May 8, 2012

Is It Possible to Reject the Anglican Covenant?

In its upcoming General Convention in July, The Episcopal Church will have to decide how it will deal with the Anglican Covenant. Although we know of two resolutions—both sponsored by bishops—that would put The Episcopal Church on a clear path to adopting the Covenant, it is widely believed that the 2012 General Convention will not go in that direction.

If The Episcopal Church neither adopts the Covenant nor commits to doing so, what are the alternatives? Four basic approaches have been suggested: (1) ignore the Covenant, (2) defer a decision on the pact, (3) gently say no, or (4) reject the Covenant definitively.

OptionsAny resolution likely to be passed in Indianapolis, irrespective of its overall thrust, will assuredly emphasize the desire of our church to remain in the Anglican Communion, even if it is somewhat vague about what that means. One proposed strategy for General Convention is for the church only to affirm our commitment to the Anglican Communion, saying nothing at all about the Anglican Covenant.

The obvious drawback to this strategy is that it will be interpreted by our sister churches for what it is—passive-aggressive. It is well-known that only the General Convention can decide on the Covenant on behalf of The Episcopal Church, and it is equally well-known that the Covenant has been extensively studied. All the Anglican churches have been asked to consider the Covenant. To fail to do so will be seen as arrogant.

Likewise, deliberately postponing a decision will be seen as insincere or irresponsible. The General Convention went along with the Windsor Report in 2006 and agreed (sort of) not to consecrate any partnered gay bishops. In 2009, it accepted the Covenant design project without objection. The expectation is that it is now time for the General Convention to make a decision, not simply kick the can down the road yet again in the hope that we can forever avoid acting like adults.

Then there are the resolutions that say no thanks to the Covenant but don’t quite slam the door. Resolution A126, from Executive Council, is in this category. This resolution begins by expressing “profound gratitude” to those who labored on the Covenant. It then offers the obligatory commitment to the Communion before it pledges the church to “recommit itself to dialogue with the several provinces when adopting innovations that may be seen as threatening to the unity of the Communion. It declares that the church is “unable to adopt the Anglican Covenant in its present form.” In other words, the resolution first accepts an obligation that is one of the most objectionable features of the Covenant, after which it implies that the church might be able to accept a covenant in a somewhat different form.

All of the aforementioned approaches seem designed to keep The Episcopal Church “still in the process of adoption.” In particular, §4.2.8 of the Covenant text reads
Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 [The Maintenance of the Covenant and Dispute Resolution] 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.
One has to ask, however, why we even want Episcopalians to participate in the disciplinary process of §4.2, a process that I, for one, find to be un-Anglican and an invitation to mischief. (Note that rejection of the Covenant, per se, does not remove a church from the Communion nor its members from the Instruments.) Some have argued that, by being at the table, our representatives can vote against applying sanctions. But participating in the process lends it legitimacy I believe we do not want to grant. Further, it seems cynical to put ourselves in a position where The Episcopal Church cannot be disciplined but can participate in the disciplining of other churches.

This brings us to the final approach, which attempts to say a definitive no to the Covenant. I place the model resolution from the No Anglican Covenant Coalition in this category. This resolution avoids expressing gratitude for that for which we are conspicuously not grateful, declares allegiance to the kind of Communion we actually want, suggests that we find ways of strengthening that Communion, and declares that we “decline to adopt” the Covenant for good and sufficient reasons.

In the end, however, we have to ask if it is actually possible to reject the Covenant. Before Church of England dioceses determined that Covenant adoption would not return to the current General Synod, I speculated whether, in such a situation would nevertheless leave the Church of England “still in the process of adoption.” (See “What If the Church of England Votes Against the Covenant?”)

Like so many other concepts, the Anglican Covenant fails to define what it means to be “still in the process of adoption.” This really indicates a lack of imagination on the part of the Covenant drafters, who clearly believed, contrary to all reason, that all Communion churches would quickly adopt the Covenant simply because the Archbishop of Canterbury asked them to do so.

Is the Church of England “still in the process of adoption”? I don’t know. In principal, the Church of England could reconsider the matter when a new General Synod is seated in 2015.  Even if General Convention 2012 resolves, in the words of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition resolution, to “decline to adopt” the Covenant, it might still be “in the process of adoption.” After all, with no time limits on Covenant adoption, the 2015 General Convention could, in principle, revisit Covenant adoption. In fact, the 2012 General Convention cannot bind future General Conventions to not take up Covenant adoption. Therefore, I suggest that it is probably impossible to remove our church from being “still in the process of adoption.”

The reality is that the Anglican Covenant has the potential to haunt the Anglican Communion forever. The only way to escape its malevolent influence is to encourage churches to reject it and to encourage the churches that have adopted it to withdraw, as provided for in  §4.3.1:
Any covenanting Church may decide to withdraw from the Covenant. Although such withdrawal does not imply an automatic withdrawal from the Instruments of Communion or a repudiation of its Anglican character, it may raise a question relating to the meaning of the Covenant, and of compatibility with the principles incorporated within it, and trigger the provisions set out in section 4.2 above.
Ironically, even withdrawal from the Covenant seems as though it might trigger repercussions.

1 comment:

  1. I love the graphic! I think we need to defeat it definitively. But I do think that we will always have to defend ourselves from the temptation to centralize power especially when we we arrive at difficult times.

    As Christianity realigns over this next century, our polity--our local leadership will allow the flexibility needed to face this realignment.

    If there is a new Reformation coming--and I think it is, Roman medieval structures will fall away as well the ones that we have aped.

    So the cleanest route for this GC to make is to say Yes to the Communion and No to the Covenant with no Maybe about it.


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