04 March 2011

Anglican Covenant: Questions and Answers and more Questions

Alongside its rather thin Study Guide, the Anglican Communion Office has also recently published a document of Questions and Answers. To give some credit, this document is much more meaty than the Study Guide, which might be better described as a sales brochure. A careful read of the Questions and Answers in conjunction with the proposed Covenant itself may help stimulate some actual critical thinking, which is a good thing.

The Q&A begins by asking, “What is a covenant?”

The answer, which includes an extensive quote from an address given to the Lambeth Conference by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is very helpful. It points to the biblical model for a covenant which, “refers to a solemn agreement or promise which binds two parties.” For example, the document quotes the Covenant God makes with Noah (Genesis 9): “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Or again, there is the Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17): “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” As signs of these covenants, we have the rainbow and circumcision.

An interesting point not explored by the document is the fact that these covenants are awfully one-sided. God promises Noah that he won’t destroy the earth again, and gives a rainbow as a perpetual sign. God promises Abram that he will be the ancestor of great nations, and throws in a new name, with the sign being circumcision. In other words, there’s a whole lot of quo and not much quid in the bargain. In addition, there are no mechanisms in these covenants for addressing disputes. There’s no Standing Committee, no threat of Relational Consequences, and so on. (Yes, Israel would later understand various setbacks such as various defeats in battle and the Exile as Relational Consequences of a sort, but these are not built in to the Covenant. It is not designed to impose them.)

The document correctly notes that “there is ... only one true covenant: that which we receive in Christ as God binds himself to us.” Which begs the question: why, then, this paper Covenant? Do the authors not see the irony of how much they dignify the proposed Anglican Covenant by comparing it to the biblical covenants? Do they not see how poorly it fares in relation to the New Covenant in Christ?

Oh, but “our Covenant uses words from the Bible and our Church tradition.” Yes, but that does not make it Holy Writ. I can quote Shakespeare until I am blue in the face and never once be mistaken for the bard himself. And, as we shall soon be reminded in our Sunday Gospel reading, the devil is capable of quoting scripture. So the fact that the proposed Covenant is liberally sprinkled with words and phrases from scripture and from previous ecclesiastical documents (all carefully footnoted) means exactly nothing. What is important is what the proposal actually says, what it is likely (or unlikely) to achieve, what are the possible and probable side-effects. And about these, we see very little, if anything, emanating from the Anglican Communion Office.

Question 2 asks, “How and why has the Covenant been written?”

The document explains that the Covenant was written on the recommendation of the Windsor Report. It says that this report was a “response to developments in North America with respect to same-sex relationships” as a result of which “serious differences threatened the life of a diverse worldwide Church.” That’s one reading of events, I suppose, though not a very thorough one. It ignores, for example, that people outside North America also have same-sex relationships. Some of them are even Anglicans. And the suggestion that “differences” were the cause of disunity, rather than aggressive actions, is a serious weakness. And I’m not certain which “worldwide Church” the document refers to. Do they mean “Communion of autonomous Churches”? No, probably not.

The document states that the aim of the proposed Covenant is not “to change current Anglican Structures or to amend doctrine.” But in fact, it does change current structures, by turning the recently renamed Standing Committee into a tribunal, and the Instruments of Communion into Instruments of Coercion. As to amending doctrine, it seems to be designed to remove the possibility of evolution of doctrine, which is certainly a change to what I have long seen as one of the hallmarks of the Anglican approach to doctrine - provisionality.

The document assures us that “Love, charity and unity form the basis of the Covenant.” But it fails to explain how these qualities can emerge from the climate of hostility, uncharitableness and disunity that has pervaded so much of the relations in the Anglican Communion these last several years. Love, charity and unity are all certainly desirable, but they cannot be imposed, nor can they emerge from a document. They must be received as a gift from God and cultivated by God’s followers. That would require things like showing up at meetings and worshiping together.

The document also assures us that the proposed Covenant “has been arrived at only after a thorough process of consultation.” In fact, the whole process of drafting this proposal has occurred at breakneck speed, with very little opportunity for careful, informed reflection. It has gone through four drafts in the span of three years, quickly shown to each of the Primates’ Meeting, the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council, with no chance for a report back to any of these bodies before moving on to the next stage. That’s drive-by consultation, which respects neither the people being consulted nor those tasked with conducting the consultation. As to the Churches of the Communion, the document pays lip service to the fact that “the timescales and legal processes vary considerably amongst the provinces of the Communion” but the process neither takes these differences into consideration nor seriously entertains the possibility that a number of Churches will decline the invitation to adopt the Covenant. The Communion Office needs to grasp that some General Synods don’t meet three times per year.

Question 3 asks, “What does the Anglican Communion Covenant say?”

I have written, and will write, elsewhere about the content of the proposed Covenant, but here one line leaps out: “The third section ... asks the question, ‘what is the source of our unity?’ The immediate answer is ‘our participation in Baptism and Eucharist’ by which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church.” Ah, so the proposed Covenant is not a source of our unity!

Question 4 addresses “How will the Covenant deepen our Communion?”

Well, “addresses” is a strong word. The document suggests that this goal will be achieved “by providing a constant reminder of our shared life and mutual responsibilities while renewing our commitment to the mission of the Church in the world.” Who could argue with that? But, as always, the devil is in the details. The document goes on to state that, at times of dispute “the early Christians would meet together and discuss their disputes and, guided by the Holy Spirit, find a measure of peace and resolution as they journeyed together.” Yes, but what they didn’t do was to set up a mechanism for applying Relational Consequences following a demonstrably unfair process. So the unanswered question here is, given the method of the early Christians for addressing matters of controversy, in what way (if any)  is the proposed Covenant an improvement?

