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Choosing mutuality

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Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Alyson Barnett-Cowan

People often ask about the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant: “Isn’t this all about same-sex issues?” While it is true that the Communion’s language of “Covenant” was first used in The Windsor Report of 2004, the idea of having a comprehensive, coherent, agreed-upon understanding of how the Anglican family works has been around for a long time.

In fact, you might “blame Canada,” as a song from South Park says. In the 19th century, John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal, South Africa, expressed views on the inculturation of the Gospel that alarmed some Canadian and other bishops, and they asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to do something about it. The result was the first Lambeth Conference of 1867. That reaction to the commonly called “Colenso Affair” was the first attempt to provide a platform for churches of the Anglican Communion to discern together what to do in new situations.

In 1963 the first and so far only Anglican Congress met in Toronto. Laity, clergy and bishops from around the Communion met at a time when many nations were emerging with bright and hopeful independence from colonial Britain, and their national churches, with indigenous leadership, were becoming major players in the Communion. Two things emerged from this postcolonial event: the phrase “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ” and the Anglican Consultative Council, a body which meets every three years and has representatives of laity, clergy and bishops from every province.

We now have four “Instruments of Communion” (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting). The term “Instruments of Communion” used in The Windsor Report was originally coined as “Instruments of Unity” in The Virginia Report of 1997.

What was that? It was a report of the Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, which emerged from the report called Belonging Together in 1991. Both reports, widely circulated for discussion and comment in the Communion, tried to lay out ways in which the instruments should interrelate and how Anglicans might properly consult with one another on important issues. The Virginia Report came to the Lambeth Conference of 1998 but, in the opinion of many, did not receive the attention it deserved.

And so when, in the first years of the new millennium, three things happened that triggered a crisis of Anglican coherence, there was not an agreed-upon mechanism to consult and decide on what to do. Thus the intervention by some primates in provinces other than their own, the diocesan authorization of a rite of blessing for same-sex unions, and the ordination as a bishop of a man in a same-sex partnership were referred to an ad-hoc group named by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Commission on Communion. That body issued The Windsor Report, and its recommendations were received by all four Instruments of Communion.

Would that the Covenant had emerged in happier times, but it was not for lack of trying. If Belonging Together and The Virginia Report had been given more serious attention, there might have been better mechanisms in place for all to come to the table to discern the way ahead — not that these reports were perfect, but they opened up the conversation about how the instruments should best work together and who should be at what tables. As it was, the Covenant went through four rounds of consultation with the provinces. It was an open conversation and the text was changed considerably as it was developed and as the concerns of provinces were addressed.

That is the point of the Covenant: to ask all the provinces to commit to the common life of the Anglican Communion, based on a shared faith, dedicated to a common mission, and using four interrelated instruments to discern together where the Holy Spirit is leading the churches in communion. It is not about punishment; it is about mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Alyson Barnett-Cowan, a longtime ecumenist for the Anglican Church of Canada, is Director for Unity, Faith and Order for the Anglican Communion.

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.

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