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Lambeth Conference begins two-day covenant discussion

Implications of 'autonomy in communion' concerns some

[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] The current draft of the proposed Anglican covenant is meant to be a "covenant of friendship," not a legalistic document, however it would require Anglican Communion provinces to limit their autonomy for the sake of the communion.

"We did not even think about going a legalistic or a contract route," Covenant Design Group Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies told a news briefing in the middle of the first of two days that the 2008 Lambeth Conference will spend discussing the proposed Anglican covenant.

"It's not a stick to whack people over the head with; people entered into it voluntarily so the expectation is they will observe it," said Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Brisbane, the primate of Australia and principal spokesman for the bishops. "It is meant to be a vehicle for grace and self-limitation and mutual support and encouragement."

Their remarks came in the middle of the first of two days that the bishops of the 2008 Lambeth Conference are discussing the covenant. No vote on the question of the covenant is expected.

Bishop Dorsey Henderson of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, speaking during an Episcopal Church news briefing, said the discussion in his morning indaba group "focused on not necessarily the possibility of a covenant, because I think there was a general acceptance of a covenant. The particular kind of covenant is open to a great deal of debate."

"I think that the kind of covenant that is sought, as one person expressed it, is one that would not be punitive but contribute to unity and to mission," he said.

The idea for an Anglican covenant comes from the 2004 Windsor Report (paragraphs 113-120) and has been supported by all the communion's instruments of unity, except the Lambeth Conference, which has not met since 1998.

Gomez said that a covenant would expect the provinces to "recognize the common good as expressed in the communion" and "do nothing to break up the common good."

"So in a sense, the loyalty to the communion facilitates a holding back of autonomy," he said.

"We had to find a way of respecting and maintaining the autonomy of each church, but at the same time providing a breadth and a scope for communion. That is how we inter-relate, respecting and maintaining our autonomy," he said, "but also respecting our communion and seeking to act in such a way that will hold the two together, that we will not act in such a way that would destroy the communion or the unity that is a gift from God."

The St. Andrew's draft details "the heart of Anglicanism" by discussing Anglicans' common faith and common mission, "and the consequences and commitments that flow out of working together," Gomez said. "We believe that what we have produced does enable Anglicans across the communion to revisit the tenets of Anglicanism."

"The argument now is about the details, looking at the actual text and suggesting ways of improving the text," Gomez said.

The issue of autonomy within communion will challenge the course of the covenant process, Aspinall said.

"It will be difficult, I believe, in every province of the communion for that province to make a decision to enter into the covenant because at the heart of Anglicanism is the notion of autonomy, of self-rule, and so provinces will guard that very jealously," he said. "It will only be as a result of deep and careful reflection that they will agree to self-limit in order to protect something that is equally valuable and that it the communion. It won't be an easy process."

Henderson said that the notion of giving up autonomy "a fairly vague term" and wondered "what would that look like." He said he suspects that the discussion about the intersection of independence and interdependence is one "that is going to see more progress and receive a more open attitude -- not only by American bishops, but by others."

Mouneer Anis, president bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East and bishop in Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, told a news conference that a covenant "can enhance our interdependence in essentials while also preserving our appropriate administrative autonomy and local identities."

"Some Episcopal Church bishops resist the idea of the covenant as they see it as punitive and limiting of their sense of control," he continued. "They think that it will restrict them from responding to the needs of their culture which they feel should have priority. But sadly, it must be asked, if they are not willing to abide by the mind of the church why do they say the Communion is important to them?" 

Despite suggestions by many observers that a covenant could result in a two-tiered Anglican Communion, including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (in his June 2006 "Challenge and hope for the Anglican Communion"), Gomez said those decisions have not yet been made."When we reach having the covenant, we will have to make space, in my own opinion, for those who can't sign up yet," Gomez said.

In addition, the "Framework Procedures for the Resolution of Covenant Disagreements" appendix of the current St. Andrew's draft is "very much in a preliminary draft" that not even all the design group members have yet considered closely, Gomez said.

The Covenant Design Group will meet again at the end of September to review the response of the Lambeth Conference. The Rev. Canon Gregory Cameron, deputy secretary general of the Anglican Communion, told reporters during a morning news briefing, that the bishops who are not attending the Lambeth Conference will also be invited to give their comments.

The communion's provinces have been asked to comment on the draft by the end of March 2009. They have been asked to also say if they believe in principle that they can commit to the covenant, what provincial process is required for that commitment and what changes to the St. Andrew's draft would give them "a realistic prospect of being able to sign on," Cameron said.

Thus, Gomez said, his group will not release a new draft until it meets in London in April 2009. That draft is meant to go to the Anglican Consultative Council at its May 2009 meeting.

The Episcopal Church has said, via Resolution A166 Anglican Covenant Development Process, that it would "support the process of the development of an Anglican Covenant that underscores our unity in faith, order, and common life in the service of God’s mission." The Executive Council, its governing body between triennial General Conventions, is expected to consider a response to the St. Andrew's Draft until during its next meeting, October 20-23 in Helena, Montana.

Meanwhile, at least two other covenant formats were suggested to the bishops on August 1.

Writing in the August 1 edition of The Lambeth Witness, published and distributed daily at the conference by the Inclusive Church Network, Episcopal Church House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson suggested that the Covenant for Common Mission is the covenant proposal the communion ought to be discussing. That covenant was proposed in June 2005 by the communion's Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism as its mandate was ending.

“As a Communion, we need an understanding of and commitment to mission that calls us together," Anderson wrote. "As a Communion, we need accountability for our call to God’s mission and evangelism in this world. As a Communion, we need to become a people of mission. Given the primary importance of our call to mission, it is reasonable to go in another direction."

In addition, "A Draft Rule of Life Covenant" written by two Episcopal Church bishops was offered by "bishops from several provinces of the Communion," according to a note at the end of the two-page document, "out of concern that the current Covenant to which many people seem reactive, does not lead us into deeper communion but rather keeps us from it."

Using the image of "drinking Living Water from the same well," it proposes that the bishops enter into common, daily prayer and Bible study and continue their commitment to building relationships, seeking reconciliation, and working on common mission goals.

It also suggests moving the Lambeth Conference into an every-five-year format of a three-day retreat and a seven-day conference.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends. Episcopal Life Media correspondents Solange De Santis and the Rev. Pat McCaughan contributed to this story.

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