May 31, 2011

A Critique of Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Anglican Covenant - Part 1

This is the first of two parts of an analysis of Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Anglican Covenant. Today, I introduce my critique and discuss Section 1. In the concluding post tomorrow, I will discuss Sections 2 and 3 and offer some concluding remarks.
Although much has been said and written about the Anglican Covenant, critics have been superficial and generous in their evaluation of its first three sections. Section 4 has been a lightning rod for criticism, which has both diverted attention from the rest of the Covenant and encouraged charity toward it so as not to be seen as uncoƶperative. The devil, it is often said, hides in the details, however, and the exact wording of Sections 1, 2, and 3 is important. Churches considering adoption of the Covenant need to understand just what they are being asked to sign on to, so that they can evaluate the likelihood of their being subjected to “relational consequences” for their actions past, present, or future.

I have long thought the first three sections of the Covenant misleading and dangerous, but I have resisted the daunting task of making a systematic argument to that effect. In what follows, however, I offer a critique of Sections 1, 2, and 3 in the hope that doing so will encourage more thorough and honest discussion of those parts of the Covenant.

I undertake this task as a defender of the integrity of my church and with my skills as a technical editor, one who seeks clarity in a text and who is obliged to raise questions wherever clarity is lacking. In this instance, unfortunately, I cannot go back to the author and suggest rewording, since we have been told that the text to which churches are being asked to subscribe is the “final text.” I cannot, therefore, always provide a definitive explication of the meaning of the Covenant, but I can suggest what, in practice, it might mean. This is the best anyone can do.

I will not attempt to analyze the Introduction, which, according to §4.4.1 is not actually part of the Covenant. The Introduction is a page and a half of impenetrable gobbledegook intended to lend an air of religiosity to the Covenant and to discourage serious reading of what follows. Likewise, I will ignore Section 4 for now, which is of an entirely different character.

My observations will be of greatest interest to members of The Episcopal Church, and especially to deputies to the 2012 General Convention who will likely determine the fate of the Covenant in relation to The Episcopal Church. I trust that other Anglicans will also find my remarks helpful.


Let me begin with the Preamble of the Covenant. Here and in what follows, I will quote the Covenant text sparingly. Readers should read my comments with the Covenant text itself readily available in order to follow my remarks.

The Preamble seems reasonably straightforward. I do find the citation of Revelation 7:9 to be both pretentious and irrelevant, but this is only a stylistic issue.

Section One: Our Inheritance of Faith

This section includes assertions that “each church affirms.”

Section 1.1.1 is certainly unobjectionable.

Section 1.1.2 is a bit problematic. What, exactly does it mean to affirm that
The historic formularies of the Church of England, forged in the context of the European Reformation and acknowledged and appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion, bear authentic witness to this faith.
A footnote explains that what is being referred to here are “The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” The significance of the “historic formularies” has been downplayed somewhat in this draft over earlier ones. The Episcopal Church, of course, never used the 1662 prayer book, and I think that Episcopalians would not accept the Articles of Religion as a valid statement of their Anglican faith. Can The Episcopal Church “affirm” §1.1.2 in good conscience? I suspect not.

I cannot accept, and believe that The Episcopal Church cannot accept, the characterization, in §1.1.3, of the Old and New Testaments “as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” This formulation has tended to earn a bye by virtue of being attributed, in a footnote, to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Significantly, however, this particular wording appeared in the wording adopted by the 1888 Lambeth Conference. It was not part of the resolution adopted in Chicago by Episcopal bishops in 1886 and never formally adopted by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. The wording of §1.1.3 seems to elevate Scripture over tradition and reason and could be—and almost certainly will be by some Anglican churches—seen as an assertion of sola scriptura.

Section 1.1.4 is also derived from the Chicago and Lambeth Quadrilaterals, but, again, the Covenant favors the Lambeth articulation. What, exactly, does it mean to affirm the Apostles’ Creed “as the baptismal symbol”? This seems to make no sense. And what of The Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 BCP? Is it somehow incompatible with §1.1.4?

