Hong Kong and the Covenant

I thought I'd have a look back at some earlier official critical comments on the Covenant after a look at the papers from Wales suggested that - despite the fact that Wales has done a volte face - many of their critiques (and suggestions) remained unanswered and ignored. 

Hong Kong rejects the Covenant in 2008.
In January 2008 the Province of Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui submitted its formal response (pdf) to the consultation on the Nassau Draft of the Communion. (All formal responses.) It was the outcome of extensive consultation and debate across the three dioceses of the Province and the Missionary area of Macau and therefore reflected the collective wisdom and opinion of the Province.

In Anglican terms it was scathing:
1.1 A decision to transfer  authority from the autonomous Provincial Churches of the Anglican Communion, together with a dilution of the authority  inherently vested in the historic role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as  spiritual leader  (primus inter pares), to a credal document would be received by many members of HKSKH as incompatible with Anglican  tradition.
The Province valued 'traditional Anglican comprehensiveness and diversity'. It was essential in the plural and international context of Hong Kong to hold majority and minority traditions together. But
1.2 A covenant, if allowed to impose a prescribed, monochrome reflection of received truth, ecclesiastical correctness and  accepted  behaviour, would seriously undermine communal tolerance.
Li Tim-Oi, her mother, Bishop Mok her father,
Archdeacon Lee Kow Yan after her ordination
as Deacon by Bishop R 0 Hall at St John's Cathedral HK. Ascension Day 22 May 1941 
They cited the 'vehement disapproval' that the ordination of Li Tim-Oi had attracted in 1944, pointing out that
What was new and controversial was, within a generation, found to be desirable and legitimate by a large part of the Church around the world.
They leave implicit the inference that things might have been even more difficult for her had the Covenant been in place. As it was the post-war Lambeth Conference, without denying the validity of her ordination, sought to ensure this was no precedent. In an act of sacrificial loyalty,
To defuse controversy, in 1946 Tim-Oi surrendered her priest's licence, but not her Holy Orders, the knowledge of which carried her through Maoist persecution. Li Tim-Oi's Story (1907-1992)
Section 2 of the Hong Kong paper questioned the practicability of a Covenant.
2.2  A system of punishment, in whatever terms, would need to be established in tandem with a covenant in order to provide a deterrent to systematic violation. It has already been mooted that the judicial authority would be vested in the Primates’ Meeting, which would transform a consultative Anglican-style ‘talking shop’ into an authoritarian Vatican-style curia, which would not be welcome.
Section 3 set out the specific conditions of HKSKH.
During the years between 1984 and 1990, Archbishop Emeritus Peter Kwong, then Bishop of Hong Kong and Macao, worked tirelessly as a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee. He succeeded not only in greatly contributing to the preservation of Hong Kong’s religious freedoms but also in forging close and enduring relationships with the senior officials of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (directly under the State Council of the PRC) and the leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (the only registered postdenominational Protestant Church in China), including its Chairman for many years, Bishop Ding Guangxun – the last Anglican bishop in China.
St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong
There is no doubt that the autonomous governance of our Church, together with the affectionate but non-interfering ties with the See of Canterbury and other churches of the Communion, sit easily with the familiar crystal-clear policies of the PRC government with respect to religious affairs.

HKSKH Anglicans are bound to approach any movement within the Anglican Communion towards the centralisation of power and governance with considerable reluctance and great caution.
That is, given the often difficult attitude of Chinese authorities to religion generally and to Protestantism in particular, and given the sensitivity of the Chinese authorities to any suggestion of outside control, there would be a significant risk that the Covenant could turn the Anglican Church in Hong Kong into an undesirable religious group from the authorities' perspective. This is not a good idea.

(HKSKH was recognised as a Province in 1998 - some of the earlier history is here - search for 'China')

Then what happened?
A year later, February 2009, as a response to the St Andrew's Draft, the Province sent a letter (pdf) making no criticisms of the Covenant.  It said,
Thank you for your letter of 1st September 2008, regarding the responses from the Provinces with respect to the St. Andrew's Draft for the Anglican Covenant.
After consulting widely with the bishops, clergy and laity of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui in the dioceses and at provincial level, and then engaging in serious discussion and study in the Standing committee of the General Synod, the Committee has resolved to express our support in principle for the progress revealed in the content of the St. Andrew's Draft and our commitment to the continuing progress towards realization of a Covenant acceptable to the Anglican Communion at large.
The contrast is striking. The first document engaged forcefully with the key issues as seen from Hong Kong. The second sounds to me as if the Province was leant on and told that only positive responses were required. If not, then at the very least the letter of the 1st September (from Kenneth Kearon, then General Secretary of the Anglican Communion) had simply ignored their concerns.

Paul KwongArchbishop and
Primate of Hong Kong 
Either way the HKSKH committee could only go as far as supporting 'in principle' (i.e. with no further commitment) such unspecified progress as the next draft had made. The section on the acceptability of the Covenant to the communion at large could be read as acceptance of the will of the Communion expressed through majority vote; it could equally be saying the each province should have a veto.

After that comes complete radio silence. Because much of the website is in Chinese and Google only seems willing to translate certain pages, I can't be absolutely sure. But that's what it feels like: certainly there were no more official responses to subsequent Covenant drafts.

What does it matter now?
Things have moved on and the Covenant has been revised. The threat that the Primates would be all-powerful has been removed.

But I think several aspects of this story are still relevant:

  • The willingness to discount the considered views of a province, apparently because they didn't accord with the view of those driving the Covenant project, is indicative of a single-minded, blinkered and institutionally deaf commitment to one particular vision for the Communion.
  • The apparent willingness to risk jeopardising any province's relationship with its State or, indeed, to dismiss or marginalise such a real possibility, is unforgivable. 
  • The lack of concern for a smaller province indicates that what was important to the Covenant Design Group was not inclusion but Anglican power politics.
  • Critical voices were never accorded the respect of an answer. Key criticisms (the Covenant's centralisation, new powers and punitiveness, for example) have been ignored, dismissed as simply wrong, or generalised out of existence, but there has been never been any serious official engagement with critics. 

In the end it will be the words on paper that count if the Covenant is ever passed. Its history will be forgotten by all except a few academics. But the words and their implementation express not only the considered judgment of its drafters but also the manner in which it went about its work. In this case that manner was either bullying or dismissive or both.

Now, I don't know, I wasn't there, and official sources aren't telling. Perhaps I've got this all wrong - I am very willing to be corrected on the basis of better information - and to apologise publicly. But although I'm certain there's a lot more detail and more nuance to the story, I suspect I'm right about the core issues.

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