In my reading recently, I was reminded that this item is part of the Anglican Covenant
(4.1.3) Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion.
A similar statement was made recently by the Rt. Rev. Gregory Cameron, who was secretary of the Covenant Design group, which was responsible for drafting a covenant, and is now Bishop of St. Asaph in Wales. Cameron, was in a BBC debate with the moderator of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition, the Rev. Dr. Lesley Fellows. The interview began with the question of whether the Covenant wasn’t about controlling what Anglican churches believe. Cameron denied that the Covenant was about control:
The Covenant is quite clear that each church continues to make its decisions for itself. But when one church acts in a way which can cause offense or division to other churches, then the Communion has to be able to have a way to express what it feels is going on, and the Covenant does allow for that. But it’s quite clear no one can actually govern the church from the center.
In her thinly veiled defense
of the Covenant published by Anglican Communion News Service yesterday (“I am not arguing here for or against the Covenant, merely pointing out that it should be debated fairly, with an accurate reading of the text.”), the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity Faith and Order and member
of the Lambeth Commission whose Windsor Report
recommended a covenant, also quoted paragraph 4.1.3 as reassurance that individual churches will not “become subordinate” to a central Anglican Authority.
In a sense, paragraph 4.1.3 may be strictly true—more on this point later—and it is included in the Covenant because it is not difficult to see the overall document as intrusive, coercive, and destructive of provincial autonomy. Covenant proponents clearly do not want us to read the text that way.
The Covenant supporters doth protest too much, methinks.
A Deeper Look into the Covenant
The crux of the Covenant, the place where its true intent is exposed, though veiled, is to be found in section 3.2, which begins, “Acknowledging our interdependent life, each Church, reliant on the Holy Spirit, commits itself.” Here is a summary of the commitments, stripped of their Anglican smoke and mirrors:
- (3.2.1) To pay for the Instruments of Communion and attempt to do what they say.
- (3.2.2) To respect the autonomy of other churches, even as they restrict it.
- (3.2.3) To agree that new and controversial issues “need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church.” In other words, individual churches do not have the freedom to act on such matters until everyone agrees.
- (3.2.4) To seek agreement with other churches of the Communion.
- (3.2.5) To do nothing to upset other churches of the Communion.
- (3.2.6) To keep talking and meeting when conflicts arise until consensus is reached, even if that is until hell freezes over.
- (3.2.7) To keep in mind that bonds of affection and Christ’s love “compel”—interesting word choice—“us always to uphold the highest degree of communion possible.” (This is, of course, firm but gentle Anglican intimidation.)
In other words, the real purpose of the covenant is to get churches to agree to “shared discernment” on any matter that any church thinks is important and to not act until the shared discernment produces consensus. (The Covenant fails to give any operational definition of consensus.)
Recent Anglican Communion history does not augur well for a future of “shared discernment.” The 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10
, for example, has produced a good deal of angry rhetoric, but little true discussion or listening “to the experience of homosexual persons,” at least not by those churches unsympathetic to homosexual persons to begin with. In fact, “shared discernment” is a poor model for decision-making in most human societies in most times. Women’s suffrage, civil rights for blacks, and even the removal of the Church of England from under the Pope were not the result of “shared discernment.” Instead, like most societal changes, especially big ones, they resulted from the insight and passion of a few who were willing to argue against the conventional wisdom and take actions that risked grave personal consequences. Anything looking like “shared discernment” usually comes after the revolutionaries have done their work and, sometimes, lost their lives.
In fact, “shared discernment” is all about arresting change, not facilitating or regularizing it. What we have seen in the Communion, and what we will continue to see, is innovation by some churches followed by an immediate reactionary response by other churches that are likely not only opposed to the presenting change, but averse to change in general. And yet, change has happened in the Communion, in part because there has been no global check on it. The lack of such conservative mechanisms has led to the ordination of women, new prayer books, and changed attitudes toward divorce and remarriage.
In an article
published today, Graham Kings, in defense of the Covenant, argues
This covenant of unity seeks to hold the Anglican communion together organically in the face of increasing fragmentation. The choice in this debate is to opt into intensifying our world-wide relationships in affection and commitment or to allow splits to develop further and irrevocably.
This is a very naïve and optimistic viewpoint. It isn’t clear how pressuring churches into signing on to a document perceived as limiting their freedom of action and promising “relational consequences” when their actions make others unhappy will increase affection among churches. It is more likely that it will foster wariness, suspicion, defensiveness, and distrust. Already conservatives are saying that The Episcopal Church cannot, in conscience, adopt the covenant because its beliefs have deviated from the doctrines spelled out in Sections 1–3 of the Covenant. Further, they are saying that if Episcopalians do
adopt the Covenant, that will only be a cynical ploy to avoid consequences. Yes, the Covenant will increase something, but affection is surely not on the list, and even the proponents of the agreement are skeptical about commitment.
If “shared discernment” is a sham, what is the alternative? Perhaps it is found in the fifth chapter of Acts, where the Pharisee Gamaliel says,
“Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:35b–39, NRSV)
The Anglican Communion should consider the Gamaliel model of how to deal with innovation.
The Ugly Stuff
Most observers have declared Sections 1–3 of the Covenant to be relatively innocuous. I don’t really agree, but, save for Section 3.2, I can see their point. Then there is the notorious Section 4, a section toned down from earlier drafts but nonetheless very scary indeed.
