Why direct diocesan sign-on now to the Covenant is a bad idea.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has raised once again the question as to whether or not individual dioceses can sign-on to the Anglican Covenant. He poses it in the context of a Province that decides not to sign on and the assumption is he is preparing for the possibility that several Provinces, The Episcopal Church among them, might not sign on. The ABC said, ""...the question is becoming more sharply defined of whether, if a province declines such an invitation, any elements within it will be free (granted the explicit provision that the Covenant does not purport to alter the Constitution or internal polity of any province) to adopt the Covenant as a sign of their wish to act in a certain level of mutuality with other parts of the Communion. It is important that there should be a clear answer to this question."

The Anglican Consultative Council determined that it was asking Provinces to consider the Anglican Covenant. That, of course, is appropriate, for the ACC is an "organization of organizations," that is, its members are Churches. So the ACC asks its members (the Provinces) to respond to the Covenant. At that point the ACC is clear - it is Provinces, not dioceses, that are being asked to sign-on.

The ABC has raised again an issue raised earlier by various US bishops who suggested that dioceses might declare themselves to be "Communion Partners" quite independent of the decisions made by the Provincial decision making bodies (General Convention and by extension Executive Council). That way, it is argued, if the Province does not buy in, the dioceses who wish to could and thereby be included in some way in the complete life of the Anglican Communion. Those who could not would be on a second level, more removed from the common life of the Communion.

On one level it seems perfectly reasonable that dioceses declare themselves committed to the Anglican Covenant. Why not? Dioceses make all sorts of commitments quite independent of Provincial decisions. I believe there are several very strong reasons for the ACC and the ABC not to receive those statements of commitment and accept diocesan buy-in as a basis for inclusion in the Anglican Communion.

The community of writers over at the Anglican Communion Institute, who have had very unpleasant things to say about me in the past month or two have now written in a more gentle way about my belief that this business of diocesan buy-in is a very bad idea. Several readers of Preludium have wondered why I am so opposed as well. The ACI attributes my opposition to my supposedly well known liberal bias. My readers may simply be puzzled.

So, here is the deal:

I believe diocesan buy-in is a very bad idea because:

(i) The Episcopal Church has already gone on record as commending the Anglican Covenant (with whatever changes are made in section 4) for study, for further careful theological work, for use as a teaching aid, with an eye to reporting to the next General Convention as it takes up the question of whether or not The Episcopal Church will sign-on to the Anglican Covenant. Here is what we said in D020 as finally passed:

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church commend the Anglican Covenant proposed in the most recent text of the Covenant Design Group (the "Ridley Cambridge Draft") and any successive drafts to the dioceses for study and comment during the coming three years; and be it further

Resolved, That dioceses report on their study to the Executive Council in keeping with Resolution 2006-A166; and be it further

Resolved, That Executive Council prepare a report to the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church that includes draft legislation concerning this Church's response to an Anglican Covenant; and be it further

Resolved, That dioceses and congregations be invited to consider the Anglican Covenant proposed draft as a document to inform their understanding of and commitment to our common life in the Anglican Communion.

IF the ABC and the ACC were to decide that individual dioceses could sign on PRIOR TO the decision one way or the other by The Episcopal Church that it was as a Province going to do so, this would become divisive in ways yet unimagined because those affirming the Covenant would by that deny that they are bound together with the rest of The Episcopal Church in a common decision making community. They would be withdrawing not only from the democratic enterprise of decision making by General Convention, they would be acting in the face of what they fear would be a negative vote on the matter and in ways contrary to any consensus building at all. D020 may not have done what its authors wished, but it did do something - it called us as a church to make a response in three years. Individual sign-on by dioceses short circuits that process.

(2) Imagine that it is not simply The Episcopal Church that has some problems with the Anglican Covenant, either as it stands or in principle. (Actually we know that is true.) Then dioceses in several Provinces might sign on to the Covenant. Now, instead of there being a list of the Provinces that belong to the Communion (the ACC organization of organizations) - thirty-eight, there would be a list of the dioceses that belong to the Communion - perhaps some six or seven hundred.

