To “Covenant” or Not to “Covenant”

 I continue to be of two minds about the wisdom of the proposed Anglican Covenant. On the one hand it could be helpful, ecumenically, and otherwise, to have a fairly accessible summary of “the Anglican ethos” and what binds us together as members of this Communion. I don’t think there is a real threat here of us becoming a “confessional Church” in the ways Anglicans have not been in the past. The proposed Covenant falls far short (thankfully) of a Westminster or Augsburg Confession. The first three sections are not perfect, but I could certainly live with them as a short-hand way of stating who we have been and are historically.

On the other hand, I have a good deal of sympathy with those who remind us that Anglicans have been loathe to state that we hold or teach anything other than the creedal Faith of the “undivided” Church and that the Creeds, the Baptismal Covenant, and perhaps the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral should be all we need by way of “confessional” statements. But are they today?

Obviously, the most problemmatic portion of the proposed Anglican Covenant is Section Four which deals with processes and procedures should one Province or “instrument” of the Communion feel that another Province has failed to live into the implications of the Covenant and caused serious stress and strain for sisters and brothers elsewhere, stretching or even breaking the bond of Communion the Covenant is supposed to enhance.

This is obviously a new development for the Anglican Communion. We have always seen ourselves as interdependent but autonomous Provinces bound together primarily by our approaches to the Bible and the Liturgy and by our historic ties to the See of Canterbury and the Church of England. This relationship has served us well in the past but, with globalization and worldwide communication and our now-decades-old developing self-understanding as a global Communion (“the third largest communion of Christians after the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox”) do we not need something more now as a kind of skeletal structure to bind us together.

After all, we do not just “all get along” as parishes, dioceses, and Provincial churches — we have bylaws, diocesan and national canons which do provide some cohesion. I find myself glad that we are not the first Province likely to vote on adopting the Covenant so that we have time to get a feel for what others around the Communion are thinking.

On the other hand, as the months and years roll on the time for our decision grows ever nearer, and there seems to be a good deal of silence out there as to what others will do. If the vast majority of the Provinces sign on to this Covenant, and we do not, I fear that the marginalization we are already experiencing will continue — both within the Communion and ecumenically. If, on the other hand, most Provinces “opt out,” Rowan Williams’ “last, best hope” for us remaining together in some kind of recognizable form may well be dashed to pieces.

I intend to honor the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council’s request to engage in a parish study of the proposed Anglican Covenant as our Lenten program at the Cathedral. I think it could be a helpful study for people regardless of whether or not we come to some consensus about the “right” way forward. Your thoughts?

18 Responses to “To “Covenant” or Not to “Covenant””

  1. Bill Moorhead Says:

    I very much agree with what you say, Bishop Chris. I have been opposed to this Anglican Covenant, and have said so in various venues. My criticism of the first three sections is that they are superfluous, although probably benign (and a little superfluity in the profession of our common faith might not hurt!). But the fourth section is potentially malignant. Schismatics like David Anderson love this stuff. I was disappointed that Mexico and Southern Africa have indicated their favor for the Covenant — it may come back to bite them. The good news is that the orthodoxer-than-thou gang may reject the Covenant because it falls short of giving them the authority to be the Anglican Inquisition. The concept of an Anglican Covenant may be okay. This particular Covenant? Not so much.

  2. Marshall Scott Says:

    I, too, have problems specifically with Section 4 of the Covenant-as-proposed. I have been willing to consider some statement on points on which we can agree; and I think some of the changes that came to this Draft were helpful (for example, citing the historic Anglican documents as examples of, rather the specific documents defining, the Anglican tradition).

    However, I think the problems with Section 4 orbit around assumptions reflected in our language. Consider your own text:

    We have always seen ourselves as interdependent but autonomous Provinces bound together primarily by our approaches to the Bible and the Liturgy and by our historic ties to the See of Canterbury and the Church of England. This relationship has served us well in the past but,… do we not need something more now as a kind of skeletal structure to bind us together.

    I have stopped speaking of “provinces” of the Communion to instead refer to “national/regional churches.” Provinces implies a stronger, more intergrated institutional life than has been our history. By the same token, have we been “bound,” or “associated” or “in fellowship?” And what would it mean now for us to be “bound,” whether for the first time or in some stronger structure? The Quadrilateral speaks specifically of an episcopate “locally adapted;” but if we are “bound” rather than “associated” or “in fellowship,” how much freedom do we have to adapt locally? It has been quite a struggle, as you know, even to adapt locally to include the ministries of women. However, it is precisely because we haven’t been bound that some national/regional churches feel they can ordain women to the episcopate (or at all) while others do not. By the same token, how will this serve some of our African siblings who, when they think institutionally of not being “yoked to unbelievers,” already consider us in that category? They seem to want to bind us more than they want to be bound to us.

    Sadly, I feel Canterbury’s “last, best hope” is already lost, and was, almost from the moment he began seeking an institutional solution. I think we owe all our Anglican siblings full consideration of the Covenant-as-proposed. I don’t know, though, whether after full consideration we can sign on.

