The Covenant giveth and the Covenant taketh away

By Adrian Worsfold

The Ridley Cambridge Draft of the Covenant compared with previous drafts seems to move this way and that, and offers direction without offering direction. Is the Covenant now anyone’s and should anyone sign it?

Overall it seems to have moved in the direction of concerns expressed by The Episcopal Church about Churches and autonomy and by those who emphasise new interpretation for every generation. Yet, at the same time, rather like a game of push me pull you, it makes statements and orders processes that would operate in precisely the opposite direction.

The language is sometimes loose and contains assumptions that could grow into bad policy. Take what it says about the Lambeth Conference, for example. Here it states:

(3.1.4) II. …in their [bishops in Lambeth Conference] ministry of guarding the faith and unity of the Communion…

What does this mean? How far does this faith and unity go in terms of details and across the whole Communion? Does it go as far as a recognisable uniformity, for example. What happens if a Lambeth Conference starts passing more resolutions? Is the guard a secure guard?

It is possible to stack up some statements as freeing the faith a little and adding to the potential for new interpretation, and it is possible to stack up statements in the conserving direction, and some statements can face both ways at once.

For example, there is a recognition of biblical scholarship, and scholarship is hardly friendly to some of the statements to emerge out of GAFCON and that Jerusalem Declaration and associated Anglican Churches:

(1.2.4) [biblical understanding] by the results of rigorous study by lay and ordained scholars.

(1.2.8) discern the fullness of truth into which the Spirit leads us…

But then there is the statement that goes in the other direction:

(1.2.5) expectation that Scripture continues to illuminate and transform the Church and its members, and through them, individuals, cultures and societies.

That’s reasonable, indeed expected, even for new insights, but one can imagine the accusations of culture influencing the reading of the Bible versus the literal Bible influencing the culture.

The point of the Covenant has been to find a way to process issues of impact across Churches when Churches are autonomous and have generally come together for mutual support and recognition. So we have this statement – and it is confusing:

(3.2.3) Some issues, which are perceived as controversial or new when they arise, may well evoke a deeper understanding of the implications of God’s revelation to us; others may prove to be distractions or even obstacles … need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church.

So on the one hand, there is the potential of new insights and a matter of revelation (therefore, again, positive about change, as with biblical scholarship) and then there are distractions (something to get over), and finally something called obstacles – which are presumably the matters to deal with. But which of these “need[s] to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church”? What does Church mean here? There is probably slack language here, but this must come to mean within an individual, autonomous Church in each case, though one supposes the Church here intends to mean across the Communion. A text like this ought to be careful with its words. There is no one Anglican Church – and loose language creates confusion.

There also seems to be something of Church to Church relationships too:

(3.2.4) [Each Church] to seek a shared mind with other Churches … Each Church will undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion.

In thinking things through, and doing something, each autonomous Church is to consider the Communion and ought (doesn’t have to) to consider what Communion counsels state:

(3.2.1) [Each Church] to have regard for the common good of the Communion in the exercise of its autonomy … a readiness to undertake reflection upon their counsels, and to endeavour to accommodate their recommendations. … respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the Churches of the Anglican Communion

The obligation upon Churches gets stronger too:

(3.2.7) [Each Church] to uphold the highest degree of communion possible.

But imagine if an issue is complex and a thinking through and discerning comes up with six of one and half a dozen of the other. Is the solution to be a bit of this and a bit of that, or is it always to apply the brake? What if a statement was of the effect that some can accelerate while others go into reverse gear? Would each accommodate the other, somehow? What does accommodate mean? What if a majority of Churches see a way forward, but a minority are offended and want to go backward? What sort of gymnastics maintains the highest communion in this situation?

Here is the clue:

(4.2.2) …the meaning of the Covenant[:] compatibility to the principles incorporated [and then] Joint Standing Committee may make a request to any covenanting Church to defer action

So, there it is – defer, and in amongst all this comes:

(3.1.4 cont.) Each Instrument may initiate and commend a process of discernment and a direction for the Communion and its Churches.

Oh, so there comes the centralisation. Instruments will direct: this is strong language, except direct to… what? Accommodate? What is it to defer, and is to defer to accommodate? Presumably defer is to delay, but accommodating may be something partial or whole for a longer time.

There is also a further conserving by talking on:

(3.2.6) in situations of conflict, [each Church] to participate in mediated conversations … to see such processes through.

So a lot of the directing, and accommodating, could be to engage in a lot of talking as well as deferring. Perhaps it is good to talk, if there has not been enough talk. But where does talk go, in the end, and is talking the same as communion? Or is it being in communion to apply the brake?

This business of direction seems to live in a virtual world, because the one thing the centre cannot do is direct. So as soon as we get to directing, we get to emphasising autonomy again:

(4.1.1) a readiness [for each Church] to live in an interdependent life, but does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

(4.1.3) Nothing … deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church … no one Church, nor any agency of the Communion, can exercise control or direction over the internal life of any other covenanted Church.

