By Ephraim Radner | June 23, 2008
Ephraim Radner, Wycliffe College (Toronto, Canada) and member of the Covenant Design Group
How did the idea of a Covenant arise?
The history of the proposed Covenant goes back over a decade. Here are a few key elements in this history:
* In 1997 the so-called “Virginia Report” of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission began a rich process of reflecting on the needs of a growing, diversifying, and changing Anglican Communion. This included analyzing and re-thinking in some cases the current structures and relationships among Anglican churches around the world and generally demonstrating the demand for greater explicitness and deliberation in the way the Communion functions. The Report’s opening theological discussion (2.1) sets out the reality of divine “Covenant” as the fundamental means by which God’s purposes are enacted historically.
* In March 2001, as fractures within the Communion had already begun to appear, Prof. Norman Doe of Cardiff University proposed “covenants” among Anglican churches as a means of furthering the coherent articulation of a common “communion canon law”, based on the existing ius commune of the Communion (the shared fundamental commitments to Communion life already present in the canon law of various Anglican churches around the world – see his “Canon Law and Communion”, available online at the Anglican Communion office).
* In 2004, in response to the disarray within the Communion sparked by the election and consecration of the partnered gay bishop of New Hampshire in the American Episcopal Church the year earlier, the Lambeth Commission on Communion issued what is called the Windsor Report. The Report provided three important spurs to the Covenant proposal. First, it described the communion shared among Anglican churches as one of “covenantal affection” (par. 45), thereby defining the Anglican Communion, theologically, as already structured by covenantal dynamics. Second, the Windsor Report (paragraphs 113-120) actually proposed in a formal way that a Covenant be drafted and adopted, the “case” for which, it said, was “overwhelming”:
“This Commission recommends, therefore, and urges the primates to consider, the adoption by the churches of the Communion of a common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion. The Covenant could deal with: the acknowledgement of common identity; the relationships of communion; the commitments of communion; the exercise of autonomy in communion; and the management of communion affairs (including disputes).” (par. 118).
Finally, the Windsor Report provided a “draft” proposal to stir reflection (Appendix Two of the Report).
* The Windsor Report’s recommendation was accepted by the Primates’ Meeting in 2005, and later by the Anglican Consultative Council, and in 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, followed up on this, first by an open letter to the Communion describing his support of the Covenant idea (“The Challenge and Hope of Being Anglican Today”), and then by his appointment of provincial nominees to a Covenant Design Group, which first met in January of 2007. The Covenant Design Group has now produced two drafts of a proposed Covenant for the Communion.
What is the purpose and form of an Anglican Covenant as presently proposed?
The proposed Covenant follows upon the ideas and recommendations noted above. It will seek the official and solemn commitments of Provincial (and possibly diocesan) Anglican churches around the world to a common set of doctrinal, missionary, and decision-making standards. A commitment to these standards will identify a church as being a recognized member of the Anglican Communion with an unqualified relation to all its instruments of unity. It will also provide all members with a set common expectations by which ministry and mission can be ordered with one another faithfully, peaceably, and affectionately and for the sake of the wider Christian Church and God’s glory.
Why do we need a Covenant at all?
A covenant has been proposed, not to change the nature of Anglicanism or the nature of the Anglican Communion, but in order faithfully to respond to developments that have already taken place within our common life as Anglicans. These developments have to do with the enormous blessing God has given to the missionary receipt of the Gospel within different parts of the globe over the past 150 years through the Anglican church. Many of these blessings, though taking form over a long period, did not become apparent in their scope until just the past few decades, as Anglican churches in Africa and Asia especially, as well as in other parts of the world, have emerged as vital and Spirit-filled Christian communities, themselves engaged in a broad range of missionary endeavors. The Covenant seeks to address how Anglicans around the world, although no longer bound by the past habits and culture of a more restricted British and Anglo-American fraternity, will maintain their unity and energy as they witness to the Gospel.
