Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reflections on the Anglican Covenant Process

I've been thinking about this whole "covenant" thing. This has, of course, been triggered by the announcement that the Covenant Development Committee has prepared a draft covenant to present to the Primates Meeting in Tanzania. To see what other folks have written about that announcement, you can check out all the usual suspects.

This proposed draft is not the only one out there. A model for a covenant was appended to the Windsor Report. The Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting issued “Towards an Anglican Covenant: A Consultation Paper on the Covenant Proposal of the Windsor Report.” A group from the Global South Primates’ Steering Committee prepared a report called "The Road to Lambeth," that spoke of the covenant process. And while it wasn't directed at the Communion as a whole, a document called "A Covenant for the Church of England" was circulated by a group of evangelicals in the Church of England.

There has also been general discussion of "a covenant process" as part of the "Windsor Process," and of what a covenant for the Communion might include. The 2006 General Convention expressed interest in covenant development while reserving judgment on any final product.

There are also those who say we don't need a covenant and shouldn’t be pursuing one. Some say the only covenant that should matter is the new covenant in Christ. Others point to the Baptismal Covenant, used for all baptisms in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada and for adult baptisms in some other provinces. The Baptismal Covenant, they say, should be a statement of Christian faith and life sufficient for all of us to embrace. Anything more, they say, risks the provincial autonomy that has characterized the Anglican Communion. That's especially true if the covenant is focused more on theological conformity than on means and norms of relating.

Finally, there are those that insist we must have a covenant. They quote Amos 3:3 : "Do two walk together unless they have agreed?" and feel that communion requires clarity of what has been agreed. They feel that interdependence that tempers autonomy is also characteristic of the Anglican Communion.

With all that (and more) as part of the context, I’ve had my own reflections.

First, I think we need to dispense with the word “covenant.” The Biblical background is that covenants, or at least the important ones, are established by God. Now, in Scripture covenants are not imposed: God offers, and invites the people, into covenants. At the same time, neither are covenants mutual. There is always a senior partner – established most clearly in covenants from God – who offers the covenant as an expression of grace. The junior partner might be theoretically free to decline, but is always and clearly junior.

So, perhaps we need another word. Some would like a “constitution,” but many of us are not interested in establishing a new institution. A “contract” would be entirely too binary. “Concordat” is a possibility, with an established ecclesial history of its own. Various provinces of the Communion have concordats with other Christian communities. They don’t establish conformity, although they celebrate those things that are shared. They focus on how the communities will relate and work together, without undermining the integrity of those communities. They focus on communion.

Second, we need to recognize that some of those with whom we seek to be in communion want the clarity of a document. I have sometimes said that we get into trouble as Anglicans when we try to define things too closely (so, for example, we reject the specificity of transubstantiation to embrace the generality of consubstantiation). At the same time, we might think through what clarity we can accept so as to embrace those who want more clarity. Thus, the question becomes how far we are willing to participate in establishing clarity we don’t need to relate to those who do. One could argue with Amos 3:3, saying that two might indeed walk together by coincidence, or having agreed to nothing more than to walk. On the other hand, we are seeking some expression of agreement sufficient to maintain communion.

That, thirdly, raises the question of what we can be clear about. “Towards an Anglican Covenant” speaks of three types of covenant: relational, educational, and institutional. Each of those speaks to a different sort of content. What sort of content might we be willing to address? Are we wise to eschew any content for fear that the result will be the wrong content? Are there not things we can embrace and propose for the Communion?

I think, fourth, that perhaps we need to be less passive in any concordat process than has been suggested so far, and especially by General Convention. If we can discern not simply what we can’t accept, but also what we might accept, perhaps we should bring a proposal to the table. Within the Anglican tradition there might be several sources for this. Meetings of scholars could develop a model. The house of bishops of one or more provinces might suggest one. We need not, and I think we should not, passively watch and wait while others do the talking.

Finally, I think we need to embrace a process for developing a concordat without fear. For the moment I speak as an Episcopalian, but I think this would apply to others. Whatever the result of the process, it cannot be imposed within our polity. Some things might be. Canterbury might decide not to invite The Episcopal Church to Lambeth. The Anglican Consultative Council might by a sufficient supermajority dismiss us. Those things would be sad and would break valuable relationships; but they would not impose on us positions we could not support. The application of any concordat to The Episcopal Church, its members, and clergy, would only come by reception, and then only by reception in General Convention. We might choose together to embrace a concordat, and we can appreciate that there would be consequences if we chose not to; but as long as we understand and are prepared to accept the consequences (a sentiment I frequently hear directed toward those who wish to leave The Episcopal Church in these times) a concordat could not be imposed on us.

So, let’s not panic. Let’s in fact move beyond watching and waiting. Let’s not simply wait for others to work, to decide at the end whether we will accept or decline. Let’s watch closely and offer what we can. We have nothing to fear, and perhaps much to save.

No comments: