Anglican covenant conference draws international group, elicits varied viewpoints

New York's Desmond Tutu Center hosts April conference
April 14, 2008

Participants at the recent "An Anglican Covenant: Divisive or Reconciling?" conference, held at the Desmond Tutu Center in New York City, gathered to discuss whether or not the Anglican Communion should adopt an official covenant.  

Sponsored by the General Theological Seminary (GTS) and the seminaries of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada, the April 10-12 conference welcomed more than 100 participants and provided them an opportunity to ponder questions such as: Would an Anglican covenant clarify Anglican identity and strengthen mutual interdependence? Would it be a tool of exclusion and dominance? Is a covenant a biblical way forward, or would it impose a uniformity that is foreign to Anglicanism? Would a covenant assist or impede reconciliation among Anglicans?

The Rev. Dr. Titus L. Presler, professor of mission and world Christianity and sub-dean at GTS, said the gathering's purpose was not to advocate for a particular stance toward a covenant, but to encourage an open and informed discussion in which all views are welcome.

"We encourage all present to feel free to ask the questions and express the views to which they are moved," Presler said. "We also encourage respectful listening and caring responses."

The conference opened with the Most Rev. Drexel W. Gomez, Archbishop of the West Indies and Bishop of the Diocese of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. In delivering the first of three keynote addresses Gomez, chairman of the Covenant Design Group, presented a decidedly, pro-Anglican covenant message, saying that this is a "time of great tension" within the Anglican Communion and that "the 'bonds of affection' which once held our fellowship together are strained; indeed some would say broken."

The idea for an Anglican covenant came from the Windsor Report (paragraphs 113-120), which was published in October 2004 after a year's deliberations by the Lambeth Commission on Communion, a group appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to explore ways the Communion could maintain unity amid differing viewpoints.

The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council commissioned a study paper on the idea of a covenant in March 2005, Towards an Anglican Covenant. At its meeting in May 2006, the Joint Standing Committee asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish a Covenant Design Group to further the project.  This group gave a preliminary report to the Primates Meeting at Dar es Salaam in February 2007.  The report included the Nassau Draft -- a draft for the covenant on which initial consultation was taken in the course of 2007. That draft is accompanied by a number of supporting documents, including the introduction, a commentary and a draft appendix.

The Covenant Design Group met again at the end of January 2008, and produced a second report and draft -- the St. Andrew's Draft -- taking into account many of the submissions to the group. This draft is being offered for further reflection, especially at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

Referencing Anglican polity and the Windsor Report, Gomez said that in the three years since the release of the Windsor Report, positions across the Communion have "polarized" and there is "less trust" between parties and provinces than there has been for a long time.

"Everyone claims to be the defender of the true spirit of Anglicanism, and to describe that spirit as orthodox, mainstream, comprehensive or inclusive," he said. "The language has become more strident, and, quite frankly, scaremongering is commonplace."

He said in a situation which is becoming "increasingly overheated" we need to hear "a voice of calm." We need to identify the fundamentals that we share in common, and to "state the common basis on which our mutual trust can be rebuilt."

Stating that as "essentially all that the covenant proposal is -- no more and no less," Gomez clarified that it is not intended to define some sort of "new Anglicanism," or invent a new model of authority, or "peddle a narrow or exclusive view of what Anglicanism is."

"It is intended to state concisely and clearly the faith that we have all inherited together, so that there can be a new confidence that we are about the same mission," he said.

Citing the 11th chapter of Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians, Gomez said that "we are a covenant people" and that it is unbreakable because it is "founded in God's gracious attitude toward us."

"We celebrate covenants in many contexts of our Christian life already -- in Holy Communion, in the baptismal covenant and the covenant made whenever two persons are joined in Holy Matrimony. We live and breathe as Christians in the context of covenant," he said.

"Many Anglican churches have already covenanted with their ecumenical partners," he explained. "If we can covenant with our ecumenical partners, and find enough in common to recognize a shared faith with them, it seems to me to be a pretty pass indeed if we Anglicans decide we cannot covenant with each other."

The draft covenant produced by the Covenant Design Group, Gomez said, does not seek to address the particular circumstances of any one conflict, neither of the current presenting issue of human sexuality; it does not revisit controversies of the past, nor is it trying to anticipate which problems may arise in the future.

"Rather, it seeks to set out the basis on which fellowship can be maintained, and to give some substance in hard concrete terms of the sort of processes which can be expected in a family of autonomous churches to enable the churches to offer mutual admonition to one another as they hold each other mutually accountable," he explained.

The covenant proposal, Gomez said, challenges every member church of the Anglican Communion to answer the following question: "Are you willing to engage with a process which seeks to find a common basis for the Provinces of the Anglican Communion to move forward together as a Communion?" 

"A positive answer would declare that we have a future together as we explore what holds us together; as we covenant to walk in a shared faith and a shared hope -- in communion as surely God intends us to be," he said. "I assure you that we in the Province of the West Indies firmly support the covenant proposal."

