Based on a talk to the clergy of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, February, 2007
The Proposed Covenant recently commended by the Primates to the Communion for study and response deserves serious discussion, not only with regards to its particulars, but more importantly, with regard to its larger purpose and character. However critical may be the recommendations of the Primates with regard to TEC in their Tanzania Communiqué, it is essential to see these as but the outline for an “interim” arrangement until the Covenant itself will be finalized and accepted or rejected by individual churches. It is possible, of course, that Lambeth ’08 will choose a different path forward, but I believe this is unlikely. For the present it appears clear: the Covenant frames the Communiqué. This is crucial to understand, because it tells us something about how we are invited to approach the entire calling as a Communion that we have been given in this difficult time.
My hope below is to bring some of the contours of this calling into profile through a reflection on the Proposed Covenant that is now before us all. Although I was personally party to its drafting, my remarks – except where purely descriptive of working details or others explicit on the matter – explain my own views, not some grand vision now formally ensconced in the Communion’s articulated self-identity. The Covenant is “before” us; it is not yet accepted. However, one of my main hopes here is to argue that it is before us because, in a real sense, it is “already” beneath us, upholding much of our life and directing many of our struggles now for some time. I will therefore talk about the Covenant primarily in its general meaning and historical context, and only secondarily in its details. The details follow, I believe; they do not lead this process.
The Covenant: Something new?
A brief article on the recent Dar es Salaam Primates’ meeting appeared recently in The Tablet, the weekly British Roman Catholic paper. It was written by William Franklin, former General Seminary professor, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School, and now associated with the Anglican Center in Rome. Franklin’s piece was entitled, “Winds of Change”, which sets the tone of his evaluation of the Primates’ Meeting. For Franklin claims positively that, out of this gathering, there has now emerged a “different kind of Anglicanism” for “21st century”, one that moves “towards a greater interdependence than would have been imagined even a decade ago”, and that “reflects” the koinonia [or “communion”] ecclesiology of the agreed statements of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue” in far deeper ways than might have been expected only recently.
Something new has come into view, then. Something unexpected, perhaps even amazing. And although he doesn’t address it directly, I imagine that Franklin would want to say that the proposed Covenant itself, commended by the Primates at their meeting, also represents this “new koinonia reality”, visible in its proposals for structural interdependence and common catechetical, missionary, and disciplinary commitments.
While I share Dr. Franklin’s enthusiasm for the Communiqué, by and large, in its communion-orientation even as it informs the Covenant, I wonder about the way he discerns its character in terms of novelty. Certainly, this has been the source of many criticisms of the proposed Covenant in its very identity: it is somehow an innovation within Anglicanism, some have said, an alien element whose introduction will further just the kinds of “curial” re-orderings of the Communion that will undercut the traditional autonomies the buttress Anglican ecclesial life and witness. So how new is the Covenant’s purpose and form in fact? My main argument below is that it is not new at all. It is, rather, who we already are and are called to be more and more.
Everyone, of course, has their own take on what “Anglicanism” really is all about. And the possibility that a Covenant might actually define this for the first time in a way that would transcend personal views is, in the face of our idiosyncratic arguments, somewhat threatening. One response to the threat is simply to say that definition is itself idiosyncratic with respect to Anglicanism. The “covenant type” of Anglican, in this reading, is analogous to the Ritualist and the Metaphysical and the Coleridgean or Evangelical: each has an experiential niche out of which their claims to Anglican identity are made; they speak only for themselves and dare not speak for others. I suppose that this claim is true to an extent. But not in the end.
Are “covenant Anglicans” merely idiosyncratic? Obviously, I came to my own intuitions and finally convictions about this from within the limited context of my own learning. That Anglicanism has not only a common “character” but also a substantive ecclesial and historical profile was something that was deeply impressed upon me from my time at Yale Divinity School, in the midst of a thoroughly interdenominational formation. In the late 1970’s, at any rate, one of the theological disciplines common to our education there was a program through which each student, from whatever tradition he or she came, was rigorously encouraged to discern and analyze differentials and specifics of our particular tradition in an ecumenical context, not just in a local or even national one. That was not easy in a place where Presbyterians and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and Congregationalists and others were always ready to challenge and subvert presuppositions to exceptionalism on each other’s part, doctrinally and historically. Far more explicitly and demandingly than in the setting of a denominational seminary – it is interesting to see some of the most “provincial” arguments derive from, literally, provincial seminaries — Episcopalians among others were forced to go beyond the catch-phrases of local identity; after all, the UCE was our position of default in Connecticut, and claims to a special “American” character to our Episcopal heritage struck most of our colleagues as rather lame. At any rate, I remember being assigned (by our Lutheran professor in comparative doctrine) a long paper on the 39 Articles, and being pressed to confront the history – pre-Newman – of Catholic re-interpretation of the Articles by the likes of Cosin, Montgomery and Richard Davenport. Certainly, I had to face the elasticity (not “wax nose”) of these founding documents within a reality of common life and mission, and come to grips not simply with the personal theological quirks of their authors but with the substantive realities that genuinely allowed them to think and pray in the ways they did; and the result was to lead me to a search for the deeper way in which Scripture and community functions and asserts itself in our life as Anglicans.
