Anglican covenant sent to provinces for consideration, adoption

December 17, 2009

All four sections of the proposed Anglican covenant were sent to the communion's 38 provinces for formal consideration on Dec. 18 after the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion approved a revised version of the document's text.

The Standing Committee had been presented with a revamped section 4 of the covenant during its Dec. 15-18 meeting in London, after a small working group had spent six months consulting with the provinces about its revision.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in a Dec. 18 video message, said that the covenant is not going to solve all of the communion's problems.

"It's not going to be a constitution, and it's certainly not going to be a penal code for punishing people who don't comply," he said. "But what it does represent is this: in recent years in the Anglican family, we've discovered that our relations with each other as local churches have often been strained, that we haven't learned to trust one another as perhaps we should, that we really need to build relationships, and we need to have a sense that we are responsible to one another and responsible for each other. In other words, what we need is something that will help us know where we stand together, and help us also intensify our fellowship and our trust."

The Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, said in a Dec. 18 letter to the communion’s primates and moderators that the member churches should consider the text and decide "on acceptance or adoption." Kearon said those member churches would be expected to report to the next Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting in 2012 "on the progress made in the processes of response to, and adoption of, the covenant." The ACC is the communion's main policy-making body.

The Episcopal Church's Executive Council has said that only General Convention, which next meets in 2012, can formally endorse the Anglican covenant. At its January 2009 meeting, the council said it predicts that such approval could not come until at least 2015 should endorsement require changes to the Episcopal Church's constitution.

In his letter, Kearon said the presentation of the Anglican covenant to the communion's member churches "represents an invitation to deepening of relationships among those provinces. We have a long history of friendship, affinities and collaboration between provinces, dioceses, parishes and people across the globe, and we celebrate these manifold expressions of our oneness in Christ. The covenant represents a further step in these relationships, building on and giving expression to the bonds of affection which shape our common life."

Williams said in his video message that in the next few years he expects there will be "quite a bit of activity" around the covenant.

"We hope, as I've said, that many provinces will feel able to adopt this. We hope that many other bodies will affirm the vision that's set out here, and that in the long run this will actually help us to become more of a communion -- more responsible for each other, presenting to the world a face of mutual understanding, patience, charity and gratitude for one another," he said. "In other words, we hope and pray that the covenant for the Anglican Communion will be a truly effective tool for witness and mission in our world."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Ian Douglas, Angus Dun professor of World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School ( and bishop-elect of the Diocese of Connecticut, are Standing Committee members and attended the meeting, which was held behind closed doors at the Anglican Communion Office in London. They left for home after the meeting and were not available for comment.

The covenant process to this point
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.

Appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the primates, a Covenant Design Group has been meeting since January 2007 and has produced three drafts of the Anglican covenant (available here).

Representatives of the ACC decided last May that the latest draft, the Ridley Cambridge Draft, needed more work before it could be presented to the communion's provinces for adoption, because the disciplinary process outlined in its fourth section had not received the same degree of consideration and comment by the communion's 38 provincial churches that sections 1-3 had.

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.

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.

After the ACC's decision, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams appointed a small working group to consult with the provinces about section 4 and its possible revision and to report to the Standing Committee. Twenty of the 38 provinces responded to an invitation for comment on section 4. Those responses are available here.

The ACC also requested that the Standing Committee approve a final form of section 4, which it did Dec. 18.

Kearon said that the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order "will be assisting the reception process for the covenant by developing educational materials and arranging for the translation of the text into several languages."

Changes center on definitions, process
The major changes in the final text center on the questions of which entities would be invited to enter into the covenant and what to do when a so-called "covenanting church" acts in a way that may be contrary to the covenant's goals.

However, the Covenant Working Group declined to answer the question of the eventual status of current communion members who choose not to enter into the covenant.

"The working group considers that it is not appropriate to address this question within the text of the covenant," it said in a commentary that was released Dec. 18 with the rest of the covenant materials. "Rather, there should be the flexibility for the instruments of communion to determine an appropriate response in the evolving situation that would accompany a process of reception and adoption of the covenant."