  3. Bill Moorhead Says:

    I agree with Marshall (as I often do!) when he writes: ‘I have stopped speaking of “provinces” of the Communion to instead refer to “national/regional churches.” ‘ To talk about the Churches in, for example, Africa as “Provinces” harks back to colonial missionary days, and I think most of those Churches have now dropped that word — e.g., the Church in the Province of South Africa is now the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Some national/regional Churches have internal provinces — e.g., the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Australia. Others do not. I think it would be useful not to use “province” in an equivocal way, particularly since the Churches of the Anglican Communion are not “Provinces” of Canterbury or of anyone else.

  4. Christopher Epting Says:

    Well, “national/regional churches” certainly won’t work for The Episcopal Church — we’re located in Guam, Micronesia, Columbia, Domican Republic, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy — etc., etc., etc. That’s why we now refer to ourselves as The Episcopal Church…not the Episcopal Church in the United States of America…the hated “ECUSA”…!

  5. Marshall Scott Says:

    “National/multinational churches,” perhaps, Bishop? That would also be meaningful for IARCA, Southern Cone, Aotearoa/New Zealand/Polynesia, and several in Africa (including Central and Southern). I can appreciate that such a designation might be better than “national/regional;” but the problems with “province” remain.

    I do categorically agree that study of the Covenant-as-proposed at the parish level is very important. I’ve put my name in to be again a Deputy to General Convention; and while I appreciate the distinction between Deputy, and Delegate or Representative, I also value learning how my siblings in the Episcopal Church hear the Spirit on this.

  6. Christopher Epting Says:

    Well, nice try…but I think “national/multinational churches” is not very helpful.” That would be another way of saying “worldwide, universal” dare I say: “catholic” churches. Which, I assume, is what we’re all striving for ultimately — a one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church!

  7. JB Says:

    Good thoughts, bishop. I have not encountered anyone in an Anglican tradition (by that I include Bill’s so called schismatics and others separated from ECUSA (not in the dreaded since, but in the sense of long before TEC)) who thoroughly or rejoicingly embrace it. I suppose its need arises from the belief/fact that some in the church cannot agree on the meanings of the creeds, baptismal covenant, and the Chicago quadrilateral. When I read blogs like Mark Harris’ and Mike Russell’s or Stand Firm’s and David Virtue’s (I was pointed to yours as being more representative of the broad middle), I often wonder if they even recognize that the extremes may be writing and speaking in English, but they are not really communicating. Given both sides’ unhappiness with the covenant, maybe this is the moderates’ attempts to say both “this is what we mean” and “they have a right to do this knowing that there are these consequences”–a kind of “better-informed decision making process” going forward. Now, as to how a church decides what really impacts another church is a question perhaps best suited to the Gamaliel’s of our day . . .

  8. Richard Jackson Says:

    I agree with the Covenant and I

  9. Richard Jackson Says:

    I believe it our last hope. We are not one minded on the issue of homosexuality. I believe it has caused too much trouble and grief and I don’t think it’s worth it.

  10. Andrew Says:

    The great value of the Covenant is the theological change of direction that it invites churches into. It frankly surprises me that TEC liberals could have much good to say about the first three sections. I’m convinced that the whole notion of covenant theology is designed to deal a death blow to what Rowan Williams calls the “incarnationalist consensus” that has run rampant in western Anglican churches despite the strong rebuttals of it by the likes of Michael Ramsey. This covenant theology seeks to restore a biblical priority to Anglican theology – essentially to replace authentic Cranmer and Hooker where there has been such a shabby pastiche known as “scripture, tradition, and reason.” I suspect that N.T. Wright’s perspective on Paul, which is heavily focused on covenant theology, went into the crafting of the Covenant – the interpretation of Ephesians 4, for example, that replaces the prooftexting that we see in documents like the Virginia Report.

    The Covenant is, I think, a marvelous document. I think it is a true invitation to real unity – not pretend unity that we have known so far in Anglican Communion, but also not artificially imposed unity that we may see in the Roman Catholic Church.

  11. Christopher Epting Says:

    Well, Andrew, those of us who still have some hope that the Anglican Covenant may be a way forward for the Communion have LOTS of work to do if we expect The Episcopal Church, in Convention assembled, to pass it — even once, let alone two successive Conventions. The opposition is large and very vocal.

  12. willliam Says:

    One of the muddles that Ecusa has fallen into, seen here, is the repeated insistence on the baptismal covenant without acknowledging that that covenant includes a commitment to the apostles teaching, and therefore pushes us well beyond the minimalist view routinely advanced (viz, only the Creed, and ‘we’re not confessional’). Would that those entrusted with the teaching office of the church would devote themselves to the fullness of the apostolic faith. (PS Please read Sykes’ Integrity of Anglicanism on how we are a confessional church, even if unlike other confessional churches._

  13. Christopher Epting Says:

    Yes, when the Baptismal Covenant is cited as an authority or a guide, it is very important that the WHOLE of the Covenant is what we have in mind — including “the apostles’ teaching…etc.” It is worth considering, however, that just as the Constitution is not a dead and static document but must be interpreted and applied afresh in every age, so must “apostolic teaching” whether as recorded in the New Testament or as interpreted down through the ages. This is not to say that “revisionism” is the order of the day only to remind us that “tradition is the living faith of the dead” and “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

  14. Andrew Says:

    Bishop Epting,
    I agree that we have a lot of work to do, and I’ll do my part. I think that the way forward, however, will have to be some system of adoption by dioceses (as we have already seen) and perhaps also some way for individual parishes to opt in. The national church will simply not budge on their gospel of social justice; so the Anglican Communion will simply have to look quite different in the future. As problematic as it sounds, I think some Episcopalians will be in the Communion and some will not.

