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Toward Convention IV: the Covenant

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In 2006, as a Deputy from the Diocese of San Joaquin and a member of Special Legislative Committee 26 on Anglican Communion Relations, I participated in the crafting of a resolution, eventually adopted, that committed the Episcopal Church to taking part in the development of a covenant between the constituent churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The idea for such a document emanated from the report of a special commission convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury in response to the ecclesiastical disarray that followed on the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, Bishop Robinson being both openly gay and partnered.

In 2009, I submitted Resolution D020. In its original form, it committed TEC to abiding by the terms of the Covenant, which was then still in not-quite-final draft mode. By the time it emerged from committee, D020 was watered down to an intention to continue to study the Covenant. Now there are several resolutions on the Covenant in front of convention, ranging from “Yup!” to “Are you kidding? No!”. I am one of the co-endorsers of the “Yup!” resolution. They will doubtless all be turned into sausage by the Committee on World Mission, and something will emerge that will be not quite “No!”, but a long way from “Yup!”. And even then, the convention may not approve it.

This will not be a close analysis of the reasons to adopt the Covenant. I think most minds have been made up, and there really isn’t anything more that I can say that hasn’t already been said more eloquently and cogently by others. There is an astonishing compendium of heavyweight advocacy for the Covenant from around the communion on this very site. I commend it to you heartily. “What they say.”

Nonetheless, at this late hour, without any aspirations to swaying anyone, I would feel remiss if I did not join my voice to the chorus one final time.

We need the Anglican Covenant because the world has shrunk,  and everything is now local.  That’s it, in a nutshell. What Anglicans do or say in one place now affects Anglicans in every place, not months or years later, but the same day. This is now a permanent fact of life. So what this means is that the informal “bonds of affection” that have until recently sufficed in keeping Anglicanism a reasonably coherent whole now need to be strengthened, made more formal. Some (not all) of that which has heretofore been tacitly implied now needs to explicitly stated. The infrastructure of our mutual accountability needs to be made more robust. The centrifugal forces of cultural diversity have tilted the delicate autonomy-unity balance too far in the direction of autonomy. The Covenant is the vehicle that will bring our relationships back into balance.

Those who oppose the Covenant seem to have only one hermeneutical lens through which to view it: It’s all about punishing the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Church of Canada) for coloring outside the lines on sexuality. Yes, a sexuality-related event gave rise to the development of the Covenant. But that horse is already out of the barn; the Covenant isn’t going to do anything to fix it. (And this is precisely why much of the conservative Global South is, at best, lukewarm toward the Covenant; they see it as toothless and incapable of repairing the damage that has been done already in the communion.) But the Covenant actually looks to the future, not to the past. There are already two issues on stage to which it could be brought to bear: communion before baptism, and lay presidency at the Eucharist. But there are doubtless others that we cannot yet even imagine.

Those who suggest that the Covenant is “not Anglican” are, at one level, absolutely right. It is not Anglican business-as-usual. Anglican business-as-usual is no longer a viable strategy as long as the internet is up and running, and as long as western society is careening into the post-Christian era. But it is certainly not anti-Anglican. It is a completely organic development of the Anglican charism, which is to say that it is profoundly biblical, profoundly sacramental, and profoundly ecumenical. I would go so far as to say that it points us toward Anglicanism finally come of age, Anglicanism grown up, stabilized.

Whatever we do with the Covenant at this convention, I don’t think it’s going away. Eight provinces have already adopted it. This means that it’s already in effect in those places, and between those churches.  Only one has so far said No: Scotland. It is a false characterization of the Church of England’s action to tally it in the No column just yet. While a slight majority of diocesan synods have said No (though, curiously, a majority of the total number of votes cast, and a large majority among the bishops, was in the affirmative), what this amounts to is nothing more than “Not just now.” The Church of England has not said No; they’ve only decided to not say Yes during this incarnation of General Synod.

So, whatever word we speak next week, or the week after, will not be the final word on the matter. The winds of growth blow gently, but they blow relentlessly.

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