But this kind of peculiar theological education would have been meaningless without its testing and molding by the actual shape of churches called “Anglican” in the world. For the search for a deeper ecclesial identity bore fruit in the face of the lived reality of communion as an interdependent international and trans-cultural fact in my first work as a clergyperson in Africa (Burundi). Whatever the Anglican Communion was, it came to form me deeply according to a range of realities whose character we are now being forced to articulate and confront as a much larger body – theological intuitions, however localized, cannot escape the press of the lived church.
For instance, it was obvious to me that the Anglican Communion meant at least a mutually recognized ministry and sacraments (I was ordained priest in Burundi, with trans-ecclesial permissions—something, I might add, that could not happen today with someone from the Diocese of California, which had sent me); I was allowed and encouraged to teach and form ordinands, even though I was a foreigner from another church, nation, and culture, whose stewardship could be accepted merely on the word of the Episcopal Church. It is almost impossible to imagine such trust today.
But I came to see that the Anglican Communion also moved beyond the common habitation of ecclesial structures. It meant, much further, that I depended in literal and life-providing ways upon my African Anglican brothers and sisters (from food, care when I was seriously ill, political protections in the midst of danger, guidance in the midst of confusion and error), just as they depended on my person, mind, heart, and money. We were one church, obviously, but not without challenge and even sacrifice: to live and work together, we needed to give up defining intellectual categories, habits of thought and reaction, forms of humor, even deep-seated personal commitments of various kinds; give them as a kind of offering for the sake of something more. The “more”, of course, is what is key to begin to understand, even if, at the time, it was not clear.
Again, what I discovered (albeit slowly and also retrospectively even today) was the foundational reality of what I call “formative scripturalism” within the stable community of self-giving believers as the basis for the Body of Christ’s historical energy and life. To read the Scriptures together with the presupposition of their gifted authority on our common life, even when we disagreed in our starting points, to stay in that place of receipt and subject oneself to the ultimate guiding clarity of that Scripture as it worked upon us all together – this proved the purpose of mutually recognized ministries, of common prayer, and the sharing of our hearts and hands, for these things set the parameters of our embrace by the truth of God in Christ, not surely its fullness.
To live in this kind of church was not an interesting feature of cultural choice or habit. It is simply not possible to label this a “niche” reality of a certain kind of Christian “life-style”. It was the assumption underlying being the Church of Christ, even for those who never had the chance of experiencing it in these terms. And it has underlain the life of the Church for centuries. And, far from being idiosyncratic, what I have seen emerging in our churches and Communion most recently is therefore not so much a limited agenda to be achieved to which I happen to be committed in my own personal experience, as much as it represents a confirmation of this intuited grace that I first tasted long ago precisely because I was privileged to live within the larger church itself. And particular elements of this emergent vision, like the Windsor Report, exemplify such a confirmation, not as theological creation, designed by committee under duress, but as the uncovering of a pre-existing reality.
However surprising to many, what has been emerging over the past few years in the Anglican Communion and has now been made bluntly real in the Primates’ meeting, including in the Proposed Covenant – all this is not “new” at all, but rather something only newly articulated and brought to expression. Yet, articulating exactly what? What underlying reality, divine or otherwise is now coming into view, in the Covenant in particular, even if somehow always there?
Steps towards and worries derived from the Covenant
So let me briefly say something about the Covenant’s origins in a practical sense. As most of us know, the proposal for an Anglican Covenant derives almost exclusively from the Windsor Report itself (see e.g. par. 118-120). The proposal came in the context of the Report’s recommendations to enhance the unity of the Anglican Communion: “This Commission recommends, therefore, and urges the primates to consider, the adoption by the churches of the Communion of a common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion” (118). Several things about such a covenant were noted in the Report, and the “draft” of a possible covenant was included in the Report as an appendix and, in a sense, a “discussion-starter”.