In delivering the second keynote address, Maori Anglican theologian Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa, the "ahorangi" or dean of Te Rau Kahikatea (College of St. John the Evangelist) in Auckland, New Zealand, said that as a member of the Lambeth Commission she is clear that the current covenant proposal arises out of the Windsor Report but the events that have transpired since the reception of the report "has caused me to reconsider my initial support for the development of covenant."

"Now as we all know the Windsor Report itself was in turn necessitated primarily by the strident claims of those variously bewildered/dismayed/outraged by Gene Robinson's Episcopal election and consecration," she explained. "And why? Well simple really, because Gene is a gay man and for some global Anglicans this fact alone is an impossible one for them spiritually and scripturally to reconcile themselves with. I deeply and sincerely respect their right to hold the views they do even as I disagree with them. "

Te Paa said that "global poverty, the sustained brutality of war, the wanton devastation of so much of God's perfect creation" are what she finds "impossible spiritually or scripturally to reconcile" with.

"What I am hugely at odds with, is the way in which I believe institutionalized dominant male power has been and is still being exercised in an exceedingly unjust manner firstly in order to position one of these 'facts' as paramount over all others (which I now see as the establishment of hegemony) and then to further use that same power to concentrate precious communion-wide resources in the form of people and money to advance a proposal which essentially (at least in its first draft) served to protect and enhance that same dominant male leadership privilege and power," she said.

Te Paa said that Primates Meetings have gone from being gatherings for "leisurely thought, prayer" to a "quasi-governance body universally perceived as inappropriate, unbidden and unhelpful."

"What I do recognize now though is that this current covenant proposal itself, arising as it has in such a reactionary and increasingly inflammatory ecclesial context was always going to be somewhat constrained from having any credible claim to being organically motivated or representative in its conception, in its evolution or possibly even in its intent," said Te Paa.

Unexplored alternate pathways to healing and reconciling the Communion still exist, she said.

"I believe that in order to discern these pathways what are needed are more open and comprehensively and truly representative gatherings of the finest, wisest, kindest, most visionary and prophetic minds and hearts in the Communion," she explained. "We need those who have never lost faith in our existing covenanted relationships to be empowered and enabled to speak more readily into the existing circumstances…we especially need those whose faith-filled gaze has never been averted, even momentarily, away from their special devotion to God's mission, we need such disciples to model for us the nobility, the integrity, the expansiveness and the profound sanctity of deeply and dutifully and undistractedly lived Anglicanism."

To recover, Te Paa said, the "fussing with and about one another" needs to stop. "We are all equally and deservedly a part of God's very good creation, none more so than another. We have up until very recent times lived as we believed this to be so and I know many of us believe that it isn't too late to fully and unequivocally recover those now almost taken for granted 'bonds of affection'," she said.

Te Paa said this is not criticism of the Covenant Design Group, who whose members are also struggling "to do their good work on behalf of us all."

"What is needed I believe is a parallel and intentional focus upon reclaiming, re-strengthening and re-affirming the already existing and strongly regarded covenantally bound relationships that the majority of Anglicans already hold to with profound commitment and with unbreakable confidence," she said.

Te Paa shared at least five critical and sacred dimensions she felt would lead to covenantal relationality: friendship, fidelity, freedom, forgiveness and faith.

"Does this covenant proposal enhance this duty of obligation of mine and of yours? I so want it to but in all honesty given the current circumstances as I experience them at such close quarters, I am no longer sure," she said.

The third and final keynote speaker whose address concluded the conference was the Rev. Canon Gregory Cameron, deputy secretary of the Anglican Communion and director of Ecumenical Affairs and Studies in London.

Cameron, a priest in the Church in Wales, said an Anglican covenant is vital to the future of the Anglican Communion.

"In time of distrust, when people feel that the boundaries are being manipulated and moved, covenant can be a restatement of where the true roots of Anglicanism lie," he said. "It is founded upon recognition of an ongoing and open-ended relationship given to us by our covenanting God."

"It is not something which is to be built upon fear, the imposition of new swathes of obligation and restriction, but it is something which acknowledges the reality of what it is to be church."

Cameron tried to allay the fears of those opposed to the proposed covenant by saying it is similar in nature to others that the church has experienced. Like his church in Wales, the U.S. Episcopal Church has been a signatory to many covenants, he said, both with other Christian churches such as the Lutherans and with other Anglican branches that it helped to develop with its missionary zeal, such as Brazil, Liberia, Philippines, Mexico and Central America.

"But the Episcopal Church acknowledges its interdependent life with these former mission initiatives and its open ended obligations to its former missions and present mission partners. Even as each province or Church has become autonomous it has not been abandoned to a separate life, but brought into a relationship of covenant."

Cameron described it "a sad commentary on our life" that all of the Instruments of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primates Meeting, Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council) and their Secretariats (the Anglican Communion office and Lambeth Palace) are currently viewed with some suspicion. Worries are repeatedly expressed that their authority is growing and they are increasingly coming under fire.

