Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To Covenant or not to Covenant?

I'm punting this week, folks...  here's my article for Epiphany's Manifest as I struggle to get ready for vacation starting on Friday!  I'll be back with my Pentecost sermon on September 13.

I attended an Anglican Covenant study session at the offices of the Diocese of New York on May 24 led by the Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb, an Episcopal priest and professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary who was a member of the Covenant Design Team. Bishop Cathy Roskam was
also present to give her thoughts as both a bishop and as the Episcopal representative to the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the “Instruments of Unity” identified by the Covenant.

The proposed Anglican Covenant will be on the agenda at General Convention in 2012, and the Episcopal Church will have the options of adopting the Covenant, rejecting the Covenant, or asking for more time to study the Covenant (and thereby gaining more time to see what other provinces in the Anglican Communion do with the Covenant before we make a commitment).

The session led me to ask myself, “What do I want members of the Church of the Epiphany to know about the proposed Anglican Covenant?” (It took some effort to resist the temptation to answer glibly, “Nothing.”) I do hope that we’ll be able to have someone who is more expert than I to go through the diverse issues surrounding the covenant this fall, because regardless of what else it represents, the Covenant is an opportunity to remind ourselves that the church is universal, with a scope far beyond our own nation, diocese, and parish, and it is worth considering how we should relate to our brother and sister Anglicans (and Christians) around the globe.

So here’s a brief synopsis of what I think would behelpful to know about the covenant. It’s also worth reading the proposed covenant at

First, know that the 39 different provinces in the Anglican Communion are extremely different in culture, structure, history, language and size. The thing I most enjoyed about Dr. Grieb’s presentation was her opening prayer in which she prayed for each province by name, which required her to read in English, French, Creole, Portuguese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Spanish. Dr. Grieb also made the point that in some provinces, the church is far more closely allied with the national government than is true in the United States, and so there is a common misperception in these provinces that the Episcopal Church is similarly synonymous with the actions of the United States government, for good and for ill.

The idea of a covenant was first seriously proposed as part of the Windsor Report, a 2004 document put together after the Episcopal Church in the USA consecrated Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and the Anglican Church in Canada began to produce liturgies for blessing same-sex unions in 2003. There was a passionate belief among more traditional Anglicans—particularly those in some parts of Africa—that a covenant would allow the Anglican Communion to eject problematic provinces such as the United States and Canada.

As the covenant developed through its various drafts, Dr. Grieb believes that this purpose of the covenant has been replaced with a document that is designed to bind churches together—not to exclude certain ones.

The first three sections of the final covenant are focused on our faith, our life as Anglicans, and our common life in Christ. They are full of familiar phrases like “bonds of affection,” “mutual respect,” “interdependence,” and “autonomy”; and concepts like the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/88 which delineated the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds (Apostles and Nicene), Baptism and Eucharist, and the historic episcopate as the key elements in our ecclesial practice. There is nothing particularly new or controversial in these three sections.

The fourth and final section is where I found it harder to reconcile what Dr. Grieb was saying with the words on the page. She argued that there was no new level of bureaucracy created and that there is no mechanism for kicking a church out of the Anglican Communion in the covenant as it stands. Evidently the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion existed before 2010, but I had never heard of it. This is the body that under the covenant would make “recommendations” regarding the participation of member churches in the “Instruments of Unity”—the Anglican Consultative Council (a body of laypeople, priests, and bishops from around the communion which meets triennially), the Lambeth Conference (all the Anglican Bishops who meet at Lambeth once every ten years), and the Primates Meeting (the archbishops or presiding bishops of each province). Confusingly, these recommendations are only recommendations, and could either be accepted or rejected by the instruments themselves, and the member churches. It is unclear whether provinces who rejected the recommendations could commit some sort of ecclesiastical civil disobedience by sitting in at meetings to which they were disinvited.

I left Dr. Grieb’s presentation feeling more charitable towards the covenant than I had previously; but regardless of what the document actually says, it may be dead in the water. In late 2010, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a formalizing gathering of conservative Anglican archbishops, put out a statement saying they were no longer in favor of the covenant as proposed, and that their churches would not consider signing on to it. If the covenant which is designed to bring all Anglicans together has already failed to do so, than it might become yet one more tool by which the Christianity of developed nations divides itself from the Christianity of developing nations. Yet it would also be poor form were the Episcopal Church in the U.S. to be the first province to outright reject the covenant; so far it has been subscribed to by the Anglican Church in Mexico, Ireland, and South East Asia, and the province of New Zealand has said that it agrees in principle with the first three sections, but needs more time to study section four.
I remain confident that whatever happens to the covenant as proposed, our mission partners in Tanzania and elsewhere will continue to be mission partners, and that our bonds of affection and mutual regard are rooted in the covenant of the Gospel, and not dependent upon a new ecclesiastical covenant. 

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