When the primates met later at Dromantine (2005) and received the Windsor Report, they affirmed the general idea of an Anglican Covenant (as did Gen. Convention in June, in Resolution A166). In the course of the next year, some initial work, in an ad hoc way, was done by gathering some local people in Britain to think about general aspects one might have to deal with if this idea were to go forward.
The big push for the Covenant came in June ’06 with the appearance of Abp. Rowan Williams’ piece “Challenge and Hope of Being and Anglican Today”. In this essay, disseminated as a general letter to the “faithful” of the Communion, Williams lifted up the idea of a common Anglican Covenant as “the best way forward” for the Communion’s restored integrity and future. He suggested, furthermore, that the Covenant could act as the main element by which the Communion would be ecclesially reordered (into “constituent” and “associate” church membership) through a mechanism by which churches could choose to adopt the Covenant or not.
Although the Covenant idea, first broached by the Windsor Report, had evoked some marginal discussion, it was Williams’ essay that drew out into public debate two major concerns:
i. Some have argued that any Covenant formulated in the present circumstances of the Communion would be the product of conflict and a response to conflict: hence it would inevitably prove a kind of juridical document both limited in its real powers to specific “case” problems of the moment (e.g. sexuality), and would thereby also prove time-constrained (and quickly out of date). Such an attempted solution to disagreement would, in any case, prove impossible within and contradictory of the national/cultural provincial autonomies associated with Anglicanism since the 16th Reformation of the Church of England. A Covenant born of and in response to conflict is therefore neither workable nor desirable. “Communion” rightly refers to “bonds of affection”, which is a deliberately flexible and practically loose reality inimical to formulated and “binding” agreements.
ii. Second, others argued that if the conflict-oriented juridical model were to be avoided, a Covenant would necessarily end up being a “confessional” document. The problems here are at least twofold: either its confessional commitments would be too robust and detailed, and a Covenant would become intrinsically unacceptable to the wide diversity of opinions and practices within the Communion (and hence proves fragmenting in a major way); or these commitments would be so broad that the Covenant’s “comprehensiveness” would become useless definitionally, and would end up simply mimicking the condition of the Communion today as it proves itself incapable of standing for anything evangelically. In any case, Anglicanism (one group says) was never “confessional” in the first place, and a confessional Covenant would be a betrayal of its character.
Rowan Williams’ piece, it needs to be said, attempted to deal with these potential criticisms up front, by describing the juridical and confessional character of Anglicanism as historically explicated by the present demands of communion within the world. It is not enough, he writes, simply to say “we have never done it this way”; rather, one must seek a “way” for today that organizes the historic trust of the church for ongoing life. In this context it is worth citing a very important paragraph from his essay: “There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment. Neither the liberal nor the conservative can simply appeal to a historic identity that doesn’t correspond with where we now are. We do have a distinctive historic tradition – a reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine, a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly. But for this to survive with all its aspects intact, we need closer and more visible formal commitments to each other.” It is clear that Williams didn’t manage to persuade everyone here, but the direction of his thinking is significant.
iii. A third view, however, sought to take up Williams’ discussion positively, and aim it in a certain direction. This perspective argued that an Anglican Covenant would be useful to the degree that it was understood “relationally”, as the expression – lived and real – of how the churches of Anglican Communion “live with one another”. Many saw this as the Windsor Report’s own desire, at least insofar as the Report was received in the subsequent discussions of the Communion, and as it morphed into something called the “Windsor Process”, a reality that implied something less concrete and articulate, or less static and formulaic, and more dynamic and engaged than did the categories of “juridical” and “confessional” appear.
In any case, the Covenant proposal moved forward. A good number of responses to the idea now came in from around Communion (indeed, they had already begun to appear after the Windsor Report’s initial publication). Some were critical of the idea altogether, others were cautiously encouraging of it, others offered general suggestions, and finally some provided fully-tailored proposals. In the Fall of ‘06 a Covenant Design Group of 10 persons was chosen by Abp. Williams, with nominees having been solicited from all the provinces. The members of this group included Primates, clergy, and laypersons, men and women, from around the Communion. They were charged with meeting, reviewing the entire question of the Covenant idea in any way they chose, and reporting to the Primates’ Tanzania meeting in February.
