Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Common Sense and the Covenant

Now that the proposed Anglican Covenant has had time to circulate through the blogosphere, and produce the predictable reactions ranging from "So what?" to "Outrageous, simply outrageous!", maybe there will be an opening for some common sense to enter the room. I cannot promise that what follows will appeal to all Anglicans, but to those who may find its perspective useful, you are welcome to use it as a springboard for your own thoughts and reactions. I shall adopt a question-and-answer format.

What is the proposed Anglican Covenant?

It is a written compact, entered into by constituent members of the family of churches which we call the Anglican Communion, to evidence their shared commitment to the bonds of their common faith. The Covent expresses its purpose this way, in its introduction:
We recognise the wonder, beauty and challenge of maintaining communion in this family of churches, and the need for mutual commitment and discipline as a witness to God’s promise in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation. Therefore, we covenant together as churches of this Anglican Communion to be faithful to God’s promises through the historic faith we confess, our common worship, our participation in God’s mission, and the way we live together.
The Anglican Communion has existed for over a hundred and forty years. Why does it need a Covenant now?

The Anglican Communion does not need a Covenant. It could go right on being the Anglican Communion without one. However, there are certain churches in the Communion which recently have taken it upon themselves to proclaim that they, and they alone, are the sole judges of whether they are "Anglican" or not. The Covenant is the understandable reaction of those churches who do not agree with this stance. By proposing a common Covenant, they hope to have the members of the Communion coalesce around a set of principles and precepts on which all can agree.

The beauty of the Covenant is that it is self-authenticating. If a majority adopts it, then there will be no issue as to whether or not they are "Anglican". And if there is a minority that does not adopt it, they will by that act have defined themselves as apart from the majority of the Anglican Communion.

What kinds of principles and precepts are the churches being asked to affirm?

The Covenant is divided into four parts. Each part contains a section of affirmations, where each church confirms what it believes and professes, and is followed by a section of commitments, wherein each church undertakes to put into practice that which it affirms.

The first part is "Our Inheritance of Faith." It affirms the basic elements of our faith as received and traditionally taught -- as revealed and embodied by the Holy Scriptures, as summarized in the creeds and celebrated in the sacraments, as led by an episcopate in the apostolic succession, under a common liturgy and with a commitment to fulfill Christ's Great Commission to take his Gospel to the whole world. The churches then commit to be true and abiding witnesses to this common faith -- in their liturgies, teaching, missions, and leadership in their respective regions, and in their fellowship with each other.

The second part is "The Life We Share with Others: Our Anglican Vocation." It affirms the Communion's calling to evangelism and mission, both on its own and in combination with other denominations, and commits the member churches to respond to that calling.

The third part is "Our Unity and Common Life." This is the part that was deemed necessary as a result of the actions begun by ECUSA in 2003, and continuing with the actions taken both by the Anglican Church of Canada and now by ECUSA with respect to blessings of same-sex couples. It affirms the relationship of the churches as living "in communion with autonomy and accountability," the "central role of bishops as guardians and teachers of the faith," and the establishment and recognition of the four "Instruments of Communion" -- the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Meeting. Each church signing the Covenant then commits to -- well, to act like churches which are in communion with each other: to respect each other's autonomy while exercising that autonomy only for the good of the Communion as a whole, and to "act with diligence, care and caution with respect to any act which . . . could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission."

The fourth part reaffirms the declarations and commitments of the first three parts, and then sets out procedures for the Covenant's adoption and implementation, including the bringing of disputes about its meaning to the Instruments of Communion, and the resolution of disputes through the mechanisms established. There are no Communion-wide penalties or sanctions for acts deemed by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (consisting of members drawn both from the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) to be "incompatible with the Covenant." The Standing Committee may only make recommendations; it is up to the Instruments of Communion, or the individual member churches, as the case may be, to decide whether to accept them.

That does not sound particularly controversial. Why are the reactions to the Covenant (from indifference to outrage) as strong as they are?

