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This page last updated 20 April 2009  

an essay for Anglicans Online
19 April 2009

Covenanting to covenant
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Four-and-a-half years after the publication of the Lambeth Commission’s Windsor Report, with its proposal and draft text of an Anglican covenant, the Anglican Consultative Council will consider next month what might be the last iteration of a draft covenant for the Anglican Communion. It could conceivably send it back to the hardworking Covenant Design Group, the creator of now three draft covenants, the last of which was published on April 2, 2009, under the title “The Anglican Communion Covenant: The Third (Ridley, Cambridge) Draft” (hereafter “Ridley Draft”), so named because it was composed at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, England.[1] Or else the ACC could accept the draft and commend it to the forty-four autonomous-but-interdependent churches that make up the Communion. Or the ACC could nix the whole project.

This writer has just finished reading An Anglican Covenant, by Norman Doe (Norwich, England: Canterbury Press 2008). Subtitled “Theological and Legal Considerations for a Global Debate,” it is an exhaustive treatment of the covenant process as it lurched on its way on to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Professor Doe is to be commended on this massive and even-handed compendium of texts and commentaries, arranged by formal categories: what is a covenant, how are they composed, what are their effects. In a way it reminded me of Lambeth Indaba, the compilation of the structured discussions of the Lambeth bishops that is the fruit of the recent Conference. Doe takes note of responses from great and small, strong and weak, as well as the documents by the Lambeth Commission, Design Group, churches, dioceses and Communion networks, official (International Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations, for instance) and unofficial (the Anglican Communion Network). Like Lambeth Indaba, everyone has had a say, and it has been noted.

Of course, things have moved on since Doe’s book first appeared. This writer had the privilege of being part of an Indaba Group at the Lambeth Conference that included among others, Archbishop Drexel Gomez, chair of the Covenant Design Group. It became apparent in that daylong discussion that most bishops were uneasy with a covenant that had a prescriptive disciplinary procedure, and indeed, the disciplinary Appendix to the second Design Group draft (“the St. Andrew’s”) was completely dropped in the latest iteration. A lawyer and a theologian, working together, reportedly wrote it. My Group also had a member from the Nippon Sei Kop Kai—the Japanese Anglican Church. Bishop Zerubbabel Katsuichi Iota, of the diocese of Kita Kanto, told us that he and his fellow bishops were dead-set against the Covenant. There is no word in Japanese for “covenant”—it can only be translated “contract.” “And we do not make a contract to be with Christian brothers and sisters,” he said through a translator. (Earlier, he had agreed with a point I had made that the Covenant should be no more than a page in length, “in fact, why not just four lines, like say, the Lambeth Quadrilateral?”)

Doe noted that there are multiple meanings to “covenant“. In particular, the term is used biblically as the establishment of a salvific relationship between God and people. First with Noah, then Abraham, then with the people of Israel, with the Levites and Phineas, and finally, with David. The New Covenant is for all nations, with Jesus Christ as mediator, effected through his death and resurrection, and accepted through faith. Covenants are also made between people, such as the one between Ahab and Ben-hadad in I Kings 20:34. The secular use of the word relates to legal agreements that are enforceable. One rule of thumb is that contracts have stated dates for beginning and end, while covenants continue in force until abrogated.

The large majority of comments and responses collected by Doe and later, Lambeth Indaba, as well as very recent comments on the Ridley Draft, show that few people wanted a Covenant that could be used to decide that a particular church is no longer part of the Anglican Communion. Overwhelmingly, people were far more content with a document that presents a theological, biblically-grounded notion of covenant. The rich and varied experience of the Reformed churches, for whom “covenanting” is of first importance in their understanding of what is a church, also points to the desirability of continuing to define relationships among Christians in the terms by which we became Christians. The Ridley Draft delivers a panoply of theological statements, supported by a lot of texts that have received unanimous acceptance by the constituent churches of the Communion. There is a final section that sets forth a consultative process for determining whether a church has violated the Covenant. It is then up to the Instruments of Communion—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Meeting—to decide what to do next. It unequivocally states that each church remains independent in terms of its own internal life. Signing on to the Covenant does not confer any power on outside jurisdictions to interfere in any church’s affairs.

Doe quotes the Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb, a noted New Testament scholar, professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, and member of the Covenant Design Group: “The idea of a covenant is itself neutral. Everything depends upon its purpose.” (p. 53, n.1) So what is the real purpose of this Covenant? The Ridley Draft Preamble (like previous drafts) states it thus: “to proclaim more effectively in our different contexts the grace of God revealed in the gospel, to offer God’s love in responding to the needs of the world, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and together with all God’s people to attain the full stature of Christ (Eph 4.3,13).”

At first glance, this sounds like voting for motherhood and apple pie, as Americans say. These words, “to proclaim more effectively in our different contexts” what we all can affirm together, point, I think, to the actual raison d’être of this document, which conceivably goes something like this: The effectiveness of our proclamation of Jesus as Lord depends on the quality of our common life, which is nevertheless lived out in vastly differing contexts around the world. It isn’t very effective these days, because of lack of regard for that common life. So let’s re-state our common faith, re-commit to “mutual interdependence and responsibility,” as we did in Toronto in 1963,[2] and get on with supporting the mission of God in Christ.

