The Wisdom of the Cross: Some reflections on ACC-14 and the Anglican Covenant

Written by:
Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

A number of persons from around the Communion have asked me for my perspective on the recent ACC meeting’s treatment of the proposed Anglican Covenant.  There are at least two reasons, I suppose, why my opinion might be solicited.  First, I have been a member of the Covenant Design Group that, over the past two and half years has worked at the drafting of this document.  Obviously, I have a particular stake in what happens to the work we have spent over 30 full days in prayer, study, and labor producing.  But second,  I have long argued that doctrinally traditional Anglicans like myself should both be engaged in the Covenant’s promise and articulation but also willing to maintain that engagement from a posture of continued communion within and among our divided member churches.  There are many who now wonder whether the outcome to the ACC meeting undercuts that argument.

What happened

Despite formal requests from the CDG as a whole beforehand to the contrary, the ACC ended up picking the Covenant apart, and acting as broker to the document’s content and revision:

  • the critical Section 4 of the Covenant, with its outline of procedures for adoption, dispute resolution, relinquishment, and amendment was detached (contrary to one resolution that was already passed) from the first 3 Sections and sent out for provincial comment;
  • it will be returned to an as-yet-unnamed group for further consideration and possible revision,
  • it will then be forwarded to the Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and Primates for still unclarified action with respect to sending the full Covenant out to the Provinces for adoption.

In coming to this conclusion with respect to the Covenant text, the ACC acted without any clear sense of its brief, or publicly articulated sense of its goals and processes in so doing.

Soon after this outcome was announced, the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI) issued a statement, which I signed, expressing dismay at the process that has been followed in reaching this conclusion. Having listed a number of elements in the debate and voting surrounding the Covenant — publicly broadcast and so, in themselves, not under dispute — we characterized the final process by which the decision of the ACC was reached as “embarrassing”, “confused”, and “manipulative”. I stand by this characterization, to which members of the Anglican Communion Office have publicly and privately taken issue. (I would qualify the last adjective to “inordinately open to the perception of manipulation”, which is not only cumbersome, but I doubt would satisfy those who have taken umbrage with the overall judgment.)

On a matter over which several years were spent in deep discussion, study, and work, around the world, and I know serious engagement at the ACC itself, decisions were apparently made within a confused and chaotic few minutes visible to the world at large that have serious consequences for the Communion, and whose propriety is now debated (and I and the ACI are hardly the initiators of or even strident voice in this debate), and the actual significance of which remains unstated and unknown. The initial work of providing resolutions for the Council regarding the Covenant was put into the hands of a small group that from the start simply did not appear representative of the views of the whole, and the sequence of events in the debate and resolution-voting, amending, and re-voting maintained a skewed dynamic of direction.

I am not persuaded by the explanations given by the ACO representatives at their press conference that somehow the process and the final outcome represents some otherwise undefined “sense” of the meeting, ascertained in the heat of debate by the Chair and President, especially when members of that meeting, including bishops from Nigeria and Egypt, are on record as strongly disagreeing with that “sense” and indicating that at least in some significant ways it did not jibe with the “mood” of many delegates. The point here, however, is not to accuse individuals of malicious intent, nor even to argue that these perceptions of mine and others are in fact accurate. There may indeed be good explanations for why things happened the way they did. But the concrete explanations have not been forthcoming, and on a matter of such importance, fraught with enormous tensions from the start, this lack of clear illumination cannot but be perceived as substantively obfuscating. The Communion deserved better, and at the least some admission of this fact would go some way to mitigating a lingering sense on the part of many – I personally have no opinion on this matter — that this particular outcome was more important to some than the integrity of the means by which it was reached. It has left a bitter taste.

Its meaning

As to the outcome itself, I am deeply disappointed. My hope had been that the hard work of the Covenant Design Group, a work that even the Covenant’s detractors admitted had carefully assessed and appropriated the suggestions and critiques from around the Communion, would be allowed by the ACC to move forward to the Provinces for their decision-making. While I would be the first to acknowledge that the Covenant document is not perfect, and is the product of some degree of compromise, it was so on the part of all its drafters, who were widely representative of the Communion itself. While I believe improvements could be made to the draft, it was hard for me to see how any other group, under the circumstances, could accomplish this fairly and with integrity, given that the CDG has actually forged a common mind from quite disparate original perspectives, through an extended and lived commitment of prayer and engagement. To my knowledge, no other Communion document has undergone such a deep and wide-ranging and temporally patient scrutiny and open-hearted ordering, rooted on common prayer and worship.

