Anglican Consultative Council postpones release of covenant

Council agrees that dispute-resolution section needs work
May 7, 2009

Published at 10 p.m. EDT, this story updates an earlier bulletin


The representatives of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) decided on May 8 that the Ridley Cambridge Draft of an Anglican covenant needs more work before it can be presented to the communion's provinces for adoption.

The resolution that the ACC passed after a long day of debate:


  1. thanks the Covenant Design Group for their faithfulness and responsiveness in producing the drafts for an Anglican Communion Covenant and, in particular, for the Ridley Cambridge Draft submitted to this meeting;
  2. recognizes that an Anglican Communion Covenant may provide an effective means to strengthen and promote our common life as a communion;
  3. asks the Archbishop of Canterbury, in consultation with the Secretary General, to appoint a small working group to consider and consult with the provinces on Section 4 and its possible revision, and to report to the next meeting of the Joint Standing Committee [about six months from now];
  4. asks the JSC, at that meeting, to approve a final form of Section 4;
  5. asks the Secretary General to send the revised Ridley Cambridge text, at that time, only to the member churches of the Anglican Consultative Council for consideration and decision on acceptance or adoption by them as the Anglican Communion Covenant;
  6. asks those member churches to report to ACC-15 [anticipated in 2012] on the progress made in the processes of response to, and acceptance or adoption of, the Covenant.

The council had originally been asked to send the entire text to the provinces for adoption. However, some members were concerned about the practicalities of the processes outlined in Section Four, "Our Covenanted Life Together," which attempt to provide a method for resolving disputes in the communion. Much of the concern centered on paragraph 4.1.5, which says that "it shall be open to other Churches to adopt the Covenant" because it lacks a definition for "other churches."

The members agreed 33-30 (with two abstentions) to ask for more work on Section Four.

The ACC members were also concerned about the lack of time for their provinces to respond to the Ridley Cambridge Draft between the time it was released April 8 and the May 2 start of the ACC meeting. The Covenant Design Group had released the two previous drafts with longer comment periods.

Kate Turner, lay representative from the Church of Ireland, told the council during the debate that "my understanding is that the covenant is about listening to each other, hearing each other's concerns before we act." She said the covenant process had been good thus far and "we're suddenly not following the process on the most contentious element of the covenant, it seems to me, just due to the timing of this meeting."

Turner said the suggestion of having the provinces submit their comments on Section Four in time for the next meeting of the Joint Standing Committee (expected at the end of 2009 or early 2010) would be a fast enough process for those members who did not want any delay.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told ENS after the day's sessions ended that she envisions "some consultation across the church" in order to prepare the Episcopal Church's response to the expected request for comment on Section Four.

The Executive Council, which submitted the church's responses to the first two drafts, does not meet again until the fall. Jefferts Schori suggested that the councils of advice that advise her and President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson could be asked for input as well.

Episcopal Church delegation gratified for pause
Episcopal Church clerical representative Ian Douglas, who thought that there were "too many ambiguities" in Section Four, said the end result "allows for a comprehensive and well-worked process so that when we finally do get the final version of the covenant, we'll all know what we're talking about."

He added that, while the postponement decision was difficult and didn't please everyone, "that is the result of living in Christian community and waiting for each other."

Episcopal Church lay representative Josephine Hicks told ENS after the end of the day's sessions that "we came up with what was clearly a compromise … not everyone is entirely happy with what we came up with, I feel certain, but that's what compromise is all about."

Diocese of New York Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam, the church's episcopal representative, said that there was "a lot of graciousness" in the midst of "a lot of pressure" on the ACC to send the covenant out in its current form. The compromise will allow for more work on Section Four and "we were grateful for that and the tone of that vote."

She said that eventually the communion's churches will have to decide if they want a covenant with dispute-resolution process that resembles a pre-nuptial agreement in which the terms of divorce are spelled out before the marriage is entered into.

"When [the covenant debate] was all over and we began to handle resolutions that had to do with mission, the whole tenor of the place changed," she said. "Suddenly we were collaborating and working together -- all the tensions were gone. I honestly believe that that's where our covenant lies: in our shared heritage and in our shared mission."

Decision follows long day of debate
The covenant decision came after a day of polite debate that, at times, included accusation, exasperation, impatience, and intense and confusing parliamentary maneuvering, both on the floor and behind the scenes.

On one end of the debate spectrum, Dato Stanley Isaacs of the Church of South East Asia, voiced the opinion of many when he said that the council faced "a defining moment for the communion, a moment that we either grab it or we don't."

