Covenant Week
Section Three: Birthrights and pottage

This is the third of five articles examining the St. Andrew’s draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant. A study guide from The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church is also available. This article considers Section Three of the covenant. Future articles will consider the appendix, and the future of the covenant process. Read the articles on Section One and Section Two.

By W. Nicholas Knisely

The Anglican Communion in its present form is something that I believe to be of surpassing value both to the Episcopal Church and to Christendom as a whole. We have a developing understanding of what it means to be a Church wherein the body of the gathered People of God is as widely diverse as possible, as democratic as possible and focused on the development of true conciliar decision making. There have been other ways of trying to “do” church that have had these characteristics as their goals, but I believe that Anglicanism has come closer than any so far. Given that, the Anglican Church, as yet still in process of coming to the full maturity of its expression, is precious and valuable. Precious enough that it is worth carefully considering any step that will allow the process to continue to unfold.

I’ve been asked to reflect on the details of the Section 3 of the most recent draft of the Proposed Anglican Covenant in this paper. It’s only fair for me to begin by putting my cards on the table. I am sympathetic to the goals of the Covenant though somewhat suspicious of calls to rush to embrace it in any form in a desire to respond to the present level of conflict in the Communion. I’m not yet convinced that we fully understand the ramifications of a Covenant’s adoption for the theological and practical details of Anglicanism and I’m comfortable moving slowly and carefully.

Yet this is not to say that the Anglican Communion must be preserved at all costs; especially if its preservation, by actions taken to cajole or remove members or groups of people in a naive attempt to preserve it, would result in fundamentally altering that which makes it worthy of preservation. Given competing claims of justice within the Communion at this time, and the competing theological expressions that underlie them, making rash changes to the way that the Communion governs itself, its polity, would most likely be done reactively rather than deliberatively. It is said that when we “act in haste, we often repent at leisure”. This more than anything else is the danger that moving too quickly to decide to adopt a Covenant; leaving aside, for the moment, the question of the final details of its design, represents to us.

As I have been thinking about the question of the Episcopal Church’s decision to continue in the Covenant design process, whatever form that decision might take at the next General Convention in 2009, I find myself returning again and again to the story of Essau’s selling his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage. Sometimes we don’t realize what is truly valuable and what is merely transitory. My hope for our church is that we would carefully and prayerfully ask ourselves what in our polity must be preserved if we are to be true to ourselves and what can be changed without too much danger to our identity.

Initial disclaimers now laid aside, and turning to Section 3 of the draft, of all the parts of the Covenant, this is the section that I find most appealing. I believe that St. Paul’s teaching about the Body of Christ and his focus on community rather than on individuals is a key piece of evidence about how he and the Apostles expected the Church to make decisions and discern God’s will. Their process is described in the Book of Acts when the first great controversy of the Church arises with regard to the inclusion and role of Gentile believers as followers of the Way. The Church decides by having representatives of the Community gather who take council with each other and then issue a teaching to the wider Church.

This is the first and primary scriptural example of a conciliar model for making decisions that effect the whole body of believers. The expectation is created from this point on that we must recognize that what one part of the body does will effect the rest of the body. Humility and love for one another undergird our mutual submission within the body.

What happened in the first Council, the Council of Jerusalem was repeated as best possible again and again in the life of the Church until the Great Schism. After the Schism you see the fragmented pieces of the Church still modeling this conciliar decision making even though the different parts of the Church adapt the model in various (and sometime unrecognizable) ways.

But in addition to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the long traditions of the undivided (and even the divided Church!), it is the reasonableness of discernment within community that I find most compelling about the idea of a conciliar form of church governance. We discern within community at all levels of the Episcopal Church. We discern calls to ordination in the parish and in the diocese rather than simply allowing a person to claim ordination because of their own self perception. We order our common life according to the decisions of General Convention, believing that the broader and more diverse the community that can be gathered to consider a question, the better the answer will be, and the less likely the answer will be to represent the interests of a few imposed for self-serving purposes.

Thus, because of my desire to see Anglicanism follow in and continue to develop along the lines of this model of church ordering, I find the opening paragraphs of the third section of the most attractive parts of the entire Covenant.

Yet, I still have some specific concerns about this section of the document, and a larger one that speaks to an underlying theme of this part of the Covenant.

Firstly, does sections 3.1.3’s mention of our Bishop’s special role reflect a change in our polity? A careful reading of the section does not lead one to think so. It is a description of the role of the Bishop, or the role of the bishop as it is found in most of the Communion. If it seems inaccurate to us, or to place too strong a focus on bishops apart from the other orders of ministry in the Church, then is it an issue for the Episcopal Church alone? Is our Episcopal Polity significantly different than that of the rest of the Communion? This sectoin will cause us to do some deep thinking I expect. For if we have a different polity than the rest of the Communion in the specifics of the way the oversight ministry of a bishop is expressed, should we necessarily give way to the more common understanding, or should we invite the larger community to discern with us whether our view might be worth their adoption? My specific concern about section 3.1.3 is that adopting it in its present form would close the discussion on the question of role of bishops within Anglican polity prematurely (at least from our viewpoint).

