Friday, August 31, 2012

The Anglican Covenant? Now What

By Kwok Pui Lan

The Church of England and the Episcopal Church of the United States have decided not to adopt the present form of the Anglican Covenant. Many wonder what will be the future of the Anglican Communion.
Kwok Pui Lan at Canterbury Cathedral
The Windsor Report of 2004 first proposed the idea of a pan-Anglican covenant to set out common doctrine of the Anglican Church, relationships in the Communion, and ways to resolve conflicts among member churches. Archbishop Rowan Williams assigned a Covenant Design Group and a final version was released in December 2009 for adoption of constituent provinces.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchal structure, the Anglican Communion is a family of 38 provinces, with dispersed authority across the Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury enjoys a primacy of honor (primus inter pares), but has no legal jurisdiction over other parts of the Communion. The resolutions of the Lambeth Conference (the meeting of Anglican bishops every ten years) are not binding, but are seen as advisory for the autonomous member churches.

Such a structure can no longer hold the Communion together when it is increasingly multilingual, multicultural, and postcolonial. The issues of ordination of women priests and bishops and homosexuality have threatened the unity of the church and the bonds of affection.

At the end of March, I had the chance to meet with Archbishop Williams (right) at Lambeth Palace with a group of Anglican women theologians. Shortly before our meeting, we heard that a majority of the dioceses of the Church of England would not accept the Anglican Covenant. The Archbishop told us that he was disappointed with the outcome and expressed regret that during his tenure he was not able to bring the Communion closer together.

The Episcopal Church participated in the discussion of the Anglican Covenant in good faith. It has responded to the several drafts with thoughtfulness and care. Several theologians and church leaders have produced The Genius of Anglicanism to educate the public about the different facets of the Covenant. Professor Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Mary Wolfe Professor of Historical Theology and faculty emerita of the Episcopal Divinity School, is one of the contributors. She has been newly elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention last July.

The Anglican Covenant is problematic because its ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) is backward looking and outdated. First, it reinforces a top-down understanding of the church, in which authority is concentrated at the top. The Covenant asks the church to “proclaim a pattern of theological and moral reasoning” based on Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith. It places the primary responsibility of biblical interpretation in the hands of bishops and synods, although the study of lay and ordained should be taken into account. Instead of welcoming the plurality of interpretation, the Covenant is cautious about diversity in interpretation.

Second, the Covenant does not have an adequate theology of the laity. The Covenant mentions the word “laity” only twice. The Covenant mentions baptism as one of the two sacraments, but does not speak about the baptismal ministry that all believers are called to do. The bishops are set apart, as if they only need to talk with each other, and they are not part of the laos (the whole people of God).

Third, the Covenant disregards the church reform movements and liberative impulses across the churches in the second half of the twentieth century. People who have been marginalized—women, the youth, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people—are demanding their voices to be heard. The basic church communities in Latin America offer a model of church that is anti-clerical, egalitarian, and participatory.

The Covenant has been rejected by several provinces. Now what?

The Chinese word “crisis” implies both danger and opportunity. For me, this provides an excellent opportunity for the church to enter into a process that Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff has called Ecclesiogenesis—the birth of a new church. Instead of trying to find expedient measures and set up bureaucratic structures to solve the crisis at hand, we can begin a process of imagining a Communion that is truly global and multicultural, respecting differences and staying in conversations even when it becomes difficult.

Many Anglicans would like to see the birth of a new church focusing on the Missio Dei (mission of God) and not on policing people’s sexuality. We would like to see a church that welcomes the gifts and talents of all the baptized, and not reinforcing a hierarchy. Let the conversations on the new shape of the Anglican Church begin!

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield.


  1. There are also pragmatic reasons to distrust the Covenant:
    a) It wouldn't work. I.e. no church would simply give up a cherished programme / theology because other people didn't like it.
    b) It would work. I.e. it would exclude from the community those churches (or groups within a church) which stepped outside the prevailing norm.

    Either way the result would have been more divisions rather than resolutions to division.

    And much else besides.

  2. Thanks so very much, Pui Lan!! You have provided a succinct summary of the inadequacies of the "covenant." As you suggest, let's get on with finding the "new shape." And here is my expectation: that the "new shape," already being born, does not have many of the old labels (such as "anglican")and that as Anglicans bring many unique tools that are creative in service and celebration in the new circumstances, even the functions of "episkopos" will be shared in new ways, as is true of "presbuteros" and "diakonos"--all of us belonging to "laos." Peace, Ralph