The Anglican Covenant is not as dead as it looks

I am wondering if the proposed Anglican Covenant is as dead as many Episcopalians think it is. It seems to me that Rowan Williams is making slow but significant progress toward assembling a notional center that he can then play off against the left (constituted by us, the Brazilians, the Scots and maybe the Welsh) and the right (constituted by Nigeria, Uganda and the Southern Cone.)

Consider: The Churches of Mexico, Myanmar and the West Indies have approved the covenant, and the Churches of England and South Africa have embarked on a process that seems almost certain to end in its approval. Mexico and South Africa are two of the provinces that opponents of the covenant within the Episcopal Church hoped might keep us company if we declined to sign up.

The Australians and Canadians are in the midst of processes whose likely outcomes are not clear to me. But both are members of the British Commonwealth, and Archbishop Philip Aspinall of Australia is a leading figure among the Primates, so covenant opponents would be foolish to presume that these two provinces won’t follow where Canterbury leads.

When Bishop Martin Barahona of El Salvador was primate of the Central American province, the province was firmly in the no-covenant camp, but his successor is a more conservative theological thinker, so it isn’t clear where that province will come down.

The Irish and Japanese may not sign the covenant, but their primates are pushing in that direction. I don’t know where the churches of Korea, the Philippines and Hong Kong stand, but at some point, I do worry about a domino effect.

Numerous primates from the Global South have signed a statement saying that they will not adopt the covenant unless it is strengthened, but the Global South is not the monolith its American backers would have us believe. The primate of Rwanda is not the ideologue his predecessor is, ditto Kenya, which is actively seeking better relationships with the Church of England. The primate of Tanzania tries to raise money from everyone, and therefore tries not to alienate anyone permanently. The Primate of Sudan walks a tightrope, balancing his multiple relationships with Episcopal churches and dioceses with the reality of his surroundings, and his own convictions. The Church in the Congo is in a war-ravaged shambles, and making decisions based on survival, rather than any particular ideology.

Even among those who participated in the boycott, Archbishop John Chew of Southeast Asia is in favor of a covenant, and Archbishop Ian Earnest of the Indian Ocean is something of a mystery. He had close gay friends while a fellow at Episcopal Divinity School, but has taken a hard right turn since being elected to lead the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa.

I don’t know whether I would say it is likely, but it seems to me at least possible that Rowan Williams will gin up just enough support for his covenant to force provinces that oppose it to make some hard choices.

Which brings me to New Zealand. At the moment that province has ratified the first three sections of the document, but not the disciplinary fourth section. Maybe they will leave it at that. Is that an approach our church could be comfortable with?

This little survey is somewhat impressionistic and by no means exhaustive. Feel free to chip in facts and analysis in the comments. There is a running scorecard on whose done what regarding the covenant maintained by Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Jim, I don’t know that many folks, even in the Episcopal Church, have said that the Covenant is dead, so much as some have said that it is (or should be) dead here. I hear your concern (not to say pessimism) regarding the process in the Church of England. As divided as C of E is, I don’t know that we can really predict how the dioceses will decide. The Canadians, too, have significant differences diocese to diocese. It is probably simply too early to make predictions.

    As a Deputy, it seems to me we will have hard decisions in Indianapolis one way or the other. Certainly, if by that point it has failed in C of E it will be a mite easier; but probably not much. I note, too, that Southern Africa’s final step is after we meet in 2012. No, it probably won’t change; but it’s possible.

    I have some attraction to the decision taken in A/NZ/P. It might well work at General Convention; but then we will all be wondering what it will mean, and how Canterbury and the ACO will react. Still, I would be interested in considering it.

    Marshall Scott

  2. Michael Russell


    As one of those who has intoned that the Anglican Covenant is Dead, I must say that there are many sorts of death. I never doubted that many provinces would adopt it, perhaps even a majority.

    But that does not mean it will ever work. The so called instruments of communion are already squabbling over power in the communion and there is nothing in the AC that mediates between them or assigns them spheres of authority.

    Now certainly the GafCOn people might change their minds and adopt it in order to make a big stick of it, so we will have to wait to see on that. But if they don’t then you have a pointless Covenant since there is no possibility for unity.

