Companion Relationships as an Instrument of Unity

by The Rev. Mel Schlachter

One of the curious parts of the proposed Anglican Covenant, from the Windsor Report to its latest redaction, is the so-called “Instruments of Communion.” It is as if the original Lambeth Commission cast about for the ways that different parts of the Anglican Communion meet up with each other, and then canonized them as some holy hierarchy within our worldwide fellowship. These “Instruments,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the Lambeth Council, and the Primates meetings, should not have to carry the freight that the proponents of Covenant are asking them to bear. In all the editions of the Covenant they would be asked to adjudicate Anglican normalcy, slow down the rate of change among provinces in the Communion, and potentially throw out a province that is not going along with the majority. They are made to be Instruments of Obstruction as well as Communion.
As we might expect, the several drafts rely on “the central role of bishops as guardians and teachers of the faith, as leaders in mission, and as a visible sign of unity, representing the universal Church to the local, the local Church to the universal, and the local Churches to one another.” The laity, priests and deacons only appear in one of those four, the ACC. Numerically, something like 95% of those involved in the stated four Instruments are bishops, with very few women among them. Two of the founding principles of our own province back in the 18th century were that we have a representative form of governance and that we not be bishop-heavy in the decision making process. The proposed covenant process fails for us on both counts.

Nothing against bishops, when our bishop comes back from a House of Bishops meeting or a Lambeth conference, we love to talk with him at great length about what he found out of the big picture. When he comes to a parish visitation we love to hear from him about what other congregations are doing about this, that and the other. But there is a fifth Instrument, one that brings the Church universal very close to home and which has a more representative composition.

When Archbishop Eames and his companions on the Lambeth Commission were looking around for how we get to know and interact with each other around the Communion, how did they overlook the companion relationships between and among dioceses? At last count, our province alone had 92 companion relationships on record with our headquarters in NYC. Those are ones recognized by General Convention. There are likely others which are a function of a given diocese, or a parish-to-parish relationship across provinces, that are not known to headquarters staff. Of the ninety-two, 25 are within (US domestic) provinces two and nine—8 with Haiti (province 2) and 17 in province 9. Fifty-seven are between the USA and churches in Africa, South America, Mexico and Central America; three with the Diocese of Jerusalem; seven with Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Spain; and one with Egypt. And then there are the special relationships, such as those between evangelical leaders and gay leaders alike, and their third world colleagues.

Why weren’t companion relationships identified as Instruments of Communion?

Perhaps they were overlooked because the bishops involved are only part of the relationship; laity and clergy are more often than not the ones who make the companionships happen and keep them richly alive. Of course this unsung Instrument does not lend itself to theological adjudication or voting people out of the fellowship, either. Here we are too busy getting to know and love each other, and enriching each other with the unique gifts brought to the companionship. We may not always understand why our companion diocese behaves in certain ways, but we give them the benefit of the doubt and respect. Such was the case when the American General Convention consented to the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop. Our African companion diocese didn’t get it, but figured we had good reasons for doing what we did.

The Diocese of Iowa has a three-way relationship--with the Dioceses of Brechin (Scotland) and Swaziland (southern Africa). We are grateful to the bishops of these dioceses who met at Lambeth some years ago, came to have affection for each other and their churches, and initiated the relationship. The bishops have changed, but their successors have been faithful in keeping the companionship fresh. However to say that most of the activity among us is carried out by the bishops is nowhere near true. Clergy and laity on all sides come together in growing numbers. Our bishop is gracious and wise enough to appoint as chair of this or that aspect of the companionship people who are already involved in doing the jobs.

So do we have a relationship mediated by our hierarchy? Yes. Do we have a relationship that is non-hierarchical? Why, yes to that as well. The fifth instrument feels more like family. Which brings us to another aspect of covenant making.


Forty years ago I had a falling out with one of my aunts, my mother’s only sibling. My wife and I were visiting with her and her husband and got into an unfortunate argument about church and society. The society of course was the one of the Vietnam War years, and the two of us were recent seminary graduates, flush with strong convictions about the church as Jesus’ instrument for social justice. My aunt and uncle were very conservative, even at that time looking for pockets in or out of the Episcopal Church that would feel like a spiritual home. That visit they told us very simply that they thought further contact was a bad idea. Since then they have not initiated any contact with us, and I have done so only a handful of times (to no avail). We did speak with each other briefly at my mother’s funeral. My two sisters, especially one of them, enjoy a much more cordial relationship with our now-widowed aunt.

