People who pay attention to the role of The Episcopal Church internationally know that TEC is a member of The Anglican Communion, a voluntary association of various provinces of like-minded Christians who either trace their history to the Church of England, or who wish to be in relationship with same. The Provinces historically hold in common a similar liturgy expressing the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, acknowledgment of the two principal Creeds, the presence of the "historic Episcopate," and the belief that the Holy Scriptures "contain all things necessary to salvation." Although I am no expert in the inner workings of the Anglican Communion, it is my understanding that membership is determined finally by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. During the second half of the twentieth century and extending to the current time, the relationship of TEC to the AC has been strained due to various actions by TEC which on their face appear to be more liberal than are many of the Provinces, and indeed than is the Church of England itself.
Particular examples of the strain between TEC and C of E are the role of women in the church, and more recently the role of GLBT persons in the church. TEC permitted women to be ordained to the Priesthood before the C of E, and currently ordains women to the Episcopate while the C of E still does not. Regarding GLBT persons, the processes of ordination are open in the Episcopal Church both to the Priesthood and the Episcopate while in the C of E such is not the case, particularly to the Episcopate. It is my understanding that divorced clergy were accepted in TEC well before the C of E, and again the more so regarding the Episcopate.
There are substantial differences of polity (rules of governing) such that TEC is much more democratic in constitution and operation while the C of E is much more authoritarian. The most striking example is that in TEC bishops are elected by local dioceses (elections affirmed by both laity and clergy across TEC), but in C of E bishops are appointed by the Crown. Similar differences exist across the spectrum of the Anglican Communion between the various Provinces. Some Provinces are much more authoritarian than even the C of E, such that new bishops are simply appointed by existing bishops -- a most unfortunate kind of nepotism which leads to the potential for stifling of thought and extreme centralization of power.
The term of the day which is being used to describe the tension within the Anglican Communion is a "straining of the bonds of affection" between the various Provinces. This "straining of the bonds of affection" led the leaders of the AC initially to address the issues, often with position papers and statements of the bishops gathered in once-a-decade meetings in England. More recently the leaders have drafted a "Covenant" which attempts to set forth what are the defining characteristics of the AC, and to define some methods for resolving differences when they arise between the various Provinces. The logic appears to be that if one can define what is essentially Anglican, then one can limit participation to those who are in conformity with said essence, and discipline those who fail to continue to be in conformity.
As the proposed document is written, at least as this observer reads it, any Province can call into the question the actions, behaviors and beliefs of any other Province, setting into motion a process which ultimately adjudges the matter and sets forth potentially corrective actions. Failure to abide to the corrective actions can lead to "relational consequences". The process of the adoption of the Covenant is, itself, potentially punitive as the failure to adopt is likely to trigger a "relational consequence" -- that is, a Province either agrees to the Covenant and continues to be in the Anglican Communion, or fails to agree and is marginalized within the Anglican Communion.
What makes this process new is that heretofore individual Provinces were autonomous in the day-to-day management of their affairs, but with the Covenant in place individual Provinces will be subjected to the whims and wishes of the various other constituent members. Since sociological demographics vary from Province to Province so highly, it is easy to see how an action or accepted belief in one part of the world might not be acceptable to those in another part of the world. Again, heretofore this problem has been solved at the Provincial level without interference from afar. The covenant brings to an end the autonomous nature of the individual Provinces, and opens each Province to criticism and potentially punitive actions from one or more of the other Provinces. Thus, the Ugandan Province can call into question the Province of South Africa, and the Southern Cone can question TEC, etc. It is a sea-change in the nature of the Anglican Communion.
