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

An abridged and edited version of this essay is available 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.

It is possible that many deputies to the General Convention have not even heard of the Anglican Covenant. Others have surely known and forgotten about it. They may be surprised to learn, when asked to vote on a resolution involving the Covenant, that its status vis-à-vis The Episcopal Church is still unsettled. A history lesson is is order.

Covenant History

When the General Convention gave consent to the consecration of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson in August 2003, Bishop of Pittsburgh Robert Duncan, along with other conservative Episcopal bishops, appealed to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to call an emergency meeting of Anglican primates to deal with the “crisis” that the General Convention supposedly had created. Williams, who had been in office less than a year, complied, and a meeting was held at Lambeth Palace in October. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold explained to his fellow primates how our church selects bishops, but he did not assert, publicly at least, that we had a right to do what we did and believed that what we did was right. He made no attempt to distance himself from the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting. That document stressed the authority of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10, which rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture,” predicted dire consequences for the Communion, and urged the Archbishop of Canterbury to commission a report investigating how communion could be maintained “when grave difficulties arise.”

Archbishop Williams, in response to the primates, created the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which did, in fact, deliver a report within a year. The  took the authority of Lambeth I.10 and the crisis mentality of Global South primates as givens. It recommended a more structured Communion and suggested that an Anglican Covenant might be created to manage Communion conflicts. It urged moratoria on the consecration of partnered gay bishops, on public blessing of same-sex unions, and on episcopal border crossings. (None of these moratoria have subsequently been observed.) The Windsor Report was fundamentally hostile to liberal trends in Western churches and to a loosely bound collection of diverse churches.

The primates met again in February 2005. The top item on the agenda was the Windsor Report, which they found generally satisfactory. The primates doubled down on Lambeth I.10 and two of the three moratoria mentioned in the Windsor Report. (They ignored border crossings, in which some of their churches were involved.) The primates asked The Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada to recuse themselves from the upcoming meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), though the churches were asked to make presentations at the meeting justifying their previous actions. No dissent was heard from Presiding Bishop Griswold. Our church made the presentation and otherwise, as requested, did not participate in the June 2005 ACC meeting in Nottingham, England. Our presentation had no noticeable effect.

Archbishop Williams got around to appointing a Covenant Design Group in 2006 headed by Archbishop Drexel Gomez, one of the editors of a collection of essays called To Mend the Net, which discussed how the Anglican Communion could be protected from such innovations as women priests and the blessing of same‐sex unions. Thus, the framing of an Anglican Covenant was based on the fabricated authority of a Lambeth resolution, predicated on forcing compliance on members of what has been a voluntary fellowship of churches, and guided by a partisan intent on imposing a reactionary theology on Communion churches in general and The Episcopal Church in particular. Covenant drafts would be released in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

In preparation for the 2006 General Convention, Presiding Bishop Griswold and President of the House of Deputies George Werner appointed the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion late in 2005. The Special Commission proposed a set of 11 resolutions as a response to Windsor. In the end, the General Convention (1) expressed regret for “straining the bonds of affection” by the 2003 action and asked forgiveness (A160); (2) urged respect for diocesan boundaries while endorsing the bishops’ plan for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) (A163); commended the Windsor Report as showing a way forward and committed to the “Windsor Process” and the “listening process” (A165); and supported development of an Anglican Covenant (A166). General Convention also passed a resolution asking Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint in approving the consecration of bishops whose “manner of life” would cause strains on communion (B033).

The primates met again in February 2007 in Dar es Salaam. They were still not happy with The Episcopal Church and declared that Resolution B033 did not give the reassurances demanded by the Windsor Report. Lambeth Resolution I.10 was mention five times as the “standard of teaching” for the Communion. No dissenting voice was heard from the new Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The tone of the final communiqué from the primates’ meeting in February 2009 was not much different, with the primates calling for “gracious restraint” by churches so as not to offend other Communion churches. The primates also heard from yet another Communion group formed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Windsor Continuation Group, which was promoting “communion with autonomy and accountability,” an oxymoron to which the Presiding Bishop made no obvious objection.