Is the relationship irreparably cut off? Probably, although with families you never know. Are we still part of the same family? Of course. We not only share DNA, our lives still affect each other at the very least through second-hand contact--which I have with her children and she has with my sisters. Sometimes families may declare one or another member not-family (some cultures have rituals to so declare), but in terms of the emotional process of that family now and in succeeding generations, the move does not work. The family systems people tell us that both the personality traits of that “disfamilied” individual and the effect of the conflict itself will be carried forward on an unconscious level from generation to generation.

The family systems paradigm may be a useful way to think about covenant. While consular and personal relationships in our Anglican Communion may be torn asunder in any number of ways, still there is an absurdity to an assertion that all of us are not still Communion no matter what transpires. A province may be voted out or decide to withdraw, but in real and substantial ways we are still family.

For better and worse, we drew our ecclesiastical DNA from the Church of England. Our thirty-seven provinces have all grown up and left home. Most provinces have their own Book of Common Prayer. Even to call it a BCP, though, testifies to the common heritage. Recognizing local differences in worship and churchmanship, a visitor to another part of the Communion on a Sunday most likely still feels at home. As far as some unfortunate visible effects of our heritage, we are all prone to the same kind of conflicts within and among our member churches that rent the British church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have not substantially altered the template of our origins.

Our Solemnization of Holy Matrimony service speaks of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” A premarital observation that I give to couples is the Biblical understanding of covenant. First off, in the Bible it is more referred to in the breach than the observance. Israel is regularly spoken of as a covenant breaker and adjured to return. Observance gets so bad that Ezekiel has a vision of God writing the covenant on hearts so that it will become automatic. I believe we have this language in the marriage service because, in fact, every married person will break covenant with his or her spouse. Our hearts wander after other desires even when our behavior is pristine. It is inevitable. Moreover, people change. Wails of “That’s not the person I married.” need to be answered with “Of course.” Covenants are mentioned here because couples so vowed need to have a bond that allows both elasticity and permanence.

Contracts are not covenants. They are brittle. Contracts give each participant the right to expect a certain delivery of goods at a certain time and certain way. Fault is assessed based on what one of the parties failed to come across with. As the family systems people remind us, expectations and love cannot coexist, because love is always a free gift. If the freedom to give in love is overdetermined by expectations, then love is driven out. “Bonds of affection” will only be corroded with a layer of legislation.

The Anglican Covenant in all its redactions might better be called the Anglican Contract. Even though there has been an amelioration of the original Windsor delineation of consequences for failure in observance, which remains the model.
Even love disrupted trumps a contract in our beloved Anglican Communion family. Sometimes we succeed at loving each other, sometimes we do not. Sometimes our Reformation-era DNA leads us to believe there is only one correct belief or practice and those who believe or practice otherwise are betraying the Gospel. For betrayers, of course, no punishment is strong enough. At other times—when we would remake the template--we practice an engaged forbearance, curious about and respectful of the experience or understanding of someone seemingly opposed to ourselves that led them to their position. We don’t jettison our own convictions; however, we are aware that God’s Spirit is likely inclusive of us all in some mysterious way.

As the Fifth Instrument, Companion Relationships reinforce our relationships as family around the Communion. We might simply take for granted that we are in covenant with each other even without a word being written, a synod taking a vote or an archbishop making a declaration, a signature being affixed. For better for worse we cannot escape being in covenant with each other across the Communion regardless of present fallings-out or disruptions. Any attempt to claim authority over one of our brother or sister provinces harks back to a colonial relationship of political power methods brought to ecclesia, which we all freed ourselves from once. However well-intentioned, we cannot return to “power over” even should we consent.

Are we ready to trust, to really trust, the power of relationship? Messy as relationships can be, they offer the only hope of genuine love flowing through the veins of our Communion. If one province seriously disagrees with another over anything, let everyone send more laity, clergy and, yes, bishops to the other in order to learn, to understand, and to share in Christ’s ministry happening there. That would be to practice active communion, which should ever be our goal and our method.

