“The Anglican Covenant: Where Do We Go From Here?”: A further comment

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Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

There is general agreement, I would guess, amongst more traditional Anglicans, that the current set-up for the implementation of the Covenant is flawed, and that especially the ordering of the ACC’s Standing Committee in this implementing process is so confused and liable now to engendering such further distrust amongst churches as to demand rethinking.  That is what ACI has argued in its paper “The Anglican Communion Covenant:  Where Do We Go From Here?” (1.31.10).

What we have not argued is that we need to start the whole process of writing a Covenant over again; or that some party must convene its own adjudicating group of its own initiative to work from the ground up, independently of all the existing structures of the Anglican Communion.  Such a path, in my own view, would be disastrous.  The Covenant has come to its final text through a relatively regularized process, with relatively wide Communion representation behind its formulation, and has been commended and sent out by two recognized Instruments of the Communion (the ACC and Canterbury), and with at least some primatial endorsement (via the Joint Standing Committee of Primates and ACC, with, by the way, Abp Mouneer still present and participant before his resignation from that group).    Furthermore, the Covenant itself, in its formal declarations, provides a means forward for dealing with the current confusions, and we have suggested a way this might work that maintains legitimate continuity with the structures that have themselves given birth to the Covenant, ordered it, received it, and commended it.

Let me now speak personally about my own view of the other alternatives here – that is, other than the kind of proposal that ACI has put forward.  These alternatives to our proposal are being touted, with varying degrees of hostility, by one group or another on the blogs at the present, and I believe them to be options that must be avoided.

One alternative is simply to sit back and watch things unfold according to whatever dynamics are now in play with the ACC’s Standing Committee having laid out an extended time frame for the adoption process, having restricted participation, and having claimed an authority to itself for overseeing all this.  I strongly resist this alternative, for reasons that ACI has already argued, and which I will not repeat.  It is clear to everyone that the Covenant was always considered a threat by theologically more liberal (“progressive”) elements in the Communion, especially in the Western churches.  From the start, it was labeled as “coercive” and “punitive” in conception and execution, aimed at centralizing authority, eradicating local and national autonomies, excluding homosexuals from the Church, an instrument for injustice to be controlled by a vast Right-Wing Anglican Conspiracy.  Although these charges are false, few liberal leaders or liberal information sources in TEC have lost an opportunity to attack or diminish the Covenant and its supporters.  When the Covenant’s fate was given over to groups, like the ACC and its Standing Committee, that were disproportionately made up of those whose stated convictions were anti-Covenant, not so much as to determine the content of the Covenant itself as to control its dissemination and adoption process, there was every reason to be concerned and certainly vigilant.  When the outcome to this adjudication has been procedural chaos (at the last ACC meeting) punctuated by autocratic resolution, the insertion of new processes based on committees and rules whose provenance is either unknown or questionable, that is cause for disturbed dissent.   For the “process” to which the Covenant is now thereby consigned is one that is inevitably shaped by the Covenant’s own enemies.   And when that process is itself veiled, only partially declared in its authority, necessarily misunderstood and mistrusted by many, it is faithful common sense to resist it.  So I do.

The other alternative is to reject the entire process of the Covenant’s drafting and final text, to reject the groups that have had a hand in all of this, including the four Instruments of Communion, and simply to declare a new authoritative structure by which to formulate and adopt a new Covenant for those who wish to be party to these self-declared structures.  At present, this alternative has been voiced by some leaders in the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, the outcome of the so-called Gafcon movement.  Unfortunately, this movement, at least formally, has been no friend of the Covenant either, and it is hard to know why one would trust their stewardship of its fate any more than anybody else’s.  Leaders of Gafcon rejected the Covenant drafting from the start, as bound to processes they viewed as intrinsically corrupt.  In one embarrassing episode, Gafcon’s theological committee publicly issued a long and vitriolic critique of what they thought was the second draft of the Covenant, accusing it of theological betrayal – only to be later alerted that the document they were criticizing wasn’t even the text of the Covenant at all, but another wholly unrelated essay they had managed somehow to mix it up with in their anger. In any case, the final Ridley draft was initially criticized by FCA leadership as unacceptable, although later that view was softened.  But add to this that much of the Gafcon leadership refused to be present at the two main places where the Covenant’s content and future were to be studied, debated, and decided in the Communion – the Lambeth Conference of 2008 and the ACC meeting of 2009.   Archbishop Mouneer has felt marginalized in the meetings of the Communion:  but that is not simply because liberal opponents outnumber him;  it is also because traditional friends abandoned him.  Those who claim that they have the best interest of the Communion and the Covenant at heart, yet who have done everything to sabotage the processes by which the Communion’s members have struggled, in the face of much difficulty and internal turmoil to be sure, to draw our churches into a renewed common faith and witness – such persons do not garner the trust of many Anglicans any more than do those in America who have dragged us into this turmoil in the first place, and because of which the Covenant’s promise was first extended as a ray of light.

