Monday, February 19, 2007

An Anglican Covenant?

The Report of the Covenant Design Group has been published, along with a draft Anglican Covenant. Based on an initial reading of the text, there isn't much new here; the authors' explicitly eschew the new. There is one exception: what is new here is the role of the Primates in the life of the Communion, which points to a tension within the document regarding authority in the life of the Church. But first, a couple of preliminary comments.

1. This is a DRAFT. In fact, the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council, as well as the Primates Meeting, have reviewed the draft and already suggested changes. In a sense, the document we have is of little more than historic interest. We don't need to lose any sleep over it. Even so, it gives a sense of things to come and the issues with which we must wrestle.

2. There is a prior question as to the necessity of an Anglican Covenant at all. The only thing it gives us that we do not already possess as a Communion is a central authority that can discipline Provinces. Do we really want such an authority? Do we want to become a global Anglican Church rather than a global Communion of Anglican Churches? What do we gain and what do we lose? It seems to me that the main failing of this document is its failure to address this prior question.

Now, some comments on the text itself.

Section 2 (5) will probably be a bit controversial in affirming "that, led by the Holy Spirit, it [the Anglican Communion and its member Provinces] has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons": the important distinction here is between "truth" and witnessing to it. So long as these historic documents are not identified with the truth itself, but simply (not merely) witness to it, I can accept such a statement. But, again, don't we already affirm as much?

Section 3 (3) points out that biblical interpretation should be handled "primarily [not exclusively] through the teaching and initiative of bishops and synods" (emphasis added). This is consistent with the the Design Group Report's recognition that any Covenant must be approved in accordance with the Constitutional processes of the several Provinces. Happily, there is room here for the voices of the other orders of ministry gathered for synodical meetings; at least, in theory.

This brings us to what it seems to me is the central tension in this draft document: a tension between two different models of ecclesiastical authority. While the document acknowledges the authority of bishops and synods consistent with Provincial polity, it goes on in sections 5 and 6 to define the role of the Instruments of Unity in ways that enlarge the authority of the Primates Meeting while diminishing the role of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The former "works in full collaboration in doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters that have Communion-wide implications," while the later "co-ordinates aspects of international Anglican ecumenical and mission work."

Thus, while affirming the role of bishops and synods at the Provincial level, on the Communion-wide level it is bishops (Primates) who exercise real authority while the ACC becomes a vehicle for bureaucratic administration rather than a policy making body. At this level of the life of the Communion, it is really all about the Primates.

This becomes even more clear in section 6, where the Primates Meeting becomes the final arbiter of who is and isn't part of the Anglican Communion. Oh, the Primates will seek a common mind "with the other instruments and their councils," but "finally, on this basis, the Primates will offer guidance and direction."

If we are going to have a global Anglican Church, rather than a Communion of Anglican Churches, then why not have the ACC be the final arbiter, as it is the only representative body within the Communion that includes laity, clergy, and bishops? If, as Archbishop Williams noted in a recent sermon that "God is present when bishops are silent," perhaps this is so as to allow other voices to be heard.

I'm sure that other voices will be heard at General Convention in 2009, as well as in other synodical meetings around the Anglican Communion. The Covenant process has only just begun.


Christopher said...

Fr. John, it's like you read my mind. I wrote at Fr. Jake's:

I'm sorry but there is a lot of ahistory here to which the Scots should rightly object as should we. Again, we're trying to craft a more tidy Anglicanism than has existed, telling a new meta-narrative of our founding to reestablish something that did not previously exist. Disruptive narrative by focusing on the conflicts and contestedness in our history is a firm antidote to such hegemonic notions.

I found several lines telling, matters such as "biblical morality", for example. What is this and who gets to decide?

I think it reads as incredibly top-heavy, just for starters, in answer to my own question--what of theologians, lay and ordained, conscience, what of communities as a whole, what of the entire community, which at present does not include all sorts and types in our processes on such important deliberations as to what is biblical and what is not? A true common good must also be good for particular persons, at least if its a catholic common good because one leads to the other. At present our common good is at the expense of some in the community.

I also think given the Primates' egos and agendae, it would be better to lateralize authority to the ACC rather than the other way around. The Primates need to be grounded within the wider orders of the Episcopate, Presbyterate, and Laity--and it's time to bring the Diaconate on board as well, since between the deacons and laity, much of the ministry in the world is actually present.

I might add, that as someone pointed out much of this reads like the Lambeth-Chicago Quadrilateral; however, "biblical morality" is not the same thing as "containing all things necessary to salvation". The former is about our responses to the Living God, the latter is about God's actions for us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit--what the Creeds (our lens onto Scritpures) are about. The conflation of first things with moral theology seems to be a continuing problem here.

R said...

John and Christopher,

I raised similar concerns about some of the language in my posted reflections, although I found the document overall not too bad, and certainly not what so many of us were dreading.

Unlike you, John, I don't thing this draft attempts to build some kind of "Anglican Church." What it may be helpful in addressing, though, is the present and potential future inter-provincial conflict we are experiencing.

What will matter is the final shape and form of this document, of course. Some are already predicting its demise before it reaches final form. I like to keep an open mind, hoping that the discussion around it, at any rate, may prove useful, and I'm also hopeful it may overshadow in some positive ways the punitive ways the Windsor Report has been used.