A longtime parish priest and pastoral counselor, The Rev. Mel Schlachter is Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City, IA, and a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors He is an alternate Deputy to General Convention.

The Anglican Covenant and the "dominant melody"

By George Clifford

The proposed Anglican Covenant is un-American. More precisely, the proposed Covenant conflicts with the ethos of The Episcopal Church (TEC), an ethos defined not by sexuality but issues of authority, ecclesiastical culture, and scripture.

TEC tends to be skittish with respect to episcopal authority. On the one hand, we recognize the importance of bishops. The history of Scottish nonjuror Bishops ordaining the first American bishops and the belated recognition of those bishops by Canterbury is well known because of the centrality of bishops to our polity. Similarly, most TEC diocesan bishops are cherished as icons of unity and our connection to the larger church even when their leadership and authority are questioned.

On the other hand, TEC is consistently wary of episcopal authority. Our bicameral General Convention, diocesan standing committees and annual conventions, elected bishops, and many other aspects of TEC polity intentionally limit episcopal authority. Indeed, emotionally charged concerns about episcopal authority still occasionally surprise me, e.g., comments about selecting a bishop instead of a lay person or priest as TEC chief operating officer, comments focused not on the individual selected but a general wariness about enlarging episcopal authority.

Our mixed feelings about episcopal authority emerge out of our ecclesiastical culture. For better and worse, that cultural ethos is individualistic and egalitarian, attributes reflective of our national culture. Both attributes are also arguably biblical – but only when held in tension with the communal. Jesus instructed his followers to love one another. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the vine and his followers as the branches; Paul’s epistles describe Jesus as the head and Christians as parts of a body. These metaphors intimately connect Christians in community with one another and with Jesus.

Historically, Episcopalians have struggled to balance connectivity and individual autonomy. Embracing full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) exemplifies a high point in this balancing act. TEC recognized that Christian unity was of greater value than was consistently maintaining our understanding of ecclesial authority. Our bold acceptance of the ordination of existing ELCA clergy as valid enabled TEC and ELCA to chart a mutual path of present communion and future convergence.

Similarly, TEC clergy and laity generally hear the message of scripture colored by a dominant melody that affirms the dignity and worth of all people. Everyone – absolutely everyone – is made in God’s image. Consequently, people within TEC hear a scriptural mandate to ordain people based on calling and gifts, not marital history, gender, or sexual orientation. Increasing numbers of non-TEC Anglicans hear the same dominant melody.

However, loud voices from some other provinces of the Anglican Communion hear a radically different melody in scripture, sometimes claiming that it is scripture’s one true melody, which everyone must sing to be faithful to Jesus. This melody has prompted calls, often amplified in the media, for TEC to adopt a more authoritarian episcopate, to disenfranchise laity in episcopal elections, and to preserve traditional gender roles and sexual ethics. Diminishing numbers of TEC voices echo this melody; most who want to sing this melody have decamped for what they hope are more congenial choirs. The latest high profile defection was St. Luke’s parish in Bladensburg, MD, leaving for the Roman Catholic Church.

Christian unity is necessarily, though sadly, more mystical than organic. If this were not true, then only one branch would be the true branch of the vine and the other branches among whom organic unity does not exist – the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and various Protestant denominations – would all be heretics. Thankfully, most of the Church formally abandoned such thinking in the last century. For example, ELCA and TEC were both fully part of the body of Christ even before anyone dreamt of organic intercommunion. Similarly, TEC, the various North American splinter groups, and Anglican provinces distressed by TEC actions remain mystically united as branches of the vine that is Christ, regardless of what they (or we!) say.

Authoritarian ecclesial structures almost inevitably lead to further schism and division. There is no reason to think that the proposed Anglican Covenant with its implicit effort to define orthodox belief and explicit centralized authority structure (i.e., the disciplinary process) would be an exception to that generalization.

In fact, some provinces in the Anglican Communion have already decided de facto to exit. A global consortium of dissident provinces and voices (the Global Anglican Futures Conference – GAFCON) has initiated steps to establish alternative instruments of communion and unity among themselves that exclude TEC and like-minded Anglican provinces. Those moves seem to have an irreversible momentum. A unified Anglican Communion now exists only in appearance and not substance, a disparity whose roots probably predate the current conflicts over gender and sexual orientation.

