In 2004, I wrote a piece titled “The Divorce Is Under Way” (CEN 10 Sept 2004), which began:
Let’s face it: the Anglican Communion is breaking up. Statements about “breaking ties,” “impaired communion,” and “loose federation” are commonplace since the election and consecration of Gene Robinson last year. Call it what you will, Anglicans throughout the world are going through a divorce.
So I was interested in the article by the Rev. Stephen Kuhrt (9 Mar 12) taking up the same theme. He writes: “Like a marriage that has hit the rocks, the Anglican Communion is on the brink of separation with many on its extremes citing an ‘irretrievable breakdown’ and therefore divorce as the only credible option.”
At this point, our analysis diverges. Mr. Kuhrt thinks the way to save the marriage is through the Anglican Communion Covenant, which he says is “a very marriage-like bond designed to express the firm commitment of its members to stay together.” In my view, the Christian marriage bond involves a firm commitment (vow) to enter into the Holy Estate of Matrimony, which is God’s gracious provision of an exclusive and lifelong union of husband and wife, “forsaking all others… so long as they both shall live.” If one partner crosses fingers at the altar and engages in extra-marital relations, that is adultery, and a spouse who takes back an unrepentant serial adulterer is more an enabler than a victim. The prophet Hosea is the exception that proves the rule.
The personal mirrors the political in this matter. As Hosea painfully testifies, marital infidelity and corporate infidelity go hand in hand. Hence it is not strange that the crisis that has “torn the fabric of the Communion at the deepest level” involved one member church choosing to elevate as bishop a man who had divorced his wife and was living with, and is now legally married to, another man. This church acted in open repudiation of the Resolution of the Lambeth Conference stating that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Scripture” and that the Church “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions,” and it spurned the appeals of the Primates and Archbishop of Canterbury that it not proceed.
Now Mr. Kuhrt, and with him the Archbishop of Canterbury, argues that a new covenant is just the thing needed to reconcile the estranged parties in the Communion. Mr. Kuhrt speaks of a couple “re-pledging themselves to one another … not to act unilaterally when such actions will damage fellow communion partners.” But he clearly does not think that such a pledge would oblige the Episcopal Church to undo or cease their divisive actions. Indeed, for him and Canterbury, violation of Lambeth Resolution and Scripture is a past unpleasantness, and the parties need to move on for a lengthy period of “sharing our different insights on sexuality.”
Excuse me, but from my pastoral experience, denial is the worst possible basis for marital reconciliation, and denial is what we are dealing with in a Covenant that involves no repentance and no discipline. A significant number of African Provinces, whom Mr. Kuhrt refers to as “on the extremes” of the Communion, have already written off the Covenant as a Munich-like piece of paper. Clearly Mr. Kuhrt and Canterbury are not concerned about those folk but rather with the leftward side of the Church, which (in my view foolishly) suspects a trap. I say foolishly because experience shows that official “jaw-jawing” always leaves the Left free to do whatever it wants. Even if the Episcopal Church signed on to the Covenant, it would not make the slightest change in the unilateral way it operates.
Eight years ago when I wrote, I held out some hope for intra-Communion discipline and renewal and even a document that might express it. Now, alas, it is too late. Whether the Church of England adopts the current Covenant or not is really immaterial. The marriage has already been broken irretrievably. That may sound extreme, but it is true.
The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll is the retired Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America.
This editorial originally appeared in the 24 March 2012 issue of the Church of England Newspaper.