Comments on the December 2009 Text of the Anglican Covenant
Introduction to the Covenant Text
The introduction gives a general theological background for the covenant and finds the call both to communion and to covenant in the scriptural story of salvation. An important connection is made between the unity of the church and the mission of reconciliation especially in paragraphs 3 and 4 and a recognition that the disunity of the church contradicts its mission of reconciling the divided human race with the Father. There is nothing especially remarkable or controversial here and many of the most positive themes of contemporary ecumenical thought about mission are echoed. The references to the Trinity, to scripture and tradition and to mission are commendable. I wish there were a more fulsome treatment of the role of the death and resurrection of Christ as the unique and irreplaceable means by which God has reconciled us to Himself. The only way in which the communion of the church can be held together will be by finding again and again the center of its life in the death and resurrection of the Lord. It is the death of the savior that both calls us and makes it possible for us to die to self that we might be reconciled to God and each other.
The preamble pledges the covenanting churches to the following “affirmations and commitments.” A rationale is given that the covenant is so that churches “may proclaim more effectively in our different contexts the grace of God revealed in the Gospel.” It seems odd to me that in the preamble of a document that must of necessity treat what is indispensably universal the contextual is being stressed. The North American churches deeply captivated by the philosophy of pluralism have used the rhetoric of contextualization as a major rationale for their innovations. Inevitably one wonders if phrases such as this represent the nose of the pluralist camel poking into the covenantal tent.
Section 1.1 is a reworking of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The classic formularies of the English Reformation including the original prayer books and the 39 articles are referenced as “authentic witnesses” to the received faith of the church. Some will be disappointed that the classic formularies are not recognized in a more authoritative manner, though this statement reflects the reality of the way they function in the different churches of the Communion. The catholic creeds are recognized as the “sufficient statement of the Christian faith.” The problem that the churches of the West face is that it is now possible for those with certain post modern sensibilities to profess the creeds and mean by professing them something less than a universal claim to truth.
Section 1.2.1 commits the covenanting churches to “teach and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, as received by the Churches of the Anglican Communion, mindful of the common councils of the Communion and our ecumenical agreements.” This sets a relatively high bar for any innovation, particularly if ecumenical agreements are to be brought to bear as well as Communion councils and agreements. Clearly the recent actions of both The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Church of Canada could not pass this test. The word “mindful” could become a weasel word for those determined to push ahead of the common mind of the Communion but the results will be evaluated at the same level at which the councils are held. If adhered to in good faith this commits the covenanting churches to a very different process than the current one of churches acting “prophetically” creating facts on the ground and then letting the Communion play catch up.
1.2.2 through 1.2.6 details the commitment of the covenanting churches to “a pattern of Christian theological and moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in and answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the catholic tradition.” In terms of Communion discipline these paragraphs seem less significant to me and somewhat equivocal. They commit the churches to communal bible reading and emphasize the teaching role of bishops and synods and scholars. Mention is also made of openness to “prophetic leadership” which is worry making from a North American perspective. Throughout this section there is language that could be taken as unexceptional teaching about the role of the Bible in the church but likewise could be taken as opening the way for so called “Sprit” led prophetic interpretations and actions such as we have had in North America. 1.2.1 is the paragraph which gives the most hope to traditionalists in this section.
1.2.7 references the “solemn obligation to nurture and sustain eucharistic communion, in accordance with existing canonical disciplines. . .” This cuts in two directions laying on the covenanting churches an obligation not to take actions which are likely to create impaired communion. Likewise it would make so called border crossings done unilaterally a covenant violation.
1.2.8 “to pursue a common pilgrimage with the whole Body of Christ” is a call to ecumenical attentiveness and sensitivity which is entirely wholesome and a mission imperative.
Section 2 is about the “Anglican vocation.” Sections 2.1.1 through 2.1.5 root the Anglican Communion in the ancient church, in the English Reformation and the mission movement which has brought Anglicanism to the Global South. The emergence of a world-wide communion of interdependent churches is attributed to the providence of God and a call to deeper common life and mission is discerned.
2.2.1 through 2.2.5 spell out the common mission to which the churches of the Communion are called, which includes evangelization, catechesis, work for justice and peace and ecological stewardship.
Section 3.1.1 through 3.1.3 affirms the desire of the covenanting churches to live “in communion with autonomy and accountability.” Each church is to be self governing through its own laws and governance and bishops in synod. “The Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together ‘not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference”16 and of the other instruments of communion.'”
The vision here is of church order and discipline being maintained by mutual submission of each church to the other and to a common set of values and norms as opposed to the order of the church being imposed by a central executive such as in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a conciliar and synodical vision of church order in which the bishops as designated guardians of the faith and leaders of their local churches must of necessity play a key role. It is a noble vision with deep Patristic roots which depends heavily on the personal pastoral ministry of the bishops and especially their willingness to tackle difficult issues in council and then to stand by their common teaching. For this vision to come to life in the churches of the West will require a renewal of the office of the bishop as a teacher and steward of Apostolic doctrine.