The Design Group met over four days in January of ’07, and from this meeting proceeded a surprising outcome: after one day of intense discussion and prayer, common agreement about a way forward was reached. We agreed, in fact, that an Anglican Covenant was desirable on a certain basis, and that it was doable in terms of its articulation, again, on a certain basis. After another three days of actual drafting, the Design Group wrote a report and a complete draft Covenant that they presented to the Primates. This report and draft was commended by Primates, and it is this document that they have offered to the Communion for discussion and response.
A theology of Covenant: the Already of God’s “Yes”
What theological perspective informed the Design Group’s work? What follows is my own interpretation of that perspective, based on our discussions and on the actual documents we produced and that the Primates themselves articulated.
The last paragraph of the Report’s prologue describes the fundamental working orientation of the group: it states firmly that the Covenant proposal we would offer would not be an “invention”, but a “restatement” and “assertion” of something already “received”, and a “commitment” to an “interdependent life” already (“in theory”) and always “recognized”, that is, a commitment to a kind of life “already lived”. Likewise, the Primates themselves, in the Communiqué (29), speak of the Covenant as a “making explicit” of something already “meant”, and an “articulating” of something already lived.
Here we are given the heart of the Proposed Covenant’s form: something already received, something already lived. And before examining some of the particulars of this “already”, it is important to understand – from my perspective – that this “already” is precisely the meaning of “covenant” in a basic sense, a meaning that provides, I believe, a profound response to the worries originally raised and still held about having an Anglican Covenant at all. For unless we get straight the theological meaning of the “already” in this context, we cannot understand the particulars and their weight within the actual text of the Proposed Covenant itself.
What is a “covenant”? On a basic level, it is simply a promise, made between two or more parties. Within the specifically religious context of the Christian Scriptural faith, however, this promise is bound up with God. But because this promise is bound up with God—the God who names himself as “I am who I am” or “I will be and I will do what I will be and do” (Exod. 3:14) — we are talking not simply about a “content” to a promise, a set of propositions upheld, but with a reality that continues to be and to act. God does not say to Moses, “I believe this and therefore so should you” or “I stand for this and you also must uphold it”, but rather, “I am this and will do this”. God’s “promises”, that is, are actions over time that are joined to God’s very being. When we speak of a “promise” with respect to God, we speak of Someone promising. By the same token, promises made to God and with God are also actions lived out in the course of time and history by particular people.
My point here is that a covenant in Christian terms is about an active way of existing as a person; with respect to “promising” a covenant is, therefore, about “trustworthiness”, a reality that includes character, action, form, and purpose. And this reality takes in not only the keeping of promises, within all the changing situations of life; but also the lived reality of constantly returning to promises made, of reasserting them and (from our human side) of suffering consequences and seeking restoration for falling from our promises. Covenant, from a human side in short designates the action born of faithfulness and of ongoing “conversion”. God is constantly proving trustworthy; and human beings who seek God are constantly renewing their trust, through God’s trustworthy grace, in a process of conversion. This is what makes the reality of covenant something that snags, promotes, re-orients, and molds. Covenant is a subjecting reality across time, that catches up the people involved and sends them somewhere.
The Introduction to the Proposed Covenant makes a strong theological claim, in this regard, one to which Franklin is accurately sensitive in his judgments about the central koinonia thrust of the most recent Primates’ Meeting: the fundamental promise of God is that of “communion”, communion with the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 1;3); a communion that is based on God’s “faithful calling” (1 Cor. 1:9). This communion or fellowship is the promise – the calling – and it is trustworthy, because God is ‘faithful”. Furthermore, this trustworthy promise of communion is at the foundation of all of God’s purposes, for God’s good will and pleasure is to “gather all things in heaven and on earth” together in in Christ (Eph. 1:9f.).
The reality of covenant therefore derives from this communion purpose: the fundamental trustworthiness of our lives as Christians flows out of the very promises of God, that is, God’s faithfulness in calling us into communion with Him. When Jesus says, “let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Mt. 5:37), he is reflecting the reality that our word – our life lived according to our will’s desire – flow out of the “yes” that is God’s promise to us: “For the son of God, Jesus Christ who was preached among you by us, was not yes and no, but in him there was only yes, for all the promises of God in him are yes” (2 Cor. 1:19).
This may seem very abstract. 2 Corinthians 1:19 was in fact the base verse that informed the entire Anglican-Roman Catholic Agreed Statement on Authority (The Gift of Authority). At the time, a guiding appeal to this Scripture verse seemed to many people unclear in the context of discussions of authority in general. But perhaps the implications of God’s positive promises, fulfilled in Jesus, have now found a more palpable ecclesial setting in which to illuminate our lives as churches. For in the reality of covenanting that has been proposed to the Anglican Communion, we can grasp more clearly how the exercise of “authority” does indeed enact the “Yes” of God: authority is embodied in our trustworthy words, words that always respond to God’s own faithful promises.
