Bishops’ approval of Covenant hangs in the balance

by
30 October 2008

by Bill Bowder

More than half happy: Bishops process out of the opening service of the Lambeth Conference, in July ACNS

More than half happy: Bishops process out of the opening service of the Lambeth Conference, in July ACNS

THE RESPONSES of the bishops at the Lambeth Conference to the Anglican Covenant were made public last week by the Covenant Design Group. More than half the bishops said they believed that the current draft hit the right balance between interdependence and centralisation in the Anglican Communion.

A Lambeth Commentary on the Saint Andrew’s Draft for an Anglican Communion runs to 33 pages, and was compiled by the Covenant Design Group at its meeting in Singapore in September. It gathers up the views of the bishops who attended Lambeth, and sets out the group’s brief reaction to them. The group has circulated it to all the provinces of the Communion, in order “to assist in their discernment and response” to the Covenant. They have until 9 March to respond.

Provinces are being asked whether they can “in principle” commit themselves to the Covenant process. The Design Group is seeking to find out what this would involve for the provinces, and whether they require significant changes to be made to the draft to help it through their syn­odical processes.

The Commentary is packed with detail, including the results of a questionnaire, in which 28.5 per cent of the bishops who were asked said that they had some concerns about the Covenant (see story below). A further 16 per cent had serious reservations about it, but 56 per cent said they were very content or reasonably content about its place in supporting interdependence without excessive centralisation in the Communion.

In its analysis of the bishops’ discussions at Lambeth, the Com­mentary draws out 14 questions that were “the most frequently and pointedly asked”. It sets out “an initial response” to each.

Many of the bishops were concerned that “the very concept of a covenant [was] too contractual to describe communion relationships”. Some also said the document had too many historical references, and others feared it could become “a fifth instrument of Communion”, or that it was an “innovation” that “be­­trayed” the Communion’s flexibility. It was a response to a “crisis”, and so was essentially negative. It was legalistic, punitive, and designed more to exclude than to retain provinces.

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In response, the Design Group says it will change the “idiom” so that relationships are emphasised more. But sustaining relationships means facing up to what threatens them, it argues. God’s covenants with his people were made in the context of crisis; so that should not be a problem.

The group says that Anglicans are well versed in the idea of voluntarily pledging themselves to others — a concept that underlies the notion of a generous covenant — even if they have had little use for the word “covenant” in the past.

Replying to other concerns of the bishops, the group says that the document could be a unifying force — even, one day, a central text for the Communion. The Covenant could “change, amend and grow”: it is not designed to “constrain the languages, the cultures and the forms in which this Gospel is expressed”.

None of the “basic formal bonds” that frame the Communion’s common life, such as the baptismal covenant or eucharistic fellowship, or even the Lambeth Quadrilateral, contain the necessary element of “mutual responsibility” that the Covenant has, the group says.

Nevertheless, the Covenant would not override the autonomy of the provinces in ordering their life according to the demands of local mission. The group admits that there needs to be “more work” on the way the various instruments of unity relate to each other.

Refusing to apply the language of “sanctions”, “police”, or “teeth” that was discussed by the bishops when considering how the Covenant would be administered, the Com­mentary speaks instead of the “consequences” devolving from the “responsibilities” that are assumed under the Covenant. These would lead to an “intensification” of the common life, or, if they were abandoned, to a “thinning out” or even a “dissolving” of that life.

The Design Group also suggests how the current draft could be changed. The next version could ask Churches to commit itself to seven single-line statements:

• to have regard for the wider Communion family;

• to respect the autonomy of each other Church;

• to consult widely before acting in matters understood to be of essential concern;

• to seek a common mind;

• to remain in dialogue even if the discussion becomes difficult;

• to follow the agreed process for dispute resolution; and,

• to seek and maintain the highest degree of communion possible.

The group also floats the idea of a new section, “Participation in Covenant Life”, which would replace the Covenant’s annexe — a part that many bishops found “legalistic, punitive and threatening”.

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It proposes that the new part, Section IV, deal with how to associate or disassociate a Church with the Covenant, how to call a Church to account, how to restore a Church to the Covenant, and how the Covenant could be used to maintain the highest degree of communion between Churches.

The group also proposes an Anglican Communion Covenant Commission to administer the Covenant and advise when things go wrong. It would educate Churches about the Covenant, help heal divisions, and be responsible for seeking to revise the text.

If any Church were to relinquish the Covenant, the Commentary suggests a range of responses, from doing nothing to “walking apart”.

Leader comment

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Does the Anglican Covenant matter to you? Vote here

FOUR out of five of the bishops at the Lambeth Conference this summer were very or reasonably content with the way the Archbishop of Canterbury has served the Anglican Communion, suggests a new survey..

Does the Anglican Covenant matter to you? Vote here

FOUR out of five of the bishops at the Lambeth Conference this summer were very or reasonably content with the way the Archbishop of Canterbury has served the Anglican Communion, suggests a new survey..

The figures make up part of the Commentary on the Anglican Covenant (story above), and are based on a questionnaire handed to bishops at their indaba meetings — a kind of discussion group — at Lambeth. They report that 79.5 per cent of the bishops questioned were “very or reasonably content” with the way Dr Williams “has served our common life so far”. But 17 per cent had “some concerns”, and 3.5 per cent had “serious reservations”.

When analysed according to provinces, the answers suggest that about half (52 per cent) of the provinces represented at Lambeth were very content with Dr Williams, 33 per cent reasonably content, 13.5 per cent had some concerns, and 1.5 per cent had serious reservations.

A majority of the bishops said that they approved of the Lambeth Conference: 28 per cent were very content with the way it had served their common life, 46.5 per cent were reasonably content, 22.5 per cent had some concerns, and three per cent had serious reservations.

When asked how well they thought the Anglican Consultative Council had served the common life, 16 per cent of the bishops were very content, 49 per cent reasonably content, 29 per cent had some concerns, and six per cent had serious reservations.

Far fewer bishops, however, were happy about the way the Primates’ Meeting served the life of the Communion: only 9.5 per cent said they were very content, 29 per cent were content, 33 per cent had some concerns, and 28.5 per cent had serious reservations.

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