So then if a Church does not accommodate, because it is not under submission, is it actually breaking any communion at all? At this point the real and the virtual begins to make one a bit dizzy: and even the Covenant has to be adopted autonomously. After all, the Church of England legally cannot accept anything from a religious without that would direct it! It is like adopting something that is not adoptable, and, to help, the Covenant to be adopted says as much:

(4.1.4) adopt this Covenant … according to its [a Church’s] own constitutional procedures

One might ask if adopting the Covenant brings any rewards. That would mean, particularly, the peculiar body called the Anglican Church of North America. It could be a fast track to membership so it has to be a no, to avoid stepping on other toes (presumably the unity of the Communion). But then even that is not clear as there is some sort of non-carrot offered, to adopt the Covenant and ask for Instruments to go through their procedures:

(4.1.5) Adoption of this Covenant does not bring any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion. [But] adoption of the Covenant by a Church may be accompanied by a formal request to the Instruments for recognition and membership to be acted upon according to each Instrument’s procedures.

So far, then, it has all been about accommodation or not, delay or not, deferring or not, discerning change or finding something controversial, and the mind of a Church and the apparent unity of the Communion that is not a Church. The question then becomes one of any sanction at all, if a Church (that does not have to do what the centre wants) does not do what the centre wants. And yes there is a sanction, that underlines the importance of deferring (slowing to a pause):

(4.2.3) If a Church refuses to defer a controversial action, the Joint Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument

In other words, if you don’t do a deferring, you can’t join in at the centre. But then look at the very next paragraph.

(4.2.4) Joint Standing Committee … [declare an] action or decision … “incompatible with the Covenant”. [Such] shall not have any force in the Constitution and Canons of any covenanting Church unless or until it is received by the canonical procedures of the Church in question.

So a declaration of incompatibility has utterly no effect unless a Church decides to make it have effect. The language is unclear again, so let’s examine it. Why would any Church on the receiving end of such a declaration take any notice anyway (in terms of Constitution and Canons)? Presumably, then, this is (mainly) a statement to say to other Churches in rejectionist mode, ‘Don’t jump the gun.’ But on the other hand, such a Church is autonomous and entirely free to alter its Constitution and Canons at any time in terms of a decision to break off communion with another Church. Once again we have Churches that do what they like anyway, but a centralised direction that is no direction.

Indeed the direction that is no direction is emphasised in the next paragraph!

(4.2.5) the Joint Standing Committee may make recommendations as to relational consequences to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion. … an action or decision which has been found to be “incompatible with the Covenant” impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion. … [Yet] It shall be for each Church and each Instrument to determine its own response to such recommendations.

Of course a Church in the firing line might decide it has had enough, and pull out of the Covenant. Then the dizziness becomes chronic. Take two paragraphs together:

(4.2.7) Participation in the processes … shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant

(4.3.1) … withdrawal [from the Covenant] does not imply an automatic withdrawal from the Instruments or a repudiation of [Church’s] Anglican character

What do these mean, taken together? Well, a Church that has withdrawn from the Covenant is still within the Instruments and is still Anglican, and yet it cannot take part in the processes of the Instruments because such participation is limited to those in the Covenant. So this means, presumably, that once a Church has left the Covenant, and is yet still part of the structures, there is no way it can come back into the Covenant (or keep talking) unless, presumably again, it makes its own application to rejoin. Is this credible? Would they all stop talking after a withdrawal, and yet the Church is still active in the Instruments? Does it mean it is better to leave the Covenant quickly and continue to participate (because the processes only apply to those in the Covenant), than to stay in and have participation suspended?

If, at this point, anyone is not quite sure whether their face is on the back of their heads or on the front, or they are just utterly confused, let’s try and summarise this Covenant by the use of imagination.

Imagine a country with about thirty eight cities in it, and there are railways pretty much between every city, with some high speed lines to Canterbury. Now we know that some railway services are suspended, and indeed someone has pulled the track up just outside Abuja on the line to Washington, and is turning the track towards a new town of confused architecture called ACNA. But most services are running, and you can get everywhere from anywhere even if you have to change trains, and the services are all reasonably quick.

Then, because of the shouts from some African stations because of the (suspended) human resources policies in Washington and Montreal, and the odd pink livery, some Canterbury officials have decided to get engineers to build a new railway line that all should use, reducing services on the many lines that now exist. To make the journey acceptable, however, it goes in a zig-zag fashion. The train leaves any station, goes over some reverse points and reaches some buffers. It then goes in the opposite direction using those points and ends up at another set of buffers. It then reverses again going across another set of reverse points and gets to another set of buffers. And so it goes on. This committee created railway line is like this all the way to Canterbury, stopping at all stations. Worse than this backwards and forwards lurch, however, is the constant waiting before the buffers. Passengers wonder who has pulled the cord this time. Plus, from Canterbury, the signals go level and stay level, and nothing moves for ages. So even the zigzagging doesn’t actually work. By the time the passengers get to anywhere, they feel sick and it’s long past all their appointments.

Instead of this centralised scheme, the engineers should spread out and maintain the lines between the cities, or services go another way if necessary (sad as the detour may be) until new staff get hired and new trains come into service and lines are repaired. As for ACNA, the line from Abuja is a dead-end.

This Anglican Covenant now acknowledges the potential for change, if all it wants to do is get international Instruments to direct and defer – without directing and probably not achieving any deferring. What a document! This Covenant is a completely contradictory mess, and the best place for it is the bin.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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