The 2009 General Convention passed Resolution D020, which commended the third and subsequent Covenant drafts for study by the church. The final text of the Covenant was approved for adoption by Communion churches in December 2009. The first church (Mexico) adopted the Covenant in June 2010. By the time of the 2012 General Convention, however, general approval of the Covenant was uncertain. Churches that had seemed most interested in reining in the Western churches, staged GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem in June 2008, just before the Lambeth Conference. Many bishops attended this conference and skipped Lambeth. Out of GAFCON came the Jerusalem Declaration, a kind of conservative confession of faith alternative to the Covenant, and the establishment of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, seemingly an alternative conservative Anglican Communion in waiting. Churches that might have been expected to sign on to the Covenant indicated that they would not do so because the Covenant was not strong enough to guarantee doctrinal uniformity within the Communion. The Covenant suffered an embarrassing defeat in England in the spring of 2012, when rejection by a majority of dioceses prevented the Church of England’s General Synod from considering Covenant adoption. The Archbishop of Canterbury has an important role in the polity defined by the Covenant. Surely it would be a great embarrassment and a problematic situation to have the Archbishop in a church not bound by the Covenant.

A meeting of the primates was held in January 2011 that was most notable for the large number of primates who didn’t show up. Some of the no-shows made it clear that they were boycotting the meeting because of the presence of the primates of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

Before the 2012 General Convention voted on the Covenant, Scotland, New Zealand, and the Philippines had also rejected it. A number of resolutions were offered to the General Convention on the disposition of the Covenant, some of which would have simply declined to adopt it. Two resolutions passed. One resolution (D008) affirmed the church’s commitment to the Anglican Communion. The other, which because of time constraints, was not able to be amended on the floor of the House of Deputies, declared that opinion was divided in the church over the Covenant and that, for “pastoral” reasons, the General Convention would not take a position on the Covenant in 2012. That resolution (B005) called for the Executive Council to monitor Covenant developments and report to the 2015 General Convention.

As of now, 11 churches have, in some fashion, adopted the Covenant. Some of those adoptions are ambiguous. There does not seem to be a rush to adopt the pact, and many commentators have declared it dead. In any case, the original impulse for the Covenant was to deter Western churches from their supposed departures from “biblical truth.” Support also came from institutionalists and those concerned about ecumenical relations and the ultimate reuniting of all Christian churches worldwide. The hopes of those wanting to change the direction of The Episcopal Church or, barring that, to punish it for bad behavior, would be gratified and surprised if our church actually signed on to the Covenant. A clear rejection of the Covenant, on the other hand, would likely bring an end to the whole Covenant project, particularly since it would encourage the Anglican Church of Canada to do the same when its General Synod meets in 2016. There actually is little enthusiasm in The Episcopal Church for adopting the Covenant, but, when dealing with it at the General Convention, deputies seem to be afflicted with AND, Anglican Niceness Disorder, the unwillingness to say anything considered not nice to other Anglicans beyond our shores.

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.

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.
Arguably, passage of Resolution A040 would not amount to adopting the Covenant. Notably, it says nothing of Section Four, which is the most objectionable part of the agreement. 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 Covenant provisions, which we will surely do and do at this convention. Clearly, the Executive Council Task Force has been affected by AND and is willing 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.

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 is as gentle as Anglicans can make it, while avoiding any misunderstandings or hopes that we will change our minds. 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. Adoption of the Covenant would result in the General Convention’s ceding power to Third World primates simply because they claim to represent a majority of Anglicans worldwide. For a General Convention at which the efficiency of church governance is a major issue to suggest, however obliquely, that Episcopal Church decision making must involve the Primates’ Meeting and other Anglican bodies is nonsensical. It is important that the 78th General Convention avoid endorsement of any part of the Anglican Communion Covenant.

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. Under the Covenant, it would become a dysfunctional worldwide church committed to a shared discernment that would effectively prevent change forever.

I have avoided analyzing the problems of the Covenant itself, which are sufficiently detailed elsewhere. 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.

No Anglican Covenant logo

Update, 6/17/2015. Clarified identification of the Windsor Report and added a link to it.

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