As two recent and thoughtful Daily Episcopalian essays emphasized (Gay Jennings, We are ignoring the covenant we've already got; Winnie Varghese, The covenant before us is not the covenant we need), TEC agreeing to the proposed Anglican Covenant would be a mistake. We must heed God’s voice as we discern it, honoring our individual autonomy and equal dignity as a branch of the vine. The Covenant, quite simply, is un-American.

Nevertheless, TEC remains one branch of the larger vine that is Christ and has many branches. If the Anglican Communion adopts the proposed Covenant and subsequently relegates TEC to second-class status, so be it. This possibility feels sort of like historical déjà vu, a repeat of what happened following the American Revolution. Those events did not cripple the nascent TEC nor permanently impair the Anglican Communion.

Indeed, the mystical unity of the Church transcends every division, challenging us to demonstrate the visible unity of the Church in spite of its organic fractures. Do we, for example, invite TEC dissidents or schismatics to tea or to an ecumenical prayer service as often as we do others with whom we have equally strong basic disagreements (the Roman Catholics, the fundamentalist Baptist, the Latter Day Saints, etc.)? Do we show more love to members of other faiths (Buddhism, Judaism, etc.) than to those of our own tradition with whom we disagree?

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

Anglican Covenant Week: The covenant before us is not the covenant we need

During Anglican Covenant Week at Episcopal Café, we are featuring three essays from The Genius of Anglicanism, a study guide produced by the Chicago Consultation. This is the third of three articles. The full study guide, which includes eight essays, each followed by study questions, is available here Daily Episcopalian will resume after the Memorial Day Weekend.

By Winnie Varghese

I believe in a high, expansive and dreamy ecclesiology. We Anglicans are nothing less than the church of God in the tradition of the ancient Celts and Syrians, less dreamily but importantly--the fragments of the British Empire and all of the continuing national churches in their local expression of God among us. The church stands on earth as a holding place of a glimpse of the eternal city. The institution should be magnificent, egalitarian, lavish with care and justice, sweet smelling, enlivening to the senses, proving to every mortal who encounters it that the kingdom of God is for her or him. Our communion should be the statements of our most extravagant dreams of the holy city and nothing less, this generation’s attempt at building cathedrals. The gift of communion to us is relationships, across borders we might not otherwise cross: I believe that it is in these holy places of unexpected, unnecessary, frivolous, ambitious—difficult to believe we have anything real to offer but awe —conversations that God at work in us, locally, begins to be God at work in the world, globally.

A few years ago, while serving as chaplain at Columbia University, I was asked to entertain the bishop of Madras of the Church of South India (CSI) one Monday morning. I showed the bishop around campus, Union Seminary and Morningside Heights. Over lunch he asked who would be coming to their diocesan convention the following year from New York. He asked because he said he was interested in how we in the Episcopal Church in New York worked with young people to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. He thought we might send some people to offer trainings for teachers at the diocesan schools in Madras. There are wonderful educators in India, but he was interested in bringing people in from far away, people who had no pre-conceived notions about the “place” or opportunities available to certain children, and who therefore might be able to generate a different kind of conversation altogether.

The young people that the bishop was talking about were Dalits, children from what used to be known as the untouchable community, who despite some opportunities for education and economic mobility, still found, particularly in rural communities, that they were subject to prejudice, abuse and violence. The bishop said rates of unemployment, alcoholism and suicide remained high in these areas. Children com- ing to diocesan schools still lived in a society in which their lives had little or no value to those outside of their own communities. These schools gave special priority to educating Dalit children. In some cases, they were the best schools available, and because Dalit students were admitted, those from other groups who enrolled their children were making a public commitment to equality. It sounded quite revolutionary and prophetic to me. Of course, we in New York would be radically changed ourselves if we were able to participate in such a process.

My parents are from South India, far from Madras, yet from a similar kind of community, so this issue had special resonance for me. Madras is a diocese known for stepping boldly forward in support of Dalit people. It has its troubles like any diocese, but, just as the Church in South Africa became known for its leadership in the anti-apartheid movement even without the support of its entire membership, so the Diocese of Madras is famous in India for electing the first Dalit bishop and for its outspoken advocacy for Dalit education and equality. As with race in the U.S., some in India would say it’s an old- fashioned issue, one resolved decades ago, and that in speaking of prejudice against Dalits, one is speaking to old stereotypes of India. That has not been my experience.