The Communion without its Covenant is currently a dysfunctional family. Some of its members will not sit down at the table with other members, and some will not even talk to others. There are anger and frustration enough for twenty families! Proposing they all sign a Covenant in common is equivalent to asking the typical dysfunctional family to agree on which movie they will watch tonight. Some are angry that they are even being asked to sign even this modest Covenant, while others are angry that this Covenant is too modest, and does not go far enough. Some think it is a betrayal of family principles even to agree on principles held in common. Others think that the mechanisms provided to implement the Covenant will give birth to a very un-Anglican magisterium, with authority over each of the member churches.

How will the Covenant be able to bring unity out of such discord?

That is just the problem -- it won't; it cannot. Even if they can agree on a movie to watch for one evening, the dysfunctional family will go right back to being dysfunctional when it is over. If the Communion had had such a Covenant in place before July 2003, I doubt very strongly that its existence, its contents, or its mechanisms for dispute resolution would have deterred General Convention from confirming V. Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church (USA). In fact, a good test of how the Covenant would or would not work would be to imagine that the Ridley Cambridge final text had been in place in 2003, and then hypothesize about how ECUSA, ACoC and the rest of the Provinces would have proceeded under its mechanisms. (I shall do just that, in a future post.) In the final analysis, we might well have ended up largely where we are now, Covenant or no Covenant. The reason is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has largely allowed ECUSA and ACoC to call their own shots -- because, as I explained in this earlier post, in reality he has little authority to do more, and even less inclination to assert any more authority than he already has asserted. We saw that the Windsor Report's recommendation that ECUSA and the ACoC withdraw from the councils of the Communion was followed for exactly one cycle of the ACC's meetings, and then all was back to business as usual. The ABC may or may not have wanted that to happen, but without a majority of the Primates' Meeting willing to act with or without the ABC, nothing further could happen.

Then what would be the point in signing it?

It's a good question, but it does not have a single answer. Those who are pushing for its adoption will want to sign it just as a means of differentiating themselves from ECUSA and the ACoC, and by signing it, they will do just that, as I explained above. Then, as in any family, there are the lookers-on, the ones who will wait to see what everyone else will do before acting themselves. Although the official Communion Website currently identifies forty-four churches as being part of the Communion, only thirty-nine of those are listed on the Schedule of Membership for the Anglican Consultative Council. (The reason is that there are five non-provinces, or "extra-provincial dioceses", plus the Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba, who are recognized as members of the Communion through their relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other member provinces, but only Ceylon has a regular seat on the ACC. The others send delegates by invitation of the Council as co-opted members.)

Of those being invited to sign the Covenant, as far as I can tell, fifteen have never submitted any kind of official response to or comments upon the various drafts of the Covenant, beginning with "Towards an Anglican Covenant" as proposed by the (then) Joint Standing Committee. These churches (mostly from Africa and Asia, but also including Mexico and Central America) -- amounting to almost a third of the total -- have been indifferent to the process to date, and will probably go along with whatever most of the other member churches decide to do.

Meanwhile, the Global South (accounting for another fourteen or so members) has expressed its impatience with the slow process of the Covenant, and with its lack of any real disciplinary mechanisms. The arbitrary and legally inconsistent refusal to seat one of Uganda's delegates at the ACC-14 meeting in Jamaica which approved the Ridley Draft caused a rift between the Primates of the Global South and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, it appears that the Primates of the Global South will endorse the Ridley Draft as early as next April. And to tell the truth, it will only be by signing on to the Covenant that the Global South will be able to participate in the use of its mechanisms to limit the further damage being done by ECUSA and ACoC. (See additional remarks re ECUSA below.)

If we leave out ECUSA and ACoC, and the member churches that returned a favorable response at some point during the drafting process, that accounts for all but six of the remaining member churches of the Anglican Consultative Council. Two of these, the Anglican Churches in North and South India, have severe constitutional problems imposed by statute on their changing any aspect of their structure, and so their failure to sign will not count as opposition. The elimination of any outside enforcement mechanism should obviate the reservations previously expressed by the Church of England; indeed, its comments submitted on Section 4 were the most extensive of any received. That leaves just four churches -- Brazil, Korea, New Zealand and Scotland -- whose comments to date do not indicate an unqualified endorsement of the Covenant as proposed.

