08 January 2011

Unanswered Questions

Four years ago this month, in an article published in the Anglican Journal, I raised a series of questions to help evaluate the question of whether a Covenant would be desirable and, if so, in what form. I think the questions are still relevant today.

First, is a Covenant of any sort desirable, or would something else (or even nothing) be better? This comes back to the question of Instrument Choice which I have written of previously. It seems to me that much of the project of drafting a Covenant has been an exercise in doing something, at a time when there has been a great deal of pressure to get on with it. That pressure, and the sense of urgency it has created, has in my view caused us to ignore some pretty fundamental questions in favour of simply being busy. But have we been going down the right path? We really haven't explored whether there was another path to begin with. Surely doing nothing would be better than doing the wrong thing? But sometimes people wind up doing the wrong thing simply in order to avoid seeming passive. Governments do it. Churches do it. Is this one of those times?

Second, what do we actually hope to achieve with the proposed Covenant? That’s a big question! Should it be a visionary statement of hope, calling us into a better future as a communion of churches? In other words, do we want a document that will inspire? Or do we hope to set up mechanisms with which to conduct future conflict? Personally, I would prefer the former, but what we have on offer now is very much the latter.

Third, what ought to be included? Should it include a confessional element? Should there be a dispute settling mechanism? Should it say something of what we mean by the term “communion”? Should there be some commitment to respect not only the constitutional autonomy of the other churches, but also the legitimacy of their canonical procedures?

Fourth, how detailed ought the Covenant to be? The dilemma here is if we say too much it may be too cumbersome, and if we say too little it may be of little use. As we evaluate the proposed Covenant, I think that in some ways the design committee has chosen to err on the side of saying too much, but then having chosen that path has paradoxically left some important things unsaid.

Fifth, what is our timeline? The authors of Towards an Anglican Covenant suggested a period of 5 to 8 years, which I thought at the time was unrealistically optimistic. Here we are after just four years pressing down the final stretch toward adoption of the final draft. What’s the rush?

Finally, I noted
Even if an Anglican covenant is desirable, there is a very real danger that the current climate of conflict and the sense of urgency to resolve it would so shape the finished product that we would lose an opportunity to produce a visionary statement of hope for the Anglican Communion in favour of the development of processes with which to conduct our present and future conflicts. In other words, even if a covenant is a good idea, it may be an inopportune time to draft one.
You can read the original article here.

It seems to me that those who would introduce a significant change into the life of the Anglican Communion have a responsibility to make a serious case for the proposed changes. And the rest of us should be asking the sorts of questions I have been trying to ask so we don’t wind up sleepwalking into a change that we will awake to discover, too late, has been disastrous.


  1. Excellent article. In other places I have said that the proposed Covenant is a naive document. It is just too nice to have any substance to it and it has enough "discipline" in it to be a tool for those who would scrabble to get it. And because it is naive about the power it does not address means that it becomes and instrument that can undo the Communion for the future.

  2. Your comment about naivete reminds me of an issue in the 1970s when the Anglican Church of Canada was about to reach a formal merger with the United Church of Canada, after 30 years of negotiations. (I studied the proposal for a Church History paper in seminary.) The Plan of Union was similarly naive, though in that case with respect to the very different ecclesiastical cultures in the two churches.

    Also similar to the proposed Covenant, hardly anyone in the pews, and indeed not many of the clergy, knew much about the proposal for merger. (This even though a million copies of the actual document had been printed and distributed in pre-Internet days.) I recall reading a letter to the editor in which the writer said that "total ignorance is hardly a basis for Union." The same could be said of the proposed Covenant.

  3. It seems to me that those who would introduce a significant change into the life of the Anglican Communion have a responsibility to make a serious case for the proposed changes.

    So it seems to me, Alan. Yet those of us who question the wisdom of adopting the covenant find ourselves in the position of having to defend the mere act of questioning, as though some sort of disloyalty is involved in asking questions.

  4. On the timeline:
    The Windsor Report & the authors of Towards an Anglican Covenant wanted the Communion to 'own' the covenant.

    Drexel Gomez just wanted the covenant. From the beginning he shouted its urgency but gave no evidence. He abbreviated the timescale which was then adopted by the Primates at Dar es Salaam (I think from memory).

    The only delay was of 6 months when the ACC sent it to a different group to revise Section 4. Even when relatively few provinces responded to any part of the consultation there was no stopping the train.

    This is linked to its 'naivety'. The task was always to get it agreed: refinement, elaboration, sophistication and teeth can always be added later. And in fact must be.

  5. Thanks, Paul.

    The trouble with implementing something, even something known to be inadequate, just to have something to use until a better something is implemented, is that there is likely to be little interest in updating or fixing the temporary solution.

    Why not take the time to do it right the first time?


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