3.1.4 identifies the instruments of unity of the Anglican Communion as 1) the Archbishop of Canterbury is a first among equals of the bishops of the Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury gathers the Lambeth Conference, The Primates Meeting and The Anglican Consultative Council. The Lambeth Conference and the Primates Meeting are designated as the places where the teaching office of the bishops comes to Communion-wide expression. The Anglican Consultative Council is identified as having a “facilitating” and “coordinating” role. This explanation of the instruments of unity gives a priority to the pronouncements of Lambeth and the Primates Meeting on doctrinal and moral matters. This appears to me in line with the traditional understanding of the charism and role of the bishops in the church but will be a disappointment to many in The Episcopal Church who seem to believe that the teaching charism of the church resides in the synod with the most lay representation. The instruments of unity are called to consult with and respond to each other but may also initiate “a process of discernment and direction.” This presumably means that any one instrument may take the lead in responding to challenges and crises in the Communion.
Section 3.2 deals with the interdependent life of the Communion. 3.2.2 commits the churches to uphold each other’s constitutional authority while upholding mutual responsibility to the Communion as a whole. This commitment would call into question both the unilateral innovations and the border-crossing responses to these innovations.
3.2.3 “to spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection, to listen, pray and study with one another in order to discern the will of God.” This commits the churches to a willingness to take up on a Communion-wide basis controversial issues but makes action lacking a Communion consensus covenant-breaking.
3.2.6 “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” is significant and likewise would slow down Communion-threatening innovations. In the past secular experts in mediation have been suggested for these mediated conversations. There has arisen in the last several decades an impressive level of expertise in dispute mediation and the church should avail itself of this wisdom but not as a substitute for the personal pastoral role of the bishops who must be the chief reconcilers and peacemakers.
(3.2.7) “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.” This statement is clearly a plea to keep communion as a high priority. I think it could be made stronger by more explicitly anchoring it in the theology of redemption that Christ has come to establish the unity of the divided human race with God through the blood of the cross and the disunity of the church is a countersign of the Gospel.
This is the section of the covenant that outlines a process for the resolution of disputes and that has produced the most discussion and disagreement. The commentary by the drafting group says that they took on board the desire expressed by some of the Provinces that the tone of this section should not be punitive or judicial. Nevertheless they have thought that the “relational” consequences of covenant-breaking behavior needed to be spelled out.
4.1.1 uses properly theological language about covenant by defining entry into the covenant as first of all an act of submission to God. Covenants theologically are not merely contractual agreements between equals but an undertaking of faith and obedience to God. This creates an appropriately solemn understanding of the meaning of entering into this covenant with other churches of the Communion.
4.1.3 assures the churches that entrance into the covenant does not compromise the autonomy of any church or submit an autonomous province to the governance of any other church or structure.
4.1.4 defines churches that are being invited to adopt the covenant as the national or provincial Churches which constitute the membership of the Anglican Consultative Council. Examples would be The Episcopal Church, U.S.A. or The Anglican Church of Nigeria. In the commentary it is noted that, unless provincial canons forbid, local dioceses may affirm the covenant as an expression of solidarity but this would have at the present no more than a symbolic significance and would not make them officially members of the Communion in their own right apart from their province.
4.1.5 outlines the possibility for invitation to be extended by the instruments of communion to other churches which are not currently members of the Anglican Consultative Council to affirm the covenant. This would not automatically settle the question of their membership in the Communion which would be handled by the ACC according to the existing rules for adding to the membership. This paragraph provides the possibility for dioceses in provinces that do not affirm the covenant to be invited to sign in their own right and then apply for membership in the Communion in their own right through the ACC. Likewise if the Anglican Church in North America should become a member of the Anglican Communion this would be the mechanism. This is the provision which provides the greatest potential cost to The Episcopal Church if it refuses the covenant. This provision makes possible, albeit after many years of slow-moving ecclesiastical process, a scenario in which there are one or more entities in North America who are in the Anglican Communion while The Episcopal Church is out.
4.1.6 affirms that the covenant becomes active for a church upon adoption and therefore the church is from that moment bound to act in accordance with the covenant.
4.2 outlines the process for the settlement of disputes.
4.2.2 identifies the new Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion which has evolved from the joint Standing Committee of the ACC and the Primates as the body which will monitor “functioning of the covenant in the life of the Communion” and advise the other instruments of unity on problems as they arise. The standing committee is made up of representatives elected from their ranks by the Primates and the ACC.
4.2.3 reminds the covenanting churches that when objections are made to actions which individual churches have taken which are regarded by other covenanting churches or any of the instruments of unity as problematical it is the duty of each church to strive to come to consensus in advance of the invocation of any official process. This amounts to an exhortation to the covenanting churches to abide by both the spirit and the letter of the covenant. Churches are referred back to the commitments of 3.2.