In summary, it is a fair guess that at least three-fourths of the member churches of the Communion, and perhaps even fourth fifths or more, will sign on to the Covenant. Only as few as six of the 44 member churches, or less than 14% of the total, appear at this point to have problems with adopting it as proposed.

What are some of the reasons given by those who say they cannot sign the Covenant?

They vary quite a bit. Consider this comment from Brazil, which could as well have come from ECUSA itself:
We also express our doubt in relation to section 4.1.1, which deals with the formal acceptance of the Covenant. By speaking of “other Churches” that could subscribe to it, the possibility arises for Churches other than the current members of the Communion to be accepted, which raises doubts about the schismatic Anglican churches that have broken communion within existing Provinces, and today gather groups in open theological conflict with the Anglican Communion.
Apart from the difficulty I have in conceiving how anyone could manage to speak of anyone as being in "open theological conflict with the Anglican Communion", this comment reveals Brazil's historic dependency on ECUSA, as shown particularly by the dispute over Robinson Cavalcante and the Diocese of Recife. Thus as ECUSA goes, so likely will Brazil.

However, the following comment from the Church of Aoteroa, New Zealand and Polynesia is paradigmatic for other Churches as well:
It has never been made clear in any Draft whether adoption of the Covenant can occur at Church level, which in many countries is understood as Parish level, or only at Provincial level. If individual Churches seek to adopt the Covenant but the overall Province does not, then this has the potential for the creation of the very situation which the Covenant seeks to avoid - namely internal strife, conflict and division. In this Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia which covers five nations and three Tikanga the situation could be complicated further. The scenario could arise where one Tikanga (Constitutional Strand) wanted to adopt the Covenant and the other two did not, and as each Tikanga holds a right of legislative veto, adoption of the Covenant might be blocked. Although legislative amendment could be possible in time, the right of Tikanga veto is an important equality mechanism within this Province and it is unlikely that the governing body: the General Synod Te Hinota Whanui, would enforce adoption through creative legislation, rather than consensus.
In other words, there are provinces in the Communion whose member dioceses cannot all agree to sign the proposed Covenant. This seems to be the case in ECUSA and ACoC as well. The "case of the disagreeing dioceses" is important enough to warrant a separate post of its own, at a later date.

What does the redraft of Section 4 say about who can sign the Covenant?

This has probably been the topic most discussed of all around the Web. It seems to be a natural tendency of human nature to inquire, once the formation of a club is proposed, who can belong to it, and who cannot. The question subdivides into two parts: (a) is there a process spelled out for signing on to the Covenant, and (b) if there is, who has the final say over that process?

With regard to the process of its adoption, the final draft of the Covenant clarified one thing: only current members of the Anglican Communion are invited to adopt the Covenant at this time. Section 4.1.4 states:
Every Church of the Anglican Communion, as recognised in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, is invited to enter into this Covenant according to its own constitutional procedures.
Thus, recognition "in accordance with" the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council becomes the talisman for being able to sign on to the Covenant. For the present, this means only the forty-four Churches whose names are on the Schedule of Membership for that Constitution will be able to adopt the Covenant.

But recognition is an open-ended term. Should an additional church or denomination be recognized in the future "in accordance with" the ACC's Constitution, then that church/denomination will ipso facto be invited to enter into the Covenant as well.

And with regard to who has the final say over who can sign at this point, we must look at the cover letter sent out with the final text of the Covenant. In that letter, Anglican Communion Secretary-General Kenneth Kearon said that no decisions will be made as to further members in the Anglican Communion until after the ACC's next meeting:
The Standing Committee has decided that it will neither invite any other Churches (beyond the Schedule of members of the ACC) to adopt the Covenant (Covenant 4.1.5), nor propose any amendments to it (Covenant 4.4.2), until it has had an opportunity to evaluate the situation after ACC-15.
ACC-15 will take place in New Zealand, probably in May 2012. (This report from ENS that "ACC-15 [is] expected to be held in New Zealand in 2015" is surely a mistake. Although ACC has had its budgetary worries, it plans its meetings on a triennial basis.) This has ramifications for what will happen in the interim.

What ramifications are you talking about?