Section 1.1.5 also derives from the Chicago and Lambeth Quadrilaterals. What is the significance of “and of the elements ordained by him”? If wine is unavailable and grape juice is used, is this a violation of the Covenant? Perhaps this section is too specific.

I see no problems in §1.1.6.

Section 1.1.7 is clearly asserting that our churches are liturgical and, in one way or another, derive our liturgies from the first Book of Common Prayer. The phrase “shared patterns of our common prayer and liturgy” suggests a uniformity that does not exist, however. The wording is circumspect, perhaps in recognition that a distressing amount of Anglican worship is not based on the local prayer book.

What, exactly, is the “apostolic mission” referred to in §1.1.8? Do all Anglican churches understand this mission the same way?

In general, §1.1 gets into trouble by being too specific. It thereby encourages disputes regarding whether churches might be acting in a way that is incompatible with the Covenant. Doing anything to encourage such debates is not going to advance the reputed goal of keeping the Anglican Communion together.

Section 1.2 enumerates commitments of signatories of the Covenant. It is quite reactionary, although this has not been widely noted. The Covenant has a strong prejudice against change.

That prejudice is immediately apparent in §1.2.1. Churches commit
to teach and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, as received by the Churches of the Anglican Communion, mindful of the common councils of the Communion and our ecumenical agreements.
When did the “Churches of the Anglican Communion” receive the faith they are supposed to uphold? Did the Church of England receive it before The Episcopal Church did? Did each receive the same faith? What about the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil? What are the “common councils of the Communion”? The Lambeth Conference? The Primates’ Meeting? Whose “ecumenical agreements”? Does the Anglican Communion have any ecumenical agreements? (I don’t think so.) Does The Episcopal Church have to be “mindful” of the relationship of the Church of England and the Church of Sweden, since those churches are members of the Porvoo Communion? Does the Church of Nigeria (Anglican) somehow have to be respectful of The Episcopal Church’s relationship to the Moravian Church in North America? Does anyone really know—can anyone really know—what §1.2.1 allows and what it prohibits?

Section 1.2.2 may seem innocuous on first reading, but the reality is that the Communion has many conflicting ideas about what is “the teaching of Holy Scripture,” and many would argue that that teaching has been and is now in conflict with “the catholic tradition.” End of the three-legged stoolUltimately, this section will mean whatever the Standing Committee says it means. That is unlikely to be what The Episcopal Church thinks it should mean.

It is significant (and disturbing) that neither §1.2.1 nor §1.2.2 acknowledges reason as a source of authority for the Communion. Apparently, Richard Hooker is not going to be the quintessential theologian of the Anglican Communion that will be created by the Anglican Covenant. The omission again illustrates the profound prejudice the Covenant has for forever keeping things as they are, since neither tradition nor a literal reading of Scripture allows latitude for change.

As far as I can see, §1.2.3 is complete gobbledegook. I have no idea what it means. It asserts that churches commit
to witness, in this [theological and moral] reasoning, to the renewal of humanity and the whole created order through the death and resurrection of Christ, and to reflect the holiness that in consequence God gives to, and requires from, his people.
I suggest that statements like this are not helpful if a layperson like myself can make so little sense of it. This section will endear Episcopalians neither to the Covenant nor to the Anglican Communion. This is the sort of statement that gives theology a bad name.

Section 1.2.4 overall seems reasonable, but it has some worrisome eccentricities. The “communal reading of … the Scriptures” seems to suggest that we all must interpret Scripture the same way. Surely, this is unacceptable. (Section 3.2.3 elaborates this theme.) I have no idea what to do with “and costly witness to.” Is this about martyrdom or what?

Section 1.2.5, concerning the handling of Scripture, is not, in itself, objectionable. The problem, of course, is that one person’s faithful, respectful, comprehensive, and coherent interpretation of Scripture is another person’s misreading. Provisions such as §1.2.1 lead me to believe that sincerity in interpretation will not be a defense for any interpretation deemed non-traditional.

Section 1.2.6 is just fine. It is perhaps the only provision in the entire Covenant that could be viewed as “liberal.”