Each would have to make its decision to join, but to whom would that announcement be given? The ACC is concerned with the Churches that make it up. Perhaps these signatures would go directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury. At least he has the staff to do the monitoring. Perhaps it would go to the Primates. But no, they have no staff at all, separate from the Anglican Communion Office. If it goes to the ACO, itself related to the ACC, the circle goes back to the source - an organization of organizations.

Right now the ACC and the ACO get their funding from Provinces. If dioceses sign on, in spite of Provinces, are they ready to pay the freight? What would dues look like from individual dioceses? Diocesan sign-on is a mess.

(3) However, the most important reason for opposing the possibility of diocesan sign-on is that the sign of connective relationship is then directly between the diocese and the Archbishop of Canterbury (who controls invitations to Lambeth and the Primates Meetings) and to the Anglican Covenant itself, which gives to the ABC and the Primates central power. The Primates part of that circle, of course, would be those Primates of existing Provinces that signed on.

The direct connection, independent of the Province to which a diocese belongs, would mean that a diocese could be so out of connection with its own Province, its own Church, that it identified entirely with the ABC. This way lies the madness of yet another papal system.

(4) And then, there is the simple problem that dioceses already have this sign-on option: if the bishops, deputies, standing committees, writers, bloggers, and what all of dioceses who believe we should sign the Anglican Covenant are so dead set on doing so, then let them convince 51% of the deputies and bishops (more if a super-majority is called for) to do so a the next General Convention. The pledge to use these three years to talk the Anglican Covenant up or down is a reasonable pledge. By the time we get to Convention we will be sick of it all, but if we all hold off from casting our votes now and do so then we might actually have some possibility of a Provincial decision, a decision by the so called "local" Church. And, as with other occasions, such decisions will not please everybody, but our social and faith contract is that we will try to live with one another anyway.

(5) What I mostly don't like about the notion of Diocesan buy-on is that it is in total denial of The Episcopal Church as a body that makes decisions together. If we do not vote to sign the Anglican Covenant, I am sure there will be a large number of the minority dioceses who will determine on their own to uphold the moratoria the Anglican Covenant currently supposes as the status-quo. They will also determine to give allegiance to the guidance of the Joint Standing Committee of Primates and ACC (God help them) and somehow hope that their standing in heaven and on earth will be enhanced by having done so.

If we do determine to sign on, I am sure others (probably me included) will wonder just what to do next. Next will no doubt be to return to the next General Convention and the next and the next to revisit the practical terms of having signed on to the Covenant in the first place.

I am, by the way, also opposed to dioceses opposed to the Covenant making a declaration of that fact prior to General Convention 2012.

The bottom line is we should not use the next three years as a "window for consent," but rather as a period of thoughtful engagement with the issues the Anglican Covenant presents. Consent or not should happen together, at General Convention. Three years is not a long time. Give it a rest.

The Archbishop of Canterbury did none of us a service by raising the notion of diocesan sign-on. He did so in the conditional situation, "whether a province declines such an invitation."

We have been invited, along with the other provinces, to consider signing the Anglican Covenant. So we are considering. We have not said no or yes. Therefore the condition for diocesan sign-on has not yet been fulfilled. Bishops and Dioceses can of course do what they like, but I hope any 'sign-on' documents they might send will be sent back with a note, "Save this for a later day."


  1. If TEC is to consider the Covenant, doesn't this beg the question of whether the Covenant is in final form? If not in final form, when will the Covenant be in it's final form.

    A bit of clarity from ABC/ACC/ACO would be helpful. Bit, I don't think that's going to happen. Do we really want to be in the same car with all those folks grabbing the steering wheel?

  2. Bob Richenburg, Free Evangelical
    IMHO Harris+ has missed a central point. If TEC, as it surely will, votes down the Anglican Covenent (AC) & Dios who wish are not allowed to sign the AC you will have give ACNA a new lease on life.
    I am not sure it needs one but you will see entire Dios leave to join the new group. +N. T. Wright is correct in saying that TEC has hoisted itself on its own petard.
    TEC is now seen as schismatic. It must go its own way or recant. It will not be allowed to drag this out for another 6 to 12 years. As +Wright has pointed out,"a car is completely off the tract". If you read the ABC's statement, he has confirmed TEC to outside the bounds of the Anglican Commmunion.
    +wright then brings forward the point of how to dismiss the members of TEC sitting on the ACC.
    Sir the game is over, now the question is: who decides how to run out the clock. Do not forget TEC is loosing 150 memebers a day. A church every three days (ASA for TEC churchs is 350 members).