The Covenant Working Group also released a line-by-line comparison of the first version of section four and the final version here.

Addressing a major concern, the final text makes it clear that only members of the Anglican Communion, as listed in the ACC constitution's "schedule of membership," are currently being invited to enter into the covenant, according to their provincial constitutional procedures.

The final text allows for "other churches" to be invited to adopt the covenant only if they agree to go through the years-long process required to amend that list of members.

"The procedures set out in the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council for amendment of its Schedule of Membership provide a suitable course of deliberation and consultation with the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting before an invitation to consider adoption of the covenant by any such church is agreed upon," the group said in its commentary.

After the first version of section 4 was released, objections were raised almost immediately because its provision that "other churches" could adopt the covenant lacked any definition of the term "other churches." That lack was the subject of intense discussions during the ACC's May meeting in Jamaica and was a major reason behind that group's request for more scrutiny.

Just weeks before the ACC's May meeting, 15 active and retired Episcopal Church bishops said that individual Episcopal Church dioceses could sign onto the proposed covenant.

The working group said the final text does not preclude "any ecclesial body" from committing to the covenant.

"Some may find that the affirmations and commitments of the Anglican Communion covenant contain helpful guides for interdependent life at other levels and in other contexts than those specific to relations amongst the member churches of the Anglican Communion," the group said. "This sort of endorsement is to be encouraged as contributing to the covenantal life of the communion."

However, the group changed section 4.1.5 to clarify that in those instances "adoption of this covenant does not confer any right of recognition by, or membership of, the instruments of communion, which shall be decided by those instruments themselves."

The working group acknowledged that "the most difficult part" of the text is those sections dealing with "any disruption in the life of communion." It noted "certain fears being expressed by some provinces that chaos could result as each church decides to act in a different way."

In a related issue, the group's commentary said that "one of the enduring problems" is the question of who should be responsible for the "maintenance of the covenant," that is, arbitrating when actions are perceived to be contrary to the agreement's stated goals.

The working group agreed with the first version's determination that the Standing Committee "is best placed for this [maintenance] role," given its membership from all four instruments of communion, combining bishops, clergy and laity.

The group noted that some communion members think that "being in communion requires only positive affirmation and encouragement."

"However, the fact is that not all developments aid and nurture deeper communion," the group's commentary said. "The clear majority of responses demonstrated that a section of the covenant which seeks to provide an ordered way for the communion to approach disagreement remains a necessary feature of the covenant."

It added that its revision takes "very seriously the representations of a number of provinces that this section should avoid a punitive or juridic tone, that it should emphasize relational and communion aspects, and defer to the dispersed model of authority, which places emphasis on the autonomy of the churches as final arbiters of maintaining the communion which their relations constitute."

The group said that the covenant seeks "to find an ecclesial framework by which a common response to tensions can be discerned and articulated. This contrasts with the present situation where no agreed mechanisms for action exist, and this lack has seriously threatened the integrity of the communion."

Thus, the final version refines the process in which the Standing Committee could declare that a covenanting church's action or decision is or would be incompatible with the terms of the covenant, and then recommend undefined "relational consequences."

"These recommendations may be addressed to the churches of the Anglican Communion or to the instruments of the communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting church impairs or limits the communion between that church and the other churches of the communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation," according to the final text's section 4.2.7.

While section 4.2.3 states that the dispute-resolution process is invoked when the action of a "covenanting church" raise questions, the wording of 4.2.7 seems to imply that the resulting recommendations would be addressed to all of the communion's member churches regardless of their covenant status.

"Each church or each instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations," section 4.2.7 concludes.

Links to covenant documents
The revised text of section 4, with alterations noted against the previous draft, is available here.

A commentary from the small working group set up to revise the text of section 4 is available here.

Responses from Anglican Communion provinces to section 4 of the Ridley Cambridge Draft are available here.

The Episcopal Church's response, released in October by the Executive Council, is here.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' video message is here.

Kearon's letter is here.

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