For me, conversations such as the one the bishop and I were having that morning are at the heart of what we mean when we speak of an Anglican Communion. The only reason the bishop and I were in conversation was that I was a chaplain at a university under the authority of the Episcopal Bishop of New York, who is the obvious primary relationship in New York for the bishop of Madras of the Church of South India. The conversation would not have happened otherwise.

As the bishop and I had been talking that morning, I remembered that one of the horrors of caste prejudice was that a person who is a Dalit would have no reason to believe that another Indian would not hold caste prejudices. I have friends who have told me stories of being asked to drink water outside, or eat on disposable plates away from the central table in “mixed” company—even in church settings. The bishop had taken a risk, or might have been watching to see what I as a clueless Indian American would do as we came to the time for tea and lunch. I invited him and the priest with him to my apartment for tea; that was when he invited us to Madras. I was granted the privilege of treating my brothers in Christ with dignity, casually, and in doing so illustrated a way of being that the bishop thought might be illustrative in his diocese.
Later that morning, I asked the bishop what he thought of Gene Robinson’s consecration, what the implications had been in Tamil Nadu. I found it hard to ask. I did not want to offend him. Maybe I was inviting him to treat me with the same dignity I was trying to offer him. Even though we were just talking, and he had only been gracious, I was scared.

I must have looked nervous, because he smiled and asked me what I thought. I said that I thought it was a step towards greater justice in the church. He smiled and said, “Why should it matter what I think about how the church in America selects its leaders?”

The conversation in my apartment that morning supported my belief that there is unrealized potential in transformative relationships within our Anglican Communion. It would be quite something if we generated a document that strengthened or organized some of that potential, but I don’t think we’ve seen that document yet.

The proposed covenant we have in front of us does seek to be a foundational document for Anglicans across national borders, specifically the British Commonwealth and the Episcopal Churches in the Americas and Europe. The timing of the covenant project is in conjunction with the Windsor Process and the election and consent to the election of Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire. The idea of a covenant has been around for awhile, but the document we have was created in response to these specific ten- sions. It has been clear for some time that as the new, primarily nationally defined, churches of the former British Empire come into their own, the diversity of practice and polity raised the question of what we hold in common.

In some provinces the Anglican church is the national church, in others it essentially a Protestant denomination or a part of an ecumenical national church. The church in the United States is one of the most developed for the simple reason that the Revolution happened in 1776 and most of the other churches achieved autonomy in relation to independence movements in the 20th Century. In some nations, the Anglican church is a serious player in national politics and holds significant property: schools and hospitals as well as historic buildings, in some places it is associated with those who might claim to miss the good old days of Empire, in some places it is a tiny community of ex pats, in others it is a haven for unmarried mothers, indigenous persons, refugees and others rejected by the Catholic and Evangelical churches. It is this diversity we are attempting to define in the proposed covenant.

A good reason to have a covenant would be to define our communion as something other than the church that trailed the British East India Company’s engorgement of the Queen’s purse. We are, of course, much more than that. The Church in Southern Africa models for the rest of us civic engagement and social transformation from a place of profound spirituality and conviction. The churches in the Americas raise the voice of indigenous people and refugees. The Church in India stands with Dalits, slum dwellers and indigenous people. The churches in Africa raise the spectre of national indebtedness, the under-valuing and stripping of national resources, the implications of international aid tied to transnational corporations and the faces and families of those dying of hunger, thirst and disease as the cost of corporate profit. The church throughout the world, at times, stands with the poorest, those dispossessed of land or identity. The poorest of the poor. I think it is exactly this standing on the side of the least, everywhere, that leads us to the breaking point. But these conflicts are the essence of who we are. They call us to greater honesty and compassion in our personal living. We need a covenant that helps us to stand in those places in which it costs us personally to hear our brothers and sisters and guides us through ways to understand one another.

