Companion Relationships as an Instrument of Unity

by The Rev. Mel Schlachter


One of the curious parts of the proposed Anglican Covenant, from the Windsor Report to its latest redaction, is the so-called “Instruments of Communion.” It is as if the original Lambeth Commission cast about for the ways that different parts of the Anglican Communion meet up with each other, and then canonized them as some holy hierarchy within our worldwide fellowship. These “Instruments,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the Lambeth Council, and the Primates meetings, should not have to carry the freight that the proponents of Covenant are asking them to bear. In all the editions of the Covenant they would be asked to adjudicate Anglican normalcy, slow down the rate of change among provinces in the Communion, and potentially throw out a province that is not going along with the majority. They are made to be Instruments of Obstruction as well as Communion.

As we might expect, the several drafts rely on “the central role of bishops as guardians and teachers of the faith, as leaders in mission, and as a visible sign of unity, representing the universal Church to the local, the local Church to the universal, and the local Churches to one another.” The laity, priests and deacons only appear in one of those four, the ACC. Numerically, something like 95% of those involved in the stated four Instruments are bishops, with very few women among them. Two of the founding principles of our own province back in the 18th century were that we have a representative form of governance and that we not be bishop-heavy in the decision making process. The proposed covenant process fails for us on both counts.

Nothing against bishops, when our bishop comes back from a House of Bishops meeting or a Lambeth conference, we love to talk with him at great length about what he found out of the big picture. When he comes to a parish visitation we love to hear from him about what other congregations are doing about this, that and the other. But there is a fifth Instrument, one that brings the Church universal very close to home and which has a more representative composition.

When Archbishop Eames and his companions on the Lambeth Commission were looking around for how we get to know and interact with each other around the Communion, how did they overlook the companion relationships between and among dioceses? At last count, our province alone had 92 companion relationships on record with our headquarters in NYC. Those are ones recognized by General Convention. There are likely others which are a function of a given diocese, or a parish-to-parish relationship across provinces, that are not known to headquarters staff. Of the ninety-two, 25 are within (US domestic) provinces two and nine—8 with Haiti (province 2) and 17 in province 9. Fifty-seven are between the USA and churches in Africa, South America, Mexico and Central America; three with the Diocese of Jerusalem; seven with Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Spain; and one with Egypt. And then there are the special relationships, such as those between evangelical leaders and gay leaders alike, and their third world colleagues.

Why weren’t companion relationships identified as Instruments of Communion?

Perhaps they were overlooked because the bishops involved are only part of the relationship; laity and clergy are more often than not the ones who make the companionships happen and keep them richly alive. Of course this unsung Instrument does not lend itself to theological adjudication or voting people out of the fellowship, either. Here we are too busy getting to know and love each other, and enriching each other with the unique gifts brought to the companionship. We may not always understand why our companion diocese behaves in certain ways, but we give them the benefit of the doubt and respect. Such was the case when the American General Convention consented to the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop. Our African companion diocese didn’t get it, but figured we had good reasons for doing what we did.

The Diocese of Iowa has a three-way relationship–with the Dioceses of Brechin (Scotland) and Swaziland (southern Africa). We are grateful to the bishops of these dioceses who met at Lambeth some years ago, came to have affection for each other and their churches, and initiated the relationship. The bishops have changed, but their successors have been faithful in keeping the companionship fresh. However to say that most of the activity among us is carried out by the bishops is nowhere near true. Clergy and laity on all sides come together in growing numbers. Our bishop is gracious and wise enough to appoint as chair of this or that aspect of the companionship people who are already involved in doing the jobs.

So do we have a relationship mediated by our hierarchy? Yes. Do we have a relationship that is non-hierarchical? Why, yes to that as well. The fifth instrument feels more like family. Which brings us to another aspect of covenant making.


Forty years ago I had a falling out with one of my aunts, my mother’s only sibling. My wife and I were visiting with her and her husband and got into an unfortunate argument about church and society. The society of course was the one of the Vietnam War years, and the two of us were recent seminary graduates, flush with strong convictions about the church as Jesus’ instrument for social justice. My aunt and uncle were very conservative, even at that time looking for pockets in or out of the Episcopal Church that would feel like a spiritual home. That visit they told us very simply that they thought further contact was a bad idea. Since then they have not initiated any contact with us, and I have done so only a handful of times (to no avail). We did speak with each other briefly at my mother’s funeral. My two sisters, especially one of them, enjoy a much more cordial relationship with our now-widowed aunt.