At the same time, the Anglican Communion has always understood itself to be “bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” (Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 49). This eschewal of a “central legislative and executive authority” has always been understood as embodying the Anglican charism of “mutual responsibility and interdependence” (to use the phrase from the 1963 Anglican Congress), exercised under the “ultimate” authority of the Scriptures themselves. Given this tradition, “procedure” in terms of common council and behavioral norms of common decision-making with regard to the meaning and application of Scripture’s rule must take a higher profile for Anglican churches than perhaps for some other Christian ecclesial communities. The Covenant is designed to address this traditional need for procedural faithfulness.
Are there other ways of addressing the challenges of the Anglican Communion?
The current structures of relationship and decision-making within the Communion have failed to maintain the unity of witness that Anglicans have generally enjoyed until the more recent emergence of a fully global Communion. Challenges were already visible and recognized by 1997. Indeed, over the past two decades we have seen an increasing breakdown of common teaching, mutually recognized ministries, and affectionate cooperation. Iin fact, as early as 1963, the Anglican Congress of Toronto first articulated the needs for mutual accountability and interdependence among world Anglican churches in all central facets of their lives. Certain newer structures — like the Anglican Consultative Council and the regular Primates’ Meeting — began to address some of these realities, but very incompletely. It is clear that, for lack of a common sense of and commitment to the purposes of these structures and the Gospel they serve, as well as to the procedures of their service, the structures themselves are proving incapable of carrying the trust and force of the Communion’s united purpose. No other means of addressing this incapacity have been suggested, short of allowing the Anglican Communion itself to dissolve. But since the Covenant in fact will permit those who would prefer there to be no Communion to leave the Communion, this option is not ruled out for those who desire it, even by a Covenant.
Is a Covenant un-Anglican historically?
The notion of a “covenant” between churches – a common and mutual agreement with regard to confession, mission, and accountability – is not historically un-Anglican. Such covenanting – with or without the word being explicitly deployed – marks all the legal acts within the establishment of the Church of England during the 16th century, including the oral and written vows of bishop and clergy, not to mention of the baptized; it marks the agreements made between geographically dispersed Anglican churches both in their original establishment, and in later relationships of mission and support; and it marks ecumenical agreements between Anglican churches and non-Anglican churches in the contemporary world. The explicit term “covenant”, in our day, has formally bound Anglican churches together (e.g. TEC and the Philippines) as well as Anglicans and Lutherans and Anglicans and Methodists. As a reality, ecclesial covenant derives from the mutual commitments of the first Christians in their mission and ministry, such as was made between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church (cf. Galatians 2:9).
Is a Covenant destructive of central Anglican values?
The proposed Covenant seeks to articulate, rather than change, central Anglican values. For instance, Anglican churches have long understood their local autonomy to be constrained by the Word of God in the Scriptures (cf. Article 20 and 34 of the 39 Articles of Religion). They have also understood their local decision-making, in this regard, to somehow be coherent with the common faith and discipline held and followed by other Anglican churches around the world (cf. the 1789 Preface to the American Prayer Book, and Resolution 49 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference). These kinds of values and commitments are precisely what the Covenant aims to express, although in the concrete ways that will today allow our diverse churches around the world better to understand the nature of their local and communion callings and responsibilities.
Is a Covenant contrary to Christian freedom?
It is important to emphasize that the calling to stated mutual commitments among the servants of God is central to faithfulness, not hostile to it. Paul’s notion of Christian “freedom” within the Church is clearly located within the imperative to mutual “slavery” and to the “bearing of one another’s burdens” (Gal. 5:13-15; 6:2), in a way that seeks to “fulfill the law of Christ”. This “freedom-in-servanthood” represents the very character of God’s love in Christ Jesus, and hence the notion of divine “covenant” that is expressed in the reality of the marriage covenant is also transferred to the Church’s own mutual life (cf. Is. 54:5-10 ; Eph. 5:21-33).
