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Presiding officers, Executive Council member urge congregations to study the Anglican Covenant

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and Executive Council member Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine are calling on all Episcopal congregations to engage in discussion of the proposed Anglican Covenant at some time during the next two years.

The Episcopal Church leaders suggested in a Sept. 3 letter that congregations consider organizing a discussion group on the covenant during Advent (2010 or 2011) or Lent (2011 or 2012) or at another time before General Convention in 2012.

"In order for General Convention to reflect the mind of the whole church, the bishops and deputies who participate in General Convention need to know the thoughtful and faithful reactions of the many and varied faith communities represented in this church," the church leaders said.

A covenant first was proposed in 2004 as a way for the Anglican Communion to maintain unity amid differing viewpoints, especially on issues of human sexuality and biblical interpretation.

Executive Council, at its June 2010 meeting, approved and commended the Anglican Covenant study guide, which can be downloaded in English here and in Spanish here.

The study guide suggests questions for congregations to consider, such as: In what ways does the covenant strengthen the corporate life of the Episcopal Church and the common life of the Anglican Communion; and what are the positive and negative consequences of signing on to and living into the covenant?

The church leaders noted in their letter that, if congregations engaged in this discussion and submitted their comments in the coming church year, it would enable the Executive Council Task Force, which Ballentine chairs, "to reflect the church's initial response to the final draft of the Anglican Covenant, and to be included in Executive Council's Blue Book Report to the 77th General Convention." The Blue Book – which includes reports and proposed resolutions from the church's committees, commissions, agencies and boards – is published several months before each General Convention.

Comments on the covenant, especially from bishops and diocesan General Convention deputations, are encouraged by April 24, 2011, to gcoffice@episcopalchurch.org.

"Discussion in the following year, leading up to General Convention, will continue to inform the bishops and deputies, even though individual comments will not be included in the Blue Book report," the letter said. "Read the covenant document, explore the study guide, pray and discuss the issues you discern, and talk to others. The mind of Christ is not discerned in isolated communities, but as we engage these matters more broadly, with those who agree, those who disagree and those who ask probing questions."

General Convention 2009 passed Resolution D020 commending the covenant to the Episcopal Church's dioceses for study and comment during the next triennium. It asked Executive Council to prepare a report to the 77th General Convention in 2012 that would include draft legislation concerning the church's response to the covenant.

At the time of General Convention 2009, section 4 of the covenant still was being scrutinized after the Anglican Consultative Council, the communion's main policy-making body, in May 2009 recommended appointing a working group to consider and consult with the communion's provinces about its possible revision.

Representatives of the ACC decided that the latest draft, the Ridley Cambridge Draft, needed more work before it could be presented to the  provinces for adoption because the disciplinary process outlined in its fourth section had not received the same degree of consideration and comment by the communion's 38 provincial churches that sections 1 through 3 had.

Appointed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on behalf of the primates, a Covenant Design Group had met several times between January 2007 and January 2009 and produced three drafts of the covenant (available here).

All four sections of the proposed Anglican Covenant were sent to the communion's  provinces for formal consideration on Dec. 18, 2009, after the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion approved a revised version of the document's text.

Jefferts Schori, a member of the Standing Committee, said in her pastoral letter to the church in early June: "We have been repeatedly assured that the Anglican Covenant is not an instrument of control, yet we note that the fourth section seems to be just that to Anglicans in many parts of the communion. So much so that there are voices calling for stronger sanctions in that fourth section, as well as voices repudiating it as un-Anglican in nature. Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does."

Williams has said that the covenant is not going to solve all of the communion's problems.

"It's not going to be a constitution, and it's certainly not going to be a penal code for punishing people who don't comply," he said when the final text was released. "But what it does represent is this: In recent years in the Anglican family, we've discovered that our relations with each other as local churches have often been strained, that we haven't learned to trust one another as perhaps we should, that we really need to build relationships, and we need to have a sense that we are responsible to one another and responsible for each other. In other words, what we need is something that will help us know where we stand together and help us also intensify our fellowship and our trust."

In their Sept. 3 letter, Ballentine and the presiding officers noted that General Convention is the governing body that "will ultimately decide the Episcopal Church's position with respect to participation in an Anglican Communion Covenant."

At its January 2009 meeting, the church's Executive Council said it predicted that such approval could not come until at least 2015 should endorsement require changes to the Episcopal Church's constitution.

"We on the Executive Council entrust this work to the leading of the Holy Spirit and look forward to continuing our engagement in this process of discernment," the church leaders said in their letter. "We thank you for participating as we grow more deeply into our common life in the Anglican Communion."

-- Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service.

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