Council considers status of Anglican Covenant in small groups

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ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg[Episcopal News Service — Auckland, New Zealand] The Anglican Consultative Council spent an hour in private conversation on Oct. 31 (local time) considering the status of the Anglican Covenant but took no action.Those reflection group conversations, preceded by a short plenary session open to the public, has been the pattern of this 15th meeting of the ACC.Before the Oct. 31 reflection conversations began, New Zealand Diocese of Christchurch Bishop Victoria Matthews asked the members to consider “why [the covenant] is a cause of fear and why is it a sign of hope for others?”The results of the reflection conversations were to be given to the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) and the Anglican Communion Standing Committee “as they discern the ways to take the matter forward,” according to a handout on the process.The members are scheduled to again discuss the covenant on Nov. 6, the penultimate date of their Oct. 27-Nov. 7 meeting. It is not clear if any resolutions about the covenant will be proposed during that session.Episcopal Church ACC member Josephine Hicks told Episcopal News Service that her reflection group had a “very good conversation” with members from Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Australia, Scotland, West Indies, Mexico, Cuba and Pakistan, as well as herself.The groups heard from each member about the status of consideration of the covenant in their province, what that process has looked like and what the experience has taught the province about being Anglicans and being part of the Anglican Communion.Hicks said the conversation about the processes used in each province “reminded us that we govern ourselves through different processes around the communion and we struggle to understand each other’s process.”“Someone commented that hearing that a province has rejected or accepted the covenant impacts another province’s thinking process,” she said, adding that another person noted that “hearing early on that a number of African churches in particular thought [the covenant] wasn’t strong enough impacted provinces’ thinking.”When the group considered what the members have learned via the covenant process, Hicks said, “the real theme of those comments was that we have grown as a communion and we obviously have differences but, that what holds us together is much stronger than what divides us.”“We observed that we are still in communion even though some provinces have rejected the covenant and some have accepted it and some are still considering it,” Hicks said. “That demonstrates to us that we can still be in communion without a covenant.”Some members of the group said the “covenant process has helped us focus on something other than divisive issues,” according to Hicks.Hicks began her three-meeting term at the 2005 meeting in Nottingham, England when ACC members from both the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada attended as observers after both provinces voluntarily withdrew their participation in keeping with a request from the Anglican Primates — or principal archbishops — to allow space for consideration of sexuality issues.She said some of the members of her reflection group here commented that “there’s a much less contentious feeling about this meeting [as compared with the intervening 2009 meeting in Jamaica] and people believe that part of that is covenant process helping us focus on relationships being more important than a piece of paper.”“That feeling seems palpable at this meeting,” she concluded.Matthews said during her presentation that “it is not IASCUFO’s work to promote the covenant but rather to monitor the reception of the covenant.”The bishop said that in the course of that monitoring as an ISACUFO member, she has learned that “there are actually two documents going around. One is the document that people have in their mind and the other document is the Anglican Covenant on paper.”“Sometimes the document under discussion is unrecognizable as the Anglican Covenant,” she said.During a table conversation the previous day, ACC members discussed how their provinces make hard decisions.“In the same way your province comes face-to-face with a hard decision, so does the Anglican Communion of churches,” Matthews told the council. “The question behind the covenant is what is the best way. Is there a way that will keep us together safely? What is our deepest fear when we consider decision-making processes?”Noting that the council had spent the previous evening considering how families can change their interactions from violent responses to ones of peace, Matthews suggested “that in the original idea of the covenant there was a desire to allow the Anglican Communion of churches to be a safe place for conversation and a sharing of ideas.“The actual document of the Anglican Covenant does not achieve that for all the churches of the Anglican Communion and that’s why some churches have said no to the document,” she said. “Nevertheless, as we heard last night, at the core of God’s covenant is ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’ And we need to hold that before us.”Because there are “those who say [the covenant] is punitive and those who say it has no teeth,” Matthews said she believes that the covenant “is not yet perceived, yet alone received, as a truly safe way in which to encounter one another.”She invited the members to consider why for some the covenant is “something to be feared and for others a sign of hope.”And Matthews asked the council to “reflect on what there is in the covenant that offers a possible way for us to talk together” and whether the covenant might “potentially helpful in your province when you are faced with a difficult decision.”The Anglican Covenant first was proposed in the 2004 Windsor Report as a way that the communion and its provinces might maintain unity despite differences, especially relating to biblical interpretation and human sexuality issues. The last ACC meeting, in Jamaica in May 2009, decided to delay release of the third and final draft of the covenant to the provinces for their consideration because the ACC members thought the covenant’s process for resolving disputes needed more work.After a small working group solicited input from the provinces about that process, the final version of the covenant was released to the provinces for formal consideration in December 2009. An updated account of the status of that consideration is here.ACC backgroundThe ACC is one of the four instruments of communion, the others being the archbishop of Canterbury (who serves as president of the ACC), the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, and the Primates Meeting.Formed in 1969, the ACC includes clergy and lay people, as well as bishops, among its delegates. The membership includes from one to three persons from each of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces, depending on the numerical size of each province. Where there are three members, there is a bishop, a priest and a lay person. Where fewer members are appointed, preference is given to lay membership. The ACC’s constitution is here.The council meets every three years or four years and the Auckland meeting is the council’s 15th since it was created.The Episcopal Church is represented by Josephine Hicks of North Carolina; the Rev. Gay Jennings of Ohio; and Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut.Jefferts Schori is attending the meeting in her role as a member of the Anglican Communion Standing Committee, which met here prior to the start of the ACC meeting. Douglas is also a member of the Standing Committee.A complete list of the ACC15 participants is here.All ENS coverage of ACC15 is here.– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. 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