But, "Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss", as George Orwell purportedly remarked. One such aspect has to do with churchmanship. Now, whether one is Low, High, or Broad is not supposed to matter anymore—everything boils down to “Liberal” or “Conservative,” cutting across confessional lines. But clearly, in the comments and responses, including the most recent, the church parties re-appear in what people say is lacking in the Covenant. The Low-church folks want doctrine, clearly stated, accepted Or Else, about Scripture and how it is to be interpreted, and could we have the 39 Articles, too? The High-church folks want as much prelacy as possible, some citations of the Church Fathers thrown in, and why not a little Aquinas, and many more references to sacramental liturgies and quotes from them. The Broad-church folks, the “hazy ones” (“High and crazy, Low and lazy, Broad and hazy”), would rather have no document at all. But if we must, then let it be a brief reminder to us that the poor we will always have with us, never mind all this palaver about doctrine and liturgy and (ecch!) Bishops! —and that we should go out and get on with doing justice, making peace and feeding the hungry. Since none of the parties get what they want in this Ridley Draft, which would be in effect to bend other Anglicans to their party agenda, this is certainly a strength.

Another unspoken aspect is the influence of the Virginia Report, which is not referenced in the Ridley Draft. This Report, apparently little-read (this writer heard Bishop Stephen Sykes complain that to his knowledge, fewer than one hundred people had actually perused it), is a reflection on the Church’s life structured by life in the Holy Trinity, and how this reality might guide the re-structuring of the Communion’s global decision-making. The Report asked all the right questions:

1.8 When Christians find themselves passionately engaged in the midst of complex and explosive situations, how do they avoid alienation from those who by baptism are their brothers and sisters in Christ, who are embraced in the communion of God the Holy Trinity, but who disagree? How do they stay in communion with God and each other; how do they behave towards each other in the face of disagreement and conflict? What are the limits of diversity if the Gospel imperative of unity and communion are to be maintained?[3]

This report introduced the term “instruments of communion” into wider parlance. Its background is a 1988 Lambeth Conference resolution (Number 18)[4]creating the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, asking for an essay from the Commission exploring a Trinitarian ecclesiology. In those times, people were wondering about the ordination of women to the episcopate and its effect on the communion (the Greek word koinonia is often used) of Anglicans. The Eames Report, presided over by the then-Archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames, had made a preliminary answer in 1994. Archbishop Eames then chaired the IATDC as it produced the Virginia Report. In a separate but related development, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation was exploring similar themes, but in relation to universal primacy. This gave birth to its 1998 report called The Gift of Authority.

Thus the proposed Covenant’s pedigree is in fact an attempt in our days to begin to answer the questions posed by the Virginia Report. The mostly tacit koinonia that had kept the Communion together had begun to crumble, due to the centrifugal forces that began pulling at the Communion since the 1960s (remembering that the Communion doubled in size since “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence” in 1963). These have only gotten stronger with the passage of time. It is worth noting that the Covenant does not try to define how the four Instruments should interact. It only pushes back to them a perceived threat to the integrity of the Covenant, not the Communion, from among the signatory churches.

A classic Anglican formulary, to which all Anglicans pay homage, is the Sixth of the Thirty-nine Articles, that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, though it does not spell out what those necessary things are. Similarly, this Covenant tries to define a “containment area” in which decisions on the Virginia questions can be made, without spelling out the particulars. Having made this Covenant, in other words, Anglicans could then work toward defining structures and procedures for a global communion of churches.

Two more undiscussed aspects are the blessing of same-sex unions and ordination of people in them, and the incursions by other provinces into The Episcopal Church. Furthermore, a new group has come into being, the Anglican Church of North America, competing with The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. In March 2009, the Church of Nigeria recognized it, and a few days ago a group of Primates (the “Global Anglican Future Conference Primates”) meeting in London did so as well.[5] The ACNA claims to unite under one jurisdiction a disparate cluster of churches, missions of other provinces, and dioceses calling themselves Anglican.

From the Windsor Report on, it has been constantly repeated that the Lambeth Commission process has not been about homosexuality. So what has it been about? The Episcopal Church since 1976 has had a number of developments that exacerbated the previously existing tensions that already had shortened the tenure of Presiding Bishop John Hines in 1974. These were not about churchmanship, but rather reflected the developing split along liberal/conservative lines evident in American political life that began during the Kennedy years. This conflict was exported. And then it was re-imported. Already in 1998, prior to the Lambeth Conference of that year, a Rwandan bishop took over a parish in, of all places, Arkansas.

In this sense, the Covenant serves to recall Anglicans to their roots, in re-affirming together the essential doctrines of Christianity. The unspoken hope is that doing so will enable Anglicans to work together again, and enable the Communion to function as the global entity that lives and works locally. And as the Lambeth 2008 bishops from outside the West learned, in some churches homosexuality is an issue that cannot be ducked.

