May 14, 2015

Further Thoughts on the Anglican Covenant and the General Convention

In an earlier post, I suggested that Resolution A040: Affirm Response to the Anglican Covenant Process proposed to the 78th General Convention this summer was less than ideal but would probably be adequate to get the Covenant off the church’s plate without doing too much damage. In this essay, I want to explain what I don’t like about A040 and how I would like to see it fixed.

Here is the resolution recommended by the Executive Council task force charged with monitoring the Anglican Covenant:
A040: Affirm Response to the Anglican Covenant Process

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church affirm our common identity and membership in the Anglican Communion as expressed in the preamble and first three sections of the Anglican Communion Covenant; and be it further

Resolved, That the 78th General Convention direct The Episcopal Church's members of the Anglican Consultative Council to express our appreciation to the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC16, Lusaka 2016) for the gift of inter-Anglican conversation and mutuality in God's mission engendered by the Anglican Communion Covenant process.
Explanation
Pursuant to the charge given the B005 Task Force, we monitored Anglican and ACC activities regarding the Anglican Covenant process and believe this resolution to respond appropriately to the current status of this process in Anglicanism generally and the ACC specifically. This resolution has no budgetary implications.
My guess is that the task force did not think deeply about what it was going to propose to the General Convention. Episcopalians generally have no use for the Anglican Covenant, and the postponement of a decision about it at the last General Convention was largely designed to avoid offending elements of the Anglican Communion until such time as ardor for the pact had largely run its course. I hope we have gotten to that point, but, despite the fact that many people have declared the Covenant dead, a trickle of adoptions by Anglican churches continues.

General Observations


The title of the resolution is odd. The resolution responds to the invitation to adopt the Anglican Covenant, and it expresses appreciation for the conversation about the Covenant. This fact justifies “Response to the Anglican Covenant Process,” I suppose, but what is the function of “Affirm”? What are we affirming? “Affirm” occurs in the first resolve, but that seems coincidental. Is the intention that we affirm our previous response, that is, our non-response of 2012? In any case, the second resolve is simply a piece of Anglican niceness meant to cushion the blow of the thanks-but-no-thanks first resolve.

The explanation for the resolution is amusing. It asserts that the resolution is appropriate, but it neglects to say why. Of course, everyone knows that we would adopt the Covenant when Hell froze over, and by not saying so, we avoid giving our detractors something else to complain about.

I hope that this resolution will be amended to delete “as expressed in the preamble and first three sections of the Anglican Communion Covenant.” Affirming “our common identity and membership in the Anglican Communion,” however, seems innocuous enough. I do not believe that the Preamble and first three sections of the Covenant do, in fact, express our common identity and Communion membership. The rest of this essay will be devoted to justifying that belief. I will try to ignore minor objections to the Covenant and to point out only major ones. You may want to read what follows with the Anglican Covenant nearby.

Covenant Details


If there is any affirming going on, it is our church’s endorsement (but not adoption) of the Preamble and the first three sections of the Covenant. What is not being affirmed is the Covenant Introduction and the enforcement-oriented fourth section. The Introduction is strange in that we are told that it must be published along with the Covenant, even though it is not part of it. The Introduction is a strained theological justification for what follows. The less said about it the better. I need hardly say much about Section Four, which is a thinly disguised club with with to discipline The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and any other Communion church that dares to speak credibly to a modern audience.

Even if the references to the first three sections of the Covenant are retained in Resolution A040, the resolution should be amended to delete “preamble and.” The Preamble begins
We, as Churches of the Anglican Communion, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, solemnly covenant together in these following affirmations and commitments.
Clearly, “these following affirmations and commitments” refers to everything that follows, including Section Four. We cannot, in conscience, affirm this while rejecting Section Four.

Even though the wording comes from the Lambeth Quadrilateral—the Lambeth Conference version, though our church never officially adopted any version—I find objectionable the wording of Section 1.1.3: “[Each Church affirms:] the Holy Scriptures … as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” If this were true, we wouldn’t have female priests, and we wouldn’t eat shrimp.

Like so much of the Covenant, Section 1.2 can be the subject of very different interpretations. It deals with scripture, theology, and ecumenical relations. I suspect that an Episcopal Church bishop could interpret this section in a way that would be accorded nearly universal acceptance within our church. I also suspect that a GAFCON bishop could conclude from Section 1.2 that in no way could The Episcopal Church in good conscience subscribe to it.

Section 2.1 is largely unobjectionable. I even like the description in Section 2.1.4 of the Communion as “a worldwide family of interdependent churches.” Section 2.2 is as acceptable—it is mostly about the Five Marks of Mission—though the phrase “mutual accountability” in Section 2.2.1 gives me the willies.