    I could agree to do what NZ did, with the additional change of insisting that Reason be included in our scheme of how we decide things theologically. The present formulation of Scripture and tradition is simply not Anglican and in good conscience I cannot support signing on to such a flawed document.

    The advantage for us signing on is that we can then pursue complaints against ACNA and those provinces who have interfered in our internal business. That they are no longer doing it is irrelevant, sort of like saying yes we stole your house, but since our accomplices now have the title we are NOW doing nothing wrong.

    In the end though the AC may have some currency while ++Rowan is the ABC, but then it will hit the dustbin of bad ideas.

  3. Thanks for the responses, guys. Marshall, I have been doing a fair amount of traveling lately, and the idea that the Covenant is dead, and that therefore we don’t have to worry much about it, is pretty widespread. Mike, I worry that not signing on to the covenant creates openings for Episcopalians who would use it to make mischief.

  4. Michael Russell

    Again I think we can sign onto a modified Covenant. Since all but the ++ABC and those determined to support him think the Ridley Draft needs modifying I am sure we can at least keep this a document in progress for another decade. That in and of itself would be a worthwhile goal.

    But the major flaw remains the unworkable nature of four centers of authority. We already have the GafCOn Primates insisting that their pronouncements are somehow authoritative, insisting that the ++ABC’s job is to implement them!

    There will never be anything but conflict as the Primates the ++ABC and the ACC dance around for dominance. There is no Constitution defining their powers or the interrelation of them. So again we can watch for a decade some dance among them, but please remember that these instruments having any central authority was and is a fiction.

    So we should amend it, modify it then sign it as a sign of good faith and send it back. What’s a good enough response for GafCon is good enough for us.

  5. tobias haller

    I’ve been doing a lot of study and conversation on the Covenant. There will be further water under the bridge by 2012.

    While I think the draft on the table is far from perfect, I also feel it is necessary to go beyond the document itself to see what its purposes or uses might be. Clearly the earlier drafts were geared towards the exclusion of certain provinces from the life of the communion; but that seems both not to be an aspect of the current draft, nor a likely possibility. (I’ve created a parallel listing of the last three drafts for reference, and the changes are important, if in some cases subtle — for example, the previous draft allows non-Anglican churches to apply for Covenant status; the present version states they may be “invited” to apply. I’ll make this “harmony of the Covenants” available shortly…)

    Long story short, I’m not so sure what opposition to the covenant or refusal to adopt it accomplishes, or what signing it risks. To use a nonce phrase I’ve heard in other contexts, “are we afraid of Anglican cooties?” It may be that the chief value of the covenant will be in showing willingness to continue living together through differences — as a kind of pennant or ensign — rather than as anything approaching an Anglican Constitution and Canons (which it clearly isn’t!)

  6. I think Tobias’ comment points toward an interesting dilemma. All of the reasons that I can think of for signing on to the covenant are extrinsic to the document.

  7. If a critical mass of Provinces have signed this damned thing by the time your church gets to discussing it in 2012 or my church in 2013, then Covenant-skeptics may need to take a change of tactics.

    Of course, the membership criteria of the Covenant refers to Provinces which have adopted the damned thing and to Provinces where it is still under consideration.

    In light of this,of internal conversations a few of us have had among the No Anglican Covenant Coalition in Canada, of the current situation in New Zealand and the suggestions above, I propose the following:

    * A resolution that conditionally endorses sections 1 – 3 and tables section 4 (indefinately).

    Again, this is predicated on the possibility that England and a significant cadre of other Provinces have adopted the thing.

  8. Malcolm.

    I really don’t think that Commonwealth membership has much to do with Canada’s deliberations about the Covenant. Can’t speak for the Antipodeans. I’ll eat my maniple if it goes anywhere here in Scotland.

    Our best hope is that the English bugger it up in order to get something passed and adopt it in a way which makes it safe and harmless. Where there is dithering there is hope.


    (Editor’s note: Thanks, Rabbit. We need your real name next time.)

  9. E Sinkula


    I am confused by the statement you made “I worry that not signing on to the covenant creates openings for Episcopalians who would use it to make mischief.” How so? How can such Episcopalians ‘use it’ if they do not sign onto it?