If Section 3.2 exposes the real purpose of the Covenant, Section 4 provides the means by which that purpose is to be carried out. The heart of Section 4 is Section 4.2. It begins with this gem:
(4.2.1) The Covenant operates to express the common commitments and mutual accountability which hold each Church in the relationship of communion one with another. Recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion. Participation in the Covenant implies a recognition by each Church of those elements which must be maintained in its own life and for which it is accountable to the Churches with which it is in Communion in order to sustain the relationship expressed in this Covenant.
“Recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion.” This badly punctuated sentence suggests that lack of recognition of or infidelity to the Covenant destroys mutual recognition and communion—not good news for non-signers or Covenant miscreants. (Am I the only one who finds the idea of “recognition” to be rather strange? “Recognizing” suggests “perceiving as,” but it really means “acknowledging as.” A cat with a missing leg or with extra toes is normally recognized as a cat. That is not what is meant here.)
Next, we get to the part of the Covenant where people’s eyes glaze over:
(4.2.2) The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, shall monitor the functioning of the Covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion on behalf of the Instruments. In this regard, the Standing Committee shall be supported by such other committees or commissions as may be mandated to assist in carrying out this function and to advise it on questions relating to the Covenant.
(4.2.3) When questions arise relating to the meaning of the Covenant, or about the compatibility of an action by a covenanting Church with the Covenant, it is the duty of each covenanting Church to seek to live out the commitments of Section 3.2. Such questions may be raised by a Church itself, another covenanting Church or the Instruments of Communion.
(4.2.4) Where a shared mind has not been reached the matter shall be referred to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee shall make every effort to facilitate agreement, and may take advice from such bodies as it deems appropriate to determine a view on the nature of the matter at question and those relational consequences which may result. Where appropriate, the Standing Committee shall refer the question to both the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting for advice.
(4.2.5) The Standing Committee may request a Church to defer a controversial action. 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.
(4.2.6) On the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, the Standing Committee may make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”.
(4.2.7) On the basis of the advice received, the Standing Committee shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations.
(4.2.8) Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.
(4.2.9) Each Church undertakes to put into place such mechanisms, agencies or institutions, consistent with its own Constitution and Canons, as can undertake to oversee the maintenance of the affirmations and commitments of the Covenant in the life of that Church, and to relate to the Instruments of Communion on matters pertinent to the Covenant.
I tried to explain what all this means nearly a year ago in my post “Section 4 Decoded
,” which, helpfully, included the diagrams below (click on each for a larger view.)
In “Section 4 Decoded,” I raised issues I will not repeat here, but I recommend that you review that post. Terry Martin (“Father Jake”) has also done a good job in a recent post
on his blog of assessing what Section 4 means . I will only say a few additional words.
First, I know that the Standing Committee’s function has been widely criticized, but it is really the function, rather than what body carries it out, that is the problem here. The point is that some international Anglican body determines, at the behest of any church that wants to make a point of it, what is and is not acceptable to the Communion. Whether it is the Standing Committee, the Anglican Consultative Council or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife is hardly relevant. As it happens, this job is given to the Standing Committee, which, if it cannot achieve consensus, recommends “relational consequences” to the churches or to the “Instruments,” each of which can follow these recommendations or not, apparently.
In actual practice, it is unclear what will be done with Standing Committee recommendations. They could, it would seem, result in complete chaos, as each church and each Instrument could act differently on them. We could conceivably have one Anglican Communion for the Archbishop of Canterbury, another for the Anglican Consultative Council, another one for the Primates, and yet a different one for The Episcopal Church, the Church of England, or the Church of Uganda. This is nothing so much as simply stupid. Graham Kings’ vision of decreased fragmentation is hard to imagine.
Likely, however, the bold will carry the day. Relational consequences have already been imposed on The Episcopal Church and the Province of the Southern Cone with absolutely no authority, and yet no one seems to question the matter. If such tyranny is possible now without the Covenant’s being in place, imagine what can happen after it’s been adopted!
Back to the Bottom Line
Returning to where we started, let us again consider the statement in Paragraph 4.1.3 that adopting the Covenant “does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” The Covenant, we are told, does not limit autonomy or grant to any church or institution control or direction of an Anglican Communion church.
All this is true in the same sense that I cannot make you reveal to me the PIN for your banking card. I can, of course, threaten you with a gun or knife, or I can strike your head with a cricket bat—notice how I am being international here—but I cannot actually make you divulge the information. My incentives may, on the other hand, motivate you to give me the information I am seeking voluntarily.
Likewise with the Covenant, the Communion will not be able to force The Episcopal Church to change its canons or to begin or cease doing something in particular. It can, however, provide significant motivation. “Relational consequences” sounds rather innocent, but relations can be vital. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, had relational consequences. The U.S. and the Empire of Japan went from being at peace to being at war with one another.
It is no secret that there are a number of churches in the Communion that would happily remove The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion and replace it with the Anglican Church in North America. This would be nothing more than a relational consequence imposed because of, for example, the Episcopal Church’s continuing to consecrate partnered homosexual bishops. Imposition of such a penalty would certainly harm The Episcopal Church’s standing in the world and could harm its position in ongoing litigation. It could also subject it to additional poaching from other Anglican churches. I’m not sure if “orthodox” provinces have considered what would happen if The Episcopal Church withdrew its rather substantial financial support of the Anglican Communion. (Relational consequences can work both ways!)
So, is the Anglican Covenant the innocent agreement it is alleged to be? Consider the picture at the top of this post. Is it really a picture of a cow? It asserts that it is. Is the Covenant really not about forcing compliance with some least permissive Christianity upon which all Anglican churches can agree? The Covenant declares its innocence of imposing strong-arm discipline. But, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.