November 28, 2012

For the past ten years the Society for the Study of Anglicanism has hosted a talk at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This year the talk was titled, “Post Covenant: What Next?” It considered future directions of the Anglican Communion in view of the Church of England’s rejection earlier this year of the Anglican Covenant, and the Episcopal Church’s decision at its 77th General Convention to decline to take a position on the Covenant – a document that was originally developed to help unify Anglicans worldwide despite their cultural and theological differences.

The keynote speakers were former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. Responses were given by Ripon College Cuddeson Professor Mark Chapman and Virginia Theological Seminary Professor Katherine Grieb.

The first comments were from Lord George Carey, who explained the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed Anglican Covenant. Lord Carey has favored an Anglican Covenant since the conversation about it began, stating that covenants build relationship and create identity, as opposed to contracts or creeds. He indicated, “Contracts benefit but covenants transform.” As for creeds, or statements of faith, Lord Carey noted that they will never be accepted if the motives behind them are not trusted. This, he noted, was the concern with the proposed Anglican Communion for some people: that the motives behind it could not be trusted. In summary, Lord Carey said, “what some see as strengthening, others see as controlling,” and therefore, we must begin to explore other ways in which we can grow together.

Bishop Griswold then noted the vast differences between various cultures and how they affected the proposed covenant. For example, when he spoke with Bishops in England, they were surprised to learn that Bishops in America are canonically required to visit each parish every three years, because in England, the Bishops only visit by invitation of the individual parish. To the British Bishops it seemed as though American Bishops were imposing themselves by not waiting for an invitation to attend a parish. Bishop Griswold used this as an example of the seemingly small cultural differences which can either be misinterpreted and cause division, or become an invitation to engage in conversation, a “conversion [in] how we perceive the other,” to understand “their own sense of embodying the truth as in Jesus.” In his estimation, the future of the Anglican Covenant is uncertain, but he hopes that we see it as an invitation to engage with each other in the “catholicity of the Communion.”

The Rev. Dr. Mark Chapman spoke next, and agreed with Bishop Griswold that “we are bound together and we need to work out ways of understanding how that relationship works,” and that, “recognition of difference is at the heart of the Anglican Communion and it’s at the heart, as well, of the Covenant model.” He noted, though, that there were two basic reasons why the Covenant did not gather support in England. The first was that this process seemed to call to question the authority of Bishops within the Church of England, and many saw the Bishops as over-stepping their bounds. The second reason was that there was not enough empowerment of the synods and the laity in the language of the Covenant, which is clearly a point of contention currently in the church.

As the final speaker, the Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb shared that the Anglican Covenant is achieving its first goal of keeping people talking and listening, and that where it has run into trouble is its fourth component, which ultimately is on the topic of authority. She believes that the first three components of the Covenant, with some more work, would be helpful, but that we, as a Communion, are worried about the idea of governance; we don’t know who would govern and to what end. In this way, she agreed with George Carey about the power of Covenant, while acknowledging the genuine concerns of authority and voice raised by Mark Chapman.

It was an amazing talk. I, for one, learned a great deal. Even though the talk was titled, “Post-Covenant: What Next?” it seems to me that the proposed Anglican Covenant, or at least the dialogue that has developed around the Covenant, is not done. It is true that the Covenant has been voted down in some Provinces, while approved/subscribed/adopted by others, and yet, the Provinces that have voted it down are still active in the Anglican Communion and so, as all four speakers attested, there is still more conversation to be had.

The Rev. Martha Korienek, M.Div.
M.A., 2015, Diocese of Los Angeles