Is the Covenant Idea an outward and visible sign of anxiety?

The past week has seen several movements on the Anglican Covenant front:

The Covenant Design Group, with Archbishop Gomez in the chair, has met and word has it that their “report to the February meeting of the Communion's Primates will include a draft covenant.”

This is a surprising speed-up. The Windsor Report made the fatal error of such a speed-up by including an example of a draft of a covenant as an appendix to its report, which example was taken for a while as the actual core of a real covenant mandated by the Lambeth Commission. It went down in flames so quickly that it was possible at General Convention to support conversations about the development of a covenant and at the same time say, “but not this one.”

For there to be a draft covenant brought forward on the basis of one meeting seems precipitous. We might suppose that papers were sent around and maybe even vetted to a wider group of correspondents. But why the rush?

The answer, I believe, lies in the growing anxiety concerning the meeting in Tanzania. Matters of considerable consequence are on the table at the Primates Meeting, mostly having to do with the control of that meeting by the Chair, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He must convince the group that he has careful listened to those who claim injury in the United States and Canada without giving them greater due than warranted. He must keep the meeting itself open to all the Primates in the Anglican Communion as defined by the two primary ‘licensing’ communities – the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council and closed to all others. And to show that he does indeed support a coherent basis for union, one based in common values, he must support conversations towards a document outlining commitments and expectations of member churches in the Anglican Communion regarding faith and good order. The draft of a covenant will assure the Primates that claims, license and inclusion are all being taken care of within the general ‘focus of unity’ provided by his office.

If he fails, the Primates Meeting may effectively become the “focus of unity” in his stead, and will take up matters, including membership on the spot.

I believe a draft covenant is being presented to the Primates in February because of a Lambeth anxiety to maintain control of the process. Otherwise the Covenant Design Group might have been advised to go more slowly, giving a report alone. Presenting a draft covenant at this stage is a strategic matter, a strategy that has grown from an anxiety.

So perhaps the place we need to begin is by saying, “be not anxious.”

The two Episcopal Church members of the Design Group, The Rev Drs. Katherine Grieb and Ephriam Radner, spoke to the matter of anxiety. The Episcopal News Service carried a story on their work which included this:

"The covenant process is moving at a great speed," Grieb said. "It's a good time for all of us to become clear about what the covenant is."

“Of the report, Radner, who is a "collegial theologian" of an organization called the Anglican Communion Institute, said: "I think it will surprise people positively for the balance, for effectiveness of discussions and what we were able to produce. It's going to respond to a wide variety of concerns that have been expressed."

“Radner said the group's discussions during its mid-January meeting in Nassau, Bahamas, and its resulting report took into account the anxieties some people have about a covenant and what this particular design group might produce. He included in those anxieties concerns that a covenant might create a curial system such as that which assists in governing the Roman Catholic Church, possible attempts to "railroad" one point of view through the process, and a covenant "being set up on the basis of trying exclude people from the start."

The ENS interview with Grieb and Radner is very useful as a non-anxious statement and should be read in its entirety. You can read it HERE.

I was particularly struck by some remarks by Dr. Grieb near the end of the ENS article:

“For Grieb the issue comes down, in part, to recognizing that there are two traditional approaches to biblical interpretation that are continually in "tension and conversation."

“One tradition she described as that "understands faithfulness to the text as being a non-complicated reproduction of what was said in the past without embroidery, without modification, taking those great, ancient -- some might even say eternal truths -- and applying them in out life today, no matter how difficult that is. It intends to preserve ‘the faith once delivered to the saints.'"

“The other tradition "understands the Bible in closer continuity with Judaism that sees the Torah as a living, breathing word, like a tree that has new leaves."

"The Bible itself has participated in the dynamic process of re-hearing the Word of God in each generation," Grieb said. "This view sees the biblical text itself as a growing thing -- a growing text. It assumes that God actually plants new insights in the text, new questions in our hearts, new interactions between reader and text."

