‘Moses Tay: A Prophet confronts Lambeth Pragmatism’

Posted on January 13, 2010 
Filed under Opinion

Charles Raven’s latest column —

“if you try to keep the light and darkness together, righteous and immoral together, to say we are a church, it’s disparaging the meaning of covenant” – Bishop Moses Tay

In his recent interview with the Christian Post Moses Tay, onetime Archbishop of Singapore, brings a sharp prophetic insight to bear on the Anglican Covenant and warns that it is a ‘whitewash’. ‘It cannot be of God’ he says ‘because if you try to keep the light and darkness together, righteous and immoral together, to say we are a church, it’s disparaging the meaning of covenant’.  

That the Windsor Covenant process is both superficial and manipulative has been a regular theme of my articles over the past twelve months – see for instance ‘The Anglican Covenant: A House on Sand’ ‘The Anglican Covenant: A House on Sand’ and ‘The Ridley Covenant Draft – Taming GAFCON’ – so I am greatly encouraged that Archbishop Tay has spoken out so boldly.

The essential challenge of his remarks is not to the revisionists and liberals, but those pragmatic conservatives who have managed to convince themselves that, despite its deficiencies, the Covenant can be used to their advantage as a way of marginalizing the American Episcopal Church and other Provinces which are following its lead. Evidence that this mindset now appears to be gaining some traction with the Global South comes from Archbishop John Chew, current Archbishop of South East Asia and incumbent general secretary of the Global South Steering Committee who claims that twenty Global South Provinces are ready to sign on to the Covenant at their next ‘South to South’ encounter in Singapore next April.

A S Haley aka ‘Anglican Curmudgeon’ reflects this approach in a commentary on the final version of the Covenant, published shortly before Moses Tay’s interview. While realistic enough to recognise that the Covenant is powerless to restrain TEC, he nonetheless commends it as a damage limitation exercise because ‘The beauty of the Covenant is that it is self-authenticating. If a majority adopts it, then there will be no issue as to whether or not they are “Anglican”. And if there is a minority that does not adopt it, they will by that act have defined themselves as apart from the majority of the Anglican Communion’.

But the problem with the Covenant is precisely the fact that it is ‘self authenticating’. Its doctrinal content is so generalised and non-binding and the disciplinary element so dependent upon consensus that what is to be held as genuinely Anglican has no meaningful confessional reference. It simply boils down to an interpretation of consensus based on the Instruments of Communion which are already discredited, albeit in the guise of the proposed ‘Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion’ formed by election from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting.

And while the consensus might be broadly conservative at the moment (although that did not stop Rowan Williams ignoring the deadline for TEC laid down by the Dar es Salaam Primates’ Meeting of February 2007), there is no guarantee that it will remain that way in the longer term as the ‘listening process’ presupposed by the Covenant does its insidious work of desensitising the Communion as a whole to the sinfulness of sin and the need for repentance.

Moses Tay is clearly not interested in debating the pros and cons of short term ecclesio-political tactics. He is asking the deeper question of the nature and necessity of spiritual discernment. While it is true that the final version of the Covenant has been commended as a means of discerning the nature and seriousness of disagreements by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the fact remains that the overriding aim of the Covenant is not faithfulness, but institutional unity. The Archbishop’s own failure to use such powers as he has to discipline the erring bishops of TEC simply illustrates the point. The Covenant represents a rejection of clear confessional standards, in contrast to the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration, and so Moses Tay is entirely right to say that the Covenant is ‘an act of disobedience’ which will ‘paralyse’ the objections of the Global South Churches to the apostasy gaining ground in other parts of the Communion.

In other words, the Covenant process is institutionalised disobedience and from this standpoint the Global South Steering Committee’s statement that ‘provincial and invited participants [to the fourth South to South Encounter] should be unequivocally committed to uphold the spirit and intent of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 and the proposed Anglican Covenant (full Ridley Draft)’ appears not only to pre-empt debate on the Covenant, but also embodies a major contradiction. The Anglican Covenant is a systematic attempt to subvert the ‘spirit and intent’ of Resolution 1.10 by wrenching its commitment to ‘listen to the experience of homosexual persons’ out of the context of orientation to that of practice, thereby calling into question the very truth the resolution affirmed, that homosexual practice was ‘incompatible with Scripture’.

There is not the space in the confines of this brief article to chart the evolution of the spurious ‘listening process’, but its beginnings are clearly to be seen in the tentative and provisional tone of the official Lambeth Report’s account of the debate on homosexuality . The vote in favour of Resolution 1.10 was 526-70, but the report merely observes ‘We have prayed, studied and discussed these issues, and we are unable to come to a common mind on the Scriptural, theological, historical and scientific questions that are raised. There is much we do not yet understand’ (The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference 1998, Called to Full Humanity, Section 1 Report, p17). Normally 88% in favour would be taken to be a pretty good indicator of a ‘common mind’.

The Anglican Covenant needs whitewash because its cracks are not superficial; they go right down to the foundations and are not amenable to political fixes. Its promise of a comfortable middle way which sidesteps repentance is illusory and dangerous. Truly prophetic voices are rarely popular and always controversial, but Moses Tay has brought a refreshing dose of spiritual reality to the Covenant debate. Ultimately there are only two choices, the slide into apostasy led by TEC or the recovery of that Anglican confessional identity forged by the sixteenth century Reformers and around which the GAFCON movement has come together to bring unity in truth.

Charles Raven
12th January 2010

(This article will be published at SPREAD. Photo: Armour Publishing.)