But I am willing to admit that my hope that the ACC would simply discuss and commend the draft was ill-founded and represented personal desire more than a realistic and perhaps even reasonable approach to the actual needs of the Communion’s make-up. In retrospect, the CDG’s hopes, as well as others’ in the Communion, were oriented to a process that moved somewhat too quickly. Perhaps we should have used the ACC meeting only as a “response” group, much as the Lambeth Conference functioned with the last Covenant draft, seeking comment and discussion from this particular set of Communion representatives. Then, the CDG might have had a final meeting, analyzing the ACC responses and revising in their light, and offering a definitive text that would have been sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who would have sent it out to the Provinces for adoption.

And, obviously, this alternative path was not followed, and in so doing I believe now that we failed properly to see what the result of not following such a procedure was. As it turned out, the ACC was granted a perceived power to order the Covenant’s actual content that it simply does not and should not hold. It is a consultative body whose purpose is to coordinate common mission and to advise: it is neither the guarantor nor the originator of Communion doctrine and polity. To be sure, even the proposed Covenant indicates that the ACC has authority to “initiate and commend a process of discernment and a direction for the Communion and its Churches” [3.1.4], a section the Council approved. But the larger context of this authority is one that takes acutely into account the common service of the Communion’s members. As I will point out below, such a common service has been potentially compromised ion a significant way.

And having been given the Covenant for vetting, however, the ACC ended up being the locus of precisely what has so aggravated our Communion’s common councils over the past few years: obvious political maneuverings. To be sure, such maneuverings are a part of every ecclesial council, of whatever kind: they happen at Primates Meetings’, Lambeth Conferences; they happened, with a degree of astonishing openness, at Nicea; and they probably happened at the first Council of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts! Political maneuverings in themselves do not exclude the work of the Holy Spirit and therefore the final furthering of the faith. However, the perception of such maneuverings, and without deliberate steps to contain their deforming power, at this time in our Communion’s life, and on a matter as sensitive and as carefully crafted as the Covenant, is frankly a destructive outcome to have allowed to emerge in such a visible way.

One element that I find deeply disturbing is the claim that the ACC does not function according to a firm set of “standing orders” that govern decision-making procedures. We were told in the press briefing that criticism of the resolution and voting process surrounding the Covenant is ill-advised in large measure because the Council has been moving away from “Western” parliamentary frameworks to a more consensual approach, within which the Chair especially is granted a significant responsibility in not only allowing many voices to be heard, but in determining the mood of the gathering on the basis, not of votes, but of the tenor of discussion. What I find disturbing about this explanation is, first, its vagueness and the way it retrospectively has justified apparent confusion by a highly subjective and thus unaccountable mechanism – one person “sensing” the ideas and mood of a large and highly disparate and often contentious group of individuals from many cultures and languages. On the face of it, the method seems intrinsically flawed and incapable to doing what it claims. But more than that, this simply is not the way that consensual decision-making has been ordered by those who have sought to apply its purpose. Businesses and other organizations have a long track-record in this direction. But churches do as well. The World Council of Churches, for instance, has recently adopted consensual decision-making, and has offered outlines of how this works. One key element, in most of these outlines, is the clear process by which potential “objections” are elicited and discussed, and according to which no decisions are taken until these are openly and honestly resolved.

There was no evidence of any kind of agreed-upon method by which the Covenant debate and resolving took place. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted, in his closing Presidential Address, that there was a need, perhaps, for more clarity on “procedures”: “I’d suggest, purely practically that for the next ACC we might very well have a little briefing in advance about procedures, and perhaps some time right at the beginning of the meeting – it’s a highly practical suggestion and very modest – right at the beginning of the meeting to explain a bit about how resolution procedures work.” But he then noted that this was a “smallish thing”. There is nothing “smallish” about it! Indeed, the question of procedures and their open understanding, acceptance, and pursuit is ecclesially essential. At the moment, it is essential for the Communion in particular in its present circumstances, where the issues of trust, credibility, and the ability to move forward together in an anticipated way is at the heart of what the Covenant’s practical purposes are meant to address. To have the ACC deal with the Covenant in a way that many do not trust, that has turned out to lack credibility in its prosecution, and that has taken many by surprise in the midst of a plea for expected forms of common life, is to promote a certain kind of contradiction. More importantly, there is a simple evangelical vocation involved: we are to be people of clear and simple “yes” and “no” (Mt. 5:37): “therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Lk. 12:3). We are “children of the day” (1 Thess. 5:5; Rom. 13:13; Eph. 5:8), which means that the kind of openness and clear communication among ourselves is what practically permits our “communion”, literally, in Christ (1 Jn. 1:7). Shouting our common procedures from the “housetops” is not a bad way to go; it is even necessary. And in the world of “communion”, with all of its inevitable political forms of gathering, it is “of Christ”.