I have a lot of respect for the difficulty of the task of those who had to generate this document, but I think it has failed to capture, honestly or aspirationally, who we are or hope to become. As troubling as some of our origins are, I don’t think we can afford to lie about them. Truth telling would be step one in creating real relationships. The covenant glosses the truth in claiming that “we claim our heritage” in the UK and Ireland, acknowledging our origins honestly and creating language that moves us towards covenanted relationships could be quite powerful. The Anglican Communion is a legacy of imperialism that decimated the natural resources of a significant portion of what is now the third world where people remain mired in economic slavery to London and New York (and increasingly China) until Jesus returns. A covenant that acknowledged these international realities and worked to generate relationships or structures to overcome, not ignore, these histories would be a document radical and gospel-truth-telling enough to be worthy of calling a covenant.

On the other hand, things being what they are, those living in extreme poverty directly related to patterns of theft and aid are very often served by the local church. As self-serving as it sometimes seems, this is what we often call mission. It would be the work of God to begin to understand that most of our “mission” is about restorative justice. That kind of work would require covenanted relationship.

Standing alongside the poor on the Indian subcontinent or in Africa a good Christian must wonder how and why such profound suffering exists in a world where so many—such as us—live so well. The history of how this came to be is fairly straightforward. The crippling international order of debt, aid and relief remain rooted in the fallacy that developing countries must pay for their freedom from empire. Haiti is a prime example. Haiti’s independence treaty was written as a loss of “property” from France, a property loss the Haitians have been forced to repay. The legacy of empire—our legacy as the Anglican Communion—is filled with contracts like that, private and public that have crippled church, state and civil society internationally creating dependencies through which we can both pity the weakness and corruption of the developing state and build enormous agencies to placate the most pressing current need. Yes, there has always been disparity and suffering on this planet, but isn’t one of our gifts as a communion to open eyes to the effects of historic bigotry, now that we have the distance to consider it as the legacy of a generation past? That seems difficult and worthy enough to require a covenant.

But such a covenant is not on the table.

The Anglican Church in those countries in which the church is closely allied with government wishes for a powerful, testosterone- addled ecclesiology that can compete with Rome or the megachurch movements. The church in those places where it is in opposition to government or is sidelined or insignificant and stands with the poor couldn’t be bothered with this business and seems to sign whatever document appears, assuming the best and understanding the utter impossibility of enforcement locally. We in the U.S. are indignant that anyone would try to tell us what to do, and the chiefs of the Church in England fail to understand that we in the U.S. experience their preferred mode of governance as hypocritical. To most of us, this covenant appears to be an obvious attempt to appease those who see how weak our system is. It is weak. Nostalgia is not holding us together. Yet, those who are attempting to strengthen it by this document, I think, will destroy what little is left in their attempt to create a conformity and a unity where there is none.

We must be very careful. In the North and West we support institutions that crush our brothers and sisters in the South. Some of the corporations that employ our faithful members are stripping away local autonomy and resources in other parts of the world. The list is almost every corporation you can name: Nestle, big oil, Cargill, Monsanto, Dow. We make our money as hard-working Americans and keep our endowments in good shape as faithful vestry and board members in the U.S., but these same corporations are the agents of the defeat of local economies around the world, driving people to refugee camps and urban slums, where we might create an outreach program to serve them or send our children on a mission trip. What the covenant process gets very right is that we are already living in these webs of relationship internationally, and it would be great to figure out how to do it as Jesus might.

So, how do we do this? I’ve missed every deadline on this essay, because I don’t have an alternative proposal, but I can say that I don’t think the answer lies in stating the obvious: the creeds, scripture, the approved interpretation of texts, and governance. We already have these things in place, all of us. These are our least common denominators. If you divide us by them, you’ll get a whole number, we all already agree upon, and it does not make any difference to where we find ourselves today. While essential, these structures and documents offer a defi- nition of communion so minimal as to be almost cynical. They accomplish the purpose of unity, while all but encouraging provinces to seek discipline against one another when they take a prophetic stance on behalf of the least among us. For example, under this covenant, the Episcopal Church could argue for discipline of the Church in Nigeria because Texaco is a well-respected and essential institution in the U.S., and protests by Nigerian Anglicans in response to Texaco oil spills contaminating their rivers and destroying their livelihood is an improperly po- litical use of church authority that threatens the stability of an important U.S.-based institution.

