Executive Council task force prepares to review covenant comments

Responses will inform council's recommendations for General Convention action
April 27, 2011

About a fifth of the Episcopal Church's 109 dioceses and three regional areas have responded to a request from the church's leaders for comment on the proposed Anglican Covenant.

Executive Council member Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine told Episcopal News Service April 27 that by her informal count, 22 dioceses and 16 congregations have submitted comments. Another 18 responses came from individuals, according to Ballentine, who chairs a council covenant task force.

The comments are in response to a September request from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and Ballentine for Episcopalians to discuss the proposed covenant during the time before General Convention in 2012.

The 2009 meeting of General Convention asked, via Resolution D020, that the church's dioceses study the proposed covenant and report to Executive Council. Jefferts Schori, Anderson and Ballentine asked bishops and diocesan General Convention deputations to respond by April 24 so that council could consider their comments as it prepares a report, which is to include draft legislation concerning the church's response to the covenant, to next year's meeting of General Convention. Resolution D020 asked for that report.

Ballentine said that the task force has not yet looked at the responses it has received. When the council meets June 15-17, she said, the group will outline how it intends to prepare its report to convention. Groups that report to the General Convention must have their materials ready in the fall for inclusion in the so-called Blue Book collection of reports to the 2012 General Convention. Council meets again Oct. 21-24.

The request for comment said that the texts of the responses would not be included in the council's report but, Ballentine told ENS, they will be summarized and possibly quoted without attribution. The group chose not to publicize the responses because it wanted to encourage "people [to] feel free to share with us what their thoughts were," she said, and "not feel in any way inhibited."

However, a handful of dioceses have made their comments to the task force public, or made other public statements about their support of, opposition to or concerns about the covenant. They include Alabama, California, Colorado, Kansas, Los Angeles, Michigan and West Texas. Some of those responses are from the General Convention deputations alone, while others summarize other diocesan-wide discussions.

For instance, the Los Angeles and Michigan deputations said they oppose the adoption of the covenant. "We cannot endorse a covenant that, for the first time in the history of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion, will pave the way toward emphasizing perceived negative differences instead of our continuing positive and abundant commonality," the Los Angeles deputation said in part. Michigan's statement is here.

Meanwhile, the California deputation noted what it called the communion's attempts to "cultivat[e] conversations that lead to mutual understanding and strengthen our bonds of affection." The deputation said that "a wide majority of our members believe that these communion processes and direct relationships are far more life-giving in the gospel and spirit-filled than pursuing the formal structures offered by the proposed Anglican Covenant."

Colorado's deputies likewise said that Episcopalians ought to work to strengthen communion relationships but refrain from adopting the covenant.

The Diocese of Kansas deputation's response specifically objected to section 4, saying that its prospect of imposing penalties for actions or decisions deemed incompatible with the covenant "is inconsistent with our traditional understanding of covenants, as reflected in the marriage covenant or the baptismal covenant."

On the other hand, West Texas' summary of its diocesan-wide effort to study the covenant said that "we believe the Anglican Covenant accurately articulates many of our common hopes and beliefs, and that the covenant represents an important step in our ongoing transformation into a true communion of churches." The summary also notes that "faithful Christians disagree about important things" and warned that concerns about the covenant's section 4 are a reminder that "there are times in which we are part of a majority view and other times in which we are part of a minority view."

"Remembering this should inform the ways majorities and minorities relate to one another," the statement, which was affirmed at the diocese's February annual council, said.

The Diocese of Upper South Carolina convened a "theological council" on April 8-9 to discuss the covenant and issued a summary of its discussions here.

In addition, dioceses such as Albany, Central Florida, Dallas and Western Louisiana have publicly expressed their support for the covenant, mainly by virtue of resolutions or other statements passed during their annual conventions.

In Albany, the diocese's 2010 annual convention passed a resolution by a vote of 314-76 endorsing the covenant and urging all of the communion's provinces to adopt it.

In March 2010, a special convention in Dallas endorsed the covenant and affirmed "our full membership and participation in the world wide Anglican communion." The resolution also urged the Episcopal Church to endorse the covenant and "commit the church to full and active membership and participation in the world wide Anglican Communion."

Western Louisiana was an early adopter of the covenant process and in October 2010 its annual convention continued that support by passing a resolution with language similar to the Dallas resolution. The Western Louisiana resolution also "encourage[d] a sincere spiritual and heartfelt dialogue be entered into throughout our diocese concerning the Anglican Covenant in order to move forward with our commitment as full members and participants in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide 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.

But some Episcopalians and Anglicans, including Jefferts Schori and the Executive Council, have raised concerns about the covenant being used as an instrument of control, particularly in section 4, which outlines a method for resolving disputes in the communion. Others include Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada, Archbishop Henri Isingoma of the Congo, and Archbishop Paul Kim of South Korea, each of whom expressed reservations about the document during their visit to the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops meeting March 25 - 30.

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

Executive Council has predicted that formal approval of the covenant by the Episcopal Church could not come until at least 2015 should endorsement require changes to the church's constitution. Constitutional changes require approval by two consecutive meetings of the church's triennial convention.

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