Consider the sheer numbers mentioned above. I have not studied the polities of the individual churches in the Communion, but I doubt that very many of them have to wait until 2015 to know whether they can amend their Constitution so as to adopt the Covenant; let us assume that such an anomaly applies only to ECUSA's processes of Constitutional amendment, which would require passage of the measure at two successive General Conventions. If that is the case, then by the time the next General Convention meets in June 2012, ACC-15 will have already taken place, and there could be as many as thirty-five to forty churches of the Communion which Secretary-General Kearon could report had signed on to the Covenant by that time. Most likely the number will be a little smaller, but it still will constitute a definite majority of the entire Communion.

All eyes will then be upon ECUSA, to see what it does at its General Convention. These are the logical possibilities:

(A) A Constitutional amendment authorizing General Convention to adopt the Covenant is proposed, and is defeated in either or both Houses in a vote called by orders (it takes a request by the clerical or lay deputies from any three or more separate dioceses to have such a vote, and believe me, the activists will request it). Then the Covenant will be dead, as far as ECUSA is concerned. ECUSA thereafter will not be able to claim that it has the Covenant "under consideration", and the Covenant itself will thus exclude ECUSA's representatives (e.g., on the Standing Committee) from playing any role in future decisions with regard to the Covenant. See Section 4.2.8, which reads:
Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.
Thus, from the moment GC 2012 acts to make further constitutional consideration of the Covenant by ECUSA impossible, ECUSA will be excluded from having any say in the decisions of the Standing Committee as to which acts are or are not "incompatible with the Covenant." At that point, the Primates will indeed be called upon to put their muscle behind the language of the Covenant, and to rule that, short of passing on first reading at GC2012 an appropriate constitutional amendment to adopt the Covenant, ECUSA can no longer credibly pretend that it is "still in the process of adoption." (A previous confirmation of Canon Mary Glasspool to the episcopate, together with other such confirmations certain to occur between now and 2012, will detract still further from ECUSA's ability to make any such claim.)

(B) A Constitutional amendment authorizing General Convention to adopt the Covenant is proposed, and it passes by a majority of the orders of the Dioceses in both Houses (see remark above, and see Canon I.5). That would truly be an astonishing event, and if it happens I will turn in my Curmudgeon's Crystal Ball for a new one. The Covenant would then be very much alive in ECUSA, and under the Constitution, each Diocese would be required to take it up at their next annual convention.

(C) A resolution, or perhaps a Canonical amendment purporting to authorize the Executive Council or the Presiding Bishop to adopt the Covenant on behalf of the whole Church is proposed and passes (if it is defeated, then we have the same result as [A] above). Such a measure would be blatantly unconstitutional, because General Convention itself needs a Constitutional amendment for it to be able to grant such authority. It must be admitted, however, that no threat of unconstitutionality has ever deterred General Convention from passing any resolution it pleases. But the question then becomes: if the majority at General Convention has the votes to punt the Covenant down the road like that, then it also has the votes to turn it down straight off the bat. And the only way the rest of the Communion could treat a failure by GC 2012 to adopt a proper Constitutional amendment would be as a vote to reject the Covenant. (After all, the Presiding Bishop herself joined the Executive Council in endorsing a report which says that the process would require two successive General Conventions if approving the Covenant were to require a Constitutional amendment -- which it will.) Not only would the rest of the Communion never accept such an about-face -- since it would have no legitimacy whatsoever under ECUSA's much-vaunted "polity" -- but the LGBT activists who virtually now control General Convention would be incapable of throwing such a sop to the minority who wanted adoption of the Covenant.

And that is it -- those are the logical possibilities of what could take place. (I have left out the theoretical possibility that no resolution/amendment regarding the Covenant whatsoever would be introduced at GC 2012, since that would be the same as an outright rejection in any event.) The bottom line is that General Convention 2012 will be the defining moment for ECUSA, when it is forced to declare of its own free will, and in full accord with its own treasured polity, whether or not it will walk apart from the rest of the Communion. Does anyone -- can anyone -- have the slightest doubt as to what path it will choose?

All the rest that you may read about the Covenant at this point in time is froth, or much ado about nothing. The role of the Standing Committee, its future as a quasi-fifth "Instrument of Unity", is beside the point once GC 2012 meets and does its thing. The Standing Committee will have zero say about the thirty-five to forty who do decide to sign on to the Covenant, and that fact will establish the Covenant as a fixture in the life of the Communion after 2012. In a later post, however, I promise to delve into an analysis of what all this means for ACNA and similar bodies currently outside the Communion.