  3. How dare that man cry out for unity whilst sowing the seeds for shattering a province as a way of blackmailing said provinces into signing so they will not be fractured, or further fractured, and broken from inside? It has just become clear to me that forming a "communion" that panders to Rome has become ABC Rowan's highest good, even though it means encouraging schism within provinces that differ.

  4. Dr Williams is attempting to force the provinces into a model that just happens to put him in charge. Hmmm....

    First we betray a friend (Jeffery John) then we betray a theology, next we put on the big white miter. Not exactly the path of glory.


  5. Bunker Hill says,

    Then there's the opposite result to consider. If a Diocese can opt IN to the covenant, then it can also opt OUT of the covenant, a result that virtually obliterates the Provinces and makes all those who sign on one church under ++Rowan.

    Of course, this may not be too surprising, since individual parishioners are now choosing from whom they will/will not receive communion. Hey! Maybe, we should just allow individuals to opt in for themselves, and eliminate the hoary old concept of bishops anyway! They just cause trouble.

  6. "Three years is not a long time. Give it a rest."

    An interesting sentiment from someone for whom any delay in SSB or SS Episcopal bishops is an un-Gospel like denial of justice.


  7. Mark,

    It was good seeing you, however briefly, in the aisle of the exhibition hall at General Convention. I think you are wise in counseling against precipitous action on the part of the dioceses, particularly since there is no final Covenant document on which to take action. If GC acts on a final Covenant text in 2012, then will be the time for dissenting dioceses and other parties to decide how best to respond, in Christian charity and in keeping with their consciences, to whatever GC decides. Thus, for instance, should GC accede to the Covenant, and the "Diocese of Hoboken" or what have you should object, then they can pass a diocesan resolution thumbing their nose at the Covenant. Likewise, should the "Diocese of Upper Northwestern South Carolina" not like GC's decision to take a pass on the Covenant, its convention can take action that might keep it in good standing with Canterbury even if TEC's standing is somewhat impaired or compromised as a result. What neither Hoboken or Upper Northwestern South Carolina can do, it seems to me, is break off entirely from TEC and take their property with them...

    Have you seen my post on "microcovenanting"? I think it may come down to individual Anglicans, each standing at the door of their own tents, doing what is best in their own eyes.



  8. Actually I think TEC will sign on to the Covenant, pending its further development. The most negative towards it have been GAFCON and associates; TEC signing on will be the surest way to place the ball in their court: do they want to be part of a communion of not?

    In any case, should the question not be moot, that is, should TEC not sign on, then the answer to The ABC's question (it is only a question, after all) is simply, No.

  9. Oh hell,
    let's just all genuflect and kiss the Pope's ring.

    There's an international church with a binding magisterium complete with enforcement just waiting for us all. No gays, women, or liberals could possibly slip past that ecclesiastical iron curtain.

    Why reinvent the wheel?

    And as for the old declining numbers game, there is serious talk these days of a "Post Catholic" Ireland. The under-40 folk in that country are voting with their feet and leaving Holy Mother Rome behind in droves; probably because they're afraid to go to Mass without a rape whistle.

  10. I disagree with this particular conclusion, Mark. You wrote, "At that point the ACC is clear - it is Provinces, not dioceses, that are being asked to sign-on." The ACC asked provinces to "respond" to the latest draft. The method or locus for the final acceptance has not yet been determined, and probably won't be until the final version is present to the Communion.

  11. Dear Goose:(Canon Harris)
    Hmmmm. Isn't this diocese signs covenant stuff just allowing a 'pastoral response'/'local option'?

