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Anglican Covenant – partly used

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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17 thoughts on “Anglican Covenant – partly used”

  1. Hi Bosco
    When you put it the way you have here (and that includes many ‘facts of the matter’ which are not in dispute), I suggest that the alternatives we need to consider are (1) medium level impairment and messiness in the Communion with the Covenant, (2) high level impairment and messiness in the Communion without the Covenant. I favour (1) not only because it is better than (2) but also because I do harbour hopes that the Covenant over time would lead to a Communion in which more things are held in common.

  2. I agree with your analysis, and am partly glad you think little will change (but the fundamental nature of the Anglican Communion, as a place with a constitutional document, which prescribes majorityism as determining right & wrong, will).

    Anglicans will still be able to receive communion in these churches,

    Ironically, that’s the point of the inclusivity with which some are taking exception, isn’t it? TEC’s approach being broadly “sure, you can come in and worship here, whoever you are”… if the rest of the world somehow chooses to think ill of TEC for that, shame on them, not on TEC!

    You can read the SEC’s response, a couple of years ago now, at http://www.scotland.anglican.org/index.php/news/entry/sec_response_to_draft_anglican_covenant/ – note particularly the use of the words “concordat” and “celebrates” and the whole atmosphere of “maximum good” it radiated.

  3. Father Ron Smith

    Well, Bosco, you have once again made pretty clear what I perceive to be the general feeling towards the Covenant process in our Church of Aoteroa N.Z. I, too, feel that Covenant or No- Covenant will make very little difference to our people in the pews. Perhaps that’s only right. After all, the international flights alone that would be involved in even more meetings of the Communion Primates might militate against our N.Z. Government’s policy about Climate change and Global Emissions. Further hot air from the Primates will only exacerbate the real problems. Meetings, meetings, meetings – death of the Church.

  4. I will gladly kneel (or stand) besides anyone and receive the Eucharist. We are all equal when we approach the sacrament. That other Communion talked about here is running a distant second on my list of concerns.

    With sufficient dedication and hard work we will create a world in which the largest religious denomination has three members and they will be on the verge of schism.

  5. @ Peter
    There is something attractively neat and tidy about your two options. But might I suggest that your (1) only works if everyone signs, and all play nicely according to the new rules. In other words – the Communion becomes much more like a province currently functions.

    In fact, I suggest the reality of your version (1) will more probably turn out to be “high level impairment and messiness in the Communion with the Covenant” – as some provinces sign, and others do not, and some affirm sections 1-3 but not 4, and some individuals leave, and dioceses and provinces fragment to form new bodies which see themselves in some sense “Anglican” but are associated with whatever is left of the Anglican Communion at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s concept of various levels of communion.

  6. Thanks Bosco, erudite as always.
    My major question is always ‘so what’. Here in the C of E we are not going to insist on re-baptising or re-confirming someone who wants to be on the electoral roll (or even a candidate for ordination) whether they come from TEC or ACNA. Likewise, the Overseas Clergy Measure (not the Colonial Clergy Act any more) needs to be invoked for anyone coming from another country and wishing to minister in the C of E. So on that level ‘so what?’

    My worry is, however, that NOT signing will be a signal to those who wish to interfere across boundaries that the territory of the non-signatory church is fair game for the planting of another ‘Anglican’ Church in that territory. Then we would have a situation where the trademark title ‘Anglican’ could be in dispute. This is nothing short of schism.

  7. Hi Bosco (or @Bosco)
    If I might cavil that (1) works if say 90+% sign, I otherwise agree, that, yes, there is an alternative to my two, in which some sign and some do not (70/30, 60/40, 50/50 etc). But then in that case I think we might have an effective non-Covenant … and that would be messy.

  8. Peter – Let us say 85% sign. Following your comment, this version of the covenant is such, that even according to you it cannot effect what that 85% hope it would do. With far less that 85% support in our own province, I think my suggestion that it is not “fit for the purpose” certainly holds here.

    Part of the issue is concretely spelling out in plain English what we want, understand by, and expect of a “Communion” – and how that differs, for example, from a province (and a diocese).

    For readers here, Peter Carrell runs one of the few NZ Anglican blog sites, Anglican Down Under, where he is currently running a series arguing robustly in favour of the covenant.

    He there adds an important point into the muddle: what happens if the CofE does not sign the covenant? Again, not being a canon lawyer, I understand it is unclear if the General Synod of the CofE is sufficiently empowered to pass such legislation or if it requires an Act of Parliament. And would the British Parliament be prepared to hand over determination of the faith and order of their established church to those external to its shores?

    Gittite, I am unconvinced by the suggestion that we should sign the covenant to prevent “boundary crossing”. The term “Anglican” has long ago lost its trademark and is used by numerous groups not in communion with the See of Canterbury. Finally, there are many places served by more than one province of the Anglican Communion: Europe, North America, Australia at least was, and still might be (smoke signals issue again), and probably other areas readers might know. It is all part of the surprising platypus-nature of our denomination.

