On The Matter of the Anglican Covenant

The Episcopal New Service has posted the major items on the agenda of the October 2007 Executive Council meeting, and notable among the matters to be discussed is a response to the draft Anglican Covenant presented at the Dar Es Salaam meeting of the Primates by the Covenant Design Group appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The content of that response will come out of Executive Council.

I have, however, been reflecting on several matters of context - the wide ranging ways in which the Anglican Covenant idea, and the specific draft we have been presented with as a working document, has been received. There are also quite peculiar issues surrounding its development and role in the ongoing muddle that is the Anglican Communion these days.

At the outset there was the problem of the make-up of the Covenant Design Group (CDG), with Archbishop Drexel Gomez in the chair. I have commented on that HERE. I also stated at the time (Jan 9, 07) that I wondered if the CDG was in any way able to bring anything new to the struggles we now face. I said, then

"So, what are we to make of this? Is this the drip, drip, drip of water torture, in which slowly it dawns on progressives that there will indeed be a covenant and its form will require a stronger Primates House… a kind of ecclesiastical House of Lords Spiritual? Is the end of all this simply to make the Anglican Communion an international church, with an international hierarchy? If so those of us who don’t like this idea at all will find strange allies.

Or is this really the opportunity for a fresh spring from which we can all drink? What sorts of checks and balances are there out there which could in fact help us all to make better decisions?

The Covenant Design Group will have to work hard to convince us that what is achieved reflects not the Primates or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but some sense of governance by lay and ordained people. Very little of what has transpired gives much hope that the Design Group will move in this direction.

It seems to me that we mostly have the drip, drip, drip of water torture, not fresh springs. The outrageous statements of Primates who say they will not sit at the table with our Presiding Bishop, the request that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw from the ACC meeting, and the most recent findings of the Panel of Reference, all point to prolonged struggle."

The Episcopal Church had two members of the CDG: Drs Ephraim Radner and Katherine Grieb. Dr. Grieb has become a strong critic of the Covenant Draft.

The Draft Covenant is now being circulated for comments throughout the Anglican Communion. Executive Council will probably make its contribution to the comments in the next few days. But others have already weighed in on the matter and various blogs and web pages carry comments and studies as they are made available. Notably the Archbishop of Southern Africa spoke to the matter of the covenant in a sermon at the Diocese of California on October 22nd. He said,

"I have deep reservations about the prominence given to the Primates, rather than the Anglican Consultative Council, in the draft Anglican Covenant. Indeed, I remain to be convinced that a relationship founded on grace and the unity in Christ that is his gift, can be regulated in this way at all.

Furthermore, the present draft seems to be crafted as a mechanism for exclusion. This is wholly contrary to the very nature of God our Father, whose desire is always to seek reconciliation; and the very nature of Jesus Christ, who came not to condemn but to save; and the very nature of the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of whom is given to each of us for the common good, the life in common which Christians are called to share.

In upholding the Anglican way, we must also respect the autonomy of Provinces to order their own lives through their own Synodical processes.

Furthermore, no-one can claim to be authentically Anglican while ignoring the polity of the Church since earliest times, by which Bishops' authority is recognised within their own dioceses, without the interference of other Bishops, however much they may disagree."

The Archbishop has stated the major difficulties in the Covenant:

(i) Too much power for the Primates
(ii) The Covenant can become an instrument of exclusion rather than union
(iii) The Covenant does not sufficently respect the autonomy of Provinces

(iv) There is no adequate reaffirmation of the rule of non-interference.

There may be good reasons for some sort of positive Anglican Covenant or Compact, or some sort of clearly stated expectations concerning the practice of mutuality and interdependence in Christ. But the Draft Covenant is not getting very good grades. Perhaps that means the idea is a bad one, or perhaps that this particular idea is flawed. Either way there is more work to be done, work best done by people who are willing to sit with one another a long time by the fire, drawing from it warmth and hopefully light. People who tire of sitting in conversation too quickly will be tempted to leave. They ought not. Some members of the group around the fire may be tempted to exclude others from the conversation. They ought not. The conversation about life together requries patience, persistence, and the love of enemy and friend alike.

This is why the Anglican Covenant idea (not just the text but the idea) requires Lambeth, ACC, Primatial Conversations, wide discussion in the churches, and Provincial approvals. The really bad idea that is floated by some in the Global South that there should be no Lambeth Conference until there is an Anglican Covenant which all attending have signed is just that: a bad idea. The suggestion from the CDG that the Covenant ought to be signed off on some level before Lambeth and perfected there and later is similarly a bad idea.

The problem is that there has not been the communion wide discussion as to the value of the idea of such a Covenant. The Windsor Report proposed it, based on some long standing desires by various theologians to have some clarity about what constitutes Anglicanism, and on the problems of the moment. Groups have run off trying to cobble together a Covenant in a hurry. But where has the conversation been held that asks first, what do you think of the idea?

The CDG has done us a service by giving an example of a covenant so that we see what is at stake in the effort. Now that we know, perhaps it is time to go back and ask, "So...what do you think of the idea, now that you have seen this example?"


  1. I have thought from the publication of the Windsor fiction, that the idea is a bad one. In the draft, what I see is an attempt to impose a structure that enshrines a particullar wing of the church (evangelical) in a position of authority.

    It remains a bad idea, useful only if one is trying to impose a polity that enshrine's one's importance. I hope it is utterly rejected.

    Leaveing aside AB Gomez's utter lack of integrity in the process, it is simply a bad job.


  2. Mark,
    Thank you for the blog, I appreciate your words.

    I am interested in a resource that gives the history of the Executive Council and other continuing bodies of the General Convention. The two books on our history I have gives no real depth of coverage.

    Can you point to a book or article?

    Thank you


  3. Mark,

    On a completely different matter, I was thinking about the oath of conformity that we all have taken at our various ordinations (deacon, priest, bishop). It is not enough for us to assent verbally to it but we must also sign such a document in front of God and the assembled members of the congregation. I have been wondering how Bob Duncan and the rest of the protesting bishops handle this part of the ordination service. Do they suggest that the Ordinand simply cross his or her fingers if they don't like this part of the service? How in good conscience could they even ask this question?

    Jim Von Dreele

  4. James - Their rationale (ironically, not rational) is that their oath first is to God. I doubt many of us would disagree with this, but it is a vow to God within a particular church/structure; they are not mutually exclusive. They maintain the mutual exclusivity, however, which means, affirming your comment, they *cannot*, with any integrity, continue to function as clergy of the Episcopal Church.

  5. Mark:

    Why not prospose an increased presence/responsibility for the ACC? It is already made up of laity, clergy, and bishops. We can even make the suggestion that the representation be based upon ASA's or members in good standing. Heck, we could even call it a House of ACC and House of Primates. Whether the rest of the Anglican world would agree with an American invention remains to be seen, but it never hurts to suggest . . .


    Since words mean only what we say they mean and nothing else in the Episcopal Church, it seems there is no more finger crossing going on on the reasserter side than there is on the reappraiser side.



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.