As for interventions from other provinces, it would seem that the Anglican Church of North America has sublated the various provincial efforts (Southern Cone, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda) into a jurisdiction under American leadership. There should be no doubts about the intent of the ACNA leaders. They intend to supplant The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada as the North American province of the Anglican Communion.

The Ridley Draft has these provisions:

(4.1.5) It shall be open to other Churches to adopt the Covenant. Adoption of this Covenant does not bring any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion. Such recognition and membership are dependent on the satisfaction of those conditions set out by each of the Instruments. However, adoption of the Covenant by a Church may be accompanied by a formal request to the Instruments for recognition and membership to be acted upon according to each Instrument's procedures.

(4.1.6) This Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant.

The Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht might choose to sign the Covenant. And the Covenant may be a good means to further the ecumenical ambitions of Anglicanism. This writer thinks it would be worth reconsidering insertion of Article XVII of the Windsor Report Covenant text, which would require churches in the Anglican Communion to consult more closely together when entering into full-communion agreements with ecumenical partners.[6]

But what happens when the ACNA signs the Covenant, as it will inevitably? Clearly, the Instruments of Communion will have to decide which province(s) is which. This will set up yet more controversy.

One solution would be to allow for the ACNA to function as a non-geographical jurisdiction alongside the two existing geographical provinces. This would however present major difficulties. As the bishop of a non-geographical jurisdiction, assisting in another, the practical problems of having such arrangements are themselves strong contra-indications to entertaining this solution.[7] But there are graver issues. For the Communion to recognize two provinces in one country—one geographical, growing from its historical roots, and second, existing in order to further a particular theological agenda—would spell the doom of any coherent Anglican ecclesiology. The First Council of Nicaea, faced with the Novatian controversy (a somewhat similar situation, actually), ruled that there can only be one bishop for one diocese. Anglicans have always followed this rule, for good reason.

Finally, returning to the American context (and this really does apply only to dioceses in the United States), the present conflict over church properties should end with The Episcopal Church winning back its properties and endowments from people departing from it, if court rulings so far are any indication. But the struggle to remain the Anglican province in that country will continue. If the Anglican Consultative Council does endorse the Ridley Draft next month for consideration by the churches of the Communion, grassroots Episcopalians across the globe will spend the next three years considering it and reporting their deliberations for the General Convention 2012.

I would encourage us in The Episcopal Church to take the long view. Signing the Covenant—if indeed that is what we decide—will be the culmination of a fresh new consideration of what it means for our international church to be part of a global Communion. 1963, the last time we really thought about it, was a while ago. Then we were willing, along with all the other provinces existing at that time, to renounce independence for “mutual responsibility and interdependence.” We should not be influenced by whether the ACNA signs on to the Covenant. What matters most is in fact what the Ridley Preamble claims: is this Covenant a means to make our contribution to God’s mission in the world more effective?

Norman Doe writes,

"There is nothing extraordinary in the Anglican enterprise [of the Covenant]. Although the project may be driven by theology, ecclesiastical politics and pragmatism, covenanting would actually involve participation in a conventional ecclesial experience for which there are numerous enduring theological and legal principles and precedents. While an Anglican covenant would appear novel to churches of the Communion, in point of fact, spiritual, sacramental and structural covenanting is a well-trodden Christian path." (p. 221)

And another question is to consider how we came to this place, and what to do in the future. The ecclesiology of The Episcopal Church is, I believe, a very practical way to govern a church, and I would argue that it is an authentic expression of Anglicanism. But we need to apply it, if we are ever to hope to move beyond the paralyzing effects of the conflict that has diverted so much of our time, effort, energy and money from the work the Spirit has given us to do. This will mean that the House of Deputies become less of a debating club and more responsive to the support of the several dioceses in their mission and ministry. The House of Bishops needs to reclaim its teaching ministry, and, as Episcopal bishops are subject to the House and its Rules of Order, to expect more discipline from its members. (Other episcopal colleges require attendance at meetings, for example. One Methodist bishop said that if he were to miss a meeting of his bishops, he had better be dead, or at very least, dying.) And the shape, role and powers of the office of Presiding Bishop should be re-examined. What seemed good in 1940 has probably become obsolete.

In my lifetime—a mere blink in terms of church history—The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have gone through amazing changes. We have done some wonderful things to further the spread of the Gospel and validate its reality. And we have failed in many ways, as well. As we come to yet another moment of reflection and decision, let us remember that our ministries, our selves, and all our life come from and return to the Holy Trinity, who through Christ has bound us into communion with God and each other. This is the one, true, good, and beautiful reality that makes all our strivings worthwhile, and calls us each day into new and everlasting life together, whether we like each other, or not. Pace the ACNA, there are no irreconcilable differences, in Christ.

So we might as well get along together now.


Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

[1] Access the Draft at

[2] Stephen Fielding Bayne, Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ: With Related Background Documents, Advisory Council on Missionary Strategy, Lambeth Conference (New York : Seabury Press, 1963)

[3] Access the Report at





THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.