01 April 2011

Life Together

Section 3 of the proposed Anglican Covenant describes the way in which the Churches of the Anglican Communion collaborate with each other. At the heart of this section is a description of the Instruments of Communion. These used to be know as Instruments of Unity, but for some inscrutable reason the term was changed in recent times.

Section 3.1.2 correctly notes, quoting the Lambeth Conference of 1930, that “Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together 'not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference' and of the other instruments of Communion.” This statement is a little ironic, of course, being contained within a document which is being proposed as central legislation for the Communion, and which gives at least some executive powers to the Instruments of Communion and the Standing Committee. As we say in Quebec, it seems the proposed Covenant is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

Section 3.1.3 speaks of the role of bishops in mediating relationships among Dioceses and Churches. The language seems to be drawn from the Virginia Report, but I must say that I really don't understand the point of the last sentence in this section: “We receive and maintain the historic threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, ordained for service in the Church of God, as they call all the baptised into the mission of Christ.” There's nothing wrong with the statement per se, it's just that it seems to be a bit of a non sequitur here. It seems to me that it would make more sense to include it in section 1.1, which describes “Our Inheritance of Faith.”

The meat of this section of the proposed Covenant is found in 3.1.4, which describes the four Instruments of Communion: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting. This section looks quite innocuous at first glance, but I do have a few questions about it.

First, 3.1.4 begins by affirming “the importance of instruments in the Anglican Communion to assist in the discernment, articulation and exercise of our shared faith and common life and mission.” Sounds good so far, but the question is, in what way can these instruments meaningfully discern and articulate our shared faith, in light of the affirmations of section 1? Can our faith evolve, as the instruments continue to discern it? Or is their role to become one of interpreting the faith as outlined in Section 1, in the absence of any future amendments to the Covenant text?

Second, I wonder if the descriptions of the four Instruments is adequate. On the face of it, there isn't much to quibble with here, and it is evident that these statements are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, but look for a moment at the description of the Primates' Meeting. It states:
The Primates' Meeting is convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury for mutual support, prayer and counsel. The authority that primates bring to the meeting arises from their own positions as senior bishops of their Provinces, and the fact that they are in conversation with their own Houses of Bishops and located within their own synodical structures. In the Primates' Meeting, the Primates and Moderators are called to work as representatives of their Provinces in collaboration with one another in mission and doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters that have Communion-wide implications.
That's a bit of a mouthful!

Now, the first sentence is fine, but we begin to see some difficulties beginning in the second sentence, about the authority of the Primates. The recent meeting of the Primates noted that there is a vast range of roles, responsibilities and terms of office for the Primates of the various Churches. It may not be correct, for example, to state that a given Primate has authority because he or she is in “in conversation with” his or her church's House of Bishops. In Canada the Primate's authority is clearly laid out and circumscribed in a Canon on the Primate. And the Canadian House of Bishops has no constitutional authority as a body. I'm not saying that the Primates have no authority, but the primary purpose of the Meeting is not to exercise authority at all, but rather for “mutual support, prayer and counsel,” which role the Primates themselves affirmed in their document “Towards an Understanding of the Purpose and Scope of the Primates' Meeting.”

And then there's a rather thorny question about their collaboration on “matters that have Communion-wide implications.” The question is, what matters have Communion-wide implications? How is this discerned? I will pick this up below.

Finally, with respect to section 3.1.4, having set out the descriptions of the Instruments of Communion, even briefly, does the text say too much? Can the Instruments evolve? What if a fifth Instrument were to develop? As I have noted with respect to the proposal for a sixth Mark of Mission and the implied need to amend the Covenant, the same can be said for the possible development of a fifth Instrument. The Virginia Report proposed the convening of a periodic Anglican Congress of clergy and laity along with bishops. Although the Report said it should not be an Instrument of Communion, it could nevertheless develop into one just as the Lambeth Conference did.

I could point out the misuse of “comprise” in the phrase “The Anglican Consultative Council is comprised of lay, clerical and episcopal representatives....” which should say either “is composed of” or “comprises”. (Is this a typically North American linguistic faux pas, or does it happen elsewhere in the English-speaking world?) I could also point out the typo in footnote 18, which says “cf. the Objects of the ACC are set out in Article 2 of its Constitution.” Either “cf.” or “are set out” shouldn't be there, of course. I could point out these two infelicities as evidence of the haste with which the proposed Covenant was drafted, but some readers might think I was being overly critical and might even point out my typos, so I won't mention them.

As interesting as the affirmations in section 3.1 are the commitments in section 3.2. There is much to commend here, but still a few things that I wonder about.

Section 3.2.1 starts out well enough, committing signatories “to have regard for the common good of the Communion” and to support the Instruments, but then this clause ends with a further commitment “to endeavour to accommodate (the) recommendations” of the Instruments of Communion. So, the narrative that the disciplinary process isn't punitive because it can only produce recommendations falls right there. Recommendations are there to be accommodated, and presumably failure to accommodate a recommendation would be contrary to the Covenant.

Elsewhere I have written about section 4.1.3's claim that adoption of the Covenant does not imply any change to a church's constitution. The same issue arises with respect to the commitment in section 3.2.2 “to respect the constitutional autonomy of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” The whole point of the proposed Covenant is to restrain the exercise of autonomy, even to the point of the detriment of a Church's mission, and the procedure for “raising a question” in section 4.2 is in fact an invitation to interfere with a Church's exercise of its autonomy. We can say until we're blue in the face that we respect each others' autonomy, but it seems that this respect stops once autonomy is actually exercised.

Section 3.2.3 speaks of taking time to work through new or controversial proposals, “with openness and patience”. What is left undefined is where is the limit of patience? The proposed Covenant seeks to address the question of the limits of autonomy, but how long should a Church wait before implementing a proposal it sincerely, prayerfully believes is the correct thing to do? After all, notwithstanding suggestions to the contrary, I haven't seen much evidence of any headlong rush to act by progressive Churches. On the contrary, they have consistently engaged in lengthy processes of extensive study, consultation and prayer, often deliberately deferring action in order to give a chance for more study and consultation. No-one can reasonably accuse the Church of England, for example, of acting precipitously or hastily in moving to ordination of women as bishops. But at some point, there is such pent-up demand for a change, that yet another delay becomes intolerable. At some point, you have to decide either to fish or cut bait. Where is the limit to patience? Indeed, the only area where I have seen significant evidence of impatience is the headlong rush to draft and adopt a Covenant.

Section 3.2.4 is about seeking “a shared mind ... about matters of common concern.” As mentioned above with respect to the Primates working on matters with Communion-wide implications, how do we know in advance that a matter is of “common concern”? Is something a matter of common concern because someone claims it is, or are there some criteria for testing such a claim? Without some agreed-upon criteria, we have the potential for arbitrary action. And what if some other Churches aren't interested in seeking a shared mind? Then what?

Section 3.2.5 returns to the theme of “diligence, care and caution” again implying that there has been a lack of these qualities in recent times. It also introduces the concept of a mission for the whole Anglican Communion, which it seems is to take priority over local actions or decisions. What is the mission of the Anglican Communion as a whole? Who decides? How do we discern when there is a conflict between the mission of a member Church and that of the Communion?

Section 3.2.6 finally comes to the point of the proposed Covenant: “situations of conflict.” Here perhaps some of my questions are addressed, in that there is a commitment to participate in “mediated conversations.” And presumably an unwillingess to participate in such conversations would constitute an action incompatible with the Covenant, which might carry with it some relational consequences. Although, frankly, that would be rather a matter of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Which is pretty much where we are now as a Communion. There's really nothing particularly wrong with this clause; it's just that if we need a Covenant to commit ourselves in some enforceable way to act like adults, then a Covenant in and of itself isn't likely to bring that about, is it?

Finally, section 3.2.7 reminds us of the need “always to uphold the highest degree of communion possible.”

For me there is one fundamental problem with this whole section of the proposed Covenant, and that is that it seems to assume both that Churches will have a tendency to act in a manner which is irresponsible, or that their mechanisms for discernment and consultation are inadequate. And it seems to assume that relations among the churches of the Anglican Communion will normally be marked by conflict. Yes, we are in a period of serious conflict right now in the Communion, with open hostility between churches and blocs of churches. And this hostility has led to boycotting of the Lambeth Conference and of the Primates' Meeting, which is sad.

These boycotts also reveal a missing element in section 3.2. In the draft, or model, Covenant in the Windsor Report, there was a commitment to show up at international meetings, or not be absent without good cause. Perhaps the drafters of the model covenant could foresee the possibility of a boycott. It's clear, and section 3.2.6 implies as much, that when people refuse to come to the table a relationship is seriously impaired, if not irretrievably lost. And when that happens, we are all diminished.


  1. The "Instruments of Communion" formerly known as the "Instruments of Unity" are a decidedly "modern innovation", developed in the mind of Ephraim Radner, et al.

    I find absolutely no Lambeth Resolution which codifies this concept.

    So, my question, among others, is: Have we not put the organizational horse before the ecclesiastical horse?

    This is a seriously flawed document - far from "final" which should be sent back for another "draft".

  2. I could point out these two infelicities as evidence of the haste with which the proposed Covenant was drafted, but some readers might think I was being overly critical and might even point out my typos, so I won't mention them.

    Alan, I'm so relieved that you didn't mention the infelicities. In this North American's book, is comprised of is a definite faux pas of the sort that teachers point out with a heavy red marker. Perhaps the English use the word differently.

    Indeed, how long must the churches wait? Apparently the moratoria on consecrations of partnered gay and lesbian bishops and same-sex blessings as recommended by the Windsor Report were intended to be open-ended, but TEC and ACofC finally said, "Enough!"

  3. Actually, the Covenant's biggest weakness is probably that it has been taken as a legal document of some sort. Of course section 4 and the desire of some to punish TEC have both encouraged that approach.

    What would happen if we (the Provinces of the AC) assumed and insisted that the Covenant was not to be enforced?

  4. But then why adopt it at all, Jon?

  5. Why tell your wife or partner that you love them?

    Symbolic actions can be helpful and even necessary. In the Covenant's case it could serve as a reminder of how much all the provinces actually have in common, which, if we're lucky, could further energize continuing Indaba or other opportunities to grow in mutual understanding. On the other hand, rejecting the Covenant has symbolic value, too. Unless many provinces reject the Covenant, rejection suggests disdain for the Communion and those Provinces that are committed to the Communion.

  6. And what about the laity in Section 3? What are we? Chopped liver?

  7. Dunstan,

    I recognize the difficulty of perception in rejecting the COvenant. But the Covenant is not the Communion, and if its acceptance becomes a test of loyalty to the Communion, then there is no choice and no point in pretending that there is one. If that's the way it is, it sounds like coercion to me. And no relationship can be based on coercion, unless you suggest that the Bonds of Affection be replaced with Stockholm Synodrome.

    If we adopt a Covenant for purely symbolic reasons, without any intention of following it, then we are hypocrites, and we will deserve whatever unintended consequences flow from such an act.

    You know where I stand on the COvenant, but I am against it preciesly because I believe that it will harm - not help - the Communion. I am committed to the Communion.


  8. Unless many provinces reject the Covenant, rejection suggests disdain for the Communion and those Provinces that are committed to the Communion..

    Dunstan, not at all. Rejecting the covenant suggests no such thing. Rejecting the covenant is simply rejecting the covenant as bad idea and a badly written document, which serve no good purpose for the member churches of the Anglican Communion but will rather give rise to further quarrels and divisiveness.

  9. It is remarkable how often hypocrisy is only thing that enables groups and institutions to function. I don't think, however, that we must sign the Covenant. Although the spiritual and political costs of increasing the Church's fragmentation are very high, it is up to each Province to decide which set of costs they will pay.

    Of course indifference (if that's the right word) is easy for me, the Covenant seems very likely to fail, and will certainly fail if folks try to use it coercively since no one has an army to back up their decisions.

    Oh, I should perhaps point out, I commented here first as Jon. I only just found how to change my name, and Dunstan is my name in religion.

  10. Although the spiritual and political costs of increasing the Church's fragmentation are very high, it is up to each Province to decide which set of costs they will pay.

    Yes, Dunstan (and thanks for the clarification re your name), I agree that the costs of further fragmentation are high, but what I question is whether a principled and pro-Communion decision to reject the Covenant will necessarily increase fragmentation, especially if a significant number of Churches take the same stand.

    Conversely, can it be demonstrated that an agreement to hold our noses and sign the Covenant will decrease fragmentation? i.e., will the Covenant actually have the effects that the proposers suggest it will? And if, at what cost? There are costs to signing as much as to rejecting the Covenant. Will those costs be worth the effort? And if the effect is not as intended, then what?

    Is the proposed cure demonstrably better than the disease?

    I, for one, would like to se some serious analysis and argument on the pro-Covenant side in place of the narrative of assertions that has been put forward to date.


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