June 5, 2011

Covenant Musings

I was thinking today about the psychological overload that must be the initial reaction of Anglicans when they first visit the Resources page of the No Anglican Covenant Web site. With so much material referenced there, how does one know where to begin? (Of course, my recently added two-part analysis of Sections 1–3 of the Covenant would be a good place to start!) The Web site does have a page of background information, but it is of little help in deciding what is most useful to read to improve one’s understanding of the Covenant.

These musings led me to begin a mental list of arguments for and against the Covenant and where those arguments have been made. I did so, my area of concern expanded. Is the Covenant good or bad in the abstract? This depends on one’s conception of the Anglican Communion, its current challenges, and its possible future. Is it wise for a particular Anglican church to adopt the Covenant? This question is particularly sticky. Even the term “adopt” has become ambiguous. In any case, the adoption decision involves not only theological concerns (or at least ecclesiological ones), but also political considerations. How will a church’s decision affect the decision of others, and can that influence be seen as positive? Is delaying a decision a good strategic move?

By now, I had moved far afield from my original question and was thinking more about what I have been reading and hearing about whether The Episcopal Church should adopt the Covenant. Much of the current conversation is making me uncomfortable. For example, there is some expectation, both here and abroad, that the 2012 General Convention will decide what The Episcopal Church will do about the Covenant. Surely, the General Convention will discuss the matter, but some are counseling delay “to see what other churches will do.” No doubt, however, other churches are waiting to see what we will do, particularly because the action of The Episcopal Church was one of the casus belli of the ongoing Anglican wars.

The Episcopal Church, I am sorry to say, has largely been in reactive mode in its relations with the wider Communion. Then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold attended the emergency meeting of the primates in October 2003 and failed to assert both his church’s right to make Gene Robinson a bishop and the Communion’s obligation to accept that fact, even if it made some Anglicans uneasy. Our church’s subsequent behavior might best be characterized as passive-aggressive, as we sought to mollify an angry Communion, even as we really wanted to tell the likes of Peter Akinola (and even Rowan Williams) to go to hell. I believe we turned a corner in the consecration of Mary Glasspool—see “Countdown”—and I hope that the next General Convention will see our past faux obsequiousness as being in error both theologically and politically.

In particular, the General Convention should not simply kick the Covenant-decision can down the street, waiting to see what others will do. The church should actually take a stand and lead—thank the Communion for its efforts but declare them anathema to both the Gospel and the spirit of Anglicanism. We should say an emphatic no to the Covenant and focus on saving Anglicanism and, if possible and not too costly, the Anglican Communion. (See my paper “Saving Anglicanism,” written in anticipation of the 2006 General Convention.)

Actual enthusiasm for the Covenant is in short supply within The Episcopal Church, but there are General Convention deputies offering various rationales for further appeasement of those who would Romanize the Communion. One argument goes like this: The radical orthodox have already rejected the Covenant, so the Covenant will become an agreement among the moderate and liberal churches, who will not wield it as a weapon against one another. Another argument is similar and goes like this: We need to be at the Anglican Communion table; we can adopt the Covenant and vote to amend it to make it more acceptable. Each of these arguments represents a self-deluding triumph of hope over experience and logic.

Consider the argument that the radical orthodox have vowed not to adopt the Covenant. Whereas it is true that the GAFCON Primates’ Council declared that the Covenant “is fatally flawed” and that “support for this initiative is no longer appropriate,” it is unclear that GAFCON provinces will, in fact, reject it. The Covenant is not quite what GAFCON wanted, but it does have a mechanism to punish churches that innovate. The more conservative churches might sign on with the intent of amending the Covenant to strengthen that mechanism while using whatever is available to fulfill their need for doctrinal uniformity. The “accession” by South East Asia is worrisome in this regard. If most “orthodox” provinces actually do reject the Covenant, how can the Covenant keep the Communion together, which, after all, is its stated goal?

Adopting the Covenant to retain a seat at the table that will allow us to amend it to be more to our liking is something of a crap shoot. The best possible outcome would be for the Covenant to enjoy an untimely death, a possibility that cannot yet be ruled out. Its adoption by The Episcopal Church, however, will not only encourage moderate churches to sign on, but it will also provide incentive for the most conservative churches to do so as well, since being in the “first tier” of the new Communion is necessary to use the Covenant against The Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada. Evaluating the likelihood of being able to amend the Covenant is not straightforward, since it depends on which churches have adopted the Covenant. (It is worth pointing out that the votes of all churches are equal when voting on Covenant amendments, whereas The Episcopal Church has a vote advantage over many churches in the Anglican Consultative Council, where Communion decisions have been made in the past.) Despite stories of the adoption of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, I believe that, as the Covenant comes into effect, there is going to be a reluctance to amend it before it has had a chance to prove its worth. On the other hand, those upset over the consecration of homosexual bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions will continue to press the argument that there is a crisis in the Communion. Amendments will proceed slowly; witch hunts will progress quickly.

