On December 18, 2009, the long-awaited Anglican Covenant was sent to the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces for formal consideration. The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council—now self-denominated as the “Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion” has now approved a revised Section Four.
The question on many people’s minds is, “Do we need a covenant?
Some have said that we do not. They complain, “It’s not Anglican!” What they mean, I believe, is that the whole notion of a covenant uniting and binding the whole Communion is contrary to classical Anglican ecclesiology. The argument goes something like this: the provinces of the Anglican Communion have always been independent and self-governing. Any attempt to impose a covenant that would aim to limit that independence and autonomy is simply contrary to the expansiveness and freedom of self-governance that has traditionally been characteristic of Anglicanism.
Ah, but is that a fair reading of our history? I believe not.
In this paper I will summarize the arguments in favor of calling the churches of the Anglican Communion to adopt a Covenant. Then I will address the argument that requiring the churches in the Communion to sign on to the Covenant is not in keeping with our tradition of how we order our common life as Anglicans. A fair reading of the history of the Anglican Communion will show that the aims of the proposed Covenant are in keeping with how the Communion has historically dealt with major disagreements.
The Beginning Point: Why do we need a Covenant?
Why do we need a Covenant? Here is the logical sequence.
1. First, we need a Covenant, because, in approving and actually consecrating as bishop of one who is living in an openly sexual relationship outside the bonds of traditional Holy Matrimony the Episcopal Church has unilaterally changed its teaching on sexual ethics and commended this manner of life to the worldwide Church. Dr. Rowan Williams has written that “[f]or most (though not all) Anglicans, questions about sexual ethics belonged in that category of teaching that was not up for negotiation as a result of cultural variation or social development.” (The Tablet, “Why the Anglican Communion Matters,” February 23, 2007) Dr. Williams stated a further concern that one segment of the Church really had no right to alter this part of the Christian tradition without talking to other worldwide Christian bodies.
2. Second, we need a Covenant because, as Dr. Williams wrote the Primates in his Advent 2007 letter, the Anglican Communion is held together, not by Canon Law, but by “the ability of each part of the family to recognise that other local churches have received the same faith from the apostles and are faithfully holding to it in loyalty to the One Lord incarnate who speaks in Scripture and bestows his grace in the sacraments.” In short, so that each part of the family can know and affirm that they with the others “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship”.
3. Third, the Anglican Communion is currently splintering over this unilateral action by one segment of the Church. Several Provinces have declared broken or impaired communion with the Episcopal Church while some have affirmed or even applauded the American Province. In 2003, the Primates meeting at Lambeth Palace predicted this very state of affairs, saying, “This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA)”. The CAPA Primates wrote in 2007, “The Anglican Communion Covenant is the one way for us to uphold our common heritage of faith while at the same time holding each one of us accountable to those teachings that have defined our life together and also guide us into the future.”
4. Fourth, what could not be known in 2003, or even 2007, was that further tears would develop even in the Episcopal Church. At present four dioceses in the American Church have left. In addition numerous other churches have separated themselves from their parent dioceses. These dioceses and congregations were constituent members of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion before the consecration of Gene Robinson. Further splintering is in the offing as the Episcopal Church has recently elected an openly practicing homosexual woman as suffragan bishop for the Diocese of Los Angeles and as “border crossings” continue unabated. Some means needs to be made to allow these former “Anglicans in good standing” to be recognizably and organically Anglican again. That means is the proposed Covenant.
5. Finally, we need a Covenant that allows our ecumenical partners—most notably the Roman Catholics and Orthodox—to be able to know who is actually authorized to speak on behalf of Anglicanism in ecumenical conversation. How can any trustworthy ecumenical agreements be had with representatives of the Anglican Communion if there is no Communion-wide consensus as to whether a certain individual or individuals actually shares the covenanted concerns of the Communion in such as way as is recognizable and accepted by all other parts of the Anglican Communion. (This is not a new concern of the present Archbishop of Canterbury; Archbishop Michael Ramsey raised this concern following his meeting with Pope Paul VI when he asked himself upon what basis did he, as Archbishop of Canterbury, represent a branch of the Church with a theology.)
