Sunday, May 28, 2006

Covenants and the Anglican Communion

It has been just over week since the Proposal for Anglican Covenant has come out, just enough time for the initial blast of publicity and visceral reactions to ease down and, perhaps, just time to start to think about the implications of this move. What I offer here is hardly a systematic review of the document (which can be found at Covenant Proposal ), but rather a series of impressions based on my reading of the proposal and the reaction to it.

First, I think this is a good idea. One of the most frustrating aspects of the last few years is the almost total lack of accountability in how provinces act towards each other. I am the first to recognize the effective independence of each province of the Anglican Communion and to recognize that this means that there is considerable scope for different practices from province to province. These differences are a good thing, but we also have to remember that, as a Communion, we are also affected by other provinces' decisions. A covenant to recognize that interdependence and to work out ways to appropriately deal with problems between provinces is long overdue.

Second, this idea of a covenant which binds us as a Communion is a biblical one. Indeed, implicit in the ecclesiology of the Bible, is an assumption that the churches of St. Paul's day, while effectively independent in most areas, are bound by the good news they share and by the bonds of affection with which they are bound. The generous assistance of the Macedonian churches to Jerusalem is only on example of these ties. If we are looking for a model to retain independence and the sense of belonging to each other, we would do worse than the Pauline churches or even the churches of the sub-Apostolic age. We don't need an imperial bishop to accomplish this, but we do need forbearance and wisdom among ourselves.

Third, I recognize that this covenant is viewed by both sides with considerable suspicion and, to some degree, rightly. There has been so bad blood between the two sides in this conflict that it should be unsurprising that both sides cannot trust each other not to manipulate the mechanisms set up by this covenant to drive the other out. Yet, this covenant has been implicit in the logic of the Windsor Report and really is a measure to cool the conflict. I pray that we can bear that in mind.

Lastly, I recognize a certain amount of fatigue around this issue. Over the last year, we have been increasingly seeing both moderate liberals and moderate conservatives muttering about wanting this issue to just go away. Rightly, moderates point out that there are other serious issues in the Communion and it is time to get on with things. Yet, I do want to caution that, now that this issue has been exposed to the light, we can't sweep it under the rug. I certainly wish the New Westminster crisis and the Robinson ordination crisis never happened, but they have and we need to deal with those issues. Before we can even get going, we need to figure out what are our common bonds and how do we deal with provinces which disregard those bonds. I get that ECUSA and the diocese of New Westminster believe they are at the forefront of a prophetic call to open the church to homosexuals (I dispute that, but that is the subject of another blog), but we have to recognize that the prophets tend to cause as much conflict as they solve. If this is true prophecy, we will look back on this time and say that the divisions created needed to happen. If it was not, then both New Westminster and ECUSA have to answer for that. The jury is out on the prophetic call, but we had better figure out how to discern these calls or we're just asking for further division and conflict.



Jim said...


I have some issues with the covenant idea.

First, do we agree that the example in the Windsor Report appendix is not a model? It is so legalistic that a friend who teaches canon law called it the lawyer's full employment act. That model wont sell anywhere. Be it the bad North Americans with their pushy inclusivness, or the good Nigerians who demand the right to church plant in other provinces's diocese: no one is gonna sign on to it, and in fact, no one has.

Second, we have a covenant of sorts. It is the Prayerbook, the Nicean and Apostolic Creeds, the quadrilateral, and the constitution of the ACC. I suppose an evangelical might want to add the 38 articles. No, not 39, most provinces do not accept the one maintaining that the crown is the head of the church.

Third, I fear conservatives see the idea of covenant, if the Windsor appendix is any indication, as a way to establish a change adverse singulatity. That is the road to extinction. Recalling St. Paul's instruction that we be all things to all men, it is arguably anti-biblical.

I think many moderates and even some liberals might accept a covenant that said, here are the things we consider essential, the quadrilateral, in its entirerty, that is including the Nicean cread, the prayerbook, and membership in the ACC.

I and mayhaps I am not alone, would consider adding a process to the ACC constitution or bylaws establishing a review process for new editions of the prayerbook. It can be argued for instance that New Zealand did not update, they replaced. I think that could be considered to far to be sustained by the communion.

If I were to be doing the draft, I would say that local variants that are so far from the norm that the ACC identified them as such would meet two sanctions. Clergy trained, ordained or licesed under them would not enjoy automatic recognition from the whole, The books would not be acceptible for use outside the publishing province. In places where copyright law permitted, it might be appropriate to deny use of the title, "Book of Common Prayer." I suppose those could be tierd, with the denial of clergy privelelges being reserved for really bad work.

That is about the scope of what I could see getting approved. Covenants, I think should go to essentials. We are a people who pray, work, and argue, together. To attempt to stop arguing, as ++Akinola et al do, and want the covenant to do, is simply wrong.


Phil S. said...

A couple comments.

First, I haven't gone over the Windsor Report appendix, so I can't say. Clearly, we can't expect a legalistic solution as a covenant, largely because I doubt that any solution imposed on one or both sides will simply fail. It will fail for the excellent reason that it isn't a covenant.

I think we have to remember that a covenant is an agreement between two parties which is freely undertaken. This is why we speak of covenant between God and His people (Israel and the Church grafted onto Israel). It is not and should not be a legalistic solution, but an undertaking by both sides that they will behave in a certain way to each other. Really, this is all I see that is being proposed here.

Second, I agree that there is already a covenant of sorts, but, if you'll pardon me, if they were, in fact, working, we wouldn't be in this mess right now. Of course, that is a little unfair, but the problem isn't that we don't have a covenant, but rather that there are no consequences past the inevitable distrust and conflict that have already arise for breaking it. Honestly, the Anglican Communion is ecclesiologically a huge mess right now and this covenant proposal is an chance to revisit why we are a church and how we're supposed to remain so. Again, I think that is all to the good, given the mess we face now.

Third, I agree one danger is that conservatives will view a covenant as a means to prevent change at all costs. The accompanying danger from the liberal camp is that they water down the covenant so that anyone can breach it. As usual, the safe ground is between the two extremes. That is, we do have to reamin open to change, if led by the spirit, but we do have to test that sense of change very carefully. We cannot, if we expect to retain the Communion, allow one province to decide that they are on a prophetic mission and that it doesn't matter if the rest of the Communion either disagrees or have serious reservations. That prophetic mission needs to be tested carefully and this is precisely what hasn't happened in the current crisis. We are so busy arguing with each other that we haven't given time to pray and to carefully deliberate the merits or de-merits of the two positions in question. Instead, we have imposed our sense of prophetic mission on the rest of the Communion and decided that the reason why we were facing opposition was that we are ever so more enlightened. Or, just for completeness, we have decided that our opponents are imposing a non-Christian agenda on the church and so must be either driven from the church or abandoned the first chance we get. We have forgotten our mutual ties and are focusing on how we are right, not on listening to what God might be saying to both sides.

Fourth, at the end of the day, the devil is in the details. We simply don't know enough about how this process will work itself out or what such a covenant will look like. I do know that both sides need to set aside their fears and start trying to see where they can agree. Inevitably, any covenant will draw criticism from the extreme elements of both parties. The aim, however, is that Anglican aim of bridging the divide for as many people as possible. And that is the result I pray for.