How would a Covenant further Christian life and witness?
In several ways, including the following:
Honest clarity: by stating openly and officially a set of commitments in witness, mission, and order, local Anglican churches and the Communion as a whole can move towards speaking to one another, to other Christian churches, and to the world in a way where “yes is yes and no is no” (Mt. 5:37; cf. 1 Cor. 1:17-18).
Transparency: in following through with a common mode of discernment and decision-making, on the basis of agreed-upon standards, Anglican churches would fulfill the calling to be open and non-deceptive in their relationships (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1-8);
Mutual accountability: by accepting and abiding by such standards and procedures in common, Anglican churches would order their lives in a process of mutual accountability. They would thereby embody the form of Jesus’ own teaching on the Church’s common life, and represent the humility of mutual subjection that marks his direction of the Church’s shape (Lev. 19:17; Mt. 18:15ff; James 5:19-20);
Trust: by living together in honesty, transparency, and accountability, Anglican churches will better be able to witness to the world with the unanxious and peaceable thanksgiving that constitutes, in part, the persuasive light of Christ (Phil. 4:4-7).
All of this, an more, would further the visible integrity of Christian witness and mission within the world.
How are the current elements within the draft Covenant faithful to these purposes?
A careful consideration of the current draft’s three sections on Common Faith, Common Mission, and Common Life will show that their particular elements all fall within the scope of current and historically-attested Anglican commitments. Indeed all these elements derive from traditional and agreed statements of faith and order that Anglicans have already adopted in various ways (e.g. the Book of Common Prayer, the Lambeth Quadrilateral, various Anglican provincial constitutions, Lambeth resolutions, agreed statements from Anglican-ecumenical dialogues, Communion commission reports, etc..)
The one area where this is less obvious is in the procedural details regarding disagreements among Anglican churches over whether commitments and standards are being upheld. Even here, however, the Covenant seeks either to make more explicit or to elaborate more concretely ways of responding to disagreement among Anglican churches that have already been pursued, if often uncertainly and sometimes haphazardly (thereby further exacerbating current tensions). In the attempt to bring such definition and concreteness, however, the draft seeks not to invent new structures for their own sake, but to allow currently halting ways of dealing with disagreement to become more coherent in the light of the greater honesty, transparency, accountability and trust that a common Covenant will provide.
What is the proper balance in a Covenant between definition and process?
This is among the greatest challenges that a Covenant for a world-wide Anglican Communion must resolve, since (as noted above) there is a vital balance to be maintained between local and Scripturally- and mutually-bound life.
One thing is important to note in general: “procedural” aspects of a common Covenant are not somehow antithetical to the defined character of faith and witness. When St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:40, speaks of “all things” in the church being done “decently and in good order”, Christians have always understood this injunction to touch the full range of their common life of teaching and mission. Hence, both Old Testament and New Testament are filled with the outlining of “procedures” for life together, some involving structural relations (cf. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and some involving the “ways” and character of personal relationship (cf. Colossians 3:12-4:6). In these kinds of instructions there is a strong connection between procedure and relational character, on the one hand, and substantive definition of faith and morals on the other (cf. Ephesians 4 and 5 for an obvious case of this): it is not possible to teach the “one” faith without a means of relating one to another that is clear and trustworthy; but such a means of relating is without purpose if it is not given over to and itself defined by the substantive realities of the true faith. However the balance is properly expressed in the end, there will be no resolution if one aspect or the other is assumed to be unneeded from the start.
At the same time, the Anglican Communion has always understood itself to be “bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” (Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 49). This eschewal of a “central legislative and executive authority” has always been understood as embodying the Anglican charism of “mutual responsibility and interdependence” (to use the phrase from the 1963 Anglican Congress), exercised under the “ultimate” authority of the Scriptures themselves. Given this tradition, “procedure” in terms of common council and behavioral norms of common decision-making with regard to the meaning and application of Scripture’s rule must take a higher profile for Anglican churches than perhaps for some other Christian ecclesial communities.