But, is it consistent with traditional Anglicanism ecclesiology to have a Covenant that all churches must sign onto?
Just because the Anglican Communion may need a Covenant does not mean that calling the various churches of the Anglican Communion to adopt a Covenant is consonant with the traditional ecclesiology of Anglicanism. The Covenant could be necessary for Anglicanism, could be a workable solution, but it could also be so inconsistent with the way the Anglican Communion has traditionally ordered its common life that for the Anglican Communion to adopt the Covenant could do more damage to Anglicanism than the harm the Covenant is intended to remedy.
Anglicanism has traditionally adopted a minimalist approach to the way it governs its common life. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu quipped about this minimalist nature of Anglican ecclesiology. Asked once what makes us Anglicans, he replied, “We meet.” He was obviously referring to the decennial meeting of the Lambeth Conference.
Some have argued that the whole Covenant process is invasive of this minimalist way of governing the Communion. They further argue that to require provinces or dioceses to sign onto the Covenant in order to be recognized as Anglican is something that we as Anglicans have never required and that now is not the time to introduce this non-Anglican innovation.
However, the reason the Anglican Communion has never resorted to a Covenant is because it has never had to. Conflicts that have threatened to destroy the unity of the Communion have been rare. And the three times before the present conflict revealed the Communion finding a way to maintain its unity by self-submission by the individual members of the Communion to the counsel of the whole.
Autonomy in Communion
The Anglican Communion has historically ordered its common life under a mantle of grace, what the Windsor Report calls “autonomy in communion.” The Windsor Report says that we are autonomous only in relation to others (within the Communion). Historically, the Anglican Communion has balanced the freedom of an individual province to govern itself with the need to be in mutual relationship with each other. When conflict has arisen between member churches of the Communion that threatened the unity of the Communion, the individual provinces have surrendered their autonomy for the sake of the unity of the Communion. Or, to put it another and probably more accurate way, the autonomy of the individual provinces was limited by the need for unity of the whole Communion.
We will now explore these previous occurrences of conflict in the life of the Communion to illustrate this principle of autonomy in communion at work. We will then show how the mutual restraint present in these first three instances has been absent in the current conflict and how the proposed Anglican Covenant provides a framework for dealing with such conflicts in a way that is in keeping with the process of mutual restraint of the various member churches of the Anglican Communion which was present in these first two challenges to the unity of the Communion.
There have been only four times in the history of the Anglican Communion when issues have threatened to disrupt or even destroy the unity of the Anglican Communion: (1) the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America and the first American Book of Common Prayer; (2) the Colenso Affair and the calling of the First Lambeth Conference; (3) the ordination to the priesthood of Florence Li Tim-Oi in the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao; and (4) the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.
(1) The Formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America and the First American Book of Common Prayer
With the expansion of the British Empire came the extension of the Church of England on foreign soil. The first extension of the Church of England outside the British Isles occurred in the American colonies.
The first challenge to the faith and unity of the Church of England and the nascent Anglican Communion came with the adoption of the first American Book of Common Prayer. The War for Independence signaled the end of the authority of the Church of England over the formerly Anglican churches in the United States of America. Church leaders from the various states set about the process of organizing these Anglican churches into a new national church in conformity with the faith and church order of the Church of England but without the oath of allegiance to and prayers for the English monarch.
With the consecration of Samuel Seabury as bishop of Connecticut, the American church was able to ordain clergy for the Anglican churches in the United States. However, in accordance with historic Christian practice, the self-perpetuation of the episcopate for this church in this new country required three bishops to consecrate more bishops. With Seabury the American church had only one bishop.
At the same time, it was necessary to develop a prayer book for use in these American churches, as well as formally to establish this new American Anglican Church.