For the “already” that is implied in the Proposed Covenant is precisely the already of God’s promises, of what God has done and is doing, of the “Yes” God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, his Son, and in the utter trustworthiness and faithfulness of this. And what is this Yes, what is this promise, what is the very act by which the promise is not only upheld but takes its flesh within the world and its time? Is it not this: that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for it (Jn. 3:16)? That this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his Son for us as a sacrifice? (1 Jn. 4:7,10). Is this not the Yes to the promise of communion that God has made? What then, in this light, is a “covenant”, a promise, a trustworthy response to this “already” that is God’s? We must answer this question clearly for ourselves, for our discernment, decision-making, and lively discipleship as churches take their proper form only in this responsive posture and set of practices.
I had occasion recently to sit with a group of clergy in another diocese who were listing on a board what “communion” has meant within Anglicanism. It is not a difficult task or even a long list, much as I began earlier to describe my first ministry in Burundi: shared mutually recognized ministries and shared sacrament. But does this come close to describing the fullness of “communion”? It certainly does not explicate “communion” in the sense of the Anglican Communion’s fullness of life together, because mutually recognized ministries and shared sacraments are things we already share with other denominations, like the Lutherans and Moravians, and probably soon the Methodists. We may call these relationships “full communion”, but they are nothing of the sort. For if you were to push on in speaking about the communion of Anglicans, you would have to add more things: shared counsel, for instance (something realty held with Lutherans); shared money in a regular and committed fashion– here you are going even more deep (and money is always the mark of true communion!). Where is this heading? Is it not heading in the direction of what we might call “offering”, even “sacrifice”? The offering finally and even of our very lives? “Greater love has no one than this, that a man should lie down his life ” for his friends (Jn. 15:13), and I have called you friends (14), and, of course, “love one another as I have loved you” (13:34).
This is where communion leads. It leads to the laying down of life – this is, after all, the very shape and reality of God’s “Yes”. Nothing else. And the communion of the Anglican Communion is precisely that her members have said “yes” to this reality amongst ourselves. That is the profoundly missionary reality of communion, and I submit that it is precisely why and how Africans among others, have reacted so strongly within the present turmoil – they are bound to the missionary martyrs and confessors of their founding and foundation, both foreign and indigenous, and it is this “Yes”, this promise, this trust and trustworthiness – the “already” of their history and blood-line — that is their life. Because God’s trustworthiness – according to John (1Jn. 1:3) – is enacted, is lived out, in the reality of the world’s history, and in the Church’s history, in terms of a “communion” or “fellowship’ among Jesus’ followers, that communion is “full” and complete and integral only to the degree that it “goes and loves to the end” (Jn 13:1f.). This is why all covenants are “sealed with blood” (cf. Heb. 9[:18]).
So we can define covenant in this way: it is “relational” to the degree that it expresses the self-giving of God’s promising, the historical reality that “at the very time we were sinners, God demonstrated his love for us by His own Son’s death” (Rom 5:8) – this is what God does to and for and with us in time; it is “juridical”, in that it expresses the Law of God’s promising, the “commandment” of loving as God loves in His son’s own self-giving (Jn. 15:10ff.); it is “confessional” in that it articulates precisely this love – this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son – and hence it lays out the very contours of our belief, as John himself writes, that the “message” and “confession” of Jesus coming in the flesh (cf. 1 Jn 1:5; 4:3) is at the heart of communion (2 Jn. 1:7ff.). All dogma is contained herein.
And covenant is “expressive” of an already rather than “inventive” of something new, because it is in all these aspects simply — ! – a saying “Yes” to what God has already been saying “Yes“ to from the foundation of the world in the mystery of His purposes. If there is anything “new” involved, it is in the “conversion” of our lives, over and over again, like Israel, to God’s promise and promising that has given us life (cf. Rom. 12:2; Col. 3:10).
To covenant with one another, therefore, cannot possibly contradict Anglicanism. Otherwise it contradicts God himself. I cannot put it more strongly. Any canonical law, any provincial property, any theological program can only bow before this fundamental reality. That does not speak to particulars, but it does speak to what we are about.
