Flogging the dead horse "Anglican Covenant,"

The Living Church, through the Covenant pages, has published an editorial, "Primatial option for the Covenant." Anticipating the February meeting of the heads of the Anglican Provinces (the Primates) and its agenda, TLC argues for new consideration of the Anglican Covenant.  "Everything points back to the main curriculum: mutual responsibility and interdependence; self-sacrificing love; cooperation “on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world” (Chicago Quadrilateral of the American House of Bishops, 1886). In short, let the primates preferentially opt for the Anglican Covenant."

So the Anglican Covenant is being touted again as a way forward in deepening communion. Who knows if the Primates meeting will take up again the somewhat tattered and torn text of the Anglican Covenant.  Who knows if that meeting will pay attention to TLC's editorial opinion concerning their work. We shall see.

I believe the replay of the Anglican Covenant, in its current form, by the Primates in particular, is unwise.

There are several really bad ideas that make their way into this essay and its arguments for a preferential option (whatever that is):

(i) The notion of a "Preferential option" by the Primates for the Anglican Covenant makes it appear that somehow the Primates could decide on their own to declare for the Anglican Covenant.  I suppose they could. But they cannot declare for their churches.  Oh, in some Provinces where the Primate exercises extraordinary executive authority, I suppose they could. But most Churches are guided in polity questions by some sort of synodical processes. So a "Primatial Option" would be the opinion of the primates. Unless it were a unanimous vote for support it would simply affirm that the Anglican Communion is no where near a place of agreement on the Anglican Covenant. Most disturbing is the idea that this title puts forth: namely that a "Primatial option" even exists. There is no common agreement that statements by the Primates on any matter stand separate from the ACC and the decisions by the member churches. "Primatial option" is a really bad idea. It smacks of a primatial preemption.

(ii) The Essay quotes the Lambeth Quadrilateral on the need for "common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world." This is a worthy end, but common Faith and Order, I believe, did not include any suggestion of commonality in all things. It concerned core Christian belief and ordering of ministry. Thus the Lambeth Quadrilateral's markers for such faith and order were to be found in Scripture, the Sacraments, the Creeds and the Episcopate, described in simple straightforward terms.  

Matters of the interpretation of Scripture, the rites for or teaching about the sacraments, the use of the Creed in worship or changes reflecting ecumenical agreement about the proper wording of any creed, or a particular use of episcopal authority, up to and including the extent to which the "head" of a particular church is understood to be a Primate at all, are without doubt ecumenical in consequence and to be taken with due care, but the ecumenical world (in this instance) includes the world of Anglican Provinces themselves.  

That is, the Anglican Communion is in the first instance an example of the ecumenical union for which the Lambeth Quadrilateral was proposed as a model.  The Anglican Communion is not a world wide church. It is an ecumenical and familial union of churches all who share the signs of union at their core and who form their lives in accordance with the peoples and nations in which they find themselves. 

(iii) The Essay would have us think otherwise. It speaks of unity and diversity and quotes the Windsor Report, which speaks of the limits of diversity. The Essay opines that there is "an important caveat or “fundamental limit,” to autonomy, namely, communion itself. As The Windsor Report said: “Communion is, in fact, the fundamental limit to autonomy” (§ 82)."

None but the truly Anglican nerd types even bother to quote the Windsor Report any more. And one of the reasons is precisely this sort of statement. When the Windsor Report states, "Communion is, in fact, the fundamental limit to autonomy," it is harping on the seemingly commendable notion that the actions of one church, community, province, or whatever, in Christ, ought to put aside its own preferences when such preferences would lead others to sin, a chief sin being to break communion.  Communion (and its continuity) trumps autonomous action on matters even of great concern.  Most of this line of thinking grows from comments about individuals and being stumbling blocks. 

The problem is that this guide for our exercise of freedom in Christ - that we give way in order to maintain communion - was primarily a rule about my behavior and yours as individuals. It works pretty well on that level. But it is less helpful on the level of Church polity.  On the level of church polity it is hopeless.  

Suppose we were to apply the notion that "communion is in fact the fundamental limit to autonomy" to a diocesan convention where there is a heated discussion about capital punishment (currently in the state where that diocese is situated the law of the land).  After much discussion a vote is to be taken, and it appears from polling of delegates that a resolution against capital punishment will pass by a sizable majority. Some one opposed to this, believing that the current laws are appropriate, rises and says, "if this passes there will be a break in this Diocese, and I will lead those who cannot agree out and we will not participate in the life of the Diocese. We will withdraw from communion with this Diocese. The only way to keep us together is to defeat this resolution."   

One could argue that the proponents of the legislation, those opposed to capital punishment, ought to give way until another time, when the arguments might carry greater weight, or new arguments found. This would be placing communion before autonomy.  Autonomy, in this case, is expressed by the representative action and will of the body of the synod - not the consensus action, but the representative action. Of course representative action leads to that awful thing, the autonomous will of the body. Not the totally convinced will, but the will none the less.

In such circumstances the argument for the limits to autonomy in communion being communion itself totally sidesteps the notion that we are not dealing with individuals here, but bodies of people who vote on matters in some representative way.  When decision get made, they sometimes build stronger communion, and sometimes not. But they get made anyway. The Windsor Report needs to be put to rest. Its argument for communion as the limit to autonomy in communion is logic chopping. 

The Primates Meetings have a particular place in the life of the Anglican Communion. They are a late invention, but because they involve the heads of churches they have gradually taken on more and more authority. They have little power but considerable collective authority. They have become the place where the outward and visible signs of communion (or the lack thereof) are most obvious. When some primates refused to receive communion with others, or stayed away entirely, their absence reduced the authority of the Primates common voice. But that authority does not translate well into power. Power has its own venue in Anglican land, primarily in the synods of the various churches. I suspect the authority of the Primates will not find common expression concerning the Anglican Covenant, even if the Archbishop of Canterbury were to push it. But for sure that expression will fall on less sympathetic ears in some Provinces when the Primates views, whatever they are, come home to the synods of the Churches for confirmation, ratification, or whatever one might do with Primatial options.

The Living Church has become a wonderful resource for the whole church and its stances on various matters requires considerable thought. I admire the Editor and his work and the writers of TLC, and consider myself honored by occasional opportunity to write for its pages. I believe TLC's suggestion of a "Primatial option" needs to be read carefully. My critique comes from my esteem. I hope better critique is made, but this is a start.

In sum, whatever else happens to the Anglican Covenant, I hope the Primates will spend as little time in trying to revive the horse as possible and more time in such difficult tasks as looking to common core concerns.



  1. Reminds me of the famous line: "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"

  2. My own take on this would be: let TLC call for those who want the covenant to use this as a rallying point, and let those who want to be independent national churches in a loose league stand aside. I think this is the de facto reality anyway. If it takes TEC declaring itself yet more independent to rally the bulk of the Communion around the covenant, that's fine with me. Jim

  3. Mark Brunson4/12/15 3:54 AM

    Ah, the continual "Surrender Dorothy!" to TEC.

    See how these Christians love one another.

  4. Well, Jim, I don't know that anything much outside of the Episcopal Church actually depends on the Episcopal Church. I haven't looked back in a while, but last I saw the list a third of those who had "adopted" the Covenant (in quotes because not all used the same term) had done so with the stated limitations that when the President does it we call a "signing statement" - an interpretive position. Some of those "signing statements" were mutually exclusive - that is, one was in contradiction to another. I would expect those - shall we call them "provisional adoptions?" - were based on internal decisions, and not primarily on reaction to TEC or CoE; and that decisions not to adopt were the same.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, 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.