    Eric Sinkula

  10. Eric, by signing on as dioceses, aligning themselves with ACNA and then claiming to be the true Anglican presence in the United States and then being so recognized by various provinces and organizations. I think this is still the end-game envisioned by Fulcrum, the Anglican Communion Institute and their allies. For them, the covenant is the Dar es Salaam settlement by other means.

  11. E Sinkula

    Thanks for the clarification, Jim.

    Hey Tobias, is your parallel listing over the previous drafts posted anywhere for our viewing?

    Eric Sinkula

  12. Michael Russell

    I think some combination of dithering and mischievousness is called for with a solid dose of conscientious thinking.

    I do not think we should endorse the idea of 4 IU or IC at all, period. I do not think we should cede any sense of power to them, indeed I wish our national website would remove any acknowledgement of their existence.

    I do not think we should cede that Scripture and Tradition are the mainstays of Anglican hermeneutics. The absence of Reason from the document is, well, an absence of reason. It is not Anglican. Tradition is, even in 3 legged stool theology, always the weakest link.

    I do not think we should sign a document that has a bunged up administrative/governance structure that cannot work. We can already see that it cannot work because three of the four IU’s are in a power struggle already. Though actually it is a power struggle between some primates and the ACC and some primates and the “”ABC. We would be endorsing a structure that has already failed…. because it is fictional.

    We should sign it only to participate in making it totally unworkable. They way to foil a bureaucracy is to flood it with whatever it can be flooded with. we have plenty of reason to go after the ACNA folks for their behavior and for any number of the provinces within the text of the Covenant.

    What we should work on is being in conversation and ministry with those who choose to work with us. If signing the covenant is a demand, then it is unlikely to ever build bonds of affection.

  13. tobias haller

    Note that in the current draft individual dioceses and such could not in fact sign on unless “invited.” That some have done so in spite of a lack of invitation is more flag-waving and of no real consequence.

    Eric, I hope to post the “Harmony” later today at Scribd… it’s a pdf.

  14. RR, I’m not the one who raised Commonwealth membership, and I agree with you that sharing a Queen with the English (as do the Scots, Welsh, Australians, New Zealanders and bits of several other Provinces) won’t be enough on its own to deliver a pro-Covenant vote.

    That said, some of the Commonwealth monarchies have retained a certaindeference to authority.

    Q. – How do you get 100 Canadians out of a swimming pool?

    A. – “Hey guys! Time to get out of the pool!”

    Mind you, it was a lack of deference to inept authority that played a crucial role in allowing the Canadians to take Vimy after the Brits and French had failed.

  15. Bill Carroll

    I think we should receive the present draft with gratitude and agree to respond by 2042:

  16. Rod Gillis

    If I were an English bookie, I’d would puts odds that Canada will sign the covenant.

  17. As an exercise, open a copy of the PDF version of the entire Covenant document in your PDF reader and then search for mention of “love” as in “love thy neighbor”.

    As a second exercise, make a list of all of the section numbers where a door is left open for magisterium.

  18. You know, I’m thinking about one reason we might consider signing on (and I’m not saying I find this compelling). It is in the very last provision:

    4.4.2) Any covenanting Church or Instrument of Communion may submit a proposal to amend the Covenant to the Instruments of Communion through the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee shall send the proposal to the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting, the covenanting Churches and any other body as it may consider appropriate for advice. The Standing Committee shall make a recommendation on the proposal in the light of advice offered, and submit the proposal with any revisions to the covenanting Churches. The amendment is operative when ratified by three quarters of such Churches. The Standing Committee shall adopt a procedure for promulgation of the amendment.

    There are those who have suggested we sign on to make it unpalatable for the conservative provinces to sign on. That, of course, has a risk: they decide they can take the risk for the purpose of challenging us.

    It seems to me we might consider signing on so as to suggest amendments. Now, it would take years to get such amendments through, just as it has taken years to even get a draft out, much less through the constitutional processes of the various provincial churches. At the same time, with amendments on the table the content and meaning of the Covenant would be reopened. It would seem hard to find something “contrary to the Covenant,” if an amendment process had reopened discussion of what the Covenant is.

    I would have to think about this; but if by the time we get toward 2012 this is looking tense, an Episcopal Church variant may parallel the A/NZ/P action: we sign on, and in the same action immediately propose amendments. In some ways, that would be even more apt to our needs. There are, as some have noted, problems with the “descriptive” portions of the Covenant. So, we could propose amendments to those “descriptive” passages that trouble us (say, adding reason more explicitly; or weakening the reference to the 39 Articles). And we can’t amend if we don’t sign on.