Section 1.2.7 is another provision whose meaning is obscure. What does it mean to act “in accordance with existing canonical disciplines”? The Anglican Communion itself has no canons, so what canons are being invoked here? What does it mean “to nurture and sustain eucharistic communion”? I suspect this means that no church should do anything that would cause another church to declare broken or impaired communion. If so, it is another instance of a prejudice against any church’s rocking the Anglican Communion boat.

The final clause of §1.2.8 sounds lovely. But the notion of pursuing “a common pilgrimage with the whole Body of Christ” is another instance of the Covenant insisting that no church can do anything novel unless the whole Communion goes along. Here, in fact, there is a suggestion that all Christians, not just all Anglicans must agree. Thank you, no, I prefer a church that’s alive to one that’s preserved in formaldehyde.
Part 2 can be found here.


  1. Good work, Lionel.

    The Thirty-nine Articles? Please! And hidden away in a footnote.

  2. It seems to me that the first part of the proposed Covenant has been written in a way which is deliberately ambiguous, allowing for the broadest possible interpretation as a strategy to allow for the greatest possible acceptance and buy-in of the text. This is common in theological statements, and indeed part of the genius of Anglicanism. We can agree on a text even if we don't agree on its interpretation.

    The trouble arises when the interpretation is being used for the purposes of setting the standard against which a Church's actions will be judged and "Relational Consequences" imposed. Will it be a defense to say that our interpretation of t he document allowed for the action? Here ambiguity will cease to be useful and becomes pernicious. Where ambiguity might be the friend of the theologian, it is anathema to the computer scientist or the lawyer.

    The ambiguity of the first three sections may be seen as a helpful mechanism to obtain the greatest possible buy-in to the Covenant, but once implemented, it will generate more conflict.

  3. I'm with Grandmere Mimi. Good work.

  4. Thank you for this, Lionel. "Gobbledegook", indeed! It is dangerous, flat out, because we will all be defined by it.

  5. Lionel, while I agree with some of your concerns as to imprecision, please note Resolution A47a of the 1982 General Convention, which finally got around to officially affirming the Lambeth Quadrilateral as it appears in the BCP, with some expanded explanation. The 1886 version was an action only of the House of Bishops.

    Alan is correct that the wide possible interpretation could lead to more dissension, but it also provides greater ambit for defense.

    I look forward to you comments on what I regard as the most pernicious article in sections 1-3, the assignment of the impossible task of "focus and means of unity" to the ABoC.

  6. Well done! It is a conversation that has not been had and needs to be heard. Consider that along with the 39 Articles the Covenant affirms an ordinal that excludes women.


  7. Tobias,

    Thanks for the information about Resolution 1982-A047, of which I had been unaware. The title of that resolution is “Reaffirm the Principles of Unity in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” and it is best characterized as a substantial restatement of the Quadrilateral(s). The resolution can be found in its entirety here. I have reproduce the main substance of it below:

    1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God[,] as they are witness to God's action in Jesus Christ and the continuing presence of his Holy Spirit in the Church, that they are the authoritative norm for catholic faith in Jesus Christ and for the doctrinal and moral tradition of the Gospel, and that they contain all things necessary for salvation.

    2. The Apostles' and Nicene Creeds are the forms through which the Christian Church, early in its history under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, understood, interpreted and expressed its faith in the Triune God. The continuing doctrinal tradition is the form through which the Church seeks to understand, interpret and express its faith in continuity with these ancient creeds and in its awareness of the world to which the Word of God must be preached.

    3. The Church is the sacrament of God's presence in the world and the sign of the Kingdom for which we hope. That presence and hope are made active and real in the Church and in the individual lives of Christian men and women through the preaching of the Word of God, through the Gospel sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, as well as other sacramental rites, and through our apostolate to the world in order that it may become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