  15. Andrew Says:

    Oh, one more thing. It seems to me that section 4 is indeed problematic now for everyone. The Anglican Consultative Council is in no danger of losing its liberal tilt embodied by KJS, Ian Douglas, and others – spurring Archbishop Anis’ resignation. The disciplinary body – the new Anglican Communion Standing Committee – will be comosed of members of the ACC and the Primates. So if some want the Covenant to be able to exclude TEC as a whole from the Anglican Communion, such an outcome seems extremely unlikely. And it’s a real “world upside down situation” if TEC doesn’t adopt the Covenant, since KJS and one of her bishops would be involved in deciding issues of compliance to it!

    I think we may find, as I think Ephraim Radner has just argued for the Anglican Communion Instittue, that the instruments of unity may all just break. To take his point further, this new Standing Committee will be understood by orthodox Anglicans as the rump body that it appears to be. Communion may have to have some other look – so then perhaps the Covenant will be useful as a way for dioceses and parishes to say, “We want to be biblical Christians in communion with the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide.” Thus section 4 will simply be irrelevant.

  16. John Wirenius Says:

    Bishop Chris,

    Thank you for the invitation. At the risk of seeming rude, let me express a dissenting view of the Covenant:

    We should vote it down, without hesitation or qualm.

    The Covenant is intended as a means of punishing and/or expelling TEC. Even if that were not its genesis, the Covenant is more fundamentally an affront to Anglicanism’s foundational ethos as formulated in both the 39 Articles and in the writings of Richard Hooker. I believe that the Covenant reflects Canterbury’s effort to “ride the tiger” of American far-right and Global South hostility to the decision of TEC to honor the ministry of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to create a new institution, an international Anglican Church, rather than a loose confederation of churches. I do not support creating a Magisterium, but I think that will be the result..

    It reminds me of Hooker’s Preface to the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, where he points out that the evolution of churches in their places of planting reflects the needs of those among whom the church grows up and that even the means of organization may properly vary from place to place. Moreover, the foibles as well as the virtues of great figures (such as Calvin, in Hooker’s time) may be reflected in not only their own churches, but those which adopt their teaching. Institutionally, local control and autonomy is a way of allowing for the correction of error, as discerned over time.

    And that, not simple anti-Roman Catholic spite, is the justification for Article 37, stating that “The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.”

    Simply put, the Anglican understanding has held, in delicate balance, the values catholicity and autonomy. Autonomy is necessary to prevent the handing down from on high of bulls which, as Hooker cautions, may result from the universalizing of an insight appropriate to one time and one place, or the over-veneration of a great leader, and simply force a solution to one locale’s problem onto a different place and situation, creating a new problem.

    The Anglican Covenant upsets that balance, and is indeed intended to do so, reducing the local scope of autonomy. Worst of all, it has no inherent limitation. As Hooker described the mounting demands of the Puritans from respect for conscience, to conformity, to the overthrow of all social institutions which would not conform to their will, the Covenant replaces the delicate balance of communion with a limitless perpetual synod with coercive power whose only limit is its own moderation. We may be expelled from the Communion, no doubt; but we should not sign our own death warrant.

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my view of the matter to you. I think your willingness to entertain such an open forum is admirable.

  17. Christopher Epting Says:

    I don’t think “explusion from the Communion” is likely (or possible) with our without the Covenant. There is no such mechanism in place now and I do not find one in even the problematic Section Four of the proposed Anglican Covenant. There will be, and has been, the possibility of marginalization or even a kind of “discipline” imposed on Provinces after a long and rather drawn-out process. I am certainly willing for The Episcopal Church to bear such a witness for what we believen to be right and just. I just want us to continue to be a part of the Communion (however marginalized) so that we can continue to bear that witness. I continue to believe (rightly or wrongly) that history (and truth) is on our side.

  18. John Wirenius Says:

    Well, Bishop, I do appreciate your perspective. I agree time is on our side–which is why I think those who are so adamantly opposed to us are trying to create a disciplinary body to shut off debate. They, and not we, are the ones who need to end the discussion, and that’s why I would decline the Covenant, take “tier 2” status, and await developments. I notice that the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken to referring to “the Anglican Church” and not the Anglican Communion. This is part of what I oppose–an undue emphasis on order and uniformity.

    But I’ll sign off now–I don’t want to abuse your graciousness in inviting comments to launch a filibuster. Again, many thanks for your interest in your readers’ views.

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