June 13, 2015

Time for a Definitive Response to the Anglican Covenant (Short Version)

This post is an abridged and edited version of a longer essay that explores the recent history of the Anglican Communion and that of the Anglican Communion Covenant in greater depth. The full version contains more links to source material than in what appears below. Especially motivated readers will want to skip this abridged version and read the full essay here.


Once again, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church is about to meet. Once again, our church is expected to respond to developments within the Anglican Communion that were first set in motion in response to the authorization of same-sex blessings in the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada and the General Convention’s consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay priest, as Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. What we have to decide is what we are going to say to the invitation to adopt the Anglican Communion Covenant, a pact that all Anglican Communion churches were asked to adopt in December 2009. Once again, by saying neither “yes” nor “no,” we are likely to encourage processes hostile to The Episcopal Church and to the gospel understanding of most Episcopalians. This year we must provide a definitive response to the invitation to adopt the Anglican Covenant, and that response should be “thank you, no.” A new resolution has been offered to do just that.

Covenant History

Events that led to the drafting of the Anglican Covenant began with conservative American bishops asking the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to call an emergency meeting of the primates to deal with the “crisis” in the Communion caused by the prospect of Gene Robinson’s becoming a bishop. The communiqué resulting from the October 2003 meeting decried the Robinson vote and asked for a report on how communion could best be maintained. Our Presiding Bishop at the time, Frank Griswold, went along without comment.

A year later, we were presented with the Windsor Report. It largely adopted the attitude of the Global South primates who deplored the action of The Episcopal Church and assumed the authority of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10, which rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.” The primates received the report in February 2005. They demanded that The Episcopal Church skip the upcoming meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council except for providing justification for their previous actions. No dissenting words were heard from Presiding Bishop Griswold, and the church complied with the primates’ demands.

At the 2006 General Convention, a number of conciliatory resolutions were passed which affirmed our commitment to the Communion and apologized for any discomfort we may have caused. The convention committed to the process of developing an Anglican Covenant, a project recommended by the Windsor Report and which the Archbishop Williams had entrusted to the oversight of Archbishop Drexel Gomez, who was know to oppose women’s ordination and greater acceptance of homosexuals.

The primates met in 2007 and 2009, and the resulting communiqués continued to exhibit dissatisfaction with The Episcopal Church despite actions by the church to appease the leaders of Communion churches. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori proved, at least publicly, to be no more a defender of her church than had been her predecessor.

The 2009 General Convention had several drafts of an Anglican Covenant available, though the final text would not be fixed until December. The convention passed a resolution commending the latest and subsequent drafts for study by the church.

The Anglican Covenant was clearly intended to prevent Western churches from departing from what was viewed by Global South churches as “biblical truth.” Although it has been adopted (more or less) by 11 Communion churches, it has been rejected by England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the Philippines. By the time of the 2012 General Convention, adoptions slowed considerably. It appeared that most Global South churches would pass on the Covenant because it was insufficiently draconian. Although there was little doubt that Episcopalians were not interested in an agreement whose purpose was to prevent their church from following through on their understanding of the gospel, the convention passed a resolution restating our commitment to the Communion and another resolution saying that the church was too divided to make a decision on the Covenant in 2012. It also called for a task force to recommend action to the 2015 convention.

The Anglican Communion Covenant and the 78th General Convention

The Executive Council Task Force on the Anglican Covenant, the product of the 2012 Resolution B005, produced a brief report for the upcoming General Convention. That report says nothing of substance about the Covenant but merely offers this resolution:
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.
Resolution A040 does not adopt the  Covenant and says nothing about Section Four, which is its most objectionable part. Nonetheless, the suggestion that our church finds the Preamble and Sections One, Two, and Three acceptable exposes us to criticism when we act contrary to its provisions, which we will surely do and do at this convention. Once again, we seem ready to put the feelings of hostile, foreign primates ahead of our own interests and the interest of the gospel as we understand it.

An alternative resolution has been submitted by Ms. Lisa Fox of the Diocese of Missouri and Ms. Mary Roehrich and the Rev. Canon Scott Quinn, both of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The resolution is not yet on the General Convention Web site, but is available here. The text of the resolution is the following:
D022: 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, neither the present nor any desired future nature of which is properly described by 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
The Communion-wide discussion of a proposed Anglican Communion Covenant has been helpful in elucidating the diversity within the Anglican Communion. The Covenant, however, does not properly describe our Anglican identity or the relationship we have or might want to have with our sister Anglican churches.

The first three sections of the Covenant contain assertions, particularly about our own church, that are not strictly true, as well as commitments we likely do not want to make. Section Four seeks to establish a centralized mechanism for resolving matters of belief and behavior for the Anglican Communion. Taken as a whole, the Covenant goes a long way toward changing our beloved fellowship of churches into a worldwide confessional church that imposes uniformity of belief throughout its provinces.

For this reason, the General Convention has been unwilling to adopt the Covenant, yet has been consistently coy about our church’s relationship to the Windsor/Covenant process and reluctant to reject the Covenant outright. It is high time for us to let our “yes” be “yes” or our “no” be “no.” Moreover, it is disingenuous to commend parts of a pact that is deeply flawed throughout. We should unambiguously decline either to adopt or to partially accept the Covenant.

Other initiatives, such as Indaba conversations, are more likely to enhance communion among Anglican Churches than adoption of the Anglican Communion Covenant.
This new resolution essentially says that the Covenant is not fit for purpose. It is a subtle rejection, but a rejection that cannot be mistaken for anything else. It will encourage the Anglican Church of Canada also to reject the Covenant when its General Synod meets next year.

Passing Resolution D022 or something very much like it will drive a stake through the heart of the Covenant, since its real purpose is to control innovation in the Western churches. Passage would bring an end to this unfortunate period of Anglican Communion life. Disposing of the Covenant will allow the Anglican Communion to face its most significant challenge, the existence of the GAFCON movement and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Will the Communion hold together at all or will it split along theological lines? Neither the desirable future of the Communion nor the likely one is very clear. Of course, even if the Covenant is “dead,” in the sense that no more churches will adopt it, the Communion will still be split into two camps, those of the adopters and those of the non-adopters. (Unwisely, the Covenant states that it becomes effective for a church as soon is it is adopted by that church.)

Concluding Thoughts

It is my sincere hope as an Episcopalian and as the Episcopal Church Convenor for the No Anglican Covenant Coalition, which has worked for the defeat of the Covenant since 2010, that the General Convention will definitively reject the Anglican Communion Covenant in 2015. It is time we stopped appeasing the reactionary elements within the Anglican Communion and disingenuously seeming to go along with a process we have no intention of seeing to its eventual and logical end. The Anglican Communion generally and The Episcopal Church in particular have spent far too much time, money, and energy on the ill-conceived Covenant project. The Communion is a fine fellowship of churches. That it is a poor global church is not a problem, because a global Anglican church now (and perhaps forever) cannot be viable.

I have avoided analyzing the Covenant to expose all its flaws. I recently undertook this task on my blog. (See “More on the Anglican Covenant Resolution,” which links also to earlier posts.) More and deeper analysis of the Covenant is available on the Web site of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition, particularly on the Resources page.

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