There is, in fact, only one argument for urging The Episcopal Church to adopt the Anglican Covenant, and that is the argument that the Covenant is actually a good thing as it stands. As I suggested early, hardly anyone in the church honestly believes that it is. I pray that the General Convention will exercise realpolitik, not simply naïve optimism and servile deference to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in deciding what to do with the Covenant. If we were inventing the Anglican Communion from scratch, would the present Covenant be our ideal founding document? I think not.

This brings me back to the Web site of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition. If you believe that the Anglican Communion is the gift of God, and the Holy Spirit, not Gregory Venables, Martyn Minns, Peter Akinola, or Rowan Williams, is the driving force behind the Anglican Covenant, then nothing on the No Anglican Covenant site will convince you that the proposed agreement should be rejected. On the other hand, if you believe in free will and the innate sinfulness of humanity, then you owe it to yourself to read at least some of the criticism offered by the Coalition.

I still don’t have a definitive reading list for the person who knows little of the Covenant but who wants to know more. A good way to start, however, would be to read the Background page, followed by the Covenant itself. Good overviews are provided by Modern Church and Church Times. After reading that, you’re on your own.

No Anglican Covenant

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  1. Hi Lionel,

    In the midst of all, of course, there are a few of us who think the "Covenant is a good thing as it stands," and who will make that case in the conversation leading up to and at General Convention next year. I do think George Sumner's piece last month was helpful and encourage folks, in the mix of your "No Anglican Covenant" collation, to take a look at it as well.


    All best--

    Bruce Robison

  2. Thanks Bruce - I read the Sumner piece. TEC is heavily involved in the continuation of Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence even with those who disagree with us on the single issue of honestly gay and lesbian clergy or the various things that go on in other provinces. The proposed covenant is an open door to endless accusations and litigation. Seems like we are better off to focus on mission and let the Spirit decide what is of God and what is not.

  3. It is worth noting that Bp Bayne, one of the prime movers behing Mutual Resposibility and Interdependence, thought that the immediate goal was the forming of relationshops between people in the churches of the Communiion. The relationships that were formed between conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans in Africa may not have been what Bayne himself had in mind, but they seem to me to have been one expression of MRI.

  4. The 1963 Anglican Congress in Toronto came at the high-water mark of Anglican prestige in the Global North, and yet it held up a much wider and deeper vision of the nature of communion in a prescient way. The Congress gave us the banner “mutual responsibility and interdependence” in which mission priorities in a parish in Canada or the United States should take into account the needs of partners in Ghana or Burma. The vision assumed the Communion to be a family of churches throughout the world, and church leaders throughout North America applauded it — no one complained that this sense of accountability was somehow un-Anglican (though getting churches to fund it was another matter).

    Sorry, but I had to post the rather long quote from Sumner's first paragraph to make my point. I don't agree with the writer's assumption that “mutual responsibility and interdependence” means the same as "sense of accountability".

    And then Sumner says:

    This may well be true, if mission were only another word for marketing, and all we sought were the adaptation of the most saleable product.

    Who says "mission" is another word for "marketing"?

    And then the final sentence:

    The Covenant is the providential means, in our time, by which we as global Anglicans may together be stewards of the mysteries of God to the nations, the very Gospel itself.

    As I see it, the suggestion that the Anglican Covenant is sent by God as the means to spread the Gospel today overreaches in the extreme.

  5. Thank you, Grandmère Mimi, for your analysis of the Sumner piece. When I read the essay in The Living Church, I lost track of how many ways I thought it was wrong.

    The thrust of the Toronto meeting was not that our doctrine must be of the lowest common denominator, so that no church is upset. Instead, “mutual responsibility and interdependence” was an anti-colonialist plea. The formerly colonial churches wanted to be treated like partners by the longer-established Western churches, not like colonies.

    I dealt with this at some length in my post “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence,” which I offer as an antidote to Sumner’s revisionist history. (Interestingly, my early essay drew heavily from an Anglican Communion Institute contribution.)

  6. Lionel, I have no problem with the phrase "mutual responsibility and interdependence". My problem is with the meaning that Sumner assigns to the phrase.

  7. Thanks, Lionel.

    I agree that signing on in order to stay at the table is a mug's game. And signing on in hopes of introducing amendments to fix a flawed text is really only a fantasy. Once this puppy is in place there will be little or no interest in amending it. And how will we get 75% approval for amendments is we can't even agree how to sign on or what it is we are being asked to sign?

  8. And signing on in hopes of introducing amendments to fix a flawed text is really only a fantasy.

    I agree.


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