  9. Bosco, I just looked into Peter Carrol’s web-blog, and it is quite obvious where he stands on the Covenant. By quoting the noted anti-TEC theologian Ephraim Radner, as being doubtful of TEC’s future in the Communion, Peter confirms to me his own stance on the situation of gays in the Church. However, he has now become theological educator-in-chief in my diocese, so I have no intention in getting into what could be fractious dialogue on his dedicated site. As a retired priest, one’s opinions may not be welcome there – especially as I favour the continuence of TEC as a prophetic voice within the Communion.

    Interestingly, I wonder whether the 2 dioceses Peter has had to do with – Nelson and Christchurch – are the 2 dioceses favouring the Covenant?

  10. ” The fact that average financial giving to the church per pledging family has actually increased over this time is a sign of willing support by this dwindling membership. But it is also an indicator of a likely terrible collapse in resources some time soon” – Dr. Ephraim Radner –

    In his Christmas message, Dr. Radner sees TEC as diminishing, both in numbers and heart. However, from this simple statement alone – in a time of global recession, the smaller number of faithful adherents has managed to increase it’s commitment, by digging into it’s own pockets. That doesn’t sound like disaster to me. Just the opposite.

    Those who have remained faithful to the prophetic role of TEC and the Angican Church of Canada: of ‘setting the captive (LGBT community) free’ within the Church, are willing to put their money where their mouth is. The efficacy of the Gospel witness is not only about numbers. And this is one of the Global South’s constant problems, thinking that their emerging third-world Churches, with their vast numbers of Anglican adherents (albeit largely uneducated on modern research into matters of gender and sexuality), have some sort of right to dictate their version of biblical moral rectitude to the rest of us who are Anglican.

    I would think that a pared-down Gospel-oriented Church, such as TEC, with it’s prophetic call to a new understanding of God’s love for ALL people – regardless of colour, race, cultural and social difference – as well as gender and sexual orientation – will be better placed to serve the needs of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ministering to serve the cause of justice and peace in the world of today, than the mistaken adherents of a homophobic and misogynous brand of ‘Chsitianity’ such as has grown up in Uganda and Nigeria.

  11. Dear Ron Smith,

    I have no more desire to get into a fractious dialogue with you than you with me. But any other dialogue is most welcome on my site (save that I am going to have a blog holiday till early January!).

    Yes, I am ‘for the Covenant’. Yes, I am concerned about TEC and its place in the life of the Communion. No, I do not think TEC should be expelled from the Communion. But I do think the Communion and TEC are out of step with each other and, despite reading many comments and commentaries on this situation, I have not yet seen a sure remedy. I am convinced that not having the Covenant is not a solution to Communion ills; I also recognise that the Covenant comes with no guarantee that it will lead us to a solution.

    1. Thanks Ron and Peter for your contributions to this thread. The suggestion that you continue this dialogue on Peter’s blog is a good one as the discussion between you has a better fit there. I am sure you will dialogue there in a listening manner.
      I hope Fr Ron might also consider setting up his own blog – we sorely need more places for 21st century-style dialogue based in NZ. And it means dialogue isn’t always reacting to another’s thoughts.
      I prefer wordpress, Peter prefers blogger – both are easy to use and free.
      Christmas blessings to you both.

  12. Father Ron Smith

    ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly’, so I will try to enter into the spirit of Christ-mass, and offer my Best Wishes for a Happy and Blessed Feast of The Nativity to Bosco and Peter, and to any who might frequent this blog-space. Peace and Love to All,
    Fr. Ron

    (p.s. Bosco, I’m afraid I’m just too old and crabby to host a web-site, but I must confess to my fun in blogging, Ron)

  13. These impulses to standardization and imposition of universal canon are very Roman in character. They are not Anglican, or post-colonial in character. They are aberrations, and so should be considered with deep suspicion. What is the rush? What is the emergency? Let cooler heads prevail. Let the dust of this turmoil settle.

    Let us see what is being revealed by the Holy Spirit in the Church. It would be better to go where the Spirit leads than to be constrained by a juridical contract whose terms we may come to rue, and is more likely than not to be an impediment to responsiveness to the demands of the Spirit.

  14. I agree, the rush to covenant is suspicious, mainly based so far as I can see (so far) one a lot of gunning and drumming about how icky and awful it is, when Anglicans disagree about sex, queer stuff, and queer folks generally. Why those hot button disagreements are any messier … is that code for, dirty when we are implicitly referencing queer folks? … for Anglicans than other sharp disagreements and hot button topics, well that remains to be explained in any convincing common sense Anglican manner.

    We Anglicans have been able to disagree about so much …. ordination of women and womens’ changing status/roles in society overall … divorce and remarriage …. haven’t heard all that much upset about contraception lately but it used to be a really red hot disagreement … stem cell science-medicine and all the other flooding science changes … role/status/power of laity … service and witness in a changing modern world ….

    Why so fast, why just now?

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