Decision is up to 2012 meeting of convention

By Mary Frances Schjonberg,
Episcopal News Service
October 24, 2011

Salt Lake City, Utah] The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council will submit a resolution to General Convention next year that would have it state that the church is “unable to adopt the Anglican Covenant in its present form.”

The resolution also promises that the church will “recommit itself to dialogue with the several provinces when adopting innovations which may be seen as threatening the unity of the communion” and commits to “continued participation in the wider councils of the Anglican Communion” and dialogue “with our brothers and sisters in other provinces to deepen understanding and to insure the continued integrity of the Anglican Communion.”

The 77th meeting of General Convention July 5-12, 2012 will decide whether to pass, amend and pass, or reject the resolution. Convention is “the only body that can act on behalf of the whole church in this matter,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said during a post-meeting press conference.

The unanimous decision to submit the resolution to convention came Oct. 24, on the last day of council’s four-day meeting here.

A covenant task force, composed of six council members, based its recommendation to council in a report that is available in English here and Spanish here.

Jefferts Schori said the proposed resolution “goes on at significant length and with great care to remind Episcopalians and other Anglicans that we continue in solidarity, building missional partnerships, across the communion and that that is the way in which we understand our relationship – that we are bound to our brothers and sisters across the communion and we will continue to respect that.”

Just after council’s action on the covenant, the members passed a 2012 budget for the Episcopal Church that includes $1,178,066 in money to support missional work in the Anglican Communion and to help support the communion’s administrative work.

Jefferts Schori noted that the reasons given in the report for being unable to adopt the covenant in its present form have to do with the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons. The task force’s report noted that the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons has said that to adopt the current version “would significantly alter our current understanding of what it means to be an autonomous province.”

The presiding bishop said that the task force was also concerned “that all people of this church might be included in the life of the church.”

House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson suggested during her closing remarks to council that the communion could be better bound together by a commitment to the Five Marks of Mission, developed by the Anglican Consultative Council between 1984 and 1990, and the Covenant for Communion in Mission based on those “marks” and developed in 2005 by the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism and endorsed by the ACC. At Anderson’s behest, the General Convention in 2009 called for the church’s 2013-2015 budget to be centered on the Five Marks of Mission.

“I share with all of you a deep commitment to our sisters and brothers across the Anglican Communion and to the mission that binds us together,” Anderson told the council. “I believe that the Five Marks of Mission are the covenant that will endure and strengthen our communion, and I am eager to continue the dialogue to which we have pledged ourselves and in which many of us are actively involved.”

The task force’s rationale for advocating the resolution, according to the report, begins with the fact that the Episcopal Church believes “when the church is faithful, the unity of the church is reflective of the unity that is in God, divinely ordered and discernable on the earth.”

The Episcopal Church seeks to be faithful to that unity, the report continues, “by honoring the diversity of ministries in the Episcopal Church in multiple forms: our tradition of empowerment of all orders of ministry in governance; our identification of the interpretation of Scripture as the work of all Christian communities; and our heeding of the work of the Spirit in new understandings of how we are called to be in community and relationships.”

The church’s unity is “best expressed in our efforts to a church that fully welcomes those who have not always been welcomed,” the report said.

“This understanding of who we are as a church does not allow the Executive Council to support any covenant that might jeopardize this vocation,” the task force members said in the report.

“The covenant consistently ignores the importance of the role of the laity and their full expression of ministry in all spheres of the life of the church,” the report said.

The task force members included those who were on the “extremes” of opinion in the church about the covenant, as well as people in the middle of that spectrum, Rosalie Ballentine, chair of council’s committee on world mission and the task force, told the council Oct. 24.

“We have looked at this as more of a process of discernment, not just a matter of ‘should we adopt a covenant’ but, also looking at who are we as the Episcopal Church, what does it mean to live into our baptismal covenant, what does it mean to live in community, what does it mean to be a part of the Anglican Communion,” Ballentine said.

She said that the task force purposely used the language of “unable to adopt in its present form” rather than suggesting that convention “reject” the covenant or “refrain” from adopting it.

“We still have hope for our continuing relationship, our continuing conversations, our continuing efforts to live in community and for us to move forward as part of the Anglican Communion,” she said.

The Anglican Covenant first was proposed in the 2004 Windsor Report as a way that the communion and its 38 autonomous provinces might maintain unity despite differences, especially relating to biblical interpretation and human sexuality issues. The report came in the wake of the 2003 election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as bishop of New Hampshire, a development that caused some provinces to declare broken or impaired communion with the Episcopal Church.

Some Episcopalians and Anglicans, including the Executive Council, have raised concerns about the covenant, particularly in section 4, which outlines a method for resolving disputes in the communion.

The 2009 meeting of General Convention asked, via Resolution D020, that the church’s dioceses study the proposed covenant and report to Executive Council, and that council report to convention with proposed legislation. Council formed the task force to help council respond to D020’s requirements.

In September 2010, the task force asked dioceses to study the final text of the covenant and respond by Easter 2011. The group said in its report that the “vast majority” of the respondents are not in favor of adopting the covenant in its entirety.

The task force also recommended to convention a “new study of the foundations and boundaries of our polity and governance as we seek to deepen our communion-wide engagement and equip the leadership of the church” and to document changes in the Constitution and Canons that would be needed to adopt the covenant and analyze “how those changes may alter our identity from theological, philosophical and polity perspectives.”

Previous to the current task force, a council committee, also chaired by Ballentine, reviewed and responded between 2007 and 2009 to the first three drafts of the Anglican Covenant. The response to the first draft is available here. The response to the second draft is here.

Council’s October 2009 response to the so-called Ridley Cambridge draft is here. At that time, a small group appointed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was considering whether the draft’s fourth section needed further refinement. In December 2009, the final version of the section was released and the covenant was officially opened for consideration and adoption by the communion’s provinces.

Council member Lee Crawford, who served on both groups, told the council Oct. 24 that the last six years have been a “long, long journey of reading, listening and praying.”

“We pray that as we move forward between now and General Convention that the same prayerful, heartfelt discussions will continue,” she said.

Some Anglican Communion provinces have adopted the covenant or are in the process of considering it. One chart of provincial action is available here.

The Executive Council carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4 (1)(a). The council is composed of 38 members, 20 of whom (four bishops, four priests or deacons and 12 lay people) are elected by General Convention and 18 (one clergy and one lay) by provincial synods for six-year terms, plus the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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