    That has this advantage over simply amending the test in the General Convention. If we change language for ourselves, those who sign aren’t required to respond. If we sign on and immediately proposed amendment, other signatories will be required to respond.

    Marshall Scott

  19. Rod Gillis

    Malcolm, Malcolm, after Mike Pearson and Peacekeeping why do Canadians still defer to Vimy? The birth of a nation motif is really tenuous. As for jokes, here is one I picked up in Florida.

    Q. What is the difference between a Canuck and a canoe?

    A. Canoes tip.

    Yes, we will sign the covenant (sadly) and we’ll probably sing a pious Victorian era hymn before the ink is dry. However,we’ll just do it to be polite. Signing won’t stop us from blessings same sex unions.

  20. We should not assume that the covenant is dead. I, too, am concerned about the domino effect, and I believe that it will be in play. The covenant may well be accepted by a majority of the churches in the AC. The covenant may be adopted at GC of the Episcopal Church, in one form or another.

    But to say that if the covenant passes it will work to draw the member churches of the AC together is a stretch of the imagination that comes close to entering Lalaland. In the end, the covenant will be a failure.

    June Butler

  21. Savi Hensman

    4.2.5 and 4.2.7 still threaten ‘relational consequences’, as well as a pledge in 4.2.9 to create internal mechanisms to ensure compliance, and the theological basis is questionable.

  22. tobias haller

    Why is it the title reminds me of the seen from Monty P and the Holy G? “I’m not dead yet… I’m feeling much better.” Where’s the man with the hammer…?

    Seriously, I’ve discovered the link to my Synopticon seems not to work in Internet Explorer. I suggest cutting and pasting to Firefox, Opera, Safari… who knows. Perhaps the proliferation of browsers is a good analogy for the Anglican Communion?

  23. William F. Hammond

    Rod Gillis said: “Yes, we will sign the covenant (sadly) and we’ll probably sing a pious Victorian era hymn before the ink is dry.”

    Does anyone remember the words to the hymn “I am an Anglican”? 🙂

    Seriously, Marshall Scott’s idea of signing and introducing proposed amendments is very interesting. I also like Jim Naughton’s point about the possibility of opening a door for mischief if TEC does not sign.

  24. Bill Carroll

    The reason I will vote “no,” on anything that looks like an endorsement of even a portion of a Covenant is that I don’t want the Episcopal Church to give any credence to the reasons why some think a Covenant is necessary. We’ve made some progress, especially in 2009, toward getting off the fence. Faithfulness to our mission and truthfulness about who we are trumps all worries about mischief-making and all strategies of amending after the fact. The world is watching. Let’s say a polite but firm “no,” and go out and make disciples. Let’s continue to seek whatever relationships other Anglicans will have with us, but focus our energy and resources on being the Church God calls us to be.

    I believe that the Anglican Communion is more likely to be influenced in a positive direction by a witness with integrity. I also believe that waffling is disastrous at a very vulnerable life in our own history as the Episcopal Church. We’ve already squandered some of our missionary advantage by some of our fence sitting post 2003. Let’s not waste the rest.

  25. Adam Spencer

    I understand the “badness” of the Covenant or, at least, the arguments for the same.

    But I wonder what Jesus would have us do?

    Enter into a difficult form of community in the hope of further working through difference in honest, tough relationship that may be transforming? Or avoid said difficulty because we are “right”?

    As a good friend of mine in youth ministry always says: “Christian community isn’t for sissies.” It’s hard work and it demands much of us. If we truly believe both in the rightness of our understandings AND in authentic Christian community, I think we cannot absent ourselves and our particular charisms and insights from this (always and forever imperfect) community of churches but must, rather, seek deeper engagement with it. I think we have to try; even if they ultimately reject us.

    I see the Covenant as (an equally imperfect) means to that end.

  26. Bill Carroll

    Rejecting the covenant isn’t about rejecting messy relationships or communities but sinful structures that are allegedly supposed to hold those communities together. It is holding to a genuinely Anglican understanding of catholicity and koinonia.

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