Within Anglicanism and the Anglican Communion, the current struggles in our common life are linked to a confusion among and within churches over both aspects — the definition of faith and discipline, and the procedural form of common discernment and decision-making — not just over a disequilibrium between the two. Hence, the Covenant seeks to address both aspects and does not simply press for one over the other.
Are there weaknesses in the current Draft?
Based on comments and responses already received from around the Communion, it is clear that some areas of the draft need more work. For instance, the Anglican commitment to Scripture’s ultimate authority, although articulated, is not as consistently applied throughout the Covenant as it might be. Again, some of the procedural aspects of the final Section are not as clear as they need to be in order to fulfill their purpose, and may still fail to address disagreement in a faithful, expeditious, and trustworthy manner. These and other concerns have been formally sent to the Covenant Design Group, and the Group has been and will continue to be sensitive in responding to them.
What would it mean for a Province to decide not to sign the Covenant?
Were the Covenant put forward by the Instruments of Communion before the Communion’s current provinces, a decision by a given province not to sign would indicate that province’s decision not to be a full-member of the covenanting Anglican Communion. This would mean at the least that the province in question would no longer be a party to the Communion’s official discernment and decision-making bodies. It would not mean necessarily, however, that such a non-covenanting province could no longer be in a close relationship with other covenanting Communion provinces; but it would mean that such a relationship would now be a province-to-province decision, and would no longer represent a presupposition of common life and mutual recognition on the part of all Anglican provinces. Cooperative mission could still be pursued among individual provinces as they so chose, and a range of mutual forms of life could still be exercised, again on an individual provincial basis. It is also possible, of course, that the intention of not signing the Covenant was to sever all relationships with the Communion. This too is an open possibility if this is what a province decided it wanted to do.
What would it mean for a diocese within a non-signing Province to wish to remain a part of the Covenanted Communion?
This question is an important one that requires further consideration and response. That a diocese (and even a parish) might not agree with its province’s decision regarding the Covenant is clearly a situation that must be envisioned as likely in certain circumstances; and it is one that a covenantal communion within an episcopally-ordered set of churches like Anglicanism must resolve coherently. In principle, such a diocese will and must be recognized as being as a full part of the Anglican Communion; but how that can and will be played out in terms of local polity is still undefined and demands the attention of all Anglican churches.
What are the legal implications of such a distinction between diocese and province?
In some cases, these implications could be significant, since each province has its own canon law and exists within the specific laws of its civil context. This is one reason why the Covenant process must include a way of resolving this question, and in a way that will avoid legal wrangling and litigation, such as is now occurring in some parts of the Communion.
How do we know if a draft Covenant has reached its “final form”?
A proposed final draft will be submitted by the Covenant Design Group to the Communion in 2009; the Anglican Consultative Council will probably be the first to be given the chance to ratify it as sufficient for adoption, but other Instruments of the Communion will no doubt have a say in this matter – the Primates, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishops of the Communion. The latter will respond to the current draft at this year’s Lambeth Conference; they will later be able to share their further views through the exercise of their own teaching and leadership locally.
Is it possible to complete this process with Christian integrity while churches in the Communion are currently in conflict?
It is possible only if those churches in conflict, and those conflicted parties within them, agree to move forward with the Communion as a whole in the Covenant process, or step aside from the process altogether (either indefinitely or permanently by leaving the Communion in some definite way for now), or refrain from disrupting the process through ongoing acts that subvert the Communion’s currently fragile life. In other words, the completion of the Covenant process does demand a degree of responsible behavior even now on the part of Anglican churches around the world.
Two Collects for our life together as a Church
O Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
(Collect for Saints Simon and Jude [originally in the 1549 BCP])
O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace; Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that as there is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(American BCP, p. 818; by Terence Cardinal Cooke)