Regarding the proposal for an 'Anglican Covenant, I recently witnessed a presentation by the Rev. Robert Pritchard of Virginia Theological Seminary. The presentation rightly noted that there was no such thing as the Anglican Communion, or even hints thereof, until the early to mid-twentieth century, since the Churches deriving from the Church of England were almost all colonial appendages of the Church of the Empire (C of E). Mr. Pritchard's presentation, though, was skewed toward presenting the history of the Episcopal Church as though our history has basically always assumed a world-wide 'Anglican Church.' In fact, Mr. Pritchard used the term frequently in his presentation, even though there is no such thing as 'the Anglican Church.'
His presentation did identify, though unintentionally I think, a feeling among some 19th century Episcopalians of inadequacy in comparison to the Roman Catholic Church. I believe we are seeing this same size-envy at work again today around the illusory 'Anglican Covenant.' Particularly in North America many build the church on the model offered by commercial corporations where size, i.e. numerical affiliation, signifies importance. But we see that this is true also in the remnants of colonial values at work in the Churches of the Communion that either fought for or were given their autonomy in the twentieth century. This is evident in the numerical rendering of membership in some of the African Churches where membership is equated to being native born, whether or not the person actually attends or identifies with the Anglican Church of that nation. Obviously the practice a hold-over from the Church of England's manner of equating citizenship with membership in the Church. Similarly, it is dishonest and unrealistic. But it seems to make some people feel better about themselves in comparison to Rome.
Mr. Pritchard's presentation leads the audience to the conclusion that adoption of the 'Anglican Covenant' is the next logical step for the Episcopal Church. His presentation even implies that the idea was first an American one from way back. Its conclusion is the suggestion that without the adoption of the 'Anglican Covenant' the American Church can have no relationships with the rest of the "Anglican Church,", i.e. the other Churches of the Anglican Communion. By the way, the term 'Anglican Communion' is almost completely absent from this presentation. It's all about the 'Anglican Church.'
Mr. Pritchard hesitatingly admitted to me in the Q&A that, since his presentation demonstrates that the Episcopal Church does in fact already have relationships with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion, then the suggestion that a 'Covenant' is requisite for such relationships is immediately contradicted. We were left wondering what was the basis, then,for his belief that the 'Covenant' was a good thing. It is easy, though, to challenge the notion of an 'Anglican Covenant.'
First, while many strain to promote the concept of covenant as a legitimate one, it remains true that the biblical examples of covenant all indicate covenants between humanity and God. No covenants of any success are to be found in scripture that are genuine covenants between person and person, or people and people. I suggest that this is no small clue to overlook.
Second, while many speculate fearfully that the adoption of 'the Covenant' would help to atone for the sins of colonialism, they fail to recognize that it is itself a reactionary sin of anti-colonialism. It is not a correction but simply a substitution, with autocratic power simply shifting from one party to another. I think this can hardly be viewed as spiritually healthy or as practically productive.
Third, while some fear 'the Covenant' would make the Episcopal Church and all the Churches of the Communion into confessional Churches , and while others laud such a thing, both are mistaken. A confessional Church is one that professes or confesses particular doctrines. The proposed 'Anglican Covenant' can hardly be compared with the Westminster Confession or the Lutheran Confessions of the Book of Concord. More accurately, the proposed 'Anglican Covenant' would make the Churches of the Communion into litigational Churches, not confessional ones. The Churches of the Communion would be governed and guided by litigation. Section Four of the proposal is the point and purpose of the 'Covenant;' to claim otherwise is plainly intellectually dishonest. Thus, the establishment of it's 'Standing Committee' as an extra-provincial body of jurisprudence is the practical way that it would transform the Churches from autonomous and autocephalous to being subject to these empaneled judges, this regulatory body, who would dictate to all the Churches while remaining accountable to none.
Surprisingly, some appear to believe that the creation of yet another layer of bureaucracy is a good thing for the health of the Church, even if not for the spread of the Gospel. They are hard put, though, to explain how the reservation and centralization of power accomplishes this.
The 'Covenant' is a misguided attempt to replace the difficulties of real relationship with the apparent expediency of litigation. Quickly, I believe, with the 'Standing Committee' as precedent, it would become in the minds of some still more expedient to establish trans-provincial regulations that would try to head off dispute and litigation between the Churches. In other words, it would be a short step from this 'Covenant' to the creation of a trans-provincial Constitution and Canons, which would be the final nail in the coffin of the autonomy and autocephaly of the Churches. Local contextualization of ministry would be dramatically reduced in favor of the new centralized definition of 'orthodoxy.' The unique and living gift to Christendom and to the world skeptical of organized religion that is found in Anglicanism's delicate if unwieldy blend of the virtues of both historic catholicism and suspicious protestantism would be dead.
One need only check in with the former Roman clergy in our midst. They tell me, as I think they would do well to tell us all: this bureaucratic quieting of difference and dissent is what they left behind. If this court were created, it would most certainly be used. The 'Standing Committee' would be the elephant in the room wherever the Church met. It would become the preoccupation of every General Convention, every diocesan convention, every meeting of the House of Bishops, every meeting of the Primates, every Lambeth Conference. The 'Standing Committee' and the growing bureaucracy that would emerge from it would come to dominate every Church of the Communion. Those suffering a sense of inadequacy before Rome would finally see accomplished what they already refer to as 'the Anglican Church.' One wonders how that would sit with the founding fathers and mothers of this Church. One wonders how this would sit with the next generation of people looking for a spiritual home where freedom of thought is encouraged and putting the gospel into action is primary.
I think it's important to note that the Episcopal Church is a theocratic democracy. As such it serves as an encouraging lesson that a Church that held its first General Convention without a House of Bishops can grow to be a successful witness to the historic and fresh Christian faith. Wisely, our forebears chose to be exist as a theocratic democracy, and we have chosen to continues as such. Now, I think, we are being invited and pressured into surrendering this, and are being maneuvered and manipulated into becoming instead a subservient part of an oligarchic autocracy. I think we need to be scrupulously honest about this. And I think we need then to ask ourselves point blank: is this really what we want? Is this really what God wants for us? Is this what God wants for the witness of this Church?