Capturing the castle through the back door

The most recent draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant, which we wrote about yesterday, speaks at some length about the powers that will be exercised by the various Instruments of Unity or Instruments of Communion. Indeed, almost every recent document dealing with Anglican governance speaks of the instruments as though they are at least as old and as well-established, as say, the three branches of the United States government. Yet the attempt to invest these instruments with ecclesiastical authority is barely a decade old, has never been examined in any formal way by the member Churches of the Communion and has never even been approved by the so-called instruments themselves.

However, by speaking as though the system that they wish to create already exists, proponents of a more top-down form of governance may succeed in wearing down resistance to a system of ecclesiastic arrangements in which individual churches are gradually forced to cede power to the global Communion.

Before that happens, it may be worth examining the birth of the “Instruments.” The phrase was either coined or popularized (I am not sure which) in the sixth chapter of the Virginia Report. (The entire report is here). That report is frequently cited but not often read, and so there is a tendency to assume it slipped seamlessly into the canon of essential Anglican documents. That wasn’t the case.

The response of the 1998 Lambeth Conference suggest gratitude, and a desire for a deeper engagement with the document, but stops well short of saying, “That settles it.”

The response of Anglican Consultative Council 11, held in the fall of 1999, is also underwhelming:

Resolution 13: The Virginia Report

This council, noting that The Virginia Report was introduced to ACC-10 (Panama 1996) and that Lambeth 1998 welcomed the report and requested the Primates “to monitor a decade of study in each province on the report,”

a) Requests the Primates to ensure that opportunity is given at provincial and diocesan level for careful and critical study of the report.

b) Asks that a summary of the report in simple language be made available by the Anglican Communion Office in order to assist further study.

c) Recommends that The Virginia Report be studied by others, such as those working in theological seminaries.

d) Suggests that seminars be organised as soon as possible to train leaders to facilitate the study of The Virginia Report at the local level.

News stories about the Report suggest there was plenty of opposition to its centralizing tendencies. Click Read more to read a news report filed by the Anglican Communion News Service from the September 1999 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council. A 1999 report from Episcopal News Service is also online.

To recap, then, a document that received a lukewarm reception in 1999 has somehow taken on canonical status despite the fact that it has seldom been discussed in the intervening decade. How did this happen? Endless repetition. The notion that there are Instruments of Communion, has sold us on the idea that there need to be Instruments of Communion–and this despite the fact that one of the key findings of the Windsor Continuation Group is that the instruments are a mess, and that there is little agreement on what powers they have or how they relate to one another. (Begin at paragraph 50.)

In this context, the proposal in the current draft of the covenant to invest new powers in the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council looks very much like an attempt to answer one of the essential questions before the Communion–Who is in charge?–on the fly.


ACNS 1888 · 18 September 1999 · Dundee [ACC-11/22]


Following three sessions of explanation of the Virginia Report from Bishop Mark Dyer, one of its authors, members of the Anglican Consultative Council, meeting in Dundee, Scotland engaged in a evening forum of open discussion and response to what they had heard. Their comments may indicate that the task given to the Primates of the Anglican Communion by the Lambeth Conference may face some problems. The Primates were requested in Lambeth Resolution III.8 “to initiate and monitor a decade of study in each Province on the report, and in particular on ‘whether effective communion, at all levels, does not require appropriate instruments, with due safeguards, not only for legislation, but also for oversight’ as well as on the issue of a universal ministry in the service of Christian unity.”

“We’ve just had three sessions of theological hard-sell.” said Robert Tong from Australia. “Are we going to have a similar hard-sell of The Gift of Authority?” he asked, referring to the forthcoming two sessions planned for that document.

He was joined by other voices reacting to the amount of time devoted to the topic, with some saying they would have benefited from receiving a critique of the Virginia Report alongside such a forceful promotion of its main themes and proposals. One member suggested that the three sessions indicated a strong sense of defensiveness of the “instruments of communion and unity’, that is, the Primates’ Meeting, the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of

Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council itself.

“I’m grateful for the sessions, but I too felt somewhat snowed, and I felt that a critique was lacking,” the Very Rev John Moses, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, who is one of the members from England, said. “It contains two contrasting trends, one which is centralising and hierarchical, and another which is synodical and is characterised of life in all our provinces. But the Virginia Report could be used as an instrument to increase the curialisation drift of the Anglican Communion,” he said.

Dean Moses also warned that the Virginia Report should not be regarded as a sacrosanct document, for its theological base is Trinitarian and it therefore reflects the theological starting-point of our age. “But,” he said, “in previous decades the Church started from a Christological starting-point, and future decades may well see the Cosmic Christ as the base theological model.”

The Most Revd Richard Holloway, Primus of Scotland said the Virginia Report gave far more cause for concern for the Church than his own recent book on a “godless morality.” He said that the ACC was one of the few structured vehicles in Anglicanism that might resist the tendency in the Report to increase the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates and the episcopate in general. He said he felt anxiety against some of its trends, for the bishops “are servants at best of a Church that is self-governing.”

Concerns raised over the Virginia Report were not limited to the perceived slide into curacy. Some delegates wondered how all the time spent on inner workings of the church relate to the pains of the wider world. The Revd Winston Halapua from the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia stated that he is convinced “the Anglican Communion will be better

in heaven, let us instead talk about mission outside the Anglican Communion.

We have not seen issues of poverty and ethnic cleansing addressed in this agenda.” The Most Revd Glauco Soares de Lima, Primate of the Episcopal Church of Brazil, said he was concerned about the ongoing colonialism between countries and churches in the North and those in the South. “The Report is a sign of a still colonial mind, even in the structures

described.” he said.

The fact that the Anglican Consultative Council was willing to engage the hard questions of both the process and substance of the Virginia Report, when given the opportunity, led some to say “the ACC has really come of age.”

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