Let no one be misled on this point:  throw out the continuities of our common life on the front end, and the hope of reconstituting them at the back end is vain.  That is not because these continuities are sound in every, or even in many respects;   but rather because they represent the means by which personal motives, whatever they are, can be restrained by the Body of Christ, however weakened.  The Scriptures, and the Spirit that speaks them, cannot do their work among the self-willed, not because they do not have the power of themselves to accomplish their purposes, but because the “Amen” that is Christ’s answer to this work is given in the common voice not in the predilections of the autonomous.

There are, then, continuities in the Communion’s structures and the existing Covenant process that can and should be engaged. We have indicated how this might work in our paper:  First, a majority of provinces from the Global South, for instance, have indicated their readiness to sign the final text and they should go ahead and do so at the earliest opportunity.  This is a perfectly legitimate and indeed hoped-for action within the covenanting process.  Second, since the Covenant goes into effect upon signing, it would be appropriate for the provinces that do sign to create an ad hoc committee to handle pro tem the sorts of issues the Standing Committee envisaged by the Covenant is to address.  There is no legitimate reason this cannot happen;  and there is every moral reason, given the confusions and mistrust over the status and character of the current ACC Standing Committee, that this should happen.  Third, far from trying to subvert the ACC’s place in the Communion, however contested it is,  it is clear that there needs to be some public and transparent discussion about how to form a “Standing Committee of the Communion” that is recognized by our churches and capable of doing what it needs to do for the sake of covenanted life. The Archbishop of Canterbury should take steps in conjunction with those who have signed the covenant or are in the positive process of adoption to see that this issue is addressed in a way that inspires confidence and provides stability for the future.  All of this is reasonable, doable, and consistent with both our current Anglican Communion order and with the intent of the Covenant’s effect.

Thinking through matters in this light and making such proposals is hardly a matter of either attempting to stage a coup or playing footsy with corrupt powers.  Rather, I believe it to be a responsible path to follow in what we all know to be a longer, more challenging, and difficult journey in our Communion’s vocation.  I do not reject the ACC or its members and leaders;  I will question vigorously those of their actions I think are ill-advised;  I will resist strongly actions that appear to be improper.  But the ACC are not my enemies;  they are a part of the church of which I am a part.  I do not reject the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He is in fact someone whose heart and mind I deeply respect in Christ.  I will question vigorously, however, judgments he makes or actions he takes that I think are ill-advised;  I will even resist those that appear to be improper, as I would any within the church.  But he is someone, quite apart from my personal views, whose role I honor in my very office as an Anglican priest.  I do not reject the leaders and members of FCA – among them are individuals I do indeed respect and, out of a similar bond of ecclesial affection and shared ministry, I honor.  But I will resist vigorously judgments and actions that seem ill-advised;  and I will resist ones that seem improper.  I do not reject TEC itself, of which I am formally a member and in whose ordering my ministry is placed.  But I do maintain the calling of honesty, necessary dissent, and active resistance where called for.

None of this is an all-or-nothing proposition, not as I understand the Church in Christ at any rate.   In the Church’s life as it travels through the world there is struggle, agon, as Paul says repeatedly.   We do not continually have to throw everything away and start over again.  We engage continuities of faith and relationship as they are given us and as we are able, we correct them, we strive to reform them, we suffer rebukes and setbacks.  But that is what faith engages us in;  that is Christ’s life, and the life of His Body.   One of the many things I admire about Bishop Mouneer is just his witness to this kind of striving.  His resignation from the ACC Standing Committee came only after a long and devoted service within particular Communion structures that most of his theologically-sympathetic colleagues had long since abandoned, leaving him a lone voice within an often hostile context.  Further, his resignation does not constitute a rejection of these structures themselves, but a sense on his part that the overriding goal of the Covenant, which he continues to support, is more faithfully served outside of a committee incapable of shepherding the Covenant to its effective adoption.  Finally, Abp Mouneer has always and continues to support Anglicans from around the globe who themselves have maintained their place in the difficult work of engaged renewal of the Communion common life, including the Communion Partners in TEC.   This is not a walking away from engagement, but a fuller grappling with its tasks.   Well should we heed  the larger example here

There is still work to be done with this Covenant, and good work at that.  There are questions to be raised, resistance in some cases to be offered, and constructive labor to be expended.  Speaking for myself, I pray that it be done together, and not in various corners of a pugilist’s ring.

February 02 2010 08:52 pm | Articles