January 25, 2015

The Anglican Covenant, Yet Again

The Very Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth
The Very Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth
Photo by Gordon Smith. Used by permission.
Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, has written an excellent essay lamenting the Church of England’s deal with the Devil that has simultaneously brought women bishops and bishops who believe that God forbids women from having authority over men as permanent fixtures of that church.

On one hand, the Church of England has declared that it is “fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender.” At the same time, it not only vowed to tolerate those who are unequivocally committed to the view that only males should be ordained but also “committed to enabling them to flourish [emphasis added] within its [the Church of England’s] life and structures.” Once again, in the name of unity, the Church of England has institutionalized internal conflict with the apparent intention to nurture that conflict in perpetuity.

I think the craziness attendant the approval for women bishops in England is, at least in part, the product of establishment. The established church, which views itself as besieged in a sea of indifference, has abandoned its mission of providing moral leadership for the nation in favor of pursuing the quixotic goal of making everybody happy. Hardly anyone is happy.

My purpose here is not really to cover the same ground as Holdsworth. He does an admirable job of pointing out the foolishness of the path being taken by the church to his south. What I want to do instead is to consider the Church of England’s actions with respect to the Anglican Covenant.

For those who have forgotten about the Anglican Covenant or, mercifully, have never heard of it, you can read it here. Various churches of the Anglican Communion have adopted the Covenant; others have rejected it; some have not acted definitively one way or the other. The status of the agreement in the various churches can be found here. The Covenant states that it becomes effective for a church (i.e., binding) upon adoption by that church. No time limit has been imposed on adoption, and it is possible that some churches will defer the adoption decision indefinitely.

The Church of England has rejected the Covenant, though some would dispute the fact. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was a strong advocate for the Covenant; Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, not so much. To my knowledge, Archbishop Welby has never mentioned the Covenant in public. He has certainly not promoted its adoption. The Church of England, then, has no obligation to adhere to the requirements of the Covenant. But what if it did?

According to Paragraph 3.2.3 of the Covenant, action by a church that will be controversial, new, or otherwise problematic should be “tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church,” and (according to Paragraph 3.2.4) the church should “seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern.” The Covenant goes on to say that “[e]ach Church will undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion.” In Paragraph 3.2.5, churches pledge “to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy,” and in Paragraph 3.2.6, churches are required “in situations of conflict, to participate in mediated conversations, which involve face to face meetings, agreed parameters and a willingness to see such processes through.”

The Church of England did none of this before authorizing women to be consecrated bishops. Moreover, many inside and outside the church, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, saw providing for women bishops as an urgent need. The Covenant-mandated consultation would have taken years, perhaps decades. The Church of England did not need consultation with other Communion churches to determine if its action was going to be controversial. Some Communion churches remain opposed to the ordination of women generally, and unhappiness with the authorization for the consecration of women bishops was expressed both before and after the final steps were taken by the English church. Even in churches that could be expected to celebrate the Church of England’s attempt to treat male and female clergy alike—in The Episcopal Church, in the Anglican Church of Canada, and in the Scottish Episcopal Church, for example—there is surely unhappiness in the manner in which England has institutionalized opposition to a theological position it purports to hold. (This is what Holdsworth expressed so clearly.)

If the entire Anglican Communion had adopted the Anglican Covenant and took it seriously, the Church of England would be in hot water now. Section 4.2 provides for the Standing Committee to request that a church defer a controversial action. Obviously, it is too late for that. After the fact, however, and after widespread consultation, the Standing Committee could recommend that the Church of England be subjected to “relational consequences” (Paragraph 4.2.7) for taking action “incompatible with the Covenant.” Neither of these terms is precisely defined in the text of the Covenant, and their meaning alone would likely be a source of conflict. Widespread discussion of the Church of England’s action would surely lead only to more controversy and chaos in the Communion, rather than any “consensus fidelium” (Paragraph 3.1.4).

Isn’t it time for Anglicans to ask themselves if God would be more pleased if the Anglican Communion focused on policing its member churches to insure that those of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, England, and the United States articulate an identical theology and ethics, or if churches concentrated on preaching the Gospel to their neighbors, worshiping God, ameliorating human suffering, seeking justice, and protecting our environment? The answer, as the song says, is blowin’ in the wind.

One impetus for writing this essay is the recent news that the Church of the Province of Melanesia adopted the Covenant a couple of months ago. It seems, on one hand, that the time for the Covenant has passed, and many have written it off as dead (or have considered doing so). The passionate essays for and against the pact are no longer forthcoming. Nonetheless, the number of adopters is very slowly increasing, raising the possibility of non-adopters saying “what the hell” and taking the plunge. The effect of Covenant adoption to date, after all, has been precisely nil.

The Covenant was born of an angry pressure-cooker era in which the Anglican primates seemed to be meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It has now been a while since the primates have met, and, although there have been many angry meetings sponsored by conservative Anglicans, it isn’t clear that the rest of the Communion is paying them much attention. In a recent New York Times interview with Justin Welby, reporter Michael Paulson noted
He [Welby] has declared the Church of England, which he leads, to be declining in numbers and influence, and has deemed the Anglican Communion, where he is viewed as first among equals of bishops around the world, to be so fractured over gender and sexuality that it is not worth trying to meet collectively any time soon.
Welby, I suggest, has figured out that what the Communion really needs is not engagement, but disengagement, exactly the opposite of what the Covenant strives to achieve. Let the churches do mission as they understand it and refrain from trying to correct the perceived errors of one another. The Covenant is not so much about how Communion churches can get along as it is about how they should fight. Why fight to begin with?

Finally, this brings me to the upcoming General Convention of The Episcopal Church, which will be held in Salt Lake City this coming summer. General Convention has a lot on its plate this year. It will be electing a new Presiding Bishop; figuring out what to do with resolutions from the Task Force on Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC); considering whether something is to be done about seminary education, which seems to be in crisis; and examining whether, in light of the Bishop Cook debacle, we need to change our procedures for selecting bishops—all this in addition to “normal” business like approving a budget. No one, it seems, is thinking about what our church should be doing with the Anglican Covenant. Frankly, some Covenant opponents think that’s just fine.

I am not among them. Our last General Convention passed a timid resolution asserting that Episcopalians were too divided on the question of Covenant adoption to make a decision at that time. This was a farce. If every issue before the Convention were treated the same way, nothing would ever be passed, since there are always dissenting voices. The reality is that there is no significant enthusiasm in The Episcopal Church for the Covenant, but our pathological Anglican niceness makes it difficult to acknowledge the fact.

We need a 2015 resolution rejecting the Covenant less to protect The Episcopal Church, the church that, along with the Anglican Church of Canada, the militant traditionalists in the Communion love to hate, than to send the message that the Covenant project is destined to fail. If The Episcopal Church decisively rejects the Covenant in 2015, Canada will like follow suit when its General Synod meets in 2016. At that point, the Covenant will be useless, which is much better than malevolent, which it now has the potential to become.

I hope that Episcopalians will realize that they have an obligation vis-à-vis the Covenant and the Communion. General Convention can help save the Communion from the misguided Covenant project and point the Communion back to mission, its real purpose.

One could imagine a General Convention resolution that acknowledges in detail the position in which we find ourselves three years after we ducked rejecting the Covenant in 2012. On the other hand, the resolution proposed by the No Anglican Covenant Coalition would do just fine. You can find it here,

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