My queasiness increases as I read Section 3.1. Section 3.1.2 begins
[Each Church affirms:] its resolve to live in a Communion of Churches. Each Church, with its bishops in synod, orders and regulates its own affairs and its local responsibility for mission through its own system of government and law and is therefore described as living “in communion with autonomy and accountability.”
The quoted phrase “in communion with autonomy and accountability” is another of those clubs that conservative churches will use to try to restrain liberal ones. Perhaps more objectionable is the suggestion that all churches in the Communion are ruled by bishops. Frankly, this is not a strength but a problem. Members of our own House of Deputies should strongly object to Resolution A040’s suggestion that this describes our own church. The same section asserts that the Instruments of Communion enable Communion churches “to be conformed together to the mind of Christ.” Diversity, no matter how civil, is not an objective of the Anglican Covenant. Unity in doctrine seems also to be the objective when Section 3.1.4  speaks of articulating “the common faith of the Church’s members (consensus fidelium).”

Section 3.1.4 goes on to enumerate and attribute functions to the so-called Instruments of Communion. (Note that there has never been an official designation of what the Instruments are, though the Covenant, if widely adopted, would be such a designation.) In the descriptions, we see more indications that all churches of the Communion should progress in lockstep. The Anglican Consultative Council, for example, “calls the Churches into mutual responsibility and interdependence.” Although other tasks attributed to the ACC seem appropriate (e.g., “[i]t facilitates the co-operative work of the Churches of the Anglican Communion”), I’m less enthusiastic about our church’s being called “into mutual responsibility and interdependence.”

In fact, I think one can call the whole notion of Instruments of Unity into question. The Lambeth Conference, whose very purpose seems to be controversial, appears to be on indefinite suspension. This appears to be the case for the Primates Meeting as well. Moreover, the Standing Committee, which has quietly been given enhanced legal status, is not mentioned among the Instruments.

In reality, the Anglican Communion has become schizophrenic in recent years, asserting the independence of Communion churches, on one hand, and declaring that they must restrain their actions where other churches object. This is perhaps best illustrated by Section 3.2.2:
[Acknowledging our interdependent life, each Church, reliant on the Holy Spirit, commits itself:] to respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the Churches of the Anglican Communion, while upholding our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ, and the responsibility of each to the Communion as a whole.
This naturally leads into the notion of shared discernment. In Section 3.2.3, we find
Some issues, which are perceived as controversial or new when they arise, may well evoke a deeper understanding of the implications of God’s revelation to us; others may prove to be distractions or even obstacles to the faith [emphasis added]. All such matters therefore need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church.
No doubt, we are being told that such matters as the blessing of same-sex unions should not proceed anywhere until all churches agree that such blessings are acceptable (i.e., when Hell freezes over).

Section 3.2.4 asserts that churches should “seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils“ and “undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion.”

Section 3.4.5 will certainly be violated in Salt Lake City as the report of the Marriage Task Force is considered:
[Acknowledging our interdependent life, each Church, reliant on the Holy Spirit, commits itself:] to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission.
Section 3.2.6 asserts that, “in situations of conflict,” we will “participate in mediated conversations.”

Finally, Section 3.2.7 commits us “to have in mind that our bonds of affection and the love of Christ compel us always to uphold the highest degree of communion possible.”

Summary


From the foregoing, it should be obvious that the first three sections of the Anglican Covenant neither describe the present relationship of The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion nor a relationship we intend to develop. As such, it is not the case that, as the current version of Resolution A040 asserts, the Preamble and first three sections of the Anglican Communion Covenant affirm our common identity and membership in the Anglican Communion.

Therefore, Resolution A040 should be amended to read
A040: Response to the Anglican Covenant Process

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church affirm our common identity and membership in the Anglican Communion; and be it further

Resolved, That the 78th General Convention direct The Episcopal Church's members of the Anglican Consultative Council to express our appreciation to the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC16, Lusaka 2016) for the gift of inter-Anglican conversation and mutuality in God's mission engendered by the Anglican Communion Covenant process.
Explanation
Pursuant to the charge given the B005 Task Force, we monitored Anglican and ACC activities regarding the Anglican Covenant process and believe this resolution to respond appropriately to the current status of this process in Anglicanism generally and the ACC specifically. This resolution has no budgetary implications.
Update, 5/21/2015: In my May 21, 2015, post “More on the Anglican Covenant Resolution” I suggest another reason that any resolution about the Covenant should not be construed as endorsing any part of the pact.

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