“The on-going conversation about an Anglican covenant, Grieb said, recognizes that these two traditions live side-by-side in our congregations.

"What we need right now are for biblical interpreters and theologians and all the people living in our churches hearing the Word every Sunday, living it out in their lives all the days of the week, to reflect on these traditions of biblical interpretation," she said. "As we reflect also on our present context, we can recommit ourselves to welcome those who share another understanding of Scripture and therefore another interpretation of doctrine or ethics than we do."

"It is the time for the Anglican Communion at every level to renew its commitment to conversation about the Anglican Communion and about the history of biblical interpretation in Anglicanism," she said. "We're up to that; we can do this."

I might as well get my opinion out right from the start about one particular matter of biblical interpretation: it has to do with the biblical mandate for unity. I believe our Lord’s prayer that we be one has nothing (or almost nothing) to do with the matter of the continued viability of the Anglican Communion or with an Anglican Covenant.

The unity we seek when we try to live into Jesus’ prayer that we be one is not a prayer for covenanting together to some end, but rather a prayer that we wake up to the new reality of life in Christ and become the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that constitutes the relation between Jesus and God the Father. Our Lord’s prayer for unity is about a sacramental not a covenantal relationship.

Covenants are drawn to support a bonding that erases or blurs the previously assumed separate realities of the individuals or elements involved. Such a bonding is often referred to as a unity, but it is not. At its extreme such bonding is the replacement of many by one, but mostly the bonding is the holding together of the many in a union that contains tensions.

The constant tension between the many and the one is exemplified in the paradox that unity requires what it is not, namely diversity. Persons or institutions that are the same have no need for unity, only persons or institutions that are different. There will be struggle then at every turn, the yin and yang of the many and the one. We all know this from the partnerships we form in life.

Even the most powerful of covenants still requires the separate, prior, and autonomous realities of the persons or organizations involved. Otherwise what we have is not a covenant but a transmogrification – the results of a kind of alchemy.

Covenants, then, entered into by individuals or organizations are powerful bonding agents but they are not magic. They may involve sacramental actions, but they are not sacraments in and of themselves. Their holiness is derivative in a reflective way: they reflectively signify to one extent or another, a bond that is intrinsic - for example, the bond between the Risen Christ and the Church as the Body of Christ. This bond is sacramental as such – the Church is the outward sign of the Risen Christ, a reality which is an ‘inward and spiritual’ reality. The derivative, reflective, covenant is not a sacrament in that sense. It is action reflective of a sacrament.

So it is important for us to remember that the attempt to cobble together a covenant among Anglican churches has very little to do with the unity that Our Lord prays for and everything to do with our desire to form unions of churches that reflect that union. To that end we try to form covenants that are binding, but we ought not confuse that reflection for the reality.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether or not such binding is good or bad, liberating or enslaving. And it is important to remember that entering or not entering such a covenant is not to be imagined as fulfilling or not fulfilling the prayer of unity.

The matter of a covenant will not be concluded at this Primates Meeting, but its future direction might well be: (From the ENS Article)

"For some in our group, the voice that matters is the voice of the Primates," Grieb said. "The Anglican Communion, as important as the Primates are, is much bigger than the Primates. We need to hear the voices of women, of laity and of clergy. They are the Anglican Communion on the ground."

Radner said "everything depends on [the primates' response]."

If anxiety rules, and if some Primates can force that anxiety on the meeting, the draft covenant will be pushed forward quickly. Dr Grieb’s caution needs to be heard. Dr. Radner may be right, that everything depends on the Primate’s response, but if so anxiety has won the day.

Fr. Jake has some important comments on his blog related to all this.


  1. a prayer that "we wake up to the new reality of life in Christ." Well, yes, I agree. But it is just exactly this which is the issue. Conservatives do not think that 'the new reality of life in Christ' includes the endorsement of gay sex nor its practice by a bishop in the Church. I agree with you that anxiety is not good (tho' I don't know the covenant itself is a sign of that) and I actually think Rowan Williams has been the most--well, among the most--non-anxious leaders in all of this. The voices around the covenant process have been anxious.

