Covenant, conflict and the idea of heresy

This post - one of a series of linked posts looking at the conflict prevention and conflict resolution aspects of the proposed Anglican Covenant - focuses on the underlying model 

A summary of the Covenant's conflict prevention and conflict resolution mechanisms is here.


The core problem with heresy is that it is not amenable to conflict resolution. Conceptually heresy cannot be negotiated with, merely rejected. Practically those engaged in combating heresy cannot, in good faith, debate with those they regard as heretics.

The heresy model
The model underlying the proposed Anglican Covenant - and the conflict the Covenant is supposed to help us all out of - is the perennial conflict between orthodoxy and heresy.

Historically, heresy may be seen as ideas once within the range of Christian expression which, in retrospect, were judged unacceptable (Alister McGrath, Heresy: A history of defending the truth).

But in the moment of conflict, and without the hindsight of the historian, it is essential for combatants to put the issue in binary and oppositional terms as starkly as possible.  The orthodox must be divided from the heretic with a deep gulf or high fences or both: Them or Us; In or Out.

orthodoxy has always sought to maintain
the deep tensions at the heart of the gospel
Michael Jinkins, quoted here
Thus conflicts over doctrine are necessarily presented in simple terms:
I, and those with whom I align myself, are orthodox, godly and good. You, and those you align yourself with, oppose and undermine me in my collective orthodoxy.
Consequently, and much worse, you set yourself up in opposition to God: you are heretics, your notions heretical and you are bad, ungodly, antiChrists.
Therefore I have a compelling duty to act against you: to expunge both heresy and heretic from the church. There is no room for compromise.

Accusation of heresy
An accusation of heresy does not mean that there is heresy. What an accusation does do is:
  • First, to assert that those making the accusation have the theological competence to determine what is orthodox, whether or not they have the organizational standing to act.
  • Second, to challenge church leaders to do something. Those making the accusation implicitly (and often explicitly) accuse bishops, theologians and anyone with perceived authority, of connivance with heresy by their inaction. There is seldom anything bishops can do - they are wrong if they act and wrong if they don't. This merely stokes the fire.
  • Third, an accusation of heresy binds those making the accusation much more closely tightly together  with their allies. This is because they share a common enemy, because they must maintain the gulf between themselves and the heterodox, because they are on the side of God and good, and because theological wisdom, strength of argument or spiritual acuity are not enough: success comes from force and numbers.
An accusation of heresy is the most powerful of power plays in a church because it invokes God on one side of a debate and no structure and no-one, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, has authority to dismiss the accusation.

Heresy and governance
An accusation of heresy is not merely a theological matter. It is also inherently a matter of church governance. 'Success' in doctrinal conflict lies in two outcomes: the expulsion of the heresy and heretics and also the realignment of power structures within the church to the benefit of those who made the original accusation.

This is why bishops and church councils are so effectively trapped in the midst of doctrinal conflict. Their impotence is exposed as they fail to resolve irresolvable differences. Therefore, as they have evidently failed, their role they must be changed.

Shifting the focus from the issue in contention to organizational change itself sublimates an intractable issue into something practical and attainable.

The substance of organizational change is critical because it will answer the answer: where does power lie in the new arrangement of seats?

Heresy and Covenant
The Covenant is the outcome of an accusation of heresy. The alleged heresy is that some parts of the Anglican Church have accommodated to postmodernity when the whole Communion should have stood against modern times as critic and judge. The fundamental equality of persons embedded in human rights is the core heresy: it destroys structures of authority.

However this formulation is much too vague. To get the blood running a narrower focus is always needed. Sexuality (the place of women as well as homosexuality) is symbol and substitute for the larger issue. For example:
... it grieves us deeply to observe many Anglican churches in the west yielding to secular pressure to allow unacceptable practices in the name of human rights and equality. Beginning with the undermining of Scriptural authority and two millennia of church tradition, the erosion of orthodoxy has gone as far as the ordination and consecration of active gay and lesbian clergy and bishops, and the development of liturgies for same-sex marriage. (Communiqué of the Global South Primates during their visit to China in September 2011, para 12.)
The key organizational problem faced by those who regarded elements and areas of Anglicanism as heretical was that the Anglican Communion was not a Church. It was, and currently still is, a voluntary association of autonomous churches. Therefore an accusation of heresy by one part of the communion against another had nowhere to go.

Accordingly, first, some Provinces took arbitrary action by disregarding the convention which said that one member of the Communion should not intervene in the affairs of another. (A history of AMIA in its own words.)

Second, some proposed that the Primates meeting together should have effective power over the 'faith and order' of the Communion. But not enough of the Primates were happy with this responsibility.

The Covenant is thus a compromise. Superficially it proposes to leave the elements of the Anglican Communion (Provinces and the 'Instruments of Communion') untouched. But the conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms that it proposes will fundamentally change all the elements of the Communion and their relationships with one another.

The Covenant and excommunication
Apart from the terrible perversion of the Inquisition the sole effective penalty the Church has always had against heretics has been excommunication.

The offender is expelled from the community of the faithful. The church is thus cleansed and restored to holiness and the offender, in the divine economy, will suffer divine judgment.

Hence the central ironies of the Covenant:
  • First, churches are asked to bind themselves to one another in order to create the capacity to expel one another. 
  • Second, in order to determine orthodoxy a member a church must give up its existing capacity to determine orthodoxy. Anglicans are asked, as churches, to come together to become one Church.

How it all ends
Doctrinal disputes do not end when structures change. Changing structures won't change anyone's mind. Disputes end when people are fed up with them. Then the protagonists can't keep their supporters together, people find better things to talk about and campaign funds dry up.

There is, however, always a legacy of hurt and embittered people: those who participated in the conflict and those unwillingly caught up in it.

Heresy and conflict resolution
The whole conceptualisation and narrative of heresy excludes the basic notion of conflict resolution.

Practice, of course, is another matter. Heresy is about the timeless absolutes of Truth, God's Word, the One Faith. The reality is that fallible human beings in countless committees and councils make the decisions.

Two caveats
  1. I know the proposers of the Covenant insist that there will be no loss of autonomy for participants (explicitly in paragraphs 4.1.2, 4.1.3). But it is a fiction: the engine at the heart of the Covenant works only in one direction - to steadily subordinate churches to world-wide central structures. There is no countervailing structure in the Covenant. The Covenant will usher in extensive change across the Communion the essence of which is that Provinces will not have the capacity to determine their own doctrine. Thus they will lose an essential element of ecclesiastical autonomy.
  2. There are cynics, self-servers and manipulative people throughout the church. However I am not in any way questioning the personal integrity or the faith of those who instigated and pursued the road to a Covenant. On the contrary: I believe that the great majority of those involved in this process are doing so for the most honest and important of reasons - to bring the church back to what they regard as the right relationship with God. I think they are profoundly wrong, but I don't think they are bad.

A summary of the Covenant's conflict prevention and conflict resolution mechanisms is here.

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