4.2.4 makes the Standing Committee the normal first stop for the handling of disputes and gives to the committee the mandate to facilitate agreement. The committee may ask ACC and or the Primates for advice and assistance. The committee may seek advice about the seriousness of the issue and the relational consequences that might ensue. The Standing Committee thus is charged with making a first determination of whether an issue is potentially covenanting-breaking.
4.2.5 The Standing Committee may ask a church to refrain from a particular action which it regards as having covenant-breaking potential. If the Church in question declines to refrain the Standing Committee may recommend to any of the Instruments of Unity relational consequences which shall be in place while the matter is further adjudicated. This is a provision for a temporary suspension from the meetings and life of the Communion.
4.2.6 “On the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, the Standing Committee may make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant.” The wording here is significant. The Standing Committee makes a determination about whether an action is incompatible with the covenant not altogether on its own but on the basis of advice received from the ACC and the Primates. It is not clear to me what might happen if these advisors disagreed. Perhaps this is unlikely given the overlap in membership between the ACC and the Primates but it seems to me a potential trouble spot.
4.2.7 gives the Standing Committee the ability on the basis of the advice given to make recommendations to the Instruments of Communion and to the Churches of the Communion of the relational consequences that ought to ensue from the covenant-breaking action of any member Church. The consequences are I think kept purposively vague in order to avoid “a judicial tone.” In practice exclusion from the meetings of Lambeth, The Primates and ACC and a declaration that a Church is not a covenanting member of the Anglican Communion are the most extreme actions that can be taken.
Each member Church and each Instrument of Unity is free to decide for itself whether or not it will take up these disciplinary recommendations of the Standing Committee. One can imagine a situation in which for instance TEC refuses the covenant and various Provincial Churches while refraining from covenant-breaking action of their own yet maintain their ties and intercommunion with TEC. Whether the maintaining of ties by a covenanting Church with a non-covenanting Church or a Church determined to have recently broken the covenant will be regarded by other member Churches as covenant-breaking remains to be seen.
4.2.8 Decision making about covenant issues in the Standing Committee and other instruments of unity will be limited to those churches who have adopted the covenant or are in the process of adopting it. This gives some of the Western Provinces an incentive to drag out the time in which they consider the covenant. On the other hand, a Church which has definitely rejected the covenant would not automatically be excluded from participation in the instruments of unity but would not be able to adjudicate issues which come up under section 4 of the covenant.
4.2.9 commits the Provinces to establish structures and mechanisms for supporting the operation of the covenant internal to their churches and able to respond and work with the Standing Committee.
4.3 has to do with withdrawing from the covenant.
4.3.1 makes provision for a Church to withdraw from the covenant. Such a withdrawal does not automatically mean withdrawal from the Instruments of Unity but it may open the Church to a complaint under section 4.
4.4 Concerns the text of the covenant and its amendment.
4.4.1 defines the text of the covenant as the preamble, sections 1 through 4 and the declaration. The introduction is not part of the text but is to be given authority in interpreting the text.
4.4.2 outlines a process for amending the text which can be initiated by any covenanting Church or any of the Instruments of Unity but which will take three quarters of covenanting Churches to ratify.
Declares the churches to be subscribers to the covenant described above for the sake of service in the truth and love of Christ. The document ends with the benediction from Hebrews 13: 20-21.
My concluding thoughts
The Anglican constitutional and canon law tradition is a minimalist tradition. I remember studying at Boston College, a Jesuit university, during my doctoral work and always being able to find a chair and table in the library’s canon law room which had shelves and shelves of books on Roman Catholic canon law. There was one whole wall devoted to canon law for the various religious societies. In contrast the canon law of The Episcopal Church or any of its dioceses is one smallish book. Our tradition is the minimum of ecclesiastical jurisprudence that is needed to maintain the order of the church. This covenant is in that tradition. I wish that it were more robust in places but I think it adequate to be the basis of an ongoing life of mutual submission and growth in unity and mission for the Anglican Communion but much will depend on the integrity of the individuals who will be because of their office the stewards of this covenant.
When I was a young man and entering into a business contract for the first time, I asked my father for some advice about the enforceability of a particular contract. He told me that if a man’s word wasn’t any good, his paper wasn’t any good either. In many cases the current chaos that we are experiencing in the Churches of the Anglican Communion is not a result of a lack of articulated rules and procedures of church discipline, but is the result of an unwillingness by those charged with the stewardship of the order of the church to enforce such discipline as has already been established. This version of the Anglican Covenant is a minimalist document. It does clarify issues of communion life and order and provide an agreed-upon process for handling disputes. It can be a real instrument for growth in truth, unity and mission, but only if those to whom the responsibility has been given to be stewards of the church’s order have the necessary moral courage to fulfill their office.