The draft version of the original American Book of Common Prayer, prepared in 1785, called for some major changes from the 1662 version of the English prayer book upon which it was modeled. Among other changes, the proposed American version called for the deletion of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the removal of the phrase concerning Christ’s descent into Hell from the Apostles’ Creed, as well as alterations to the baptismal service, matrimonial office, and other similar changes.
How did bishops in England respond? Richard Peters of Philadelphia met with the archbishop of Canterbury and filed this report:
I find that we can have no Bishop till we let the prelates see what Church we have made. I think it would be prudent in our Church, to put off any material alterations till we have Bishops consecrated; if we make any substantial alterations they will be carped at by those who will make the Bishops uneasy, and so, to keep peace at home, they will refuse to meddle abroad [that is, to consecrate bishops of the church in America]. The Making of the First American Book of Common Prayer, Marion Hatchett, p. 65.
These English bishops refused to consecrate any bishops for the Church in America until the American church remedied these errors in their proposed prayer book. In effect, upon the objections of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other English bishops, all of the major revisions were abandoned in favor of conformity with the English prayer book, except for the continued omission of the Athanasian Creed.
The aim of the first drafters of the first American Book of Common Prayer was to establish a church that preserved the unity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America with the Church of England. The words of the Preface to this prayer book state this intent: “this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship . . .”
Here we have the beginnings of what it means to be a transoceanic and worldwide Communion: the proposed innovations of the Americans to their Book of Common Prayer so departed from the English bishops’ understanding of the faith that the latter could not in good conscience consecrate bishops for the American expression of the Church of England. Because these proposed revisions would have shaped a church ostensibly consonant with the Church of England but actually departing from her in some “essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship,” the English bishops refused to consecrate American bishops until the American church came into conformity. To use the Windsor Report language: Autonomy submitted itself to Communion.
Note Bishop Samuel Seabury’s response to some of the proposed revisions:
If we new model [revise] the government [of the Church], why not the sacraments, creeds, and doctrines of the Church? But then it would not be Christ’s Church, but our Church; and it would remain so, call it by what name we please.” One, Catholic, and Apostolic, Paul Marshall, p. 73.
I doubt that the English bishops who consecrated William White and Samuel Provoost, thus providing for the self-perpetuating succession of the episcopate in America, had any notion that they were thereby establishing the Anglican Communion. They did, however, recognize that they were doing something that was inextricably connected with the Church of England. They had withheld their consent to consecrate White and Provoost as bishops until the American Church agreed to change their proposed prayer book in order to maintain the unity of the Church.
(2) The Colenso Affair and the Calling of the First Lambeth Conference
By 1865 there were 45 English overseas dioceses and 34 American dioceses who considered themselves Anglican. In addition there were five independent provinces with enough bishops to continue their own succession. It was in this year that the Canadian bishops called for a meeting of all Anglican bishops throughout the world.
Why did they issue their call for this unprecedented meeting of bishops from all these dioceses? The presenting issue was what has come to be known as the Colenso Affair. Bishop John William Colenso, the first bishop in Southern Africa, held liberal views on polygamy, the baptism of children; he held more liberal views on sacramental theology than that held historically by Anglicans, and he wrote a commentary denying the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
Without going into the details here, Bishop Colenso was not invited to this first Lambeth Conference, and the discipline of Colenso by the Archbishop of Capetown was affirmed.
What came out of the first Lambeth Conference? First, a commitment to a long-term solution to challenges posed by such as the Colenso Affair by means of a strong endorsement of the synodical way of governing the Church for the sake of good order. Secondly, concern for the faith and unity of the whole Communion over the autonomy of individual bishops and churches to depart from the faith and order of the larger Communion. When the faith and unity of the Anglican Communion is at risk, those bishops, by their actions, declared that it is incumbent on the bishops, by virtue of their Office, to take whatever measures are necessary to guard the faith and unity of the Communion.
(3) The Ordination to the Priesthood of Florence Li Tim-Oi in the Diocese of Hong Kong
The Windsor Report cites the challenge to the unity of the Communion brought about by the ordination of the first woman to the priesthood, Florence Li Tim-Oi in the Diocese of Hong Kong as a clear example of the principle of autonomy in communion as a core value in the Anglican Communion.
Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained a priest in 1944. Controversy over the ordination erupted, and Forence surrendered her license to officiate as a priest in 1946. In 1968, the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao brought the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood to the Lambeth Conference. In Resolution 34, the Conference recommended that before any province made a final decision to ordain women to the priesthood that they should consult with and follow the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council. This was, in fact, done, and the ACC did advise that the Bishop of Hong Kong and Macao could proceed with the ordination of women in his diocese and encouraged all provinces of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with that diocese. When Hong Kong ordained two women priests in 1971, they were officially recognized as priests of that diocese.
The Windsor Report proceeds to review the process of recognizing the consecration of women to the episcopate as another example of autonomy in communion and the cooperative nature of decision-making in the Communion. Their summary of the significance of that process for the Communion is important for our purposes:
Anglicans can understand from this story that decision-making in the Communion on serious and contentious issues has been, and can be, carried out without division, despite a measure of impairment. We need to note that the Instruments of Unity, i.e. the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, were all involved in the decision-making process. Provincial autonomy was framed by Anglican interdependence on matters of deep theological concern to the whole Communion. (Windsor Report, §21)
(4) The consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire
The Anglican Communion, for much of its history, has been dominated by the Church of England and the First World provinces of the Communion. In short, the whites were the powerful and the Third World Anglicans, the non-whites, were generally silent participants and a distinct minority in the Communion. This imbalance changed with the indigenization of the Church in Africa in the mid-20th Century.
The Lambeth Conference of 1978 was the last conference of the hegemony with the whites leading the Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Conference of 1988 saw the emergence of the African provinces recognizing their numerical strength. Realizing that parts of the First World provinces of the Communion were moving beyond the traditional views of marriage and sexuality that had been historically held by the Church catholic, the bishops reported that they viewed the issues surrounding human sexuality as being “complex.” There was a need, they said, “for theological study of sexuality in such a way as to relate sexual relationships to that wholeness of human life which itself derives from God, who is the source of masculinity and femininity.” In particular, they “reaffirm[ed] heterosexuality as the scriptural norm,” and called for dispassionate study of the issue.
The Lambeth Conference of 1998 saw the attempted resolution of this conflict. It was decided, by a vote of 526-70, to pass a resolution (1.10) calling for a “listening process” but stating that “homosexual practice” is “incompatible with Scripture”.
The Episcopal Church put this mind of the Communion to the test. In 2003 it approved the consecration of Gene Robinson, who was living in a sexual relationship with a man, as bishop of New Hampshire. A hailstorm erupted throughout the Anglican Communion.
In response, Rowan Williams, the then recently enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury, called for a Commission to make recommendations that would guide the Anglican Communion to resolve the conflict brought about as a result of this consecration.
Before the consecration of Bishop Robinson, the Primates, meeting in October 2003 stated,
if his consecration proceeds, we recognise that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the communion itself will be put in jeopardy. In this case, the ministry of this one bishop will not be recognised by most of the Anglican world, and many provinces are likely to consider themselves to be out of communion with the Episcopal Church (USA). This will tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).
In 2010, over six years after the consecration of Gene Robinson, this issue remains unresolved. Four dioceses of the Episcopal Church have left TEC. They have been joined by the Anglican Mission in America, established by the Anglican Church in Rwanda; and collections of churches overseen by bishops consecrated by the archbishops of Kenya, Uganda, The Southern Cone, and Nigeria; along with a number of “continuing churches” who have formed The Anglican Church in North America.
Ironically, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, in 1991, recognized the seriousness of unilateral action in this area of human sexuality, and through its Resolution B020, it mandated a “pan-Anglican and ecumenical” consultation precisely because they “should not be resolved by the Episcopal Church on its own.” One could only wonder what might have happened had this mandate had been followed as an instance of autonomy in communion!