Negative consequences

I am hardly alone in thinking that great damage has been done by the way the Covenant was dealt with at the ACC, more so than by the actual decision, although the latter has some serious questions surrounding it as well.

First, the credibility of one of the Instruments has been damaged, not through prejudice in this case, but through a public display that simply cannot gain the traction of trust. Given the worries, anxieties, and prejudices held around the Communion with respect to the ACC’s work already, this represents a confirmation of all the negative feelings in place, ones that have been publicly acknowledged by the ACO itself, and that moved the CDG not to make the ACC a key arbiter in Covenant dispute-resolution.

Second, this blow to credibility will encourage more movement by some Anglicans away from engagement with the standard processes of Communion consultation and decision-making. We have already seen that happen at the Lambeth Conference and it was to some extent already in evidence by no-shows at the ACC. Now such views will be bolstered, rightly or wrongly. Establishing “facts on the ground” without Communion-wide acceptance has been the poison in our ecclesial bloodstream thus far; and the public tainting of one of our Instruments will do nothing to detoxify our common life.

Third, and as a result of the above, there will not be a stemming but a continued and possibly strengthening of the rejection of the Communion instruments altogether, in favor of alternative realities.

Fourth, the way that the ACC actually took its decisions, and the decision it took with respect to setting up a process that is now in the hands of some new dynamic, has potentially reordered the Communion’s way forward on sharply-drawn political lines, once again bound up with the TEC-Gafcon opposition on matters of property, litigation, and gay “rights”. It has divided the Covenant document on the basis of such lines, and seemingly laid out a process that will subject it to the forces of such political concerns.

Fifth, the new process has, emerging from the public dynamics of the Council, in fact narrowed, the range of acceptable options for Section 4’s outline of dispute resolution. The CDG has proposed that the Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and the Primates take on the central role of Covenant adjudication. That was done in part on the basis of a plan to increase the Primates’ representation on this group. The JSC’s participation in the confusions of the recent ACC meeting, and the make-up of its new membership, including those who campaigned most vigorously for the Covenant’s rejection and/or overhaul, clearly subvert this reasoning. But since both the Primates’ Meeting and the ACC have also been judged inadequate to such an adjudicative task, it seems now as if – something we had hoped to avoid – only some new group ordered to the task will be able to assume it. Who will that be, and how will they be chosen in a credible fashion? Revising Section 4 itself has now become more difficult.

Sixthly, and related to all the above, the process and outcome of the ACC provided a negative spectacle to ecumenical partners regarding our ability to model the kind of communion-oriented polity we have been commending in our own dialogues. This not only undercuts our credibility as dialogue partners, but also the very means by which we would promote the faithful unity of the Church. The use in the debate of the “other Churches” article as an excuse to press local agenda rather than as the possible opening to a larger vision of ecclesial fellowship and reconciling commitment provided a sad commentary on the devolution of Anglican unitive ecclesiology at work.

Finally, and more personally, the ACC has only strengthened the sense that those traditional Anglicans who have “stayed” – in TEC, the Canadian Church, Global South engagement – have been yet again left to argue a case for which the Instruments themselves are offering little support, whether because of their own lack of commitment to this case or because simply of their own incapacity to speak and act clearly. Many of us are exhausted by this calling we have taken up, by the attacks it has engendered from all sides, and by the public indifference from Communion quarters to our work. We are friends of the Communion and its unity, as far as it can be maintained; yet some might think that such friendship is itself diseased.

