The Anglican Covenant and the “dominant melody”

By George Clifford

The proposed Anglican Covenant is un-American. More precisely, the proposed Covenant conflicts with the ethos of The Episcopal Church (TEC), an ethos defined not by sexuality but issues of authority, ecclesiastical culture, and scripture.

TEC tends to be skittish with respect to episcopal authority. On the one hand, we recognize the importance of bishops. The history of Scottish nonjuror Bishops ordaining the first American bishops and the belated recognition of those bishops by Canterbury is well known because of the centrality of bishops to our polity. Similarly, most TEC diocesan bishops are cherished as icons of unity and our connection to the larger church even when their leadership and authority are questioned.

On the other hand, TEC is consistently wary of episcopal authority. Our bicameral General Convention, diocesan standing committees and annual conventions, elected bishops, and many other aspects of TEC polity intentionally limit episcopal authority. Indeed, emotionally charged concerns about episcopal authority still occasionally surprise me, e.g., comments about selecting a bishop instead of a lay person or priest as TEC chief operating officer, comments focused not on the individual selected but a general wariness about enlarging episcopal authority.

Our mixed feelings about episcopal authority emerge out of our ecclesiastical culture. For better and worse, that cultural ethos is individualistic and egalitarian, attributes reflective of our national culture. Both attributes are also arguably biblical – but only when held in tension with the communal. Jesus instructed his followers to love one another. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the vine and his followers as the branches; Paul’s epistles describe Jesus as the head and Christians as parts of a body. These metaphors intimately connect Christians in community with one another and with Jesus.

Historically, Episcopalians have struggled to balance connectivity and individual autonomy. Embracing full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) exemplifies a high point in this balancing act. TEC recognized that Christian unity was of greater value than was consistently maintaining our understanding of ecclesial authority. Our bold acceptance of the ordination of existing ELCA clergy as valid enabled TEC and ELCA to chart a mutual path of present communion and future convergence.

Similarly, TEC clergy and laity generally hear the message of scripture colored by a dominant melody that affirms the dignity and worth of all people. Everyone – absolutely everyone – is made in God’s image. Consequently, people within TEC hear a scriptural mandate to ordain people based on calling and gifts, not marital history, gender, or sexual orientation. Increasing numbers of non-TEC Anglicans hear the same dominant melody.

However, loud voices from some other provinces of the Anglican Communion hear a radically different melody in scripture, sometimes claiming that it is scripture’s one true melody, which everyone must sing to be faithful to Jesus. This melody has prompted calls, often amplified in the media, for TEC to adopt a more authoritarian episcopate, to disenfranchise laity in episcopal elections, and to preserve traditional gender roles and sexual ethics. Diminishing numbers of TEC voices echo this melody; most who want to sing this melody have decamped for what they hope are more congenial choirs. The latest high profile defection was St. Luke’s parish in Bladensburg, MD, leaving for the Roman Catholic Church.

Christian unity is necessarily, though sadly, more mystical than organic. If this were not true, then only one branch would be the true branch of the vine and the other branches among whom organic unity does not exist – the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and various Protestant denominations – would all be heretics. Thankfully, most of the Church formally abandoned such thinking in the last century. For example, ELCA and TEC were both fully part of the body of Christ even before anyone dreamt of organic intercommunion. Similarly, TEC, the various North American splinter groups, and Anglican provinces distressed by TEC actions remain mystically united as branches of the vine that is Christ, regardless of what they (or we!) say.

Authoritarian ecclesial structures almost inevitably lead to further schism and division. There is no reason to think that the proposed Anglican Covenant with its implicit effort to define orthodox belief and explicit centralized authority structure (i.e., the disciplinary process) would be an exception to that generalization.

In fact, some provinces in the Anglican Communion have already decided de facto to exit. A global consortium of dissident provinces and voices (the Global Anglican Futures Conference – GAFCON) has initiated steps to establish alternative instruments of communion and unity among themselves that exclude TEC and like-minded Anglican provinces. Those moves seem to have an irreversible momentum. A unified Anglican Communion now exists only in appearance and not substance, a disparity whose roots probably predate the current conflicts over gender and sexual orientation.

As two recent and thoughtful Daily Episcopalian essays emphasized (Gay Jennings, We are ignoring the covenant we’ve already got; Winnie Varghese, The covenant before us is not the covenant we need), TEC agreeing to the proposed Anglican Covenant would be a mistake. We must heed God’s voice as we discern it, honoring our individual autonomy and equal dignity as a branch of the vine. The Covenant, quite simply, is un-American.

Nevertheless, TEC remains one branch of the larger vine that is Christ and has many branches. If the Anglican Communion adopts the proposed Covenant and subsequently relegates TEC to second-class status, so be it. This possibility feels sort of like historical déjà vu, a repeat of what happened following the American Revolution. Those events did not cripple the nascent TEC nor permanently impair the Anglican Communion.

Indeed, the mystical unity of the Church transcends every division, challenging us to demonstrate the visible unity of the Church in spite of its organic fractures. Do we, for example, invite TEC dissidents or schismatics to tea or to an ecumenical prayer service as often as we do others with whom we have equally strong basic disagreements (the Roman Catholics, the fundamentalist Baptist, the Latter Day Saints, etc.)? Do we show more love to members of other faiths (Buddhism, Judaism, etc.) than to those of our own tradition with whom we disagree?

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

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