Historically, members of the Anglican Communion have been content to worship along side one another using similar liturgy and celebrating the four-fold outline of belief as enumerated above. Taking a clue from the work of Elizabeth One, the notion is that Protestant and Catholic, Reform and Orthodox, can, indeed should, worship together at the same altar using the same liturgy without questioning the personal integrity and beliefs of the individual kneeling next one to the other. The freedom of conscience guaranteed by Elizabeth to solve the discord between reform and traditional believers has led to a Communion historically more open than closed, more broad than narrow, more accepting than rejecting. It has been called a very large umbrella under which people of many individual beliefs neatly fit. This openness has permitted a theological flexibility giving rise to some very courageous theologians who in other presentations of Christianity may have been silenced -- I think of John A. T. Robinson, for example, or James Pike of the twentieth century, to George Whitefield, the brothers Wesley, and even John Henry Cardinal Newman, all of earlier Anglican origin. Today one marvels that N. T. Wright and John Spong stand side-by-side as bishops and theologians within the Anglican Communion. Make no mistake and mark my words well, this diversity of thought and belief is threatened by the proposed Anglican Covenant.
It Is Irrational
As if the attempt to define faith and belief is not mistaken on its face, the removal of reason from the equation is simply nuts, crazy, irrational to use a more appropriate word. From the earliest days of the AC, the exercise of human reason has been an integral part of the Church of England, and the resultant Anglican Communion. One of the greatest writers of the sixteenth century, one Richard Hooker, is attributed with the notion that Anglicanism is defined by the tests of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. By Scripture, Hooker means that theology must be rooted in and compliant with the record we find in the Holy Bible. By Tradition, Hooker means the accumulated teaching of the Church, most particularly from the time of Jesus forward to today, but arguably from the earliest recorded understandings of humankind regarding God. By Reason, Hooker means that we are called to exercise our brains, to think, to apply knowledge and intellectual skill to theology. When put into the context of the Reformation when Hooker was writing and when the teachings of the Pope were rejected at the cost of excommunication, the use of Reason as a test of faith comes more sharply into light. Without Reason, the Reformation as we know it today simply would not have occurred and Tetzel would still be selling get-out-of-hell-free cards to faithful lemmings.
Many have wondered why Reason is not included in the explication of faith and belief in the Anglican Covenant. Only recently have we learned that the omission of Reason as a test of theology on a par with Scripture and Tradition is not accidental at all but is, in fact, intentional. That singular quality which gave birth to the Church of England, separating it from the Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the sixteenth century four hundred and sixty some years ago, has been oh so discretely and quietly removed from the basic statement of what is the Anglican Communion. It is an incredibly, awesomely incomprehensible omission, and bespeaks at best a woesome ignorance of the crafters of the document. At worst it reflects a clandestine and subtle attempt to stifle differences, giving power into the hands of a few which heretofore they have never enjoyed. It distorts history and the very nature of the fundamental principles upon which the Church of England is based, it inhibits the expression of intellectual freedom and severs all pretense of the single greatest gift of our heritage -- our openness and acceptance of the other.
Surely God Weeps
TEC, the Church of England and many other representations of traditional Western Christian faith and belief are not doing very well when measured by the number of people at worship. The one thing TEC does have which seems to be attractive to the younger folk who are coming is the openness which historically has marked our denomination. The notion of Jesus with outstretched arms saying, "Come to me all who are heavy laden," is an inclusive and very attractive invitation. "Yes, he includes even me," you can hear them saying. When he called the brothers Zebedee, James and John, he did not ask for their signatures on a confessional document stipulating their assent to particulars of his thinking. The Anglican Covenant is just that, a confessional document stipulating particulars of faith, attempting to set boundaries around what is acceptable and what is not. The big, broad Anglican bumbershoot capable of protecting so many is no longer wide and broad, but is now more like a folded-up, mini-sized toy insufficient to protect even one individual from the precipitation of intolerance and inequality. Folk on the outside looking in at our petty quarrels and squabbles merely shake their heads and walk away: "who needs that", they say. Who can blame them? I cannot help but believe that the God of Love who invites all to come and follow must surely weep at the damage we are doing to ourselves even as this is being written. Apparently an unhealthy fear has taken hold of those in positions of authority such that immense harm is in the process of raining down upon the C of E, TEC and the Anglican Communion more broadly. This Covenant, this attempt retreat and retrench, to define who is "in" and who is "out", to centralize power, is fatally flawed not only in execution but more importantly in concept. The removal of reason from the document is quite understandable since the concept is so wholly irrational.