In terms of Communion faith and unity, the issues can be stated: will the Anglican Communion devolve into a federation of provinces, each free to develop its own theology without reference to other provinces in the Communion; free to consecrate bishops within the geographical boundaries of already existing dioceses; free to plant churches, ordain priests and deacons, perform confirmations in those already existing dioceses; some dioceses recognized by some dioceses and not by others; some bishops of some provinces recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury and some bishops of those same provinces not recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury? Or will the Anglican Communion be a Communion of provinces which exercise mutual submission to each other as it has throughout its history up until the present conflict?
What is different now is that the Episcopal Church, for the first time in the history of the Anglican Communion, has refused to submit itself to the counsel of the larger Communion. As long as all members of the Anglican Communion remained submitted to each other (autonomy in communion), there was no need for a Covenant. The whole Communion, through prayer, conversation, and counsel worked out its relationship cooperatively. The decision of the American Episcopal Church to proceed with the consecration of a bishop sexually active outside the bonds of holy matrimony and the cross jurisdictional consecrations and ordinations by several of the African and South American provinces have shown that parts of the Communion are no longer willing to be mutually submitted to one another when introducing innovations that threaten the faith and unity of the Communion.
The requested adoption of a Covenant for the Anglican Communion represents the mutual submission historically exhibited by the Communion in times of conflict. It is fully in keeping with the minimalist approach to the way the Communion has governed itself. In the three previous times of conflict, the party introducing the innovation submitted itself to the counsel of the larger Communion. By adopting the proposed Covenant, each church or province explicitly agrees ahead of time to life by this historic principle of mutual self-restraint for the sake of the unity of the Communion, that is, autonomy in communion.
The basic question being addressed is: what does it mean to be Anglican in such a way that the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Anglicanism is recognized throughout the Anglican Communion, as well as by our ecumenical partners?
Because there are now competing voices and conflicting opinions as to what it means to be Anglican, the Anglican Covenant has been developed, not as a way of defining doctrine, discipline, and worship rules, but by allowing the various members of the Communion to indicate their willingness to be mutually submitted to the mind of the Communion on issues that threaten the faith and unity of the Anglican Communion. As such, the Covenant represents a minimalist approach to communion and relationship of the Anglican Communion.
A Final Analogy: Grace Abused
Throughout its history, in times of conflict, the Anglican Communion has been held together by grace. This principle is represented by Archbishop Tutu’s quip that what makes us Anglicans is that we meet. We have not been held together by judicial decree, by constitutional provisions, or by an overtly confessional conformity. We have been held together by the grace of relationship.
With the consecration of Bishop Robinson, the grace of relationship was abused. The Episcopal Church was asked by the larger Communion to live by the grace of mutual self-restraint. The abuse of that grace has caused dioceses to separate themselves from The Episcopal Church; has caused lawsuits by churches in the United States against dioceses, TEC and dioceses to sue local Episcopal churches, and deacons, priests, and bishops to be deposed; and encouraged African and South American dioceses to cross jurisdictional boundaries. The normal grace-filled, mutually submissive way of ordering our common life in the Anglican Communion has failed to maintain the faith and unity of the Communion.
So, the question is, how can we as a Communion maintain our fellowship in times of conflict in a mutually submissive, grace-filled way?
Is the Covenant the best way forward for the Anglican Communion in the face of the Communion-breaking conflicts we are currently facing? Winston Churchill said of democracy, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
So, I suppose we may say the same with respect to the Covenant as a way of preserving the faith and unity of the Anglican Communion. There may be a better way, but it has yet to be proposed. At this point, the alternative to the proposed Covenant process is for Anglicanism to splinter into a federation of provinces and dioceses where some bishops are recognized by some but not all, some provinces and dioceses will cooperate with some Anglican provinces and dioceses but not all, where to be Anglican has no real theological substance or consistency, just cultural artifacts of a bygone era in which, when a person is asked: “are you Anglican?” the response will be, “it depends on what you mean by ‘Anglican.’”
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