    Do those who think GC 2003 was precipitous, have a basis for say8ing we, ECUSA, were anxious?

    If it's true that we never came to theological agreement on same-sex relations, but went ahead with VGR's consecration, could that count as a sign of anxiety? Just asking--John

  2. Mark --

    Like yourself, I was struck by those particular comments by Dr Greib (which I cut & pasted on Thinking Anglicans to make my point).

    I'm just waiting & seeing &, like you, if somehow TEC ends up not being in the same over-arching organization as ++Peter Abuja, I'll do my best to get on with living the Gospel (or, as my former abbot answered when asked what he would do if the 1976 General Convention approved the ordination of women, "I'll be a monk.")

  3. BTW -- The Living Church is reporting that Bishop Epting will join Bishop McPherson & Bishop Duncan at the Primates' Meeting (& clarifies that they are guests of the ABC & that their reports are not part of the Primates' Meeting itself).

    attempted link:

  4. christopher+29/1/07 4:07 PM

    At their 02/05 Meeting, the Primates called for conversation about the covenant "project" - by practical necessity a "longer term process" - to continue from that point on until Lambeth 2008. Not that they have to stand by their own joint statement, but doing anything formal (or seeming to do so) so soon would seem much hastier than even the Primates themselves intended. This suggests some possible anxiety at present. In the end, though, the provincial synods will discuss all these matters at length (possible covenant etc.), so there will be much time for continued dialogue - as there should be.

  5. christopher+30/1/07 6:11 PM

    "If he fails, the Primates Meeting may effectively become the “focus of unity” in his stead, and will take up matters, including membership on the spot."

    This would indeed reflect an attempted coup d'eglise of the first order. According to the Anglican Communion website, "the Primates' Meeting was established in 1978 by Archbishop Donald Coggan (101st Archbishop of Canterbury) as an opportunity for 'leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation' and has met regularly since." No mandate there at all for assuming the duties of the Anglican Consultative Council, which maintains the "schedule" of membership in the Anglican Communion. The Primates have a voice in all this, but they do not govern as a curia in lieu of the other "Instruments of Communion" - and certainly not in lieu of the Provinces.

  6. the endorsement of gay sex nor its practice

    If THAT'S not an expression of anxiety, I don't know what is! :-0

    [Why is it, w/ so much perverted *heterosex* going on, I still just can't seem to work myself into an obsession over it? Should I drink more caffeine? ;-/]

    went ahead with VGR's consecration, could that count as a sign of anxiety? Just asking

    I suggest you ask the Episcopalian faithful of New Hampshire, John.

  7. JCF
    If you can string together some complete thoughts as answers. Your first point seems to suggest that holding to a certain teaching or understanding--or to the specific one I mention--is an anxiety. Well, okay, if you mean that we are eager to live out our life in Christ with joyful obedience and nervous when others--in authority!--do what we think is clearly the opposite, well, okay. But then the charge of being anxious loses its force b/c this is the kind of thing that we ought to be worried about.

    Next, you tell us that you are not worried about perverted heterosexuals. Okay. Though maybe it should make you sad. But you intimate, of course, that opponents of homosexual activity are obssessed. We're not, or at least I'm not. What I am concerned about is our episcopate and our leadership. I think we deserve better than VGR and are called to deliver better bishops.

    As for going ahead with the consecration, it looks to me from all available evidence that New Hampshire was not patient nor wise. Quite a list could be made of things that seem to show it was a mistake, not the least of which was some serious lack of candor by the candidate on at least two issues--his fidelity in marriage and his alcohol problem. I met him in the early 90's and thought he had a problem. Sad, worthy of compassion, of course, but germane. But my point is that so many so-called progressives in ECUSA wanted to be the first to move ahead 'prophetically' that they did not wait upon God but acted 'precipitously' . It looks that way to me. --John


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.