"Perhaps part of this suspicion and criticism arises because people choose to see these Instruments as failing to deliver the goods, or even delivering the wrong goods, in the current situation," he said.

Liberals, he said, have been disappointed that new agendas have not been embraced or defended while conservatives feel that vital boundary markers have been rooted up and that the Communion's leaders have not been sufficiently effective in enforcing orthodoxy.

"For conservatives, the boundary stones which mark out the territory allocated in the Scriptures for those seeking to be faithful to God in their moral lives have been dislodged [and] central elements of Christian obedience, even the authority of Scripture itself, are being casually rooted up and cast aside," Cameron said. "The standards of former generations are being removed and people are no longer being willing to abide by what has been inherited. Unless we acknowledge this very real concern in the minds of many faithful Anglicans, we will never understand the tensions in the Communion at present."

In four panel discussions drawing upon faculty and students from Episcopal seminaries and those in Canada, participants argued passionately either in favor of a contemporary covenant that would encompass Anglican belief, or dismissed such a need, saying that historic agreements and creeds were sufficient.

A number of speakers criticized the proposed covenant's third section that envisions scenarios when relationships between churches are terminated. "You don't find that in our marriage covenants," said one speaker. "Do we say what's going to happen when this marriage ends?"

The Rev. Canon Dr. David Neelands, dean and professor of Anglican Studies at Trinity College, Toronto, said covenants should always be are "carefully worked out statements of trust," but that the word "covenant" often resonates in different ways and different nuances depending on culture.

He asked: "Is a covenant a good idea independently of the reality that is one is being crafted and will emerge and will have this or that character? If it is seen to be divisive, voices will be taken with the feet so to speak."

Commenting on General Convention's action in 2003 to certify the ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, he said: "Very few places in Anglican Communion think of themselves as completely autonomous and set as did the U.S. church."

The Rev. Dr. Robert Hughes, professor of systematic theology and divinity at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, compared the draft covenant with The Church of the Triune God, the Cyprus statement of Anglican/Orthodox dialogue currently before the churches for study and comment.

"I am delighted to see in the new covenant draft the use of material [from the dialogue] because I think it is one of the best ecclesiological documents produced in contemporary times," he said. "What I find missing in the draft covenant is the deeper spirit of the Cyprus statement, the search for firm common ground on which churches with large differences in tradition and practice may yet find the possibility of shared koinonia."

The Rev. Dr. Ellen Wondra of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois, and editor of The Anglican Theological Review, was unable to attend. However, her speech which spoke to the covenant as a sign of problems with authority, was read saying the St. Andrew's Draft covenant creates an explicit framework for Anglican churches' life together. "But [it] in no way guarantees communion," she said. "Communion is not something that can be forced or, for that matter, enforced. You can't destroy a village in order to save it."

Co-conveners of the conference also addressed participants, although the Rev. Canon Dr. J. Robert Wright's address was read from the podium while he recovers in hospital from a broken ankle. "An Anglican covenant should not be advocated just to fill some imagined vacuum, nor merely to enable the growing churches of the Global South to punish the self-asserting and seemingly self-righteous churches of North America by putting them in their place," he wrote. "Nor, on the other hand, should the idea of a covenant be rejected merely because the Global North feels that we are already quite self-sufficient on our own."

Wright, professor of ecclesiastical history at General Theological Seminary in New York, argued that an Anglican covenant is desirable for the sake of Anglican ecumenical credibility and cohesiveness. "Our ecumenical partners, and for that matter our fellow churches within the Anglican Communion, want to know if we have any corporate identity -- any agreement in belief that extends beyond the mere opinions of scattered individuals."

"Our self-esteem, our courage in mission, our confidence in what we are doing, our leadership in social justice, will all be strengthened if we are bound together in some more visible way."

Presler said he was heartened by the fact that mission is central to the life of the Communion, according to the draft covenant. "This missional focus reflects the intensifying ecumenical, Anglican and Episcopal consensus since mid-century that fulfilling the mission of God in the world is the pivotal criterion of Christian faithfulness," he said.

But he urged that mission be highlighted even more prominently as the animating motive of any covenant and the covenant should identify reconciliation as the core of that mission. "For our communion to be so animated, a covenant should envision processes of consultation in situations of conflict, but should not include scenarios for the termination of relationship."

As the conference ended, Presler said he was not surprised by the passion of the speakers and seminarians who questioned them. "It has been clear throughout that the prospect of an Anglican covenant engages not only our minds but our passions as well. While we are not on the brink of momentous events immediately, the stately procession of the Communion's consideration of this matter is indeed momentous," he said.

"It affects our sense of the church, it affects the nature of our communion with one another, it affects our mission. It affects our identity -- so our emotional engagement is not surprising."

To hear the presentations click here.

-- Jerry Hames is editor emeritus of Episcopal Life. Daphne Mack is an Episcopal Life Media correspondent and editor of the Global Good website. She is based in New York.