The next specific issue (for us as Episcopalians) is in section 3.1.4. It enumerates the four instruments of Communion as were first suggested at a conference in Virginia in 1997. These were originally offered as descriptive items that laid out the practical de-facto ways that the Anglican Communion maintained the relationships between its branches. There is nothing actually new in this section of the Covenant. But our ratification of the Covenant would seem to me to change these instruments from de-facto descriptions into de-jure ones. The very idea that the Instruments exist and are four in number has only been in common use now for slightly more than a decade. My particular concern here is whether or not we fully understand the ramifications that this specific list of four would have. I’m particularly concerned about the inclusion of the Primate’s meeting. It’s the youngest of the four Instruments and the least representative. Would the creation of a council of “super” bishops really be consonant with Anglican tradition?

It’s section 3.2 as a whole that I find the most interesting and the most challenging. Most of the points made in section 3.2 as a whole speak to the autonomy of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion. 3.2.2 makes explicitly clear that each Province of the Communion is independent, many by either law of the land or specific clauses of their constitutions. 3.2.3-5 asks the various Provinces to recognize that there are some questions of faith which touch all the Provinces and further asks that the Provinces will forebear taking actions in these area if possible. (Though interestingly enough such unilateral action is not forbidden in spite of being strongly discouraged.)

As I read through this section I had the curious sensation that I was being led down a pleasant path, nodding my head at each statement, until I suddenly arrived at the end of the section and looked about in some surprise at where I had come to stand. The gist of this section is the agreement that various Provinces will agree to willingly submit their actions to various bodies of the Communion before they take controversial actions. There’s nothing particularly surprising here. It’s material that’s been covered and discussed in other places. There’s a lack of specificity about the actual processes envisioned that might be concerning, but most of these proposed specifics are found in the Appendix section of the draft. (And I’ll address the Appendix in a separate essay.)

It’s here in the details of section of 3.2 where I suddenly find myself returning to the biblical scene of Essau and Jacob and their discussion over the sale of birthrights. Details aside, what is being put forth in this section, is that the Provinces of the Communion submit to the authority of the instruments of the Communion. In other words the Episcopal Church, which has existed for the past 200 plus years as an independent church with historic ties and bonds of affection to the other parts of the Communion, would become instead an organic but subsidiary part of a centralized Anglican Communion. Actually, put Jacob and Essau aside for second. I’m thinking more of St. Hilda at the Synod of Whitby. The Church in England, at the Synod of Whitby, agreed to accept the Roman Church’s way of calculating the date of Easter rather than continuing to use the traditional way it had been determined in England. The decision was a seemingly small thing, but St. Hilda and others recognized the implications that it had. By accepting the authority of Rome to be the final judge in such matters, the Church in England entered a materially different period in its life and governance.

The Episcopal Church, and the other Provinces of the Communion are being asked to do something very much akin to what was asked of the Synod of Whitby. We are asked to acknowledge that there are de-facto (according to this section of the document) limits to a Province’s ability to govern its own life. The reward is the hope that Anglicanism will grow into a more deeply connected web of relationships around the world. The danger is that we may be changing Anglicanism forever in ways which we don’t fully understand today.

And this is now where the Jacob and Essau story comes fully into focus. Essau sold his birthright and his ability to inherit to his younger brother Jacob for a mess of pottage. Essau did this because he was hungry, and as an impetuous sort of person, he was not willing or perhaps able to sit and carefully count the cost before he came to his decision. Certainly, in hindsight he regretted his actions and would not have taken them if he had just been willing to think them through. It seems to me that Anglicanism and her children stand in a very similar place today. We are being asked to give up something that many of us hadn’t thought too much of until recently, but something which was ours at our founding. The reward is that this may bring peace to the Communion, and in the long term perhaps a new form of Christian church governance. It’s certainly much greater than a full stomach that would lost only a day or so. Yet I wonder if we fully recognize the cost of what we are being asked to offer up. Would giving up our autonomy take us down a path that would allow the Anglican experiment to continue? Or would such a change redirect our trajectory so greatly that we would soon cease to be recognizably Anglican; at least according to our eyes of today.

This is the key question of the Covenant. And I’m not convinced we have the answer yet. We may never have the full answer, but I think the question is of such fundamental importance, that it would be best if took the time necessary to find as much of the answer as possible.

So finally, what are we, as the Episcopal Church, to do with the Covenant? As I wrote above, the Anglican Communion is precious enough that we should be expected to do what we can to help it to thrive. Yet we cannot be expected to sell our birthright or the Communion’s to preserve peace at any price. Thankfully such a choice is not before us today. It seems to me that the most loving thing we can do is to receive the work of the design team, raise our specific concerns, perhaps suggest modifications that would respond to our concerns and submit them back to the team asking them to continue the process of revision. I believe the concerns that I have pointed out above are serious enough that it would be a mistake to ratify it in its present form. Yet these concerns do not rise to a level that would justify rejecting the whole of the Covenant or even the idea of the Covenant Process all together. Rather we should enthusiastically participate, adding our voices and experience to those of other cultures and other Provinces this summer during the Lambeth Conference and in the events and discussions which will follow.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, is a deputy to the 2009 General Convention from the Diocese of Arizona. He is chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, and blogs at Entangled States.

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