Yesterday the House of Bishop's spent the morning considering the proposed Anglican Covenant (there's a link to the text on the right). The Bishop of Atlanta, Neil Alexander, gave a lucid presentation in which he framed the issue as a manifestation of the classic tension between the local and the universal. Local, in this case, means national or provincial (i.e. the Episcopal Church), while universal refers to the worldwide Anglican Communion, the members of which are being invited to become covenant partners. It's about working out how to maintain both the autonomy of the "local" churches, in their disparate cultural and historical contexts, and the mutual accountability of the whole communion. This is nothing new in church history, nor is it uniquely an Anglican problem.
On a long afternoon walk on one of the trails here at Kanuga, I had an epiphany: It's all local. A hundred years ago, the concept of the Anglican Communion was already in full development. There was a sense of "we" as a unified global entity. And everybody knew, at a cognitive level, that there was wide diversity of liturgical practice, spiritual formation, polity, and trajectory of theological thought. Indeed, the idiosyncratic theological musings of a bishop in South Africa, with concomitant overtones in polity, led to the first Lambeth Conference. But few Anglicans in that day actually experienced such diversity. They didn't worry over much about what their fellow Anglicans on other continents were up to, and when they did become concerned, it took years--decades, even--for an actual controversy to develop and play out.
Then came the electronic revolution--the internet, in particular. Within the time of my own mature adulthood, the world has vastly shrunk. Within a few minutes of the moment I click Publish on this very blog post, somebody across North America, or in Asia or Africa or Europe, could be reading it and sharing it and creating an unruly viral conversation. (I don't actually expect that to happen with this post, of course!)
This means that all the assumptions about communication and community that I and my chronological peers (as well as, probably, the generation behind us, at least) have grown up with are increasingly meaningless. In church life, what can it now mean to distinguish between that which is local and that which is universal? Less and less, I think, because now it's all local.
The Anglican Covenant--no longer merely "proposed" for the three provinces that have adopted it--has been criticized for pushing the center of gravity too far away from local autonomy and toward mutual accountability. It has even been accused of setting up something akin to the Roman Catholic curia, though this seems rather far-fetched. But I strongly suspect that it's actually just an expression of what we all know but often don't want to acknowledge, that some reconfiguration of Anglicanism that takes into account our drastically "smaller" world is not only necessary but inevitable.
Anglican provinces have a choice. They can reject the Covenant in a principled defense of local autonomy. But this, I would suggest, is ostrich-like behavior. Denying the changed environment as a result of the internet isn't going to make it go away. Provinces that cling to outdated notions of local autonomy are only delaying the inevitable, and I don't think they will even be able to do it for very long. The other option is to embrace it, sign the Covenant, and remain a "player" in the evolution of a dynamic new Anglican Communion.
Bishop Alexander made the point that the Anglican Covenant will change us in the Episcopal Church. I would add that it will change us whether we adopt it or not. It will change our polity and will change our ecclesiology. I think it has great potential to change us for the better. If we distance ourselves from it, however, those changes may well be for the worse.