November 8, 2012

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

ACC-15, the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council concluded yesterday in Auckland, New Zealand. The most representative body of Anglicans worldwide met for 12 days, listened to reports , participated in much discussion, and passed 41 resolutions. Those resolutions are, however, mostly unremarkable.

The big news from ACC-15 is what didn’t happen. Participants spent little time considering the status of the Anglican Covenant, and ACC-15 neither passed nor proposed any resolution concerning the Covenant. This is the dog that didn’t bark.

The roots of the Covenant can be traced to the emergency meeting of the Anglican primates unwisely convened by the inexperienced Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in October 2003 in the wake of the General Convention’s having given its blessing to the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. At ACC-15, for the first time since that unfortunate meeting, differences over sexuality did not play a prominent role in a Communion-wide meeting.

Alan T Perry has written a very helpful post, “Fallout from New Zealand,” about the Anglican Covenant and ACC-15. Alan remarks
I conclude from the ACC’s silence on the Covenant that it is moving on from the project. If it’s not important enough for the ACC to comment on officially, then it’s lost its significance for the Communion. I think it can be shelved.
Do read “Fallout from New Zealand.” I don’t want to dispute anything Alan says there. Instead, I want to expand on what he wrote.

First, it is instructive to see just how little discussion there was at the Auckland meeting concerning the Covenant, based on news reports, anyway.

According to Episcopal News Service (ENS), participants were presented October 30 with a report on the consideration of the Covenant by Anglican churches. It is not clear whether the report was prepared by the Anglican Communion Office or by the Inter-Anglican Standing Committee on Unity, Faith and Order, both of which have seemed heavily invested in the adoption of the Covenant. In any case, as I noted in a recent post, the report distorted the facts.

The report, which has not been made public, asserted that the Church of Ireland was one of six churches that have accepted the Covenant as is. According to Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), however, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland made a point of “subscribing” to the Covenant, rather than “adopting” it, reserving thereby to the Irish church certain matters of interpretation of the Covenant. It is a stretch to suggest that Ireland therefore accepted the Covenant as is.

According to ENS, “the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has subscribed to the covenant’s first three sections but said it cannot adopt section 4, which outlines a process for resolving disputes.” This characterization also shades the truth. According to a May 10, 2010, report, the General Synod/Te Hinota Whanui of the New Zealand church, acting on the Ridley Cambridge Draft of the Covenant, approved “in principle” provisions of the first three sections of the draft. It also referred the Covenant “to the Epsicopal units of this church for consideration and reporting back to the 2012 session of the General Synod/Te Hinota Whanui, with a view to the Synod/Te Hinota then making a final decision regarding its adoption,” and it asked for a legal opinion on parts of Section 4. The 2012 vote, which came on July 9, was characterized by Anglican Taonga this way: “As expected, the General Synod said a final: ‘No’ to the proposed Anglican covenant today.” The resolution adopted said, in part, that the General Synod
Is unable to adopt the proposed Anglican Covenant due to concerns about aspects of Section 4, but subscribes to Sections 1, 2, and 3 as currently drafted to be a useful starting point for consideration of our Anglican understanding of the church.
Being “a useful starting point for consideration of our Anglican understanding of the church” is not an endorsement of the Covenant (or part thereof) per se.

I also dispute that the Episcopal Church’s General Convention made a “partial decision” on the Covenant. What it did was to  avoid making a decision, an action that was an alternative to rejecting it outright. Never did the legislative committee considering the Covenant consider seriously adopting the document.

Perhaps the biggest distortion in the report, however, is placing England in the category of having made a “partial decision” on the Covenant. The Church of England flat out rejected the covenant, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. A majority of dioceses were needed to approve the Covenant in order for the General Synod to take a final vote on approval. A majority of dioceses rejected adoption, however. (See the tally by Modern Church.) Church of England leaders have been embarrassed to admit that the Covenant was soundly rejected by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own church.

As for the Anglican Church of Korea, I cannot find documentation on its declaring the first three sections of the Covenant “excellent and useful” while postponing consideration of Section 4. The reaction of the Korean bishops to the St. Andrew’s Draft of the Covenant—this was all I could find on the Web about Korea’s dealing with the Covenant—was extraordinarily negative.

Bishop Victoria Matthews followed up the report with her take on where the Covenant stands. See my earlier post, “Living in Safety,” for my take on her tepid pitch for the Covenant. Matthews showed a video on “the history and detail of the Covenant”—the video is not available on the Web as far as I can determine—after which participants were invited to reflect on what they had seen in small groups. (See ENS story here.)

On November 5, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams touched on the matter of the Covenant, rather wistfully, I think, and, following Bishop Matthews’ lead, without a hard sell:
The hopes for an Anglican Covenant were in part hopes for a framework, a climate, in which some of those questions might be addressed by consent, not by coercion. We don’t as yet know how that project will finally work itself out. I still hope and pray, speaking personally, the Covenant has a future, because I believe we do have a message to give the Christian world about how we can be both catholic and orthodox and consensual, working in freedom, mutual respect and mutual restraint. Without jeopardising the important local autonomy of our Churches, I think we still need work on that convergence of our schemes and systems, and I say that because I believe we all need to wake up to the challenges here if we are not to become less than we aspire to be as a Communion. Let me repeat the phrase: we need to be aware of the danger of becoming less than we aspire to be as a Communion. I think that we do aspire to be a consensual catholic and orthodox family. I believe we do aspire to be a family that lives in mutual respect and recognition, and to step back from that simply into a federal model, as I’ve said many times before, doesn’t seem to me to be the best and the greatest that God is asking from us as an Anglican family.
News stories indicated that delegates were to return to the matter of the Anglican Covenant on November 6. I don’t know whether that happened, but there have been no news stories about any further discussion of the document.

ENS has run a story offering reflections of the Episcopalian participants in ACC-15. Those reflections are remarkably different from what we have become used to following Communion-wide meetings. Here is a sample. The speaker is Bishop Ian Douglas, who is also a member of the Standing Committee.
“I found that we have been able to go much deeper in conversations around how our churches are so different one from another and also what holds us together as the communion itself,” he said. “It seems like a lot of the old animosities and divisions—differences are absolutely still there; I don’t want to paper over them – but all of the old tensions, I’m just not experiencing at this meeting.”
Other quotations in the ENS story are in a similar vein

So what are those of us concerned about the Anglican Covenant to make of ACC-15?  At the very least, it seems fair to say that the steam has gone out of the drive for Covenant adoption. Perhaps delegates saw the handwriting on the wall. Perhaps no one thought it would be possible to agree on any resolution about the Covenant, no matter how bland. Perhaps no one really cared anymore.

Nevertheless, reports of the death of the Anglican Covenant are premature. Although there seems to be no enthusiasm for pursuing the covenant project, there is the remote possibility that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby by all reports, might try to inject new life into the campaign to achieve widespread adoption. His corporate experience in the “real world” suggests that he will not want to die in that particular ditch, however. The Covenant will not be dead until those churches that have adopted the pact rescind their action or withdraw according to Section 4.3 of the Covenant itself. That is unlikely to happen until the ACC declares the Covenant a failed project and encourages churches to dump it. It may be a long time before that happens. In the meantime, we should all hope that no church that has adopted the Covenant actually takes it seriously.

Update, 11/9/2012. I added the link the the ENS story “Council considers status of Anglican Covenant in small groups.” 

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