March 22, 2011

Why the Anglican Covenant Should Be Rejected

Thumbs downHaving just reported on a presentation of the pros and cons of the Anglican Covenant—see “Pittsburgh Covenant Debate”—I was a presenter myself in another such program last night. My talk, which I delivered at a Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh meeting at Church of the Redeemer, was titled “Why the Anglican Covenant Should Be Rejected.” Because the talk was rather long, I will only provide a brief summary here. You can read the whole speech in a PDF file here. [Since I wrote this post, I have corrected two obvious typographical errors in the original transcript.]

I summed up my view of the Covenant in this paragraph:
Unfortunately, the Anglican Covenant is a bad idea, badly implemented. Arguably, it is neither Anglican nor a covenant. The notion that such a pact is desirable is based on faulty assumptions, and the Covenant has been promoted out of mean-spirited motives. The proposed agreement has the potential to cause a fatal division of the Anglican Communion, whether or not it is adopted by a majority of its churches. Its potential for harming our own church is significant, and our ability to evade injury may be limited.
Most of the talk was devoted to supporting these assertions.

After giving a brief history of the Covenant and a summary of its contents, I addressed what I called technical problems. I identified two such problems: a strange adoption process and a dangerously vague compliance-enforcement mechanism. Here is some of what I said about the way the Covenant is being adopted:
There is no specified time period within which churches must act. Presumably, this is because the governing bodies of some churches meet infrequently. Our own General Convention meets every three years, for example. In principle, churches could take a year, or decades, or centuries to dispose of the Covenant. The failure to require timely response to the Covenant is potentially problematic, since enforcement of its provisions is placed in the hands of churches that have “adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption [emphasis added].” The Covenant does not specify what constitutes being “in the process of adoption.” Presumably this odd provision follows from an even stranger one, namely that “This Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons.” (Compare this to the case of the U.S. Constitution, which did not go into effect until 9 of the 13 states had ratified it.)
I then discussed the nature of Anglicanism, building on my paper “Saving Anglicanism,” which I wrote shortly before the 2006 General Convention was called upon to respond to the Windsor Report. No doubt, this paragraph will be controversial:
It is the latitudinarians, the broad-church Anglicans, who are most characteristically Anglican—one might even say the pure Anglicans. It is the broad-church people who willingly accept diversity within Anglicanism, concentrating on Christian mission, on one hand, and on their own spiritual journeys, on the other. Meanwhile, the radical Protestants, usually characterized today as Evangelicals, and the radical Catholics, usually described as Anglo-Catholics, continue their efforts to remake Anglicanism according to their own ideals. This struggle has been more or less active during various periods in the 400 years following the publication of Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
I went on to say that the extreme Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are rejecting the Covenant, whereas the latitudinarians have no use for it. Only the institutionalists willing to trade belief for unity—Rowan Williams most notably among them—seem to have any enthusiasm for adopting the Covenant.

I then focused attention on the more prosaic difficulties with the Covenant, drawing on arguments that have been advanced elsewhere. One of my arguments restated an interesting point made by the Rev. Nate Rugh in his talk a week earlier:
Not only will the Covenant encourage Communion-wide conflicts, but it will also encourage dissidents in local churches to bump up their disputes to the Communion level, rather than trying to reconcile them in the national or regional church. This is exactly what Bishop Duncan did, even in the absence of a Covenant.
I concluded by listing some of the ways the General Convention might consider responding to the Covenant. This is a tricky subject that involves both what deputies might want to do and concerns about how the actions of the General Convention might be perceived. Not only do I lack a clear vision of what the church’s legislative assembly should do, but I was reminded, in the discussion following my presentation, that the voting rules of the House of Deputies might have an important influence on what resolution is put forward. Effectively, for any important vote, a super-majority is required. Because any resolution is therefore difficult to pass, wording becomes very important. Is failing to pass a resolution adopting the Covenant equivalent to passing a resolution rejecting it? What is the effect of rejecting a resolution to not adopt the Covenant? There may be an opportunity to employ some creative ambiguity here, but I am going to save thinking about that for another day.

Here is how I actually concluded my talk:
Our church will be criticized, irrespective of what it does. Why not do the right thing and reject the Covenant? I suspect that many churches are waiting to see what the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada, and The Episcopal Church are going to do. A rejection by the Church of England is, unfortunately, unlikely, as English Anglicans pay great deference to their bishops, and particularly to their archbishops. It therefore falls to the Canadian and American churches to say the obvious—the Covenant is not a good idea. Rejecting the Covenant may or may not derail what seems like an unstoppable express, but, at the very least, we will not be complicit in destroying Anglicanism or paying for the destruction of our own church. In the end, our mission might be to pick up the pieces of the Anglican Communion and reconstitute them as a fellowship that is truly Anglican.


  1. Help me out here, sir: TEC is able to rule on other provinces' acceptance or rejection even if it has not adopted it yet, and there is no time constraint? So, at GC 2012, TEC could create a new study group to consider the covenant and present to GC 2015 a muddled report, and GC 2015 could refer it back to committee until GC 2018. By then I would suppose there would be enough resistance to a Cantuar Confession that the CofE would drop the whole idea.

    BTW, I disagree that the CofE will approve the AC, on the basis of the early rejection by Wakefield and notwithstanding the vote by Lichfield.

  2. Pfalz prophet,

    I know it sounds crazy, but I’m only relying on what the Covenant actually says. Of course, one of the churches that has already signed on could bring the question of what “still in the process of adoption” means. The Covenant is a contract, and clergy aren’t competent to draw up contracts.

    As for acceptance by the CofE, I can only pray that you are right.

  3. Hi Lionel,

    Did the PEP gathering the other evening also have the opportunity to hear a companion presentation on "Why the Anglican Covenant Should Be Affirmed?"


  4. Bruce,

    Remarkably, Joan Gundersen made the pro-Covenant case. She researched what Covenant supporters have said and made what I thought was a strong—and, from my viewpoint, annoying—presentation. We had been unable to find an outside speaker to advocate for the Covenant.

    Like Bill Geiger at the St. Andrew’s presentation, Joan did not speak from a formal script, so I have nothing to post from her. I’ll see if I can get a summary of what she said.

  5. "BTW, I disagree that the CofE will approve the AC, on the basis of the early rejection by Wakefield and notwithstanding the vote by Lichfield."

    One of the big problems for the CoE is that its head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is also the head of the Anglican Communion. And he is one of the architects of the Covenant.

    It puts the church under tremendous pressure, because it's inconceivable that the Head of the Anglican Communion should be part of a church that relegates itself to 2nd tier within that Communion.

    I expect to see more manipulative "debates" like we've seen in Lichfield.

  6. I'm somewhat surprised you couldn't "find" a speaker to take the affirmative, though I'm sure Joan did a fine job. I'm not sure you would have thought that sort of arrangement would have been acceptable, though, if the tables had been turned. Nonetheless, PEP is of course an advocacy organization and not a body with any accountability beyond itself to the wider church, so what you all do is entirely up to you . . . .

    I'm not quite sure I understand all the subtle nuances of the Church of Ireland decision, but it would seem to be, functionally, a check on the pro-Covenant side of the ledger. What's your take?


  7. I agree that Joan’s taking the pro-Covenant position was not ideal. Joan tried to find a speaker, but the fact that she was moving to a new place at the same time probably meant the task didn’t receive her full attentions. Some other people tried to help out at the last minute, but we were unsuccessful.

    I just got in from a quick visit to see my son and his wife in Shippensburg. I see there is some news from Ireland, but I haven’t read about it yet. Perhaps I will have something to say tomorrow.


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