So many points have been made against the proposed Anglican Covenant, which will be voted on this week by the Church of England’s General Synod, that one risks redundancy in expressing one’s own reservations. Mine have to do primarily with how the covenant would operate if approved. It is a dangerous document which takes John Adams’ famous formulation—“a government of laws and not of men”—and stands it on its head. The covenant is a document that sets forth a system for adjudicating disputes based on criteria that are almost entirely subjective and ad hoc.
In this peculiar system, one can do nothing that offends another province in the Communion, and anything that does not. Offense is judged not by analyzing the act, but in analyzing the response to the act. This is governance by hurt feelings, a system in which power flows to those who complain the loudest and the most frequently. The covenant lacks any of the safeguards, contained in most civil codes, to protect the accused from frivolous accusations. Hence there is no cost and much potential benefit in lodging complaints simply to keep one’s theological adversaries on the defensive. There is great incentive for them to behave in similar fashion.
One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to notice that the covenant contains no standards of evidence, and provides for nothing resembling due process, The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion can investigate complaints in whatever manner it sees fit. Perhaps this is unsurprising. If the only fact at issue is whether a party has given offense, the only evidence necessary is the offended party’s assertion that they are, indeed offended. Having conducted an investigation under standards of its own devising, the Standing Committee can then respond in whatever manner it chooses including the imposition of “relational consequences.” (I have been re-watching an American television classic recently, which may be why “relational consequences” sounds to me like the phrase that Tony Soprano might use to describe a venereal disease.)
The covenant’s potential to set province against province has been noted by other writers. But it may be more likely to sow dissension within provinces that without. The case of The Episcopal Church in the United States gives evidence of how this would happen. A minority faction within a province disagrees with a decision taken by the majority. This faction petitions other provinces in the Communion to come to its aid. These provinces file a complaint under the covenant, the Standing Committee begins a review, and the question of who are the true representatives of the Communion in a given jurisdiction is suddenly up for grabs. Rowan Williams and the Primates of the communion have already demonstrated that they are not above seizing such a moment of unrest to insert themselves aggressively into the affairs of a member province, even attempting to carve out a church within a church—and set it , for all practical purposes, under foreign leadership. (The rebuttal to covenant proponents who say the current version of that document respects provincial autonomy is simple and overwhelming: Dar es Salaam. For those who don’t remember what happened when the Primates met in Tanzania in 2007, click read more to learn about the “Pastoral Scheme.”)
Perhaps the greatest failing of the covenant, however, is not technical but spiritual. The covenant is blind to evil within the church, and the extent to which the church participates in the evils of the world. Put aside for the moment the fact that at a time when poverty and disease are rampant, the earth is warming at a potentially cataclysmic pace, and war ravages much of the planet, the leaders of our Communion are unwilling to move on until the Americans are brought to heel on the issue of homosexuality. Focus instead on the simple fact that much of the evil in our world exists because it serves the self interest of powerful people and powerful institutions. These are people who can always arrange for a fuss to be made on their behalf—who can always claim that any attempt to rectify the balance of power in this world “tears at the fabric” of whatever community has summoned the fortitude to challenge their dominance. The covenant is a handy tool for maintaining the status quo—for making certain that the meek never come into the inheritance that Jesus promised them. The issue may be homosexuality today, but what is at stake is the ability of churches in the Anglican Communion to challenge injustice when it is in the interest of other churches in the Communion to support it.
From the Primates Meeting in Dar es Salaam, February 2007
A Pastoral Scheme
We recognise that there are individuals, congregations and clergy, who in the current situation, feel unable to accept the direct ministry of their bishop or of the Presiding Bishop, and some of whom have sought the oversight of other jurisdictions.
We have received representations from a number of bishops of The Episcopal Church who have expressed a commitment to a number of principles set out in two recent letters. We recognise that these bishops are taking those actions which they believe necessary to sustain full communion with the Anglican Communion.
We acknowledge and welcome the initiative of the Presiding Bishop to consent to appoint a Primatial Vicar.
On this basis, the Primates recommend that structures for pastoral care be established in conjunction with the Pastoral Council, to enable such individuals, congregations and clergy to exercise their ministries and congregational life within The Episcopal Church, and that
the Pastoral Council and the Presiding Bishop invite the bishops expressing a commitment to “the Camp Allen principles”, or as otherwise determined by the Pastoral Council, to participate in the pastoral scheme ;
in consultation with the Council and with the consent of the Presiding Bishop, those bishops who are part of the scheme will nominate a Primatial Vicar, who shall be responsible to the Council;
the Presiding Bishop in consultation with the Pastoral Council will delegate specific powers and duties to the Primatial Vicar.