My continued commitment to the Covenant

Having stated these negative consequences, I must however strongly affirm my own continued commitment to the course of Communion healing on the basis of Gospel truth and catholic charity, with a Covenant at its center, and despite the unrelenting obstacles thrown in its way over and over. I affirm it, for reasons precisely tied to the confusions we have seen over the past days at the ACC: we cannot allow the embarrassing of Christian witness before the eyes of the world to be the last word of our common life as followers of Christ.

It would be clean enough simply to walk away from it all, and seek to start afresh some new or untainted version of the Church. It is a response that has been tried over and over again, but with very little transformative effect on ecclesial integrity in the long-run. It is therefore a temptation to be resisted. I have always argued that the fate of the Anglican Communion is worth struggling for, not because Anglicanism is some privileged form of Christian life, but because, as Anglicans, we are called to say “thus far, and no further” (Job 38:11) shall come the forces of chaos within the Body of Christ, by the grace of God. We pray for the Church’s “truth and peace”, and so the powers of corruption, error, brokenness, and division (BCP p. 816) are the objects of our fearless combat, not through the weapons of the world, but through the “armor” of God’s gifts (Eph. 6:11ff; Gal. 5:22), “against which there is no law” (Gal. 5:23). We do this, not for our own sake, but as the beachhead of the Spirit.

Next steps

Is there a way forward in the wake of the ACC-14? Surely there is, as there always is, in the strength and wisdom of the Lord. At the least, the following actions seem necessary to putting back together some of the pieces left scattered by the outcome to the Council’s meeting, yet based on what it has provided by the ACC, for all of its weaknesses:

  1. If there is to be a revision group for Section 4 of the Covenant it must be a credible one in terms of both its good will and in terms of its realism about the needs of the Communion’s future, by contrast to the last few years. There can be no enemies of the Covenant’s content and purpose involved; no opponents to the current commitments of the Communion; and no partisans to the needs a particular province. I would, frankly, hope that it is the CDG itself that is given this task; and if some other committee must do this work, I would suggest that the CDG be allowed to look it over before it goes forward. This is not a matter of the CDG needing to maintain control over the process so much as it is a matter of our common need to maintain the credibility of the process as it has developed over the past couple of years.
  2. There must be a clear public brief given to this group, and a clear public explanation provided in advance as to who “decides” vis a vis the sending on the Covenant’s final draft. At present, the JSC seems to have been granted some role. The “resolution” from the ACC states that it “asks the JSC, at that meeting, to approve a final form of Section 4”, which leaves open the possibility that the JSC can and might make their own revisions. For the reasons stated above, I cannot see how the JSC could make a “decision” regarding the draft that had much credibility; at best it could act as a pro forma conduit for the Covenant’s formal dissemination. Myself, I would prefer that the Archbishop himself send the Covenant out directly.
  3. The time-frame must be short. The new Chair of the ACC mentioned “November” or December. That, it would seem, must form an outer limit at best.
  4. I see no reason why there may not begin immediately a process of “in principle” acceptance of Section 4 as currently written – and of the Covenant as a whole — now by any province or diocese. Nothing forbids this, and it would in fact prove a far more clear “response” to the document (something the ACC says it wants) than any kind of committee statement. There is no reasons that non-provincial structures could not express their “in principle” acceptance; this would not contravene the ACC’s desire that “only” scheduled members be “invited”. (It needs to be said here that the ACC simply has no authority in this matter, period; but my suggestion does not even need to tread into those waters.) Furthermore, if the Archbishop of Canterbury were himself to make such an invitation for concrete positive response where desired, parallel to the gathering of other responses, some measure of trust might be restored in this process.
  5. We must have the willing participation in this of all Communion Anglicans. The continued use of the “boycott” protest has proved harmful, not beneficial, to the Church’s integrity and witness. We look like the parties of the world’s civil wars, in Sri Lanka or elsewhere – showing up, refusing to show up, claiming affronts, walking away, negotiating with third parties, sniping to the press — all while the civilians are being shelled. St. Paul was willing and indeed insistent that he go to Rome, the seat of the Beast, to plead his case for Christ and the injustice of his situation. Yes: political power continues to haunt our church and the form of Christian communion everywhere. But we have no reason to fear going into the center of such machinations, and facing them with the true power of God, in the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is this Cross that will determine what is folly and what is wisdom, nothing else, and the fool for Christ, we are promised, will reign with the Saints.

May 13 2009 01:23 pm | Articles