    4. Apostolicity is evidenced in continuity with the teaching, the ministry, and the mission of the apostles. Apostolic teaching must, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, be founded upon the Holy Scriptures and the ancient fathers and creeds, making its proclamation of Jesus Christ and his Gospel for each new age consistent with those sources, not merely reproducing them in a transmission of verbal identity. Apostolic ministry exists to promote, safeguard and serve apostolic teaching. All Christians are called to this ministry by their Baptism. In order to serve, lead and enable this ministry, some are set apart and ordained in the historic orders of Bishop, Presbyter, and Deacon. We understand the historic episcopate as central to this apostolic ministry and essential to the reunion of the Church, even as we acknowledge "the spiritual reality of the ministries of those Communions which do not possess the Episcopate" (Lambeth Appeal 1920, Section 7). Apostolic mission is itself a succession of apostolic teaching and ministry inherited from the past and carried into the present and future. Bishops in apostolic succession are, therefore, the focus and personal symbols of this inheritance and mission as they preach and teach the Gospel and summon the people of God to their mission of worship and service;

  8. Tobias correctly suggests that ambiguity could be used as a defense: "we were acting well within what we understand the Covenant text to mean." The trouble is that this defense may not convince the Standing Committee if the majority of them or their advisors either interpret a critical section of the Covenant differently than the defendant Church, or if there seem to be extraneous factors which lead the Standing Committee to reject the defense.

    The ambiguity of sections 1-3 means that it is not possible in advance to know what action might lead to a complaint being lodged - re, "question raised". Combined with the arbitrariness of section 4.2, this is a recipe for more conflict.

  9. Alan’s point is especially important. The “judicial” measures of Section 4 are based on the “law” set out in the earlier sections. Ambiguity in Sections 1–3 introduces an intrinsic unfairness into the Communion, as no one ever knows in advance what is allowed and what is not. Anglican Communion “justice” thereby becomes arbitrary, the sort of thing we see in totalitarian states.

    In the U.S., we have a notion that laws should be clear enough so as to inform citizens as to what is lawful and what is not. A law can be invalidated by the courts for being “unconstitutionally vague.” Surely, the Anglican Covenant can be accused of the equivalent of being unconstitutional vague.

    The Anglican Communion under the Covenant could easily become a world in which what is not explicitly allowed is forbidden. I, for one, do not want to be a part of that world.

  10. All that being said, however, since the only "penalty" the Standing Committee could "recommend" is something that can happen now, or whether or not we adopt/accede/subscribe, it seems to me the angst level is too high.

    If the real concern is the mess of claims and counterclaims that will follow on the heels of adoption, that merely goes further to demonstrate the truth that the AngCov does not solve the problems for which it was designed. That may well be a reason to reject it, but if that is the case, I think it better simply to say that rather than to try to fisk the thing to death.

    The other option is to accept the wiggle room, adopt or affirm 1-3 "in general" and reject §4 as incompatible with the Covenant's goals and Preamble, and see what happens.

    As I say, the worst that could happen is more or less the status quo, no?

  11. Tobias,

    No, I do not believe that we will do no worse under the Covenant than under the status quo. You have been saying that the Covenant does not give any power to the “Instruments” that they don’t already have. I believe that is nonsense.

    Who gives the ABC the power not to invite certain bishops to the Lambeth Conference or gives him the power to form committees at will or throw people off them? Who gives the primates any power at all outside their individual churches? Elements of the Anglican Communion are abusing power, and the proper response is not to legitimize their abuse but to put a stop to it.

    The ABC, a single unelected English bishop, should, as far as I’m concerned, be stripped of all power in the Communion. He should appoint no one, form no committees, and create no agendas. A single, unelected leader with unrestricted powers is a tyrant.

    Perhaps the powers I would take away from the ABC should be given to the ACC. Perhaps we just do not need most of them.

    If I ran the Anglican zoo, declaring your church out of communion with another Anglican church would be considered voluntary removal from the Communion. Instead, it merely gives the ABC an opportunity to grovel before you in the idolatrous name of unity.

    The Communion is a mess and an impediment to Christian mission. We should reform it, kill it, or simply get out of it. Do you seriously think that adopting the Covenant will, in any way, advance Christian mission or make the Communion any less contentious?

  12. Lionel, I'm not following your questions here. All the things you say the ABoC can't do, he has done. The two things you mention, Lambeth and committees, are creations of his office, so he has sway over them, Covenant or no. That is what I mean when I say the Covenant grants no new powers. It doesn't even particularly legitimate them.

    It is all very well for you to say what the ABoC shouldn't do, but you are no more the boss of him than he is of you.

