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This page last updated 22 November 2010  

an essay for Anglicans Online
18 November 2010

Covet a covenant?
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

There is an increase in discussion of the proposed Anglican Covenant around the Anglican Communion, as the General Synod of the Church of England will consider it shortly. The Executive Council of The Episcopal Church has asked that each of the church’s 110 dioceses and one convocation discuss the Covenant document in anticipation of a vote at General Convention in . . . 2012.

It seems likely that should the Synod vote not to sign it, the Covenant will be a dead letter elsewhere in the Communion. Two provinces have decided to sign on, Mexico and Southern Africa, though the latter must ratify it again at their next General Synod in 2013. That leaves 36 yet to go . . .

A lot of the current debate is quite hot. Some allege that signing the Covenant means kissing your province’s independence away to a bunch of neo-Puritans. Others tell us to read the text and not believe all that overheated talk about domination and the death of Anglicanism. The No-Anglican-Covenant folks make it sound as if the Covenant will drag the Communion down a slippery slope towards a coercive structure like the papacy. No, no, others reply, sounding reasonable. It will only frame discussions on important issues, is all, with relatively minor consequences in case of perduring disagreement. No one will give up being autonomous.

Looking over my past columns for Anglicans Online, I notice that I have written two last year on the topic already. Why a third? Because of all the rhetoric. The General Synod, like the General Convention, is a democratically-organized body that is supposed to run an outfit that at its heart is not a democracy. (Jesus is “Lord,” after all, not “President.”) To paraphrase Churchill’s old adage, it’s the worst form of church government, until you consider all the other forms of church government. One feature of contemporary secular democracies is shouting slogans at the top of one’s lungs and spreading as objective reporting that which is manifestly biased. In the States we heard recently such nonsense as “Federal government, keep your hands off my Medicare.” And there is the phenomenon of Fox News anchors “reporting” from demonstrations in which they are actually participating, and MSNBC “newsmen” making political contributions. The Church is not immune to similar temptations.

The Covenant Design Group tried their best to satisfy the demands of those who wanted to restrain local provinces from actions that would disturb, as well as those who insisted on maintaining complete independence. In that sense, the document is interesting, and I maintain that the process of discussing its proposals throughout the Communion is healthy for us all.

However one frames it, the Covenant does provide a mechanism for eventually determining who is “in” and who is “out.” Do I want, say, the Diocese of Sydney “in” or “out”? Based on what? Their peculiar ecclesiology, which lies well outside the usual range of Anglican options? Their desire to have lay people presiding at the Eucharist under certain conditions? That it often seems to be too much of a family affair? What benefit would there be to them and the rest of us in ostracizing them? Or any Anglican church you think has placed itself outside the pale?

It might feel good — “So there!” It would reduce the range of embarrassing questions we have to put up with (“If the Church of XXX can do YYY, how do you justify it?” “We don’t, so we threw XXX out.”). Sometimes I like to imagine trying to explain things to Jesus, as I stand before his “great judgment seat” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 122).

“Lord, it sure was good when all of us decided to tell the Church of XXX to leave the Communion. Painful but necessary.”

“Yes, it does feel good to have a scapegoat. I remember well how much the leaders who crucified Me enjoyed that feeling.”

“But we didn’t have to explain anymore to other Christians or people of other faiths why we still put up with what the XXXers were doing.”

“I see — you chose voluntary stupidity?”

“No, no, Lord, we knew that that church had gone off the deep end when they did YYY and they had to be chastised or they would go on making the rest of us look bad.”

“Yes, you wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘fools for Christ,’ now, would you?”

“Exactly! Er, I mean . . . ”

“Am I the Lord of your church?”

“Yes! Oh, yes!”

“But I am not the Lord of XXX church?”

“Well, er, um . . . But you know better than anyone how much pain and suffering their decisions caused the rest of us. We had to tell them they were wrong.”

“Yes, there you are right. When you see people going off what you think is the narrow path, you have to tell them. But tell me, did they listen to you after you threw them out? Or did they become hardened into believing that they are now the truly righteous, better than you?”

“Er . . . um . . .”

“And didn’t you all become so satisfied that your partial grasp of Me, weakened by your sin, enabled only by the gift of the Spirit’s grace, had now become less partial than theirs?”


“What about your prayer to Me, ‘Make their life together a sign of Christ's love in this broken and disordered world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal injury, and joy overcome despair’?”

“Huh? But that’s from, uh, a marriage liturgy, Lord.”

“I know that. Actually, it’s from Common Worship, a slight revision of a prayer in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. But don’t you know that’s what ‘communion’ really looks like? The Trinity is One, and ‘God is Love’, because of communion. Communion is My gift to you all, that you may have the power to make your life together a sign of My love for the world.

“Is the world less broken now, since you spurned my gift? Are people any less estranged from each other now? Has forgiveness broken out all over? Is there more joy? Tell me, did ostracizing (TEC, Canada, Nigeria, Uganda — fill in the name of the church you love to hate) do any of that?”




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

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