What is the purpose of this Covenant?
Lord willing, this Covenant will serve to guide the Advent and the Diocese, as each of us continue our respective and shared ministries. It helps clarify what each can expect from the other as we develop our regular ministries and programs.
Does the Covenant mean that the Advent has changed?
Absolutely not. In fact, the Covenant is evidence that the Advent has stayed and is remaining the same. The Covenant merely returns the Advent to where it was for decades before changes were implemented in 2016.
What is the background to this Covenant? How long have people worked on this?
The Covenant is the product of conversations and work that has spanned several years. They are an extension of the conversations which occurred between the Advent and the Diocese in 2019, when Kee Sloan was bishop. When the Diocese developed a diocesan profile as a part of its process to select Bishop Sloan’s successor, the relationship with the Advent was named as one of the challenges facing the Diocese, noting that an uneasy relationship had existed between the Advent and the Diocese for some time, stemming from our theological expression. As she entered her tenure as Bishop, Glenda Curry welcomed the opportunity to explore how the Diocese and the Advent can each exist and do well.
Over the past three years, numerous people have been involved in the discussions with the Diocese that led to this Covenant. In the fall of 2019, the Advent, which was represented by Andrew Pearson, Jay Ezelle, Mark Gignilliat, Gil Kracke, Jane Menendez, and Billy Pritchard, had three extensive meetings with Bishop Sloan and a group representing the Diocese. After those meetings did not result in any resolution and increased the tension, Andrew and Bishop Sloan agreed to use a mediator to attempt to resolve the relationship between the Advent and the Diocese. Those efforts were delayed by COVID and, when they resumed last fall, Bishop Curry took over this effort for the Diocese and formed a completely new Diocesan negotiating team. Likewise, the Advent formed a new negotiating team, which consisted of Jay Ezelle, John Hargrove, Gil Kracke, Shannon Lisenby, Don Menendez, Billy Pritchard, and Bayard Tynes.
Did Bishop Curry refuse mediation?
No. When the two new teams started their discussions last fall, Bishop Curry suggested that the new teams first attempt to resolve the dispute amicably and, if that failed, then the process could move to mediation. Bishop Curry’s reasoning was that mediation was better suited for dispute where the parties could not talk to each other directly and need someone to stand between them to mediate the differences. She thought that the Diocese and the Advent could still have honest conversations and work together to find solutions. The second round of discussions were far more collaborative, productive, and, ultimately, successful. Accordingly, both sides agreed that formal mediation was never needed.
Why is the Covenant needed?
For some time, there has been a growing tension between the Advent and the Diocese. Regardless of the causes for this escalation—and there is plenty of blame on both sides—the tension has dominated the Vestry’s attention over the last three years.
How does the Covenant describe our relationship to our denomination?
The Advent has been an Episcopal Church since 1872. There are realities to belonging: whether that is belonging to a friendship, to a marriage, to a family, or to a denomination. The Covenant names our institutional reality, that we exist within an ecclesial structure. What the Covenant does do is describe the Advent’s expression within the Episcopal Church.
While our denomination provides space for a parish like ours, for several decades there has been tension as the Episcopal Church moves in a different theological direction. Many in our denomination would not agree with the distinctives outlined below, preferring instead a progressive theological expression which is now largely at odds with each of our distinctives. Though this presents challenges to us as we continue our ministry in the Episcopal Church, we are committed to biblical fidelity and pastoral generosity, as we continue to spread the gospel both within and outside the Episcopal Church.
Is our “theological expression” that different?
This is the central question to the entire process which resulted in the Covenant. As previously noted, the Diocesan Profile from 2019 described the Advent as being a unique parish with a theological expression that tends to set itself apart. Our theological expression, which is committed to historical orthodoxy, scriptural primacy, and instincts which lean towards Anglicanism’s roots in the Reformation, was once more commonly represented in the Episcopal Church.
The 2019 conversations with the Diocese were largely spent discerning what these differences were. Though necessarily broad and general, here are six distinctives which emerged in the conversations and which help form our theological expression:
- Biblