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.