Is the relationship irreparably cut off? Probably, although with families you never know. Are we still part of the same family? Of course. We not only share DNA, our lives still affect each other at the very least through second-hand contact–which I have with her children and she has with my sisters. Sometimes families may declare one or another member not-family (some cultures have rituals to so declare), but in terms of the emotional process of that family now and in succeeding generations, the move does not work. The family systems people tell us that both the personality traits of that “disfamilied” individual and the effect of the conflict itself will be carried forward on an unconscious level from generation to generation.

The family systems paradigm may be a useful way to think about covenant. While consular and personal relationships in our Anglican Communion may be torn asunder in any number of ways, still there is an absurdity to an assertion that all of us are not still Communion no matter what transpires. A province may be voted out or decide to withdraw, but in real and substantial ways we are still family.

For better and worse, we drew our ecclesiastical DNA from the Church of England. Our thirty-seven provinces have all grown up and left home. Most provinces have their own Book of Common Prayer. Even to call it a BCP, though, testifies to the common heritage. Recognizing local differences in worship and churchmanship, a visitor to another part of the Communion on a Sunday most likely still feels at home. As far as some unfortunate visible effects of our heritage, we are all prone to the same kind of conflicts within and among our member churches that rent the British church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have not substantially altered the template of our origins.

Our Solemnization of Holy Matrimony service speaks of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” A premarital observation that I give to couples is the Biblical understanding of covenant. First off, in the Bible it is more referred to in the breach than the observance. Israel is regularly spoken of as a covenant breaker and adjured to return. Observance gets so bad that Ezekiel has a vision of God writing the covenant on hearts so that it will become automatic. I believe we have this language in the marriage service because, in fact, every married person will break covenant with his or her spouse. Our hearts wander after other desires even when our behavior is pristine. It is inevitable. Moreover, people change. Wails of “That’s not the person I married.” need to be answered with “Of course.” Covenants are mentioned here because couples so vowed need to have a bond that allows both elasticity and permanence.

Contracts are not covenants. They are brittle. Contracts give each participant the right to expect a certain delivery of goods at a certain time and certain way. Fault is assessed based on what one of the parties failed to come across with. As the family systems people remind us, expectations and love cannot coexist, because love is always a free gift. If the freedom to give in love is overdetermined by expectations, then love is driven out. “Bonds of affection” will only be corroded with a layer of legislation.

The Anglican Covenant in all its redactions might better be called the Anglican Contract. Even though there has been an amelioration of the original Windsor delineation of consequences for failure in observance, which remains the model.

Even love disrupted trumps a contract in our beloved Anglican Communion family. Sometimes we succeed at loving each other, sometimes we do not. Sometimes our Reformation-era DNA leads us to believe there is only one correct belief or practice and those who believe or practice otherwise are betraying the Gospel. For betrayers, of course, no punishment is strong enough. At other times—when we would remake the template–we practice an engaged forbearance, curious about and respectful of the experience or understanding of someone seemingly opposed to ourselves that led them to their position. We don’t jettison our own convictions; however, we are aware that God’s Spirit is likely inclusive of us all in some mysterious way.


As the Fifth Instrument, Companion Relationships reinforce our relationships as family around the Communion. We might simply take for granted that we are in covenant with each other even without a word being written, a synod taking a vote or an archbishop making a declaration, a signature being affixed. For better for worse we cannot escape being in covenant with each other across the Communion regardless of present fallings-out or disruptions. Any attempt to claim authority over one of our brother or sister provinces harks back to a colonial relationship of political power methods brought to ecclesia, which we all freed ourselves from once. However well-intentioned, we cannot return to “power over” even should we consent.

Are we ready to trust, to really trust, the power of relationship? Messy as relationships can be, they offer the only hope of genuine love flowing through the veins of our Communion. If one province seriously disagrees with another over anything, let everyone send more laity, clergy and, yes, bishops to the other in order to learn, to understand, and to share in Christ’s ministry happening there. That would be to practice active communion, which should ever be our goal and our method.

A longtime parish priest and pastoral counselor, The Rev. Mel Schlachter is Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City, IA, and a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors He is an alternate Deputy to General Convention.

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