Tuesday, July 5, 2011
The Colenso Affair and the Anglican Covenant
My British colleague and General Secretary of Modern Church, the Reverend Jonathan Clatworthy has written a wonderful response to Anglican Covenant proponant and Lambeth staff member, the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan of Canada. Her premise is that the Anglican Covenant got its start in the mid-19th century with the Colenso affair. Jonathan has put the history right:
We are once again indebted to Dr Alyson Barnett-Cowan for damning the Anglican Covenant with faint praise, in her Living Church article. Dr Barnett-Cowan begins by tracing the idea of a covenant to the opponents of Bishop Colenso who sought to condemn him at the first Lambeth Conference of 1867. This, she tells us, was ‘the first attempt to provide a platform for churches of the Anglican Communion to discern together what to do in new situations’.
This is the kind of gloss now being put on the Anglican Covenant by its supporters. In reality Colenso’s opponents were not trying ‘to provide a platform for churches to discern together what to do’: on the contrary they were trying to impose their view on the whole Communion. In exactly the same way, recent proponents of the Anglican Covenant have wanted gay bishops declared unacceptable throughout the Communion. While the specific reference to same-sex partnerships is being backpedalled for the moment – Covenant supporters are playing it down while the provinces are being asked for their support – there is no doubt that many intend to use it, not just to forbid gay bishops but on other issues too.
By reminding us of the Colenso affair Dr Barnett-Cowan also draws our attention to the 1867 Lambeth Conference’s good sense. At the heart of the debate was Colenso’s controversial theory that the biblical narrative of the Exodus was not historically accurate. Many bishops were appalled. No reputable biblical scholar today is; on the contrary, Colenso has been proved broadly right. If the Lambeth Conference had supported the condemnation, the whole Anglican Communion would have been stuck with a commitment to an outdated biblical literalism.
The Anglican Covenant, once passed, would provide a process for present and future litigious authoritarians to impose their view on their pet hobbyhorse onto the whole Communion. One can only hope that the leaders of Anglicanism today find the courage to follow the wise lead of their 1867 predecessors.
Comment: As history major it has greatly annoyed me to see the re-writing of history that many conservatives do. That is NOT conservation! The right-wing of the Church seem to ignore or wants to "reformulate" history to their own ends. If there has been a failing of the left-wing of the Church, it has been a naive faith that history can 'prove' almost everything. But it is not the story that gets jumbled but the facts that get destroyed. Thankfully in this case, the facts are still available to see that the twisting of the story erodes confidence of the faithful in the leadership of the Anglican Communion. The loss of integrity by church leaders is almost impossible to regain once sacrificed to a single notion of "a way forward."