Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The So-Called Anglican Covenant

With the rereading of the St. Andrew’s Draft (final draft) of the Anglican Communion, I am still struck with the heavy handedness that this document exhibits. It speaks some interesting things about covenant, but it does not contain the elements that I believe necessary to be covenantal. The purpose of this Covenant is contractual at best. It is an instrument of power, not relationship. The purpose is to rein in any of the national Churches that might find a need to follow Christ into new and important expressions of what walking in holiness might require. Covenants are made between God and humanity in the Bible. Covenants are not made between groups of people, treaties or alliances are made between nations, but nowhere is there an model of covenant being used between groups of humans.

This ‘Covenant’ is more of a constitution than it is a covenant. Perhaps it more emulates the American Articles of Confederation than even a constitution because it outlines an ecclesiology that does not exist for a collegiality that does not exist. As the Rev. James Stockton has commented, it is a “litigational document”. It is trying to develop a pattern that does not work for any of the constituent churches in the Anglican Communion. It certainly is not at all workable for The Episcopal Church with our sense of the egalitarianism of orders. One thing that the Anglican Communion does not need to be is a “litigational” body. We have enough difference among ourselves as constituent regional churches. These differences do not need to be highlighted by a legal constitution.

This Covenant is a bishops’ document. Nowhere in it does it provide a clear place for discussion and presentation of any action to the laity or the clergy. The Covenant seems to assume that the Communion is to be led by bishops and ruled by bishops to the exclusion of anyone else. The Instruments of Communion— funny, I always thought that was a chalice and paten ---are now the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ACC, and the Primates meetings. What about our Synods, our General Conventions, the discussions of lay and clerical theologians, etc?

The Covenant provides for a Standing Committee but provides no mechanisms for how that Standing Committee would be constituted. Who would choose the members so that said Standing Committee could be acceptable by constituent churches? The proposed Covenant makes no provisions.

This document seems to be concerned with immediacy. It requires the whole of the Church to consent to theological, justice or mission demands by a specific member church. This means that the peculiar character of Anglicanism is lost. Perhaps the most endearing quality of Anglicanism is its ability to be a national, or a regional church addressing issues as they present themselves in the local community. Unlike the global Roman church which cannot act until the whole world understands the Copernican centrality of the sun, Anglicanism has always been free to address the needs of mission in a particular area without needing to get a consensus world-wide. What works in San Francisco does not have to work in Timbuktu and vice-versa.

The immediacy that this document calls for is for the slowing down of addressing global concerns. It would require the same understanding of Scripture, the same theological premises, the lock-step thinking that has paralyzed the Roman Church for centuries.

But it is in 4.2.5”If a Church declines to defer such action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below.” that this document fails to be a covenant. It is here that this document shows itself to be what it was set up to be—an instrument of coercion. Covenants are the result of gratitude and grace. This document has one purpose, to force constituent churches to be whatever the persons in power want them to be. There is no call to discernment; there are no provisions for the gathering to discuss except for bishops. This document allows for power politics to ultimately settle the issues of the Anglican world. This document is based upon expediency and coercion, not the relationships that are necessary to share the mission of Christ.

It is scary to me that the Church of England would consider passing this legislation in their General Synod simply because they were being nice to the Archbishop of Canterbury. And then go on to ignore the legislation in the long run. But other churches would not be that sanguine about such legislation. In true common law practice, we try to minimize law rather than try to legislate for every work of the body. In this case, the legislative principle of the Covenant is not in keeping with the purpose of the document. The purpose, as has been pointed out, is disciplinary, not for greater sense of community. It will ultimately be used by those who find the letter of the law more important than the will of God. And if the past ten years in the Church are of any indication, we cannot afford to repeat that scandal.

A new Spirit is blowing in the world in matters of faith. We cannot embrace a backwards document for the sake of unity if it does not promote important processes for listening, discussion and compassion. We cannot settle for expediency when we need to do the hard work of relationship. The Anglican so-called Covenant cannot be the way of a future Anglican Communion.


Gus said...

I've never liked this damn "covenant," and you've articulated much of why not for me. Thank you.

Christian Paolino said...

Been trying to get the word out that this is on the horizon and people need to be educating themselves about it. Thanks for the succinct reasoning and compelling argument, not that I needed convincing.

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Paul Bagshaw said...

On the Standing Committee. This has been created via a different route (see my blog here:

The Standing Committee picks up the task of implementing the Covenant because the alternative was the Primates' Meeting - and not even enough of them wanted that option.

The result is a significant concentration of power. The Standing Committee has the powers of the ACC and Primates' Meeting (except those specifically reserved to the ACC). It also has control of the purse strings.

(See: and

Hope this clarifies things, not that it's a comfort.

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