April 1, 2007

The Covenant We Do Need

The Anglican Communion is out of control, and The Episcopal Church doesn’t look too well-ordered, either. Outrageously bad behavior is being widely tolerated, and orderly processes can no longer be relied upon.
Most Episcopalians reading this could write a couple of sentences which, when appended to the previous paragraph, would support its thesis. Not everyone would agree on what the proper evidence is, however.

My own list would certainly include the recent departure from The Episcopal Church of retired Bishop William J. Cox for the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone. Bishop Cox, you may recall, performed various Episcopal acts in Kansas in 2005 at the behest of the Archbishop of Uganda, but without permission of the Bishop of Kansas. This certainly looked like (1) a presentable offense against the canons of The Episcopal Church and (2) improper interference in the local affairs of one Anglican province by another. No disciplinary action was taken immediately, but a presentment was eventually brought against Bishop Cox. Earlier this month, the presentment was deemed serious enough to warrant an actual trial, and it appeared that the bishop might at last receive his just desserts. We have just been informed, however, that Bishop Cox has told the Presiding Bishop that he is leaving The Episcopal Church for a more sympathetic province.

In essence, Bishop Cox has jumped bail and left town. Since The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone are in the same “Communion,” you might expect that we would have an extradition treaty with Southern Cone that would return the accused to the proper jurisdiction, where he could be tried. Of course, you would be wrong. When any province is angry with any other province, nothing in the Anglican Communion works the way you think it should.

We have heard a lot recently about an Anglican covenant, an idea floated in the Windsor Report, and a concept that even the General Convention—inadvisedly and without adequate consideration, I think—has bought into. Parties within the Anglican Communion seem to have wildly different ideas about the nature of such a covenant. The Episcopal Church has suggested—hoping against hope, really—that it will be all about how provinces do mission together. Many of the primates, on the other hand, want to see a covenant that is (1) a confession of faith binding upon all member churches and (2) an agreement whereby (1) is next to impossible to modify. Their object is to return and to maintain the Anglican Communion safely in the seventeenth century or whenever it was that the Universal Church or the Church of England or Cromwell or somebody—I have no idea who—“had it right.”

Whereas the “covenant process,” from the point of view of The Episcopal Church, seems headed off in the wrong direction, a covenant among Communion members is not necessarily a bad idea. The Anglican Communion is an amazingly fuzzy entity, operating largely without any rules whatever, and certainly without rules agreed to by everyone involved. The exception in this chaos is the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), which is the most representative Communion body, including bishops, priests, and laypeople among its members. (There are no deacon members of the ACC, but that is a concern for another day.) Moreover, the ACC has a formal constitution and bylaws. These are all about how the ACC works, however, and not how the Anglican Communion works.

In watching the actions of the Anglican Communion over the past several years, I have been most distressed by the violations of conventions that I thought were understood and agreed to by all—that bishops do not act in other jurisdictions without having been invited to do so by the local bishop, that the Lambeth Conference and Primates’ Meeting are only consultative bodies without any substantive authority, that communion between provinces is necessarily mutual, etc. Essentially, these rules are being changed unilaterally. The effect, in some instances, is to centralize authority, but in others, it is just to spread chaos. The Episcopal Church should, I think, acknowledge these trends and announce that it will do everything within its power to reverse them and to work for an Anglican Communion governed by rules that everyone understands and has agreed to.

The foregoing considerations have caused me to change my mind about the need for an Anglican covenant. I now do believe that a covenant is needed. The covenant we need before we begin examining theological differences among provinces, however, is one that specifies clearly the fundamental privileges and obligations of Communion membership. Each province of the Communion should ratify this covenant before any future business not directly related to mission is conducted by the Communion. Among the basic principles that a covenant should establish are the following:
  1. That the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot discriminate in his invitations to the Lambeth Conference. All bishops of a particular kind must be invited or not.
  2. That no primate may be excluded from the Primates’ Meeting.
  3. That diocesan boundaries are inviolable.
  4. That jurisdictions should not overlap.
  5. That breaking communion with one province breaks communion with all.
  6. That Communion-wide rules govern the transfer of ordained persons from a jurisdiction in one province to a jurisdiction in another.
Well, you get the idea. No doubt, there will have to be rules for which specified penalties apply if they are broken. (This takes us to a potentially slippery slope if we wish to avoid building a cumbersome judicial mechanism for the Communion. I don’t claim to have all the answers here.) Personally, I would like to see the Primates’ Meeting abolished and more responsibility given to the ACC, which should meet more often. No doubt, it has been argued that it is too expensive for the larger ACC to meet more frequently, but I suspect that this is not the case, since the ordinary clergy and laypeople who make up the ACC will likely accept not flying to meetings first-class.

Oh, I should mention one other essential rule for a covenant. No bishop, priest, or deacon should be allowed to transfer between jurisdictions to avoid ecclesiastical discipline.

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