I thought, when I began this essay, that I was going to write something about prayer as the thing that holds us together, but in my experience we actually pray very differently and often mean very different things, even when our words are the same. Prayer, like everything else is local. Though tied to the same foundational texts and creeds, prayer is a profoundly local experience influenced by local imagination, local history, the memory of ancient religious prac- tices and the nuances of language. In prayer I am an American person. The breviary of Episcopal monastic communities does it for me. I was raised on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and I love it enough to enjoy experimenting with it to further its imaginative possibilities, but I do not think that it is what holds us together, even in the United States.

The gospels are about so much more than nostalgia and familiarity. I believe the hope in us that these sort of “common” experiences of prayer develop is realized when we stand with the least among us—whether least is defined by mental illness, addiction, poverty, race, hunger, accent, sexual orientation, thoughtfulness, or immigration status. It is in opposing whatever sort of oppression flourishes in our local context, that we are most truly the church in the world. This work unavoidably brings us into conflict with those who believe that the marginalized and their ways of being are not the ways of God. That is the nature of the gospel. The good news, especially when it is good news for those who need a word of liberation, will not be such good news to those who hadn’t yet thought those people should be free. If standing in the place in the world that our prayer calls us to stand as witnesses to God at work among us is a punishable offense by Section Four of the Anglican covenant, I suspect this covenant gets something wrong. And I can guarantee, that we will all find ourselves there, camped out in Section Four, as long as the Spirit is alive in the church.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese is priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s-Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City. She serves on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and the board of directors of the Episcopal Service Corps and was the voting secretary of General Convention in 2009.

Anglican Covenant Week: The holy mess that is Section Four

During Anglican Covenant Week at Episcopal Café, we are featuring three essays from The Genius of Anglicanism, a study guide produced by the Chicago Consultation. This is the first of three articles. The full study guide, which includes eight essays, each followed by study questions, is available here.

By Sally Johnson

In an article titled “Devil and Details” about the Appendix to the St. Andrew’s Draft (February 2008) of the proposed Anglican Covenant, published on Episcopal Café, I raised concerns about the process set out for dealing with disagreements in the Anglican Communion. While the commentary on the proposed covenant that accompanied this draft stated that there was “no intention to erect a centralized jurisdiction” or to give “juridical force” to the decisions of the Instruments of Communion, the proposed procedures looked like a juridical process lacking, however, both adequate due process protections and means of summary resolutions. Additionally, the timelines for resolving disputes were inconsistent with the polity of the Episcopal Church.

Serious concerns were raised around the Communion about the juridical nature of the Appendix and its inclusion in a “covenant” meant to support “bonds of affection.” The Ridley Cambridge Draft (April 2009) replaced the Appendix with Section Four, “Our Covenanted Life Together,” a more general statement of how the covenant would be overseen and how questions about a Church’s actions would be handled. At its May 2009 meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council requested that Section Four of the Ridley Cambridge Covenant be reviewed and revised. That was done by a group appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The final version of the covenant was released in December 2009.

The focus of this article is on the procedures and processes for handling disputes articulated in this final draft. Unfortunately, the deletion of the Appendix and its replacement with Section Four does not resolve any of the issues previously raised. In fact, it may have made matters worse instead of better. The Appendix attempted, if inadequately, to create a justice system in which the outcome could be respected based on the process used to reach it (often referred to as “the rule of law”). Section Four, however, proposes a justice system in which the outcome is supposed to be respected based on the nature of the group that makes the decision, rather than on how the decision is made. In doing so, the new system gives significant power and great discretion to a group that previously did not exist.

In the final draft of the proposed covenant, references to the “Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting” have been changed to the “Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.” While this might appear to be an insignificant change, it may be a highly significant one. The language itself suggests that there is a body, “the Anglican Communion,” that has a “Standing Committee” with independent authority and governance powers separate from the meetings (Lambeth Conference and Primates’ Meeting), the office (Archbishop of Canterbury) and the body (Anglican Consultative Council) referred to in recent years as “Instruments of Communion.”

