Tradition, Contracts, and Covenant

June 25, 2007

I’m reading James Fowler’s Faith Development and Pastoral Care right now– I haven’t linked it on my “What I’m reading” tab because it’s kind of an academic read.

Anyway – while the Covenant isn’t really new news right now, I don’t feel up to writing about the Canadian antics.

I have always loved Fowler’s work, though.  I have posted about it elsewhere on my blog.  His best known stuff is a developmental model of faith development– surprisingly enough called Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development.  It essentially describes how most people navigate from birth through adulthood in their faith journey-  from the mythical age where the imagination runs wild to the rarely achieved universalizing faith (most conservatives I’ve known are in stage 3 or 4– and incidentally don’t like/agree with his work).

The book I’m reading now is more focused on practical applications, though.  And what I found interesting in one particular chapter was how Fowler described vocation– which doesn’t mean “job” but rather “identity”– particularly community identity.

He described three different models of community identity, and I found it fascinating to look at how different parts of the Anglican Communion seem to take on different aspects, and how it seems that there is no process in place to resolve these differences of what our core values are as a community (the proposed Covenant certainly doesn’t do it– it assumes a certain model is already in place, but that model is not defined other than through doctrine).

The first model of Community Identity Fowler describes he calls the organic model– this is one where “the basic image is that of a body” (p. 33).  Each part of the body has a specific place and/or function, is ordained to that place/function by God, and is thus unchangeable.  As a result, the ruling hierarchy has absolute power over the other parts because it was just intended by God to be so through birth, natural status, or divine appointment.  “Tradition, as interpreted by the membership elite, is usually the strongest normative reference and source of justification for decision and action in community.  Often communities encourage belief in the sinfulness and inadequcy in self-governing ability of the masses or majority, thus strengthening reliance upon the leadership elite” (p.33).

Fowler identifies the Pre-Vatican Roman Catholic Church as being strongly in the organic model.  I would say that many of those who are Episcopalian but do not agree with the Episcopalian community’s actions probably fall into this model as well (how many times have we heard that the majority action didn’t really count, or that the tradition as they interpret it is the only source for authoritative doctrine on GLBT issues, etc.).  I think it is fair to say that polity issues in the rest of the Communion also come closer to the organic model than the other two models– with the idea of divine appointment or a ruling hierarchy which can make autonomous decisions over its body.  Polity has been mentioned many times in the last six months, and that is because it is a key element of community, as Fowler rightly points out.

The next model Fowler mentions is the contract model.  Secular in origin, Hobbes, Locke, and Smith moved authority to the individual from the hierarchy, understanding the individual to be a self-interested but rational agent (p.34).  Each person voluntary relinquishes some of his or her freedom and bestows it upon the central authority, which then functions as an impartial agent.  Each member of the community then is free to do whatever s/he likes as long as it does not interfere with the rights of anybody else.  According to Fowler, some congregationalists follow this model and, practically speaking, nearly all administrative boards, ruling elders, vestries, and other governing bodies function as such in this country.  That is because nearly all members of those boards “often understand their responsibilities in terms of the individualism of [the assumptions of this model]” (p. 34).

Finally, Fowler discusses a model which he proposes is the ideal for community identity:  the covenant model.  As opposed to the organic model, which was called into being by fate, or the contract model, which was called into being by what Fowler says was “utilitarian inventiveness”, the covenant is “called into being from beyond itself” (p. 34).  The members of such a community are not ‘locked in’ to the status of the organic model (unable to have any effect on the community around them) but also have more responsibility towards the community than the contract model:

In a covenant community persons with different callings are bound together with common loyalties to a cause or to beliefs and values bigger than they.  It does not particularly matter whether the persons like each other or not.  It is not important whether they would have chosen to be yoked together or tied up with these particular others or not.  In a covenant community, for the sake of shared loyalty to the cause for which the community came into being, they work at relations of mutual trust and loyalty with their companions in community, and with the cause that animates its purpose.

Covenant community recognizes the social character of the self.  It celebrates our interdependence with one another.  It recognizes that we join institutions for mixtures of self-interest and loyalty to the causes for which the institutions exist.  Its disciplines aim toward the development of capacities for responsibility to and partnership with the action of God.  It aims to awaken, call forth, support, and keep accountable the vocations of each of its members for partnership with God, and for covenant existence with one another.  It is called- and aims to be- an ecology of vocations. (p.35).

He goes on to talk about leadership in a Covenant community, how it is not hierarchical but how all functions are equal (quotes 1 Cor 12; Rom 12).  Sounds like our polity in TEC, if you ask me.

So the point is this:  I think it is clear that some definitely want an Anglican Communion based on the organic model: that only relies on the Tradition Received as the basis for community.  That would mean that change would only be able to come through the entrenched hierarchy, and the so-called “Windsor Bishops” would have to get their interpretation of the Windsor report, which would be in line with the Dar Es Salaam communique, in order for us to get any kind of community.

But I don’t think that is the whole communion.  Since Dar Es Salaam, I have heard of at least a couple of voices around the communion who have felt as if Dar Es Salaam was too harsh.  I don’t know what their idea of community is, but I believe that ours in TEC is more like Fowler’s covenant model, where all voices count, where authenticity is important and we can all be who we are called to be.  Interestingly, in a separate conversation on this blog I wondered whether or not some of the evangelicals in this country might be confusing a) how it feels to be in the minority because of a theological position with b) how it feels to be spiritually and psychologically wounded (or even persecuted) because of your sexual orientation.  They are not at all the same, and I certainly hope we will be doing our best to ensure that nobody confuses those two very different things.

We are called to be authentic to our identity, our vocation, including our sexual orientation.  That is different from struggling to understand our God– the practice of theology, something which none of us can get all right.  In fact, the whole point of a covenant community is to undergo that struggle together– even when we don’t agree on how that God acts– because after all we have been called to go on this journey together.  We may not like each other.  We may not have chosen to be tied together.  But here we are.  It is what we choose to do from here that matters.



One Response to “Tradition, Contracts, and Covenant”

  1. Jeff Says:

    I’m beginning to realize that I need to get better at using fewer words to make my point. I was discussing something similar to this with some students in my summer Greek class this morning, and realized I needed to boil one of my points down a little further:
    That is this: in an organic model, one believes that people are born into vocation/identity. In such a model, it is possible to believe that women, for instance, have a special role or identity to play, that it does not include leadership, and that the identity/vocation of women is unchangeable over time. In other words, one might say that in such a model one could justify saying that women should stay home, raise children, and refrain from active participation in church leadership.
    In the covenant model, vocation/identity is open to all. All are equal. Perhaps not all are called to all vocations, but there are no limitations or exclusions to vocation/identity/role based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other attribute taken on by fate or birth. That is a key differentiator between these two models.
    As long as there is prohibition of anyone from growth into a called identity/vocation/sacrament, there are remnants of the old organic model. I would give that a value judgment of unfair and unjust.
    I’m sure there is still a much more concise way to say this, but that’s the best I can muster at the moment!

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