    (miserable sinner)

  12. If a province in due time and through due process decides not to sign to the Covenant, is unduly repressive of good will to deny dioceses who wish to sign to the covenant to have no option to signify in some formal manner or another that they are "Covenant dioceses"? Just what that 'formal manner or another' might be needs some teasing out ... it could well be different to the manner of signing on of provinces.

    Conversely, in the same spirit, could a province signing to the Covenant but with dissenting dioceses in its midst, enable those dioceses to signal that dissent? (Though no particularly bright idea as to how that would be done comes to my mind right now).

    Much as I understand the various issues around "it's a bad idea for Dioceses to be able to sign up to the Covenant", I do not accept that a Diocese wishing to be in communion with Canterbury-and-with Covenant provinces (and Covenant dioceses) should not be able to give a sign of that.

  13. Hi Mark--This from AndrewBrown's blog which was published on TA a few days ago:

    "The mechanism that Rowan proposes to solve these problems in the future is a "covenant": a legally binding agreement that the individual churches who sign up to it will do nothing important against the wishes of the rest of the covenanted churches. This is an idea hugely popular among conservatives who think it would have stopped the Americans. As such, the Church of England currently thinks it's quite a good wheeze. But I cannot see any General Synod actually signing up to it, when this would constrain its own freedom. Had the covenant existed 20 years ago, there would be no women priests here.

    English Anglicans have enough trouble taking seriously the opinions of their own bishops. The covenant would require them to obey foreign bishops as well. That's just not going to happen. The only churches to sign up to such a covenant will be those who are entirely certain they will never be outvoted in it. So it's quite possible that the Church of England itself might stand outside such an arrangement if it came to a synod vote. But what is still more likely is that it would split on the matter. The synod, after all, exercises its authority over the church on behalf of parliament. That's what establishment means. And I cannot imagine any parliament in 10 or 15 years' time agreeing to hand over powers to some wider Anglican body so that it can preserve the tradition of Christian homophobia. What would sooner happen would be disestablishment.

    But all that will be a problem for the next archbishop, and some other poor bastard then will have to write articles speculating whether it was this that Rowan wanted all along."

    Doesn't look like ++Williams has his own house in order or that he even has the authority on his own to consent to this.

    I'm having a problem figuring out just how the Brits operate. Could someone help me out here?

  14. Gander... no it is not "just allowing a pastoral response / local option?" At a later point, when the General Convention has or has not signed on to the covenant, those dioceses that dissent from the decision might independently sign-on, but I would urge the ABC not to get into the business of determining diocese by diocese whether or not they are "Anglican Covenant" compliant and then building an Anglican Communion structure around that.

    The problem with local option re being part of the Anglican Covenant is that it smashes the idea of the AC as a communion of churches (Provinces, etc) and makes it a communion of dioceses.

  15. Bob G+ Here is what the ACC resolution said:
    Resolution 14.11: The Anglican Communion Covenant

    Resolved, 08.05.09

    The Anglican Consultative Council:

    1. thanks the Covenant Design Group for their faithfulness and responsiveness in producing the drafts for an Anglican Communion Covenant and, in particular, for the Ridley Cambridge Draft submitted to this meeting;
    2. recognises that an Anglican Communion Covenant may provide an effective means to strengthen and promote our common life as a Communion;
    3. asks the Archbishop of Canterbury, in consultation with the Secretary General, to appoint a small working group to consider and consult with the Provinces on Section 4 and its possible revision, and to report to the next meeting of the Standing Committee;
    4. asks the Standing Committee, at that meeting, to approve a final form of Section 4;
    5. asks the Secretary General to send the revised Ridley Cambridge Text, at that time, only to the member Churches of the Anglican Consultative Council for consideration and decision on acceptance or adoption by them as The Anglican Communion Covenant;
    6. asks those member Churches to report to ACC-15 on the progress made in the processes of response to, and acceptance or adoption of, the Covenant.

    As I understand it, the member Churches of the ACC will consider and accept or not and there will be areport back on progress made concerning the Covenant at ACC-15, which is three years from now.

  16. Chiprys... delay? SSB has been on and off the table since 2000 and even now is not to the point of having a request in hand for a specific rite to be developed. SS Episcopal Bishops? There has been one and only one, Bishop Robinson, six years ago. Since then none.