    It would be helpful to me if instead of saying, "nonsense" you provide at least one specific example of a power granted under the Covenant that doesn't already exist, or hasn't already been exercised without the Covenant.

    What is it you think can or will happen under the Covenant if we sign, that not signing can prevent? Are you familiar with Pascal's Wager -- thinking in those terms might clarify.

    None of this is to say that the AngCov is a Good Thing in my estimation. Frankly, I think it has become a token in the ongoing Anglican trials, rather than a solution. But it is not simply going to go away, and it seems to me the best way to disarm it is for as many of the moderate to progressive churches of the communion to sign on to it as possible. It is those who sign who will have charge of its implementation.

  13. It seems to me that whether to vote yea or nay on the covenant comes down to whether you think the covenant is of value to the Anglican Communion in and of itself. No one can predict with accuracy what the results will be if a majority of the provinces of the Anglican Communion.

    So the matter returns to the question, "Is the document wise and good as it stands?" If I had a vote, I could not, in conscience, vote for the thing, because I think it is a sorry mess. It's badly written, badly reasoned, lacks clarity, and is only fit for the shredder.

    The political maneuvering to sign something that I believe is unworthy of putting our name to simply to have a place at the table to try to improve the document is unseemly for a Christian body, as I see it, and I could not cast my vote in favor.

    The phrase, "Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”, continues to come to mind.

    Tobias, it pains me to differ at such a basic level with you, whom I respect and admire a great deal, but on the matter of the covenant, I must.

    I won't answer you point by point on what will change with adoption or what has or has not already been done, because that does not matter to me, because I believe the covenant is not something I could vote for because it is such a mess.

  14. the worst that could happen is more or less the status quo, no?

    No. The COvenant gives the Standing Committee the power to determine that an action by a signatory Church is contrary to the Covenant. As suggested above, whether and to what extent a given action is compatible with the Covenant is going to be a matter of interpretation, given the ambiguity of the text. But only the interpretation of the Standing Committee will count. And there will be no mechanism to challenge or appeal that decision.

    Having decided that an action is incompatible with the Covenant, the Standing Committee is then empowered to determine the relational consequences which follow. Yes, the language is "recommend" but there is a clear expectation built into the Covenant that these recommendations will be followed. And, frankly, given the fact that the Standing Committee is anything but independent, consisting of 50% primates and 50% ACC members, plus the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is hard to see how either the Primates Meeting or the ACC or the Archbishop is likely to decide not to follow any recommendations.

    More of the status quo? No, signing on to the Covenant will legitimate the kinds of arbitrary actions that we have had, doubtless causing a proliferation of same, and if anyone complains the response will be that we signed up for it.

    The proposed Covenant will not, in my view, produce any good for the Communion. As you suggest, Tobias, that is reason enough to vote against it. But there is strong pressure to support it anyway, supported by the narrative that it won't produce any harm. I believe that it will produce harm - harm which is not outweighed by any good on the other side of the balance. That is another, and more compelling reason to vote against.

  15. Tobias,

    This is not an answer to all the points you raised, but I do want to comment on your notion of adopting the Covenant with the intention of having an opportunity to change it.

    You wrote: “But it [the Covenant] is not simply going to go away, and it seems to me the best way to disarm it is for as many of the moderate to progressive churches of the communion to sign on to it as possible. It is those who sign who will have charge of its implementation.”

    One of the aspects of the Covenant I find most manipulative is that there is virtually no way to reject it. Since the Covenant becomes effective as soon as a church adopts it, even if every other church rejects it, it is still an albatross around the Communion’s neck. How do we get rid of it? In part, it is the perception that not adopting the Covenant puts one’s church in some sort of limbo that encourages churches to sign up.

    No, Tobias, the Covenant is not fixable because the very notion of a Covenant of the sort before us is anathema to Anglicanism as I understand and have known it. What is needed is for some significant Anglican church—TEC is the only candidate over which I have much influence, so it is my favorite candidate—to declare that the Covenant is the work of the devil, and that we will have no part of it.