He called the covenant "a hope in Christ that this will be a way of finding a just solution to the realization of a communion that is once again united in the bond of Christ … we long for that unity again."

Isaacs said it would give "a ray of hope to us finding a resolution to the problem that has not only divided the communion, but has embarrassed the churches in many, many parts of the world outside of the United States."

On the other hand, Sarah Tomlinson, ACC youth representative from Scotland, urged the council to allow the communion the time it needs to formulate a covenant whose terms are clearly defined.

"Whatever we decide now, my generation is going to have to deal with it. We're going to have to bear the burden of dealing with this long after -- no offense -- you guys aren't running the church," she said. "So I know we're all keen to get this finished and get it to come to an end, but let's take the time to consult just a bit more … otherwise, I am going to have to be sorting out this mess and the rest of the youth are going to be sorting out this situation a lot longer."

Anglican Communion Secretary General Kenneth Kearon told reporters after the debate that most ACC members favored a covenant as was evidenced by the overwhelming majorities with which each resolve was approved. He said the decision to ask for more input on Section Four was a "reasonable compromise."

"I think it's a tight compromise between the expressed wishes of both sides: those who want to get the covenant out now … and those who felt a proper procedure still had to be followed," he said.

Four days of discernment led up to postponement
The covenant decision was the culmination of a discernment process that began May 4 and featured public and private sessions during which the representatives were able to air their feelings about both the covenant and the Windsor Continuation Group's final report. (ENS coverage of the ACC's decisions on the continuation group report is available here.)

The representatives also engaged in individual conversations during those four days, and some attempted to lobby for their positions on both issues, crafting alternative resolutions for the council committee which vets all such proposals.

The Episcopal Church delegation praised the private discernment group process' ability to allow ACC members to speak their minds. Hicks said that those discussions were a "candid" way in which people could speak frankly about how communion issues had impacted their provinces before having to engage in formal debate. "People really listened to one another and really heard each other," she said.

Douglas said that, as a result, the formal debate was "incredibly civil, people listened [and] were generous in their offerings."

Retired Province of the West Indies Archbishop Drexel Gomez, who headed the Covenant Design Group, and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who commissioned the continuation group, had set the stage for the four-day process on May 4 and May 5 by warning the council that it faced serious choices about the future of the Anglican Communion.

Gomez had predicted that if the ACC did not agree to send the covenant out to the provinces for their adoption, "there will be clear breaks in the communion after this meeting."

He warned the council that "a number of primates" had told him that their governing bodies "are beginning to become impatient with the communion's life if the communion can't say something clear at this stage of its life."

Williams had characterized the ACC's choices as "more or less communion, integrity and cohesiveness." He said during his presentation that the Anglican Communion had to decide what it wanted to be: "a system where Anglicanism is a far more dispersed family in which we no longer in any way make that claim that we can act as a unit in the Christian world" or one that is "more cohesive and more theologically aware" and acts more like a unified church.

The request for the ACC to send the covenant out for adoption by the provinces formally came from the JSC.

"Archbishop Drexel has left us with no doubt that there is no matter that will come before us this week that is more important than the question of the covenant," Diocese of Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, primate of the Anglican Church of Australia and a member of the JSC, said after Gomez's presentation, adding that a "solemn responsibility" had fallen on the ACC.

Coverage of Gomez's presentation is here and coverage of the session with Williams is here.

Covenant background
The idea for an Anglican covenant was first cited in the 2004 Windsor Report (paragraphs 113-120) and has been supported by all the instruments of communion as a way for the Anglican Communion to maintain unity amid differing viewpoints, especially on human sexuality issues and biblical interpretation.

The Ridley Cambridge Draft's first two sections, "Our Inheritance in Faith" and "The Life We Share with Others: Our Anglican Vocation," are little changed from the two previous drafts of the covenant. The third section, "Our Unity and Common Life," attempts to outline how Anglican churches relate to each other. The fourth section, "Our Covenanted Life Together," provides a method for resolving disputes in the communion.

The Anglican Communion is made up of around 77 million members in 44 regional and national churches around the globe in 164 countries.

The ACC is the Anglican Communion's most representative decision-making body and includes bishops, clergy and laity. While it has no jurisdiction over the provinces of the communion, it makes policy, approves the Anglican Communion Office's budget and encourages the communion's members to engage together in mission and ministry.

More information about plans for the meeting is available here.

Video clips from the meeting can be found here.