Overview of Section Four Process
The Appendix to the previous draft of the covenant specified, in some detail, procedures, decision makers and time frames for the processes of handling conflicts under the covenant. In contrast, Section Four of the current covenant provides generally that the “Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, monitors the functioning of the covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion on behalf of the Instruments” and advises on questions relating to the meaning of the covenant. The Standing Committee is empowered to: make every effort to facilitate agreement;

• take advice from such bodies as it deems appropriate to determine a view on the nature of the matter at question and those relational consequences which may result;

• refer the question to both the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting;

• request the acting Church to defer a controversial action;

• make recommendations for “relational consequences” to any Instrument of Communion including provisional limitation of participation in or suspension from, that Instrument until completion of the cov- enant processes when a Church declines to defer its action;

• make a declaration as to whether an ac- tion or decision of a Church “is or would be incompatible with the covenant;” and

• make recommendations of relational consequences to the Churches of the Communion or the Instruments of Communion including whether communion is impaired or limited with the acting Church and the practical consequences of such.

While the deletion of the Appendix and reworking of Section Four may have addressed concerns about the overly juridical tone of the Appendix, the changes did not resolve the essential question of what process will be used to exercise the authority given to the Standing Committee and the Instruments of Communion.

With the exception of information about which bodies can raise an objection to a Church’s actions, nothing more is specified about the conflict resolution process than what is summarized above. Other than that, nothing ... nothing... is specified about the processes, procedures or timing of the outlined process. In essence, the Standing Committee receives a question, receives assistance from unspecified “committees or commissions” mandated by unspecified authority, takes advice from any body or anybody it deems appropriate and decides whether to refer the question to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting. The Standing Committee then decides whether to request a Church to “defer” a decision or action and what relational consequences should result if it does not. It then moves on to a determination of whether or not a Church’s action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant.” The Standing Committee does this “on the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting,” not on the basis of a process or procedure in which the Church whose action is in question participates in any way, other than to the extent it has representatives on the ACC (from which it could already be barred) and a primate at the Primates’ Meeting (from which its primate could have been excluded). (See “Consequences Prior to Decision” below.)

Agreeing to an undefined, unspecified process in which the decision-making bodies have full discretion to act in any manner they deem best–not only as to the process but as to the standard and burden of proof, information considered, and all other aspects of the dispute resolution system–is what the covenant contemplates. In the words of the rule of law, there is no procedural due process and no substantive due process guaranteed by the covenant. The out- come is to be trusted and respected based on the persons/bodies making the decisions rather than a system based on how the decision is made.

Ease of initiating and continuing the process
As with the Appendix, the only threshold that must be met in order for the dispute resolution process to begin is that a Church or Instrument of Communion claims that a Church’s action or decision may be “incompatible with the Covenant.” The covenant says “where a shared mind has not been reached” the matter “shall” be referred to the Standing Committee. The covenant doesn’t say who decides whether there is a “shared mind” such that referral to the Standing Committee is mandated. The covenant does suggest the Standing Committee can decide to take no action on the matter other than to “make every effort to facilitate agreement.” That is one area in which Section Four constitutes an improvement over the procedures of the Appendix.

Consequences prior to decision
The potential consequences for the Church whose actions are being questioned are severe even before the process is completed. The Standing Committee may request the Church to defer a controversial action and if it does not, the Standing Committee can recommend to any Instrument of Communion that the Church be suspended or its participation limited in an Instrument until the completion of the process. Thus, prior to any determination on the merits, a Church could be prohibited from participating in the Anglican Consultative Council, its bishops could be excluded from a Lambeth Conference or its Primate barred from participating in the Primates’ Meeting. There is no requirement that the Church in question be consulted on this issue, and it has no right to be heard.

Time Line and Implications for the polity of the Episcopal Church
Unlike the Appendix, the final covenant contains no time line for the dispute resolution process. It does contemplate that the Primates’ Meeting and Anglican Consultative Council would take action based on the recommendations of the Standing Committee. A Primates’ Meeting can be called at any time. The Anglican Consultative Council meets about once every three years. General Convention meets every three years. Executive Council meets every three months. It is likely that any controversial decision taken by the Episcopal Church would have been taken by our General Convention, and that only the General Convention could respond. We have already seen examples of the Instruments of Communion requesting bodies of the Episcopal Church, specifically the House of Bishops, to take actions in response to Anglican Communion concerns that the body is not authorized to take.

Serious attention needs to be paid to the enforcement provisions of the covenant because they are based not on procedural and substantive due process—the rule of law—but on the discretion, one is tempted to say whim, of the Standing Committee.

Sally Johnson is chancellor to the President of the House of Deputies and a member of her Council of Advice. She is an eight-time deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of Minnesota.

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