A longish essay on why I am guardedly optimistic about this convenant business that the Archbishop of Canterbury is proposing. Most of the piece is hiding under the "keep reading" button.
Most of the news reports and commentary on the yesterday’s reflection from the Archbishop of Canterbury have rightly focused on the proposed covenant with opt-in and opt-up mechanisms and a two-tiered membership of “constituents” and “associates.”
I don’t have a scholarly background that I can draw on in responding to this sort of proposal in abstract terms. On the one hand, I’ve been impressed by arguments from people like the Rev. Bill Carroll, who, if I am not misrepresenting his thinking, believes that covenants are bad business, and that an association of independent churches bound only by affection is the truest form of Church. On the other hand, what a mess.
Having recently returned from Columbus, I am predisposed to embrace Rowan Williams’ covenant because it seems to me to point a way out of a predicament that is exhausting the energy and diminishing the witness of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I can’t tell whether it is the best way—Perhaps better ways will emerge as the process moves forward.—but it is certainly a way, and it is put forward by a man we’ve all been hoping would become a bit more directive in his leadership. It seems to me, therefore, that it is worth exploring.
Some media outlets, I think, have made too much of the Episcopal angle of this story. What the archbishop has proposed is a fundamental revision of the way that the Communion governs itself. Such a complex undertaking would seem foolish if its goal were the exclusion of one or two members. Some outlets also err in asserting that this is a step toward schism. I believe it is an attempt to realize—in that much used phrase—“the highest degree of communion possible despite our differences.”
The “highest degree” of communion may not be full communion. The communion we end up with may be two-tiered, or it may not be. If it is two-tiered, the associate members might enjoy a greater degree of communion and a closer set of relationships among themselves than is currently the case. It may be that with issues of governance off the table, constituents and associates can cooperate in mission in ways that they currently do not.
And where would the Episcopal Church end up if—as seems somewhat unlikely—the archbishop’s plan unfolds just as he has sketched it out? Obviously it will depend on the nature of the covenant. I think most of the Church’s leaders would prefer that we be constituent members, and will work towards a covenant that we can embrace. But if the proposed covenant contains language that would prevent us from following the dictates of our collective conscience, I think it is unlikely that we would sign on. There is simply too much diversity of opinion in the global communion on bedrock moral issues to slip one’s arms into that kind of straightjacket.
I believe numerous other provinces might also opt for associate status. Indeed, I think it is entirely possible that much of the Church of England would prefer associate status if the constituent membership of the new communion is predominantly conservative. (Count on an outcry from liberal members in the CofE in the coming weeks.) But it is the English who have proposed this system, and the English who will have to take the lead in making it work.
I don’t envy them that task. If the development of the covenant is dominated by the coterie of current primates most angry about the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the Communion that results could be an instrument for the global oppression. (If you doubt this, please visit Political Spaghetti and read Matt Thompson’s comprehensive coverage of pending legislation backed by the Church of Nigeria.) That, clearly, is not what Williams and other British leaders are attempting to create. But, depending on the content of the covenant, they might be significantly outnumbered in the new communion.
The difficulty of making too restrictive a covenant work would be compounded by the fact that associate members would probably scale back their financial commitments to the communion, as they would no longer have a role in determining how those contributions are spent.
All that said, if the covenant that Williams is proposing doesn’t include language that proscribes the consecration of gay bishops, and, quite possibly, gay priests, then it is hard to imagine that the primates I’ve just mentioned would have much interest in it. Perhaps Rowan is banking on moderation is some of their successors. Or perhaps he and his advisors will be skillful enough to create a document that is embraced by the right and center and isolates only a handful of provinces such as the Episcopal Church and the Canadian Church.
Whatever the case, the process Williams has set in motion could help solve the current political problem in the Episcopal Church. I am not sure I would have endorsed the types of solutions that might unfold before Columbus, but the experience of being at loggerheads with sincere people with whom I sincerely disagree has left me yearning for some way out of a situation that seems to bring out the worst in all of us.
Perhaps the Network diocese would be attached to another province, or allowed, individually, to choose a provincial affiliation. There’d probably need to be provisions for parishes that wanted to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Network and for parishes that wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church even though their dioceses were pulling out. And, of course, there would have to be an understanding that we would need to reestablish the Episcopal Church in the dioceses that had chosen to leave.
The split would be more painful and complicated than I am making it sound here, but it would have the salutary effect of allowing those leaving our Church and those remaining to get on with their ministries. And that is an outcome that I think we all greatly desire.
Unfortunately, progress in ministry would likely be impeded by protracted wrangling over property. Covenant or no covenant, issues of ownership will ultimately be resolved by American courts and not Anglican primates. Would there be good will to work out some sort of equitable settlement? Here and there maybe, but it will require real grace to avoid protracted squabbling.
Despite all of this, I am at least guardedly optimistic about the way forward. The opportunity to collaborate in ministry with friends from around the globe (some of whom might be attached to our Church as Network diocese might be attached to another province) is exciting. I imagine conservatives view this possibility in much the same way. And the opportunity to put ourselves before the public as something other than those squabbling sex-obsessed Episcopalians might actually allow us to grow.
I don’t doubt that there are institutional consequences to this that I don’t grasp, and I am eager to hear the opinions of some of the people whose opinions shape mine. But this, at least, is where I start.