    The Anglican Covenant will be in its final form after the first of the year. The indications from around the Communion is that it will take several years for many Provinces to sign or not. D020 indicates we will be ready then.

  17. Mark:

    You wrote: "At a later point, when the General Convention has or has not signed on to the covenant, those dioceses that dissent from the decision might independently sign-on"

    If the TEC does not sign on, how would this effect individual parishes or parishoners for that matter in the Dioceses that decide to sign on independently. What if a parish agrees with its Church (TEC) rather than the Bishop? How would this work? What sense does it make? Are we or are we not a hierarchical Church?

    Pam Alger

  18. Canon Harris:
    What? It would foment confusion, disorder and lack of accountability in the Anglican Communion? My, my. We can't have any of that. :-)

    Peace, a big double scoop,
    -miserable sinner

  19. Forgotten (and I do mean forgotten) in all of this are the mainstream, normal Episcopal parishes stuck in Network dioceses. We want to be part of the National Church's life but are cut off by the extremists who run our diocese. If the National Church doesn't sign the covenant but our diocese does, can our parish opt out of the diocese's agreement, stating that we agree with the National Church?

    I feel as if I live in a city that is loyal to the Union plopped in the middle of the old confederacy. What a mess. I never thought I would say it but I am so envious of the Episcopal parishes in Fort Worth who now live in a diocese loyal to our National Church.

  20. Chiprys writes:

    "Three years is not a long time. Give it a rest."

    An interesting sentiment from someone for whom any delay in SSB or SS Episcopal bishops is an un-Gospel like denial of justice.


    I understand the whiplash of wondering why one issue is too slow and the other is too fast. But I think there is a difference. There is delaying set in place by people in power are uncomfortable with who else might be welcomed in. Then there is delaying because there are concerns that the people in power might have more and more power.

    People in power can always use “The church is not ready” as a means to keep people out. People who don’t have power, or only have a limited amount, are only being prudent to take their time before signing up for something that will affect their options.


    Gander asks:

    Hmmmm. Isn't this diocese signs covenant stuff just allowing a 'pastoral response'/'local option'?

    Not if it affects the operations of a province. Understand that I think you are raising a legitimate question. If this won’t affect a province, then perhaps we should consider this a pastoral response/local option. I think the concerns that Mark raises are that this would fundamentally or substantially alter how the dioceses relate to their own province. I would tend to agree with this concern which is another reason not to act/have dioceses sign on before understanding how this would affect the way TEC (or any province) would function.


    Peter Carrell writes:

    Much as I understand the various issues around "it's a bad idea for Dioceses to be able to sign up to the Covenant", I do not accept that a Diocese wishing to be in communion with Canterbury-and-with Covenant provinces (and Covenant dioceses) should not be able to give a sign of that.

    But I think TEC does want to be in communion with Canterbury and with Covenant provinces. I think our sign of that is that we pray together and worship together and meet together. I understood this to be the essence of the Anglican tradition.

  21. Dallas Bob, probably so. Individual parishes can, and some do, send money to the national church. I suppose the individual parish can declare what it wishes, in the same fashion that some parishes and other dioceses are disavowing the actions of the GC. Whether such an action means anything other than providing a sense of where a parish or diocese is another question.

    Paul in Dallas

  22. Dallas Bob,

    I share your frustration. I am a priest in the Diocese of Central Florida. If our bishop and board sign onto the Covenant prior to GC 2012 our parish plans to send our diocesan pledge/assessment upstairs to be held in escrow for the Diocese of Central Florida until such time as clarity if found. We want to be loyal to our diocese and to TEC and this seems to be a fair manner in which to proceed.

    Tom Gibson

  23. Anyone give any thought to the idea that Rowan is acting perfectly weithin the nature of the role of Archbishop of Canterbury? Pray tell, who in a postion such as this, would want to be the adminstrator of a huge organization that fragments into "thin air"? Who would want to reprot to the head of the church that well, the church is just a wee bit smaller this year than last? Who, in a position of such power, would want to see that power disappear? Who would want to be known as the Archbishop that presided over the complete dismantling of the Anglican Communion?
    Persons in positions of power rarely allow the disintegration of that power and certianly not knowingly. Rowan is not strong enough to separate himself from the position and make intelligent decisions on that basis. It simply hurts too much.

