Go forward in your time machine to a few years from now and imagine seeing on eBay or Trade Me: “For Sale, one partly used Anglican Covenant – owner hoping to recoup at least some of the significant amount of money and hope invested in it.”

The first drafts of the covenant were so un-Anglican the covenant did not even mention the unifying significance of common prayer in Anglicanism. I placed a submission, as did other visitors to this site. What developed was certainly an improvement in that regard. However, in the language of the New Zealand Consumer Guarantees Act the proposed “covenant” is not “fit for the purpose” and will not “do what it is meant to do.”

The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion has just released the revised text of section 4 of the proposed Anglican covenant. This is available here (left hand side last draft, right hand side current draft). A commentary from the working group that did the revision is available here. Lionel Deimel provides a possibly easier-to-follow version of the changes.

God’s platypus

God created a platypus denomination that experts have never believed can actually be a living denomination. It has bumbled on. In the last five or so decades, the communion has stumbled on fine in an “impaired” manner with women priests (and even bishops), differences about divorce, and local revisions of liturgy, even local alteration to eucharistic presidency. Now, because of disagreements over human sexuality, rather than facing that issue in the same manner as with the previous ones, there is the call to alter the whole basis of our structure. Let us be honest about this. The issue is gays. Whilst our diocese has passed a motion affirming the covenant in principle, the called for a listening process to gays has not even begun. Some people are not in a hurry to face the issue: gender and sex issues have been dealt with by Anglicanism (either overtly or covertly) in only one direction (consistently: liberalisation) – except (possibly) for gays (and even there – has any formal policy been reversed and headed back towards a more “conservative” position?). In the rising tide of these issues the “Anglican Covenant” stands as a rake trying to hold it back.

The covenant in NZ

Locally, NZ Anglicans are abysmally ill-and-uninformed (we colonials struggle with our smoke-signals under new environment-friendly protocols). A pro-covenant NZ bishop published an article in which our diocesan bishop, Victoria Matthews, was said to be one of the covenant drafters/revisers. She is not. In our numerically tiny province such comments carry disproportionate weight. He claimed that diocese would sign up to the covenant rather than provinces. He was unaware that ACC had met and sought revision of section 4.

The covenant requires recognition of four instruments of communion (and possibly the newly created “Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion” – a fifth?) Out of these, currently our NZ Anglican church only canonically recognises the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am no canon lawyer (in fact does NZ have any canon lawyers? We generally have so few canons – if you smile nicely in our province you can mostly get away with anything you like) but if we need to recognise the other three (or four) that requires two meetings of General Synod and a year “lying on the table for anyone to challenge” – then after that we might proceed to accept the covenant. The Church of Nigeria, of course, recently removed all references to the Archbishop of Canterbury from its constitution – so that will be a fascinating province to watch in its discussion about the covenant.

Go back in your time machine, say fifty years ago, and get everyone then to sign up to this “covenant”. Returning to the 21st century, probably there is now no three-tikanga Anglican church in NZ (remember the first ever motion by the Primates Meeting was trying to prevent that development – you don’t remember? Was the General Synod voting on three tikanga even informed of the Primates’ motion? – ah, the smoke signals problem again)? With a covenant in place over the last five decades or so, there probably also would now be no women priests or bishops (only five of the 44 member churches of the Anglican Communion actually have women bishops currently); probably no communion to infants prior to confirmation; probably no marriage of divorcees (what is it with two-or-three-times-married Anglicans loudly condemning gay lifelong commitment?); probably no divorced-and-remarried bishops (maybe not even so for other clergy, see 1 Timothy 3:2); in NZ (as well as not having the three tikanga structure of which we are so proud) probably not having two co-bishops running one diocese.

The marriage covenant, blessings, and pre-nups

Covenant sounds innocent enough – it’s a biblical word and those pro-covenant have traded on its biblical resonances (“covenant” is biblical therefore this covenant is biblical). But Anglicans have devoted little energy to the understanding of that most common of covenants, marriage (the Henry VIII factor?) [For example the CofE distinction between a service in which the Archbishop of Canterbury blessed Charles and Camilla after they took their marriage vows, and ummm… a service in which the Archbishop of Canterbury would have blessed Charles and Camilla after they would have taken their marriage vows]. It is the poverty of reflection on marriage and blessings that has landed us in this current predicament. There has been little reflection on the validity or otherwise of the marriage covenant if a couple makes a prenuptial agreement. Section 4 of this Anglican Covenant is a prenuptial agreement.

To sign or not to sign – concretely

In part covenant discussions are thin because of the poor reflection not just about the theory and theology of communion – but of its ramifications in actual practice.

Imagine, for a moment, if the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia don’t sign the covenant. Very little changes. It is possible that these provinces lose voting rights in the non-binding meetings of the communion. I suspect they would still be present “as observers” and probably have speaking rights. Anglicans will still be able to receive communion in these churches, clergy will still be able to serve in these churches, Kiwi and North American clergy will still be able to serve in England under the Colonial Clergy Act. Kiwis will still be able to elect Canadian bishops.

What about if everyone does sign? Very little changes in terms of the hoped for unity of the Communion. If all do sign, my bishop, Victoria Matthews, still cannot act as a bishop in England, nor even read the bible aloud in the presence of men in some churches in our neighbouring province. Those she has ordained are not accepted as clergy in many places. Impaired communion is as impaired as ever. It will not alter the diversity (disunity?) within a province and diocese – where one parish uses lectionary and wears vestments, and a neighbouring parish defies using lectionary, liturgy, and only wears suits; where one parish denies the literal virgin birth, and a neighbouring parish requires its belief as core doctrine. The proposed “covenant” is not “fit for the purpose” and will not do what so many of its advocates are convinced it is meant to do.

Some of the covenant’s strongest advocates will be sorely disappointed that the final version has removed the previous draft’s option of allowing ACNA and other members of the “continuing Anglican” alphabet soup and episcopoi vagantes groups an opportunity of signing up and fast-tracking acceptance into the Anglican Communion. The final draft is clear – only current member provinces of the Anglican Communion will be offered the covenant to sign. If you want to join the Anglican Communion – there’s already a process in place to do that.

Handing over your sovereignty

The previous draft twice had “[signing up to the covenant] does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” One of those has been removed in the final covenant. Certainly within post-colonialist Aotearoa-New Zealand Anglicanism there will need to be much convincing whether or not signing up to the covenant represents submission to some sort of body beyond our shores. One thing is certain: NZ Maori will not sign up to anything that hands over their tino rangatiratanga, their sovereignty over their own life. And within our constitutional arrangements, they hold veto over our corporate life.

Does it matter? – ultimately

Ultimately, of course, church, the gospel, and life are not about denominational boundaries. Actual unity and disunity lie at right angles to the denominational lines that occupy some people so intensely. A covenant or no covenant will make no difference to climate change issues, world poverty, wars, depression, recession, the search for meaning, the journey to holiness, relationship problems, unemployment, ill health,…

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