Ratifying the Cairo Covenant

Jun 14, 2024 by


by the Rev. Cn. Phil Ashey

Dear friends,

Last night, we crossed an important finish line! The members of the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA) formally and unanimously ratified the Cairo Covenant and its covenantal structures. Among the most important sections are those that define how Anglicans read the Bible and what authority we give to its reading. Among the things the Cairo Covenant declares is that the Church is a creature of the Bible: “The Church is subject to the interrogative, interceptive, and saving judgment of the Holy Scripture” (Section 1.4). It also says, “Sacred scripture has spoken. The matter is decided. The scripture is to be translated, read, preached, taught, and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense. The authority of the scripture is its Spirit-bestowed capacity to quicken the Church to truthful speech and righteous action. We reject therefore the hermeneutical skepticism that commits the Church to a near infinite deferral of decisions on matters of faith and morals” (Section 1.5). When we wrote that paragraph, we were thinking of the hermeneutics of skepticism and the near infinite deferral of actions on questions of human sexuality, gender, marriage, and leadership in the Church that have been promoted for the last 25 years by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other Instruments of Communion. They have often described this process as “deep listening.”

Deep listening is at the heart of the Anglican Communion Office’s curriculum on Bible study, The Bible in the Life of the Church, where the lens of culture is used to defer from the plain and grammatical reading of scripture. This is why the Archbishop of Canterbury could say at Lambeth 2022 that there would be no decision on Lambeth 1.10 because Episcopalians, in their deep listening, read the Bible in their cultural context and conclude that same-sex blessings are permissible while the Global South reads the Bible in its cultural context and supports the prohibitive language of Lambeth Resolution 1.10. As Canterbury concluded, who’s to say which one is true?

Therefore, it was with some dismay that members of the GSFA heard a Bible study from Ephesians 4:1-7 this morning that described the process of making every effort to preserve the unity of the Church as “deep listening.” These are the same code words used for the very process that Canterbury employed to distort the plain reading of scripture in its canonical and historical interpretation. Archbishop Titus Chung concluded his teaching by stating that culture influences our reading and understanding of the Bible, that it does not exist in a propositional vacuum, and that because it is always embedded in a culture, it must be studied with others so that we can hear the voice of God that is unchangeable and immutable within the scriptures themselves. He likened deep listening to Ephesians 4:2 where St. Paul writes, “Be humble and patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Yes, we need to study the Bible together. We need to read it in its plain and grammatical sense. But Bible study should not be a matter of pooled ignorance based on our own cultural lenses. The Bible stands over whatever culture is ours and the lenses through which we read it. When we read and study scripture together, we do not study it simply with the contemporary church and the modern culture in which we live whether it is Western culture or Global South culture. We also read the Bible with the Church that has gone before us through the voices of the church fathers.

In his workshop today on Anglican identity and how Anglicans read the Bible, the Rev. Dr. Ashley Null made this very point by citing Cranmer’s work. He explained how Cranmer is the forebearer of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, the first Bible my parents gave to me. If you’ve ever read that Bible, you know that when a particular word or topic appears in the scripture, there is a number that takes you to a list of all the scriptures that cite that same word, theme, or topic. This is exactly what Cranmer did in his work. He took to heart St. Augustine’s teaching that we should always let scripture interpret itself. Scripture interprets scripture. When a passage of scripture is “dark,” in Cranmer’s words, we should look for a passage where the same word, passage, or theme is used in a way that brings its meaning to light.

Therefore, the sixteenth century Anglican reformers understood sola scriptura to mean that we read the scripture together in light of both the scripture itself and the church that has gone before us. As an example, Dr. Null described a historic incident where a German prince sought a biblical interpretation from Luther and Melanchthon that would have allowed him to consort with one favorite mistress over his many others—a scandal they sought to justify using the Old Testament. Cranmer responded with a condemnation of their supposed biblical defense on the grounds that, since the time of Christ and the New Testament, no one in scripture ever permitted or justified bigamy. In other words, if you come up with a new interpretation of the Bible that no one has ever come up with, by definition, it must be wrong.

The Bible study this morning raised questions about the extent to which deep listening (as Archbishop Chung described it) is within the boundaries of the fundamental declarations in the Cairo Covenant which are the plain and grammatical reading of scripture and its historic interpretation by the Church fathers. At best, the message of deep listening struck a confusing chord. This may be a moment for the primates of the Global South to bring clarity out of the confusion by restating how we study the Bible together in keeping with the fundamental declarations of the Cairo Covenant and not simply in keeping with our own cultures.

Until tomorrow…

~ Canon Phil


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