  24. Granted, ABC Rowan can say whatever he wants to say and finally invite to his table anyone he chooses to invite. How the invitees view their representative status is really up to the individual. Whether or not they truly represent anything other than their own egotistical impressions is entirely up to those who ordain them. I count this consideration of dioceses "joining" anything other than the Churches that ratified their formation as another result of Welsh/academic/CofE muddleheadedness. If ABC Rowan were from across the channel we'd hear it as "l├ęglise, cest moi!"
    In Georgia we say, "bless his heart, he means well, but somebody needs to stop that man before he breaks something we have to pay for fixin of."
    What Rowan cannot do is "change the rules during the playing of a game with other legitimate players." It seems that even the ARCHBISHOP of CANTERBURY forgets along with those bishops and priests who have chosen to "leave TEC and join some other partner in the AC" that canonical structures already in place greatly pre-determine how one leaves and/or affiliates. No fiction allowed.
    In short, let's not waste time acting as if there is a canonical reality as "sub-provincial Windsor compliance" no matter how confused ABC Rowan becomes.

  25. It seems to me that a diocesan sign on would render every synod in every national church redundant. They would be transformed from legislative bodies into discussion clubs. Any kind of movement forward (or backward) would be paralyzed by the need to arrive at universal consensus.

    I think the covenant is a very bad idea, holding together by legislation and force what was once held together in friendship and trust. When that friendship and trust are gone, then the fellowship is already gone and the institution survives only by the life-support of coercion. The covenant is a bishops' coup at the expense of laity and lower clergy.

    It seems to me that the world already has a surplus of confessional churches who all claim to be the One True Church whose beliefs are guarded by authoritarian structures. The Roman Church is a model that appears to "work;" unity, conformity, and institutional integrity are maintained, but the price is very high. Evangelical churches have their own authoritarian models dependent on charismatic preachers that appear to "work," but again, the price is very high. That high price in both models is unaccountable clericalism that has proven to be nothing more than license for scandal and crime. In my opinion, the price is too high and the goods aren't worth it.

  26. Tobias said:

    Actually I think TEC will sign on to the Covenant, pending its further development.

    I very much hope not. I don't see how we can sign on without losing our integrity and becoming hypocrites.

    Counterlight is right.

    If the Baptismal Covenant, the creeds, and common worship, are not enough, if the bonds of affection are no longer present, then the covenant won't serve to hold the churches together by force.

  27. Nom de Plume3/8/09 10:23 PM

    I would have to investigate other Provinces, but I can say definitively that in Canada a diocesan sign-on would be ultra vires and hence null and void. I can't see what value such a signature would carry. If anything it would make a mockery of the whole Covenant process, which I suppose is a good reason to put forward a motion in my next diocsan synod....

  28. Hi Mark -

    I think clarifying what the Anglican Communion is and isn't among constituents could be useful, although I honestly haven't kept up with the current form of the Covenant and don't believe the last version of the Covenant I read held true to historical Anglicanism because it leaned too far toward something rigid and not enough towards something relational.

    I do not care for the idea of individual dioceses signing on to the covenant if provincial churches decline, but I'm not sure I buy your arguments against the idea and I'm having trouble articulating my own objections. They seem... pragmatic instead of ecclesiological. Your fifth reason comes close to an ecclesiological reason, but it seems like making decisions about how to proceed should be based on how we are called as the whole Body of Christ in the Anglican expression of faith to proceed, not just what works most expediently.

    My question is this: Since breaking the Body of Christ down into nation-states isn't firm theological ground for a division of the church, and TEC is for most purposes seen as the U.S. church (although that is changing), the diocese seems to be pretty important, ecclesiologically and certainly historically. So I'm just wondering if we have a better theological explanation of the necessity of the provincial church and its place in the chain of subsidiarity, since it is such a much more recent historical development than the diocese?

    In other words, mustn't the answer to this problem come not from logistics but from the ecclesiological foundations and necessity of the Province?


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.