We should also note in this light how any covenant ought therefore properly to function. I mention this, in particular, in response to those criticisms that the Proposed Covenant is too “bland” and has no “teeth”. The active character of any covenant is, as I have said, “trustworthiness”; it is about keeping promises. The notion of “teeth” is, in a sense, ill-suited to such a context. Obviously, there are consequences to promise-breaking. The main consequence is a loss of trust – something that the Primates themselves spoke to in their Communiqué (9), following the Windsor Report, as the “illness” that has infected the Communion. And with a loss of trust comes a host of other consequences. But you cannot “make” people either enter into promises or “make” people keep them. One can only acknowledge promise-keeping and promise-breaking, and live with the outcome of their choices, where trust has either strengthened a life together or its loss has torn it apart. The consequence of all good is the fruit of righteousness; the consequence of all evil the envelopment by the sinner of sin itself.
A key question in this regard, and one that is more limited, that some have raised is this: would the Proposed Covenant (or any other version of a covenant) in and of itself have prevented the current “illness”, if you will? Certainly, it would not have done so in the sense that no covenant can prevent people from breaking their word, in one way or another. A mechanism of the imposition of “sanctions” within a covenant makes of it no longer a covenant; and furthermore, sanctions themselves do not beget a change of will or engender trustworthiness. It is true that the Windsor Report made it clear that a covenant was in fact needed in order to avoid future “crippling” conflicts. But how did they mean this? What a covenant can do is to make explicit that to which one is committed, and to which one makes a promise and to the character of that promise, and therefore the character of the consequences to be expected if promises are broken. Here, I think, the Proposed Covenant is clear enough, and fair enough, both positively and negatively (as section 6 spells it out). When covenants are made and then broken – and this the Proposed Covenant describes – the fruit and reality of trustworthiness and the conversion to which it leads are squandered and slip into the waters of isolated drift. The Covenant provides a way of describing this and articulating – judging – when this has taken place. To this degree, it lays out a method of adjudication.
Finally, we can see how, in light of the trustworthy promising of covenant that binds communion, the actual “content” of a covenant, at least as I have outlined its meaning, cannot be primarily propositional, although it is full of implications that can indeed be put in propositional form (although that is the task for bishops, pastors, and catechists). Rather the content of the Covenant has to do with articulating a way of embodying the truth of God’s promises and of our Yes to them. The question is not first of all “can a liberal or a conservative sign on to this set of doctrines”—and thereby, can we test whether the doctrines are orthodox or progressive or this or that. Rather the question is “can this church keep its word in its life in communion as it says ‘yes’ to the gift of God’s own life given in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, that is to God’s actual love?”
The shape of the Proposed Covenant
So let us return to the Proposed Covenant itself. It is meant, as I have argued, to be expressive of a reality “already” present. And therefore, the Design Group adopted (informally and often implicitly) two principles to govern our deliberations and drafting: first, that nothing should be formalized that was not already at work – either doctrinally, missionally, or structurally – in our common life as a whole; and second, that the very formulations of these articulated realities should be drawn from existing documents within the public realm of the Anglican Communion, either in a longstanding fashion, or more recently. These adopted principles are the major reason why it was possible to formulate something in what surprised many people as being a remarkably, and in some minds unadvisedly, quick fashion. It is important to understand this, practically and in terms of the theological basis for it, as I have explained it, so as not to misjudge the meaning of the Design Group’s expeditious labors.
The way this worked concretely can be categorized as follows:
a. The general template for the draft was an existing proposal, carefully composed over the previous year by representatives of the Global South. It had been circulated publicly for some months, and to this we added elements of the Windsor Report’s Appendix and the Province of Australia’s publicly disseminated Covenant proposal.
b. The actual content of the proposal – its specific elements and their formulation — made use of a range of material, including the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, constitutions of various provincial churches, Lambeth Conference resolutions, Communion commissions (cf. the section on Mission), Primates’ statements, etc..
c. As for the ecclesial structures and order proposed for discernment and decision-making, we made an attempt to articulate what has, in an ad hoc way, already emerged in our common life over the past few years. This is key, especially in Section 6 of the proposal which deals with an ordered process of conciliar life that gives the Primates a particular role. This proposed structure and order is not an invention at all, as some have claimed, but an attempt to lay out how in fact (and with responsible deliberation, to be sure) affairs have been sorting themselves out. One can read Section 6 as a “history” of the last decade of the Anglican Communion’s life in counsel. This history, and its encompassing larger history, of the Anglican Communion as a whole, is, we believe, “providential”, in that it marks the articulation in time of God’s promising act. If one cannot accept this, then of course one will have a problem with the thrust of this aspect of the document as a whole. But we believe it is consistent with the very reality of what covenant is all about: God proves faithful, and our attempts, marked by repeated conversionary movements of our councils, at responding in faith embody the shape of our own growing faithfulness.
It is possible, from this vantage finally, to touch on the particulars of the Proposed covenant now only briefly, in large measure because, as I have been arguing, they are not controversial precisely in their status as “already” given and passed on. They represent a remarkable convergence of Global South ways of articulating their commitments and more Western ones, for they articulate the common spring.
There are three main topics (somewhat obscured by a faulty enumeration in the text): which could be denoted in terms of teaching, mission, and order. Each of these topics is subdivided in terms of “affirmation” and “commitment”.
i. Thus, Section 2, “the life we share”, follows an affirmation of the Quadrilateral, elaborated by the addition of an affirmation of common mission and of the foundational and guiding place of the classical “Anglican formularies (the latter of which is a part of the constitutions of a large number of provinces in the Anglican Communion). These are not listed here so as to establish a renewed Protestant confessionalism so much as they are forthrightly acknowledged as a historically accepted standard for common discernment and order, particularly with respect to the Scriptures.
On the “commitment” side of this topic, several elements are listed that range from engagement with Scripture and its authority, moral teaching, Eucharistic fellowship, leadership formation, and common life. These phrases derive from Lambeth conferences, ecumenical dialogue statements (cf. that on morals), the Windsor Report, and other sources. In many ways, this is a crucial section that cannot afford to be overlooked, for, with its earlier set of affirmations, it actually provides a framework within which the discernment of truth is to take place with the Communion, and provides a set of touchstones by which that discernment is to be measured. It is not as if the presenting quarrel over sexuality could be immediately settled within such a framework; but it would, I believe, have altered the way such a quarrel was approached some time ago had the framework been explicitly embraced. One will note, for instance, that the oft-appealed to (and only locally embraced anyway) triad of “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason”, so confusing to so many in practice, does not appear here, not because its elements are not in fact in play, but because they are ordered within a more focused trajectory of discernment and authority.
ii. The next section (4) on shared life and vocation, contains within it both the affirmation and commitment aspects of the church’s missionary existence. Here, a providential understanding of the growth of the Anglican Communion as a communion is affirmed – obviously a central claim for a notion of an Anglican Covenant to make any sense at all; and through it, the historical characteristics of the previous teaching framework are filled out on a large canvass: primitive undivided church, British origins, Reformation, and global growth through mission. This providential history was carefully noted, and its markers listed here are meant to inform the previous sections’ “confessional” affirmations and commitments.
Much of the rest of the section, along with the list of commitments, derives from existing work by e.g. the Inter-Anglican Study Commission on Mission and Evangelism, and other groups. The ecumenical context for the Communion’s mission is also straightforwardly affirmed, a fact that deserves attention.
iv. The last set of affirmations and commitments – on Unity and Common life – have already proved the most controversial. The first section basically lays out the Four Instruments of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury having been restored to this position!), all under a guiding affirmation of our Communion’s episcopal leadership (something coherent with our own Prayer Book’s ordination liturgy, not to mention the Quadrilateral). By and large, the descriptions of the Instruments of Unity derive from existing proposals, especially Australia’s (which, in turn, derives from other sources). The attempt here is to render somewhat more coherent the particular roles of each Instrument as they function together. There has already been some concern expressed that the ACC’s role has somehow been slighted; however, we believe that the descriptions given are accurate, fair, and finally helpfully integrated.
The real place of challenge for many, it appears, lies in Section 6 on the practical elements that a commitment to unity would demand. In some sense, this was the one section where the Design Group was required to write “from scratch”. But, as I have emphasized earlier, that would finally be a misleading characterization of what we did; for our goal was to articulate “explicitly”, as the Primates themselves said, what has in fact taken place in practice already over the past few years as the Anglican Communion has grown and faced challenges to its common witness. Our task was one of apprehending this reality, not constructing it. If one looks carefully at the order of discernment, counsel, and decision, one will see a process that matches fairly closely with actual workings of the Communion over the past decade, say, with the dispute over sexuality – from Lambeth’98 (and before, of course), through to the Primates response to General Convention ’03, the Lambeth Commission, Primates, Canterbury and ACC responses, General Convention ’06 and now Dar es Salaam.
