a free for all approach to Provincial boundaries.

Changing Attitude welcomes imaginative, creative expressions of ministry and evangelism, especially those which reach out to marginalized groups and communicate the Christian gospel in vibrant, inspiring ways. But we are suspicious of the call to ignore official permission for action when it is subjectively viewed to have been ‘unreasonably withheld’. The advocacy of leaders raised up locally and trained in a Biblically orthodox way is code for ‘no gay or lesbian priests or bishops’.

Oversight

Changing Attitude is not asking the Church of England to provide LGBT Anglicans with alternative oversight from bishops who are known to be gay-affirming. We live in relationship with our bishops, some of whom are very affirming while others are blind to our Christian fidelity and love. They are still the bishops chosen and consecrated by our Church with whom we work and love and challenge. They are our leaders and our servants in the Gospel, there to protect the well-being of all.

Fellowship

Changing Attitude supporters submits to God’s revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. We are Gospel-focused, Christ-centred, cross-shaped and Spirit-empowered people. Many of our supporters hold a progressive view of revelation. We value our God-given human reason, through which God grants us insights into Scripture. We are shaped by western culture just as Nigerian, Australian, Argentinian and Sri Lankan Anglicans are shaped by their own culture.

The Church of England is not a confessing church. It is an Episcopal, Synodical and Parochial church. It is a church with ‘informal networks of fellowship‘, Changing Attitude being one of those networks. Changing Attitude disagrees with those who believe the church has compromised the ‘clear teaching of the Scriptures’ on issues of gender, sex and marriage. We believe the church is learning about gender, sex and marriage, guided by God, inspired by the Scriptures. We will endeavour to maintain Christian fellowship with those who disagree with us in good conscience.

Conclusion

The Communion is at risk, not from the presence of LGBT people, because we have always been present in the Anglican Church. Now we are becoming more visible in every Province. The risk to the Communion comes from those who, to achieve their own ends, are throwing the church into chaos by the pursuit of selfish individualism. There is a dogmatic agenda behind the attempts to control both the outcome of church process and the exploration of new understandings of human nature inspired by God. The danger lying behind the belief that my idea alone is right and true, will serve God better than any other and save the church is abuse – the abuse of any person deemed to be apostate. It is from this attitude that prejudice against LGBT is fuelled.

The sweep of the Bible and especially of the Gospels is broad, complex, subtle, challenging and inspiring. God discloses himself from Genesis to Revelation, but above all in his Son, the Word made flesh. The God disclosed in the Bible is transcendent and intimate, gentle and infinite, self-giving and demanding, relational and faithful.

Changing Attitude has a deep desire to remain in the same room with those who differ from us. This is a mark of our Anglican roots – to sit truthfully, acknowledging our differences which sometimes seem unbridgeable, knowing there is a greater reality which unites us. We have done this in numerous different contexts in 2006. We remain committed to encounter and dialogue across difference. God has made us all different.

We accept the uncomfortable challenge with which God presents us, a challenge which the Covenant authors seem to find difficult. That God in his sometimes incomprehensible, challenging wisdom, wants us to remain Anglican bedfellows.

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