One of the key virtues mentioned by the document (and the proposed Covenant) is patience. I would like to know what is implied by patience, because sometimes it is a two-edged sword. I recall as a curate that I was involved in some initiative or other in the parish to which a certain segment of the community took exception. One femme d’un certain age told me, “Just wait 15 years and we’ll all be dead; then you can do what you want.” In other words, be patient. I recall thinking that if I had to spend the next 15 years waiting to get on with things then I wouldn’t be there to implement the idea once the last objector was dead. Patience can indeed be a virtue, but the call to patience can also be a delaying tactic. And when people are trying to bring the sorts of changes that free the oppressed, or to liberate the marginalized, the call to patience is anything but virtuous. When a marginalized minority is waiting for the better part of a generation for the majority to make up its mind, the call to patience perpetuates oppression. And in the process countless lives of service in the Gospel are frittered away, countless opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God are squandered, measureless amount of energy wasted. Is this what we want for the Anglican Communion?

Sometimes there is such a thing as divine impatience.

Question 6 asks, “Will all churches associated with the Anglican Communion adopt the Covenant?”

The short answer is, we hope so, but some might not. But the curious point is raised that “there may be other Churches not currently in the Communion, or individual dioceses within existing provinces or local churches, which wish to affirm the Covenant, and which could be invited by the Instruments of Communion to adopt it formally.” With respect to the first category, I have to ask “why”? Why would a non-Anglican Church want to sign on to an international treaty that couches the faith in peculiarly Anglican language, affirms the value of the heritage of the English Reformation, including the 39 Articles, Book of Common Prayer and so on, and then creates mechanisms for disciplining signatories? It makes no sense to me. And with respect to the second category, whilst I can’t speak for other Churches, it would be ultra vires for a diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada to adopt the Covenant formally, and it would be out of line for the Instruments of Communion to invite such a diocese to do so. Such an invitation would be a profound disrespect for the constitutional autonomy of the Anglican Church of Canada. So let’s put that idea to bed right now.

Question 8 asks, “Will the Covenant prevent the Church from moving forward?”

The answer may surprise you. It surprised me! The document says that “each local Church must be free to develop its life and mission within its particular context.” But the whole reason we have a proposed Covenant is precisely because some Churches have attempted to do just that: to develop their lives and mission within their particular contexts; and then other Churches in other contexts objected. The response from some leaders in the Anglican Communion, including the original Chair of the Covenant Design Group, has been that we need mechanisms to restrain Churches from acting in their own contexts. The purpose of the Covenant is in fact precisely to act as a restraint! And it’s not exactly like Churches need restraints. We already have all sorts of mechanisms to slow down and test the spirit and study proposals. Churches, according to a Lutheran bishop I have met, are like aircraft carriers: they don’t turn on a dime. The only thing that needs restraining is the Covenant juggernaut.

Question 9 asks, “Will the Covenant strengthen central control within the Anglican Communion?”

Again, a surprising answer: not at all! “It must be stressed,” the document soothes, “that the Covenant continually emphasises the autonomy of the provinces of the Communion.” Yes it does. But then it undermines that autonomy with a vague and arbitrary process by which the Standing Committee can threaten Relational Consequences against any provinces that has the audacity actually to exercise its autonomy.

Finally, question 10 asks, “Why might people be nervous about the Covenant?”

The only answer here appears to be that the Covenant is new. And Nervous Nellies are always worried about novelty. But, “we can be confident that the Covenant is the result of a careful process of consultation, debate and prayer.” Actually, I’m not so confident. There has been very little careful study or debate, even if there has been a fair bit of prayer. Although we do need to differentiate between prayer and wishful thinking. And as to consultation, it has often been hurried or involved processes designed to elicit consensus and agreement. Just over a month before the Covenant Design Group was appointed a number of Anglican scholars were approached and asked to provide some background papers to help the Group do its work. The deadline was impossibly short, just a few weeks and in the midst of the already busy season of Advent. And within ten days of the Design Group being announced, it had met and produced the first draft. Notice of the first meeting was so short that some members of the Group were unable to attend. And they can have given no more than the most cursory glance at the background materials. That’s not careful; it’s rushed. And in spite of a great deal of effort to go back and clean up that initial work through the text three drafts, the proposed Covenant still shows evidence of that initial rush.

The Question and Answer document is certainly worth reading. But read it critically. I hope it stimulates some more serious discussion and debate than the Study Guide is likely to do. We need more serious discussion and debate and less assertion.


  1. Well done, Alan. I was just reading through the Q and A this morning, and ranting that they repeat this lovely language about being "autonomous"..."Oh, no: no central authority!" Yet they fail to cite those portions of Section Four which talk of the "standing committee" and the theoretical stick ready to whack us all on the knuckles when we fail to consider our "interdependence". As you note, the whole reason they wanted this stupid thing in the first place was that some of us in the Communion were being autonomous and responding to where we believe the Spirit is guiding us.
    In a word, "AAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!"

  2. Yes, it seems that churches can exercise their autonomy as they understand the Spirit to be leading them, so long as everyone else agrees.

    Sort of like the Ford Model T, which was available in any colour you wanted, so long as it was black.


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