While this process has been challenged by some as to its integrity, one of the major sources of anxiety over the past few years has less been the actual incoherence of decision-making as has the fact that this ad hoc process was, as it were, unknown in advance, and hence in itself difficult to “trust”, to find “trustworthy”. What covenanting does to this is to resolve that need, and thereby provide a common “Yes” to a way of discerning that will indeed make “time” and patience less a threat to stability, but a gift for seeking the truth in love. “We know what we have committed ourselves to, of the path it must follow, and we will be faithful in following it together.”
We are well aware, of course, that just this ordering of discernment is disputed as being somehow providential. Why, some are already asking, should the Primates be given the role of the party of appeal and the final gateway of decision-making? There are at least three answers one might give to this perfectly valid question. First, there is a practical response: someone must do this, and of all the Instruments of Unity, the Primates most effectively (in logistical terms) combine world-wide representation and coherence of council. Second, there is the response of deliberate precedence: Lambeth ’98 (building on ’88) requested that the Primates take on this role quite explicitly (Res. III.6), by “intervening in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces”; and this request derives from actual attempts in other cases where the Instruments of Unity did in fact intervene (e.g. the first Lambeth Conference, and, more recently, Canterbury’s intervention – upheld by the ACC – in Rwanda in the mid-‘90’s). Finally, there is the simple ecclesiological response: given the episcopal ordering and leading of the Anglican Church – and, despite claims to American exceptionalism here, it is enshrined in our own Prayer Book (cf. pp. 517f.) – the Primates represent, in themselves, the unity affirmed and upheld – the “yes” of the Communion – to which the Covenant itself witnesses.
This does not mean that the Primates should or would constitute some super-decision-making power, a “curia” for the Communion as some of claimed. Far from it. A careful examination of the process of discernment proposed in the Covenant makes clear the conciliar character within which the Primates would operate in a special manner in limited and exceptional circumstances. And it is this conciliar context and character, as well as their representative and episcopal roles, that distinguish the Primates’ exceptional calling from curial models of decision-making and authority.
Although there have been fears and indeed accusations that the Primates have been “maneuvered” and “manipulated” over the past few years, I believe that an even-handed examination of the actual history of our struggles will show that, despite the real passion and heat in these struggles (some of it coming from the Primates themselves), there has been a remarkable restraint and subtlety to the Primates’ own decision-making – one that actually reflects, rather than imposes upon, the diversity and discernment of the larger Communion. The Proposed Covenant merely seeks to give speech to this deeper reality.
It is the task of the Communion, through its varied processes of discussion, to comment not only on this larger shape to the Proposed Covenant, but also to the particulars that provide its content. My hope here is to have shown how both this larger shape finds its contours within a specific theological vision; and that this vision is what should inform the particulars as they are articulated.
The Primates themselves have commended the Proposed Covenant for study and response within the Communion as a whole. In doing so, they have responded to the Report’s request that they affirm the draft as a “concise expression of what may be considered as authentic Anglicanism”. This is a significant action, and signals that the Proposed Covenant in its general aim, at least, is not off the mark.
On the basis of comments received through the course of this year, the Covenant Design Group will prepare a revised draft to be presented to Lambeth ’08, where it may be considered – and probably amended – for dissemination to the Provinces of the Communion. This process and timetable is important, among other things, for the way that it provides the markers for the “interim” recommendations offered by the Primates in their Communiqué.
I want to end simply by citing some words from William Franklin’s article, with which I began: “contrary to inaccurate press reports of this past week that the holy See seeks some accommodation with disaffected Anglicans, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican has now spoken of the value of the Anglican Communion remaining as one communion, as indicated in this statement: ‘It is our overwhelming desire that the Anglican Communion stays together, rooted in the historic faith which our dialogue and relations over four decades have led us to believe that we share to a large degree’” [a 2004 statement republished by the Catholic Church in a recent official summary of dialogue statements]. And I would ask, Why would Rome desire such a thing? What hope does this express that, to a large extent, we are party to, driven by, and nourished in? Is it not the hope that God’s promises are indeed shown forth before the world as being trustworthy? Not that the Anglican Communion is the single, or even primary vehicle for that demonstration; hardly – is has a calling only in relation to others. But rather, do we not all recognize that, “in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation” (Proposed Covenant Introduction), this demonstration must come and be received in the places of our failures, of our “no’s”, of this church and that church, of this communion, if ever we are one day to say “yes” to the great calling of our God in Christ Jesus to bring us into the Father’s bosom as ‘one flock with one shepherd” (Jn. 10:6)?
–The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is rector of Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado, and a fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute