An Anglican Covenant - Consultation Paper

 

Joint Standing Committee 'Towards an Anglican Covenant' A Consultation Paper on the Covenant Proposal of the Windsor Report

Background

  1. Among the proposals of the Windsor Report 2004 (TWR) there was the suggestion that an Anglican Covenant be developed and adopted in the life of the Communion (paragraphs 117-120, reproduced in the Appendix ). This was one of the report’s main recommendations, proposed in order to give explicit articulation and recognition to the principles of co-operation and interdependence (sometimes called “the bonds of affection”) which hold the Anglican Communion together. TWR considered that this was one vital way in which trust and co-operation could be rebuilt between the churches of the Anglican Communion in the wake of recent tensions.

  2. The work of the Reception Reference Group, which met under the chairmanship of Archbishop Peter Kwong, and subsequently with Primus Bruce Cameron, between the publication of TWR and the meeting of the Primates in Dromantine, Northern Ireland, in February 2005, indicated a high measure of support for the idea. One third of those who responded to the proposal supported the covenant as set out in the Windsor Report. One third accepted the principle of a covenant, but offered significant reflections on the way in which such a covenant would have to be articulated in order to be effective [1]. One third did not favour the idea of a covenant, basing their opinion along the sort of objections set out below (paragraph 4). The Primates at Dromantine, reflecting on these findings, stated their welcome for the concept of a covenant.[2]

  3. The proposal for an Anglican Covenant now has to be carried forward: the development of a draft – initially perhaps in several different models – of a Covenant text, and the establishment of an agreed text and covenant in the life of the Communion. Specifically these questions arise, and were addressed at the meeting of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council (JSC) at their meeting in London in March 2006:

    • Is the concept of an Anglican Covenant still viable?
    • What form of covenant is best suited to the needs of the Communionat the present time?
    • Who will be responsible for the preparation of a draft text?
    • How will the Provinces and Instruments of Communion be participantsin the generation of a text?
    • What method of implementation will be adopted, or how might thismethod be best discerned?
    • What sort of timetable is desirable for the covenant project?

In order to assist this process, the following reflections are put forward as a basis for consultation.

 

Joint Standing Committee 'Towards an Anglican Covenant' A Consultation Paper on the Covenant Proposal of the Windsor Report

Is the concept of an Anglican Covenant still viable?

The Dangers and Benefits of a Covenant.

  1. The notion of an Anglican Covenant offers both challenges and opportunities, as the responses to the proposal in TWR indicate.

  2. Negatively, some worry that a covenant might be seen to alter the nature of the Communion towards that of a narrowly confessional family, with the attendant danger that preparedness to sign up to the covenant becomes a test of authentic membership. Others might see a potential danger in establishing a bureaucratic and legalistic foundation at the very heart of the Communion; putting at risk inspired and prophetic initiatives in God’s mission and threatening Anglican comprehensiveness. There is also a fear that the Anglican Communion might become a centralised jurisdiction. If the covenant were too detailed, it might prove too restrictive or inflexible to address unforeseen future challenges; if it were too general, it might commit the Communion to little or nothing: in either case, it would be inadequate.

  3. Positively, a well-written and concise covenant would clarify the identity and mission of the Churches of, or in association with, the Anglican Communion. By articulating our ecclesiological identity, a covenant will also help the Anglican Communion in self-understanding and in ecumenical relationships. A covenant could provide, for all provinces and/or national churches, a fundamental basis of trust, co-operation and action in relationship with one another and in relation to the whole Communion. A covenant could express what is already implicit, by articulating the “bonds of affection”, that is, the “house rules” by which the family of Anglican churches wishes to live together . These would be intended to develop a disciplined and fulfilling life in communion.[3]

  4. In the light of these considerations, it is nevertheless clear that a covenant could serve a number of important and timely positive ends given the current needs of the Communion. These goals are broadly relational, educational and institutional.

  5. Relational: The formulation and adoption of a covenant, while unable to resolve our current difficulties, could assist the process of reconciliation post-Windsor. It would do so by focussing us on that which unites us, reaffirming our commitment to one another, and thereby helping to heal and strengthen the bonds of affection that have been damaged in recent years.

  6. Educational: It could also become a significant educational tool within the Communion, enabling Anglicans worldwide to understand and deepen their commitment to the beliefs, history and practices they share in common and their development of these as they engage together in God’s mission in the world.

  7. Institutional: Any covenant also has the potential of providing what is currently lacking - an agreed framework for common discernment, and the prevention and resolution of conflict. It could do this by bringing together and making explicit much that until now has been a matter of convention within the Communion’s common life.

  8. Although there is danger in viewing the covenant as a panacea for the Communion, these are all important goals to be sought in producing a covenant. The covenant will serve the unity, stability and growth of the Communion as it becomes a genuinely global communion of interdependent autonomous churches.

  9. The length, structure and content of any covenant will depend in part on the relative weight given to these three different purposes.

The Background of Covenant

  1. While the word ‘covenant’ is used to translate and describe the nature of a wide variety of relationships in the Old Testament, its most frequent use is when a divine initiative is met with a human response. The covenant holds out a promise by God which is fulfilled in the faithful response of his people. When there is a failure in faithfulness, a re-commitment is made. In the New Testament, Christians claimed to be in a new covenant relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the gift of the Spirit. It is striking that covenants most frequently originate in the initiative of God, and elicit the costly sacrifice of faithful response by his covenant people to his work. The covenant relationship with God generates a covenantal relationship between his people. We do not underestimate the cost that being in covenant may exact on the churches of the Communion.

  2. Church history provides a number of models for the way in which covenant has been worked out. In the history of Benedictine monasticism, members of communities covenanted with God, as their response to his call, to live in a common life of discipline through which the true autonomy of each disciple could be realised. The seventeenth century produces another model of Covenant, which is one between parties in conflict, or which binds like-minded parties to achieve a common end. In 1784, Samuel Seabury, on behalf on the diocese of Connecticut, entered into “a concordate” with the Scottish bishops defining the terms of Communion between those two ecclesial communities.

  3. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, covenantal relationships developed in the missionary and ecumenical spheres. Sometimes, such covenants have been very short, such as the Bonn Agreement of 1931, which was contained in only three brief clauses [4] . More recently, ecumenical covenants have tended to be longer. The term was explicitly used in 1964 when the British Council of Churches made a covenant to work and pray for the inauguration of a union; and this has become the model for many ecumenical covenants by separated parties seeking greater union, voluntarily submitting in a covenant for a common purpose.

  4. Covenant is not only a theological concept – it has been used within a civil and juridical context. In civil law, a covenant is a binding commitment to behave in certain ways to one another. Modern contract law has part of its origins in the theological underpinning of canon law covenant concepts. It is founded in the seed idea of a promise given to commit to a certain course of action, to live in relationship with the person to whom a binding promise is made.