Friday, March 02, 2012

What's At Stake in the Anglican Covenant Debate

A letter to the Church Times from to Church of England bishops:

From the Bishops of Bristol and Oxford
Sir, — As the majority of dioceses are soon to debate the Anglican Communion Covenant, and there is in some quarters suspicion or even hostility towards it, we would urge a pause for reflection about what is at stake, both for the Anglican Com­munion as a whole and for our own Church of England.

The Covenant process has been developed with the full participa­tion of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion. It is prob­ably the most consulted-over document the Communion has ever known. At heart, it offers a way for the Churches to renew their com­mit­­ment to each other and to ex­press their common Anglican identity and mission. It is some­thing that our own Church has been at the centre of shaping and devel­oping.
This renewed commitment is vital for the well-being of the Anglican Communion, coming at a time of disagreement and conflict over certain issues, but also amid a climate of fractiousness and often impatient communication. The Covenant says nothing about these issues, whether disagreements over human sexuality, or views over the ordination of women as bishops.
Despite the anxieties that some people are projecting on to the Covenant, the Covenant text is intentionally silent about such questions. The Covenant does not solve these debates, but rather sets out what is commonly held to be essential to our Anglican (and Christian) identity, and describes the best practice of how com­munion may be sustained within the Anglican Communion — in short, how we participate in a com­mon mission, and how we take counsel together for mutual dis­cern­ment.

The Covenant does not invent anything new. The Covenant’s description of our Anglican identity is exactly that which we have long subscribed to in our ecumenical agreements with other Churches. The description of and commitments towards our common life are exactly those that our Church exercises through participa­tion in the Instruments of Com­munion (the Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, and Primates’ Meeting), as well as in the respect afforded to the Arch­bishop of Canterbury as instrument of communion and focus of unity.
Neither does the Covenant create any new powers, centralising or otherwise. Despite some of the views being advanced elsewhere, the Covenant rests on the autonomy of the individual Churches of the Communion, an autonomy that is to be exercised in communion and with mutual accountability.
Nor are any new powers granted to the Instruments of Communion. Instead, the Covenant constitutes a set of commitments: to consult together; to continue to discern together through areas of serious disagreement; to maintain the highest degree of communion possible, etc. These are not about binding each other, but about refusing to walk away from or disregard each other.
Disagreements are inevitable, and we are realistic about the depth of disagreement over some issues. The Covenant is essential, because it helps us both to live with and to address these differences. The Covenant offers an honest way forward, in which the nature of such differences can be discussed. The Covenant provides a frame-work for sustaining our common life even when difficult issues remain unresolved.

For both of us, the importance of the Covenant is reinforced by our relationships so valued in our Communion links. Sustained com­munion is vital for the Church in the face of political fissures and conflict, while, for very many in the Communion, the sustaining of our common life brings hope for the overcoming of ethnic and economic divides.
The Anglican Communion Covenant is currently under consideration in all the Churches of the Communion, according to their own processes for adoption. Already nine have decided to adopt it. A lukewarm response or, worse, rejection of the Covenant in the Church of England would meet with bewilderment in the wider Communion. Some would ask with the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her children?”

But it would also impoverish the Church of England. Our church life and mission is infinitely the richer for the relationships we share around the Communion. The Cov­enant offers us a precious oppor­tun­ity to consolidate those relation­ships and to demonstrate our commitment to one another as Churches. Let’s not miss this oppor­tunity offered to us in our time.

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Jon said...

With all due respect to the bishops of Bristol and Oxford, the Covenant isn't nearly as helpful for discussing our disagreements as some of the approaches that have arisen since we started talking, especially continuing indaba, and section 4 never was much good for encouraging conversation as opposed to pushing folks to refrain from questioning the status quo.

As a result, the CoE doesn't have to sign up to the Covenant in order to keep the Communion rolling along, and if they reject the Covenant it will be a lot easier for everyone else to move on to some other way of preserving communion.

Malcolm+ said...

My Lords of Oxford and Bristol also neglect to mention that the Episcopal Church in the Philippines House of Bishops have rejected the Covenant, as has the Tikanga Maori in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, ensuring its defeat in both of those provinces.

The curious thing is that the Covenant has now been voted on in 18 of 44 English dioceses and has been rejected in 11. And the curiouser thing is that whenever diocesan officials have allowed a completely open debate, where both pro- and anti- manterial has been distributed and where opening presentations are not rigged in favour of the Covenant, it has consistently been defeated.