    Remember that it only takes one church to “raise a question” about the actions of another church. As long as we have leaders in the Communion like Rowan Williams who will submit to intimidation rather than risk “disunity,” I have little faith in the procedures of Section 4 irrespective of who does or does not adopt the Covenant. What I do know, is that The Episcopal Church can better pursue Christ’s mission as we see it without taking on the burden of the Anglican Covenant.

    As for authority, who said that the ABC can remove members of committees or commissions (or convert them to consultants) for assumed infractions of their churches? The power to appoint does not imply a power to discharge.

  16. Dear Mimi, this is hard for me too as I am not by nature a consequentialist in my ethics! Part of me would like to say, let's just can the whole thing, and if I had my druthers I'd follow your approach.

    The problem is that the other part of me wants to have a rationale for this rejection apart from my own dislike of the whole approach. This is why I'm drawn into the discussions from folks like Lionel and Alan, which are geared in terms of consequences; and I'm sorry, but as I've said, I don't see the situation becoming any worse with the AngCov adopted. It is true by the letter of the law within it that non-signatories are not subject to judgment or "recommendations" under its auspices, but I have no reason to believe that is a sure defense against such "consequences." The present anarchy is only partially constrained by the AngCov, and without it the anarchy will surely continue unabated.

    At this point I've suggested non-adoption with an appeal for more study across provincial boundaries. I would also push back against the ABoC who has presented this as the only game in town. Why can we, as free and autonomous churches of the Communion, make our own suggestions as to amendments, or craft our own document -- as the Gafcon have done? People keep talking about the needed improvements. So draft them and adopt them, out of a trans-provincial conversation.

    The fact Cantuar doesn't want to accept is that the old AngComm is dead. The AngCov will not, cannot, save it. That is why I am not proposing adoption, but further conversation -- which might possibly lead to a more acceptable document that actually holds the fragments together.

  17. The final sentence of the first paragraph of my comment should read: "No one can predict with accuracy what the results will be if a majority of the provinces of the Anglican Communion adopt the covenant."

  18. Lionel, I urge you to adopt the blogger floating window comment option, as it allows one to comment while viewing the whole thread.

    I'll simply say that I do not agree with your sense that TEC saying no to the Covenant will kill it once for all. England yes, which is why I pressed so hard for England to say No. But I'm reliably informed that the possibility of a majority of English dioceses saying No is virtually a no go.

    Perhaps you are right and we should just ignore it. It won't go away, and the Communion will continue slowly to fall apart.

    My own personality rather prefers to stand up to the bullies. I see most of the woe of the last few years as due to the lily-livered giving in to the "recommendations" of folks like the ABoC. So I would rather be thrown out than walk away.

  19. I don’t have a strong preference as to what the comment form looks like, so I’m going to take Tobias’s suggestion. It is my hope that no one raises a question about this break with our tradition and demands imposition of relational consequences.

  20. One hesitates to pile on here. Oh why not?!?

    I suppose it is technically true that the archbishop can dismiss people from committees if the term of their appointment is the pleasure of the archbishop. If on the other hand the appointment is for the term of the committee I submit he does not have that power -- yet.

    In his amazingly unfair dismissal of both Northern and Southern theologians, the Archbishop undertook to do identity injustice. The people dismissed were, not because of what they did but because of which churches are their canonical homes.

    Even then however, he sought a rationale. It won't do to say "I am punishing TEC, Southern Cone inter alia because I am angry at them and can find members handy at which to strike." Thanks to Colin Slee we now know he is capable of that sort of bullying, and we know he did it. But it does not look good.

    Handing him and future bullies the so-called covenant is handing them cover. "Hey an agreed to standing committee said what they did is "un-anglican and deserves "relational consequences."

    Here then a good rule you seem to be missing, "never give a bully an excuse!"

    We are all of us, save apparently archbishops, called to oppose evil. The covenant destroys something precious, the Anglican communion. It also institutionalizes anti-Spirit rule making. Somewhere in England is a little girl who could grow up to be archbishop of Canterbury but won't because to make a woman archbishop will be 'un-anglican.' Letting that happen is in fact evil. Abetting the misogynists is evil.


  21. The Standing Committees gotta go-- it´s not ever been up to them to vote yes or no.


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.