Convention to consider position on proposed Anglican Covenant

April 27, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The Anglican Covenant has been variously rejected, affirmed, approved and subscribed to by some Anglican Communion provinces, and even been given an “amber light” by one. The Episcopal Church will soon consider its own formal response to the document which supporters say offers a way to bind Anglicans globally across cultural and theological differences.

At present, three resolutions, each calling for partially different responses to the proposed covenant, will be proposed to the 77th General Convention when it meets July 5-12 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council announced last October that it would submit a resolution (A126, found on page 590 of the Blue Book) to convention that would have the church say it is “unable to adopt the Anglican Covenant in its present form.”

In recent weeks, two additional resolutions — from different groups of bishops — have been submitted to convention. Those two resolutions will be posted here soon.

One resolution proposed by Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee and endorsed by 10 other bishops would commit the church to affirming and adopting the covenant. Another, proposed by Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut and backed by two other bishops, would encourage a more via media approach, “embracing” the preamble and first three sections of the four-section document, urging continued study, and committing the church to ongoing participation in the covenant process.

The document’s fourth section, which outlines a disciplinary method for resolving disputes in the communion, has largely been the covenant’s sticking point.

The Executive Council and the Douglas-sponsored resolutions are identical in the first three resolves, saying that the church will “recommit itself to dialogue with the several provinces when adopting innovations which may be seen as threatening the unity of the communion”; and commit to “continued participation in the wider councils of the Anglican Communion” and dialogue “with our brothers and sisters in other provinces to deepen understanding and to insure the continued integrity of the Anglican Communion.”

The Bauerschmidt-sponsored resolution calls on the Episcopal Church to “affirm … and commit itself to adoption” of the covenant “in order to live more fully into the ecclesial communion and interdependence which is foundational to the churches of the Anglican Communion.”

The Anglican Covenant first was proposed in the 2004 Windsor Report as a way that the communion and its 38 autonomous provinces might maintain unity despite differences, especially relating to biblical interpretation and human sexuality issues. The report came in the wake of the 2003 election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as bishop of New Hampshire, a development that caused some provinces to declare broken or impaired communion with the Episcopal Church.

The covenant also was a response to some church leaders crossing borders into other provinces to minister to disaffected Anglicans and a decision by the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada to authorize a public rite to bless same-gender unions.

Following five years of discussion and several draft versions, the final text of the covenant was sent in December 2009 to the communion’s provinces for formal consideration.

Douglas told ENS in an April 24 telephone interview that the Episcopal Church has participated “at an extremely high level” in considering each draft of the covenant. He also said that Executive Council and its D020 Task Force on the Response to the Anglican Covenant “have done an incredibly good job in helping the Episcopal Church construct a response that is broadly inclusive of the diverse perspectives” in the church.

His only reservation about Resolution A126, he said, is in the final resolve that urges the Episcopal Church not to adopt the covenant in its present form. “My concerns about a straight non-adoption are that it doesn’t allow for letting the Episcopal Church embrace what is in the first three sections,” he said, noting that a straight “no” vote would remove the Episcopal Church from the covenant process entirely.

“I’ve never been a strong advocate of this particular covenant process. But participating in the discussion is still very important. And I don’t want to preclude the opportunity for us to be at the table,” he said.

Bauerschmidt wrote in an April 25 e-mail to ENS that he thought it would be a good thing if the Episcopal Church had the opportunity at this convention clearly to affirm and commit to adoption of the covenant.

“A communion that is committed to dispersed authority needs some means for seeking a common mind and expressing a common life,” he said. “The covenant provides the means for this. We ought to decide together the things that concern us all, or we will soon face being of little concern at all to each other.”

General Convention may decide in July whether to pass, amend and pass, or reject any resolutions it considers.

First, the 40-member legislative committee on World Mission will consider the Anglican Covenant resolutions and may decide to rework or consolidate them before any draft legislation is sent to whichever of the two houses (deputies and bishops) of General Convention has been chosen as the so-called house of initial action. The committee, which will begin meeting on July 4, is co-chaired by Douglas and Canon Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine, who also chaired the D020 Task Force that released its report along with its proposed Resolution A126 in October 2011.

The Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons determined in a June 2011 report requested by the D020 Task Force that adoption of the current draft Anglican Covenant “has the potential to change the constitutional and canonical framework of TEC, particularly with respect to the autonomy of our church, and the constitutional authority of the General Convention, bishops and dioceses.”

All three proposed resolutions call for the creation of a new task force that would explore the canonical changes needed if the church were to adopt the covenant in its entirety.

The 76th General Convention in July 2009 asked the dioceses, via Resolution 2009-D020, to study the Anglican Covenant during the 2010-2012 triennium. It also asked Executive Council to prepare a report, along with proposed draft legislation, to the 77th General Convention this year. That resolution led council to create the D020 Task Force.

Some Episcopalians and Anglicans, including the Executive Council, have raised concerns about the covenant being used as an instrument of control, questioning in particular the fourth section and its dispute-resolution process. Some critics have warned that adopting the covenant could result in a two-tier communion.

“I don’t find section 4 helpful,” Douglas told ENS. “I think it moves the covenant from a document that is relational to one that is more juridical. I do think the first three sections are relational and missional.”

The D020 Task Force said in its report (available for download here) that the rationale for advocating its “unable to adopt” resolution was based on its belief that the church’s unity is “best expressed in our efforts to be a church that fully welcomes those who have not always been welcomed.”

The Episcopal Church seeks to be faithful to that unity, the report continues, “by honoring the diversity of ministries in the Episcopal Church in multiple forms: our tradition of empowerment of all orders of ministry in governance; our identification of the interpretation of Scripture as the work of all Christian communities; and our heeding of the work of the Spirit in new understandings of how we are called to be in community and relationships.”

“This understanding of who we are as a church does not allow the Executive Council to support any covenant that might jeopardize this vocation,” the task force members said in the report. “The covenant consistently ignores the importance of the role of the laity and their full expression of ministry in all spheres of the life of the church.”

The task force members included those who were on the “extremes” of opinion in the church about the covenant, as well as people in the middle of that spectrum, Ballentine told the council Oct. 24.

She said that the task force purposely used the language of “unable to adopt in its present form” rather than suggesting that convention “reject” the covenant or “refrain” from adopting it.

“We still have hope for our continuing relationship, our continuing conversations, our continuing efforts to live in community and for us to move forward as part of the Anglican Communion,” she said.

Throughout the Anglican Communion, the seven provinces that have approved or subscribed to the Anglican Covenant are Ireland, Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Southern Cone of America, and the West Indies.

The Anglican Church of Southern Africa has adopted the document pending ratification at its next synod meeting later this year.

In March, it became clear that the Church of England could not adopt the covenant in its current form when a majority of its dioceses voted the document down.

The Church in Wales on April 18 gave the covenant “an amber light, rather than a green light.” The church’s governing body said it feared the recent rejection of the covenant by the Church of England jeopardized its future and clarifications about that were now needed before a decision could be made. It sent questions on the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council, the church’s main policy-making body, which meets later this year.

Episcopal Church in the Philippines bishops have formally rejected the covenant although the Anglican Communion Office confirmed that it had not yet received a formal notification from that province. Maori action in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia rejecting the covenant last November means that it may be rejected when it comes before the province’s General Synod in July.

During a recent visit to England, Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves of the San Jose, California-based Diocese of El Camino Real, told ENS that international partnerships, such as the one that her diocese shares with Gloucester and Western Tanganyika in Tanzania, are the “antidote to the Anglican Covenant.”

Douglas agrees. “Communion is fundamentally about relationships — relationships across our differences in service to the mission of God — and not some kind of juridical or contractual or ecclesiological statement,” he told ENS.

Many conservative Anglicans also have rejected the covenant, saying that it does not go far enough to bring into line provinces that have taken steps towards the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church.

“While we acknowledge that the efforts to heal our brokenness through the introduction of an Anglican Covenant were well intentioned we have come to the conclusion the current text is fatally flawed and so support for this initiative is no longer appropriate,” a group of conservative Anglican primates, or archbishops, have said.

— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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