  1. Dear Mr. Haley,

    Thank you for your thoughts on the Covenant. I for one have agreed that it is a potential blessing to the Communion and will have more to say later. Two quick comments:

    1. I have grave reservations about the powers being given to the Standing Committee, especially as it has been reconstituted in the new (and unpublished) Constitution of the ACC. Compare its power in matters of Communion order with that of the Primates’ Meeting, who will have at best a minority voice on the Standing Committee. You blame much of the current chaos in the Communion on the ABC’s allowing ECUSA to do its own thing. But did he not use the (Joint) Standing Committee as an accomplice in thwarting the will of the Primates and the Communion majority? Why would this not continue to happen and with added legitimacy?

    2. You are right to point to 4.2.8. as excluding non-covenanters from disciplinary decisions. But the more important function of the Standing Committee will be in setting out the procedures for admitting new churches to the ACC Schedule (we know from Kearon’s letter that in the beyond-the-looking glass Constitution, the Standing Committee has veto power over admission). So TEC opts out of the Covenant and the Communion Partners and/or ACNA ask to be added to the Schedule. Katherine Schori and Ian Douglas will have a full voice and vote in this matter.

    I do not see the Global South churches, especially the FCA churches, rushing en masse to adopt the Covenant. They got burned in Jamaica, and I think they will be careful to read the fine print of this new improved version.

    Stephen Noll

  2. You are quite right about the Churches that almost certainly will not be signatory to this proposed 'covenant,' and so be willing to bear the consequences of declaring, again, their independence from the Church of England. The Church you do not mention, though, and the most ironic in its inability to sign, is the Church of England. The British Parliament will never give Lord Canterbury his way; they will never cede authority over the Church of England to someone outside England. BTW, the rhetorical question earlier on is quite mistaken. The Anglican Communion most certainly has not been in existence for over 400 years. The question confuses the Church of England with the Communion. It was not until 1867 that the first Lambeth Conference was held, after sufficient colonial Churches gained their independence. It was until 1969 that the Anglican Consultative Council first met as the first real collaboration of Churches descendant from the Church of England. Anglophile mythology is not borne out by the facts.

  3. I thank both Fr. Noll and Fr. Stockton for their responses above. To Fr. Noll, I can say only that time will tell whether the changes to the role of the Standing Committee will have any significance. Certainly they will have no significance until after 2012, because the Committee has declared that no new changes to the membership schedule will be entertained before that date, when they can determine better the reception the Covenant has received among those churches which are already members. But my point was that it will be June 2012 when, by refusing to enable adoption of the Covenant at its General Convention, ECUSA will finally and irrevocably signal its decision to walk apart. After that, it will have no longer any role to play on the Steering Committee with regard to accepting new members -- because under the terms of 4.1.4, to be recognized as a new member is to be invited to join the Covenant, and section 4.1.8 will exclude any church that has refused the original invitation to subscribe to the Covenant from participating further in any decision as to who outside the Communion shall be invited to participate. So I do not see the problem you envision, unless ECUSA forces the Primates' hand, and simply refuses to agree that it cannot participate.

    Even in that event, however, what could it do? The ABC simply could declare that ECUSA's "vote" will not count, no matter how it is cast, along with the votes of Brazil and any other Church that declines to adopt the Covenant.

    Fr Stockton, it is not clear from the latest draft whether any act of Parliament will be necessary to enable the CoE to have the ABC sign the Covenant in its name. The extensive comments supplied by the CoE to the Ridley Draft certainly do not refer to any such difficulty. I am waiting for Prof. Norman Doe, or the ABC's Canon John Rees, to issue a statement on the subject before coming to any conclusion.

    I am not certain to what "rhetorical question earlier on" to which you are referring. I did ask this rhetorical question: "The Anglican Communion has existed for over a hundred and forty years. Why does it need a Covenant now?" But the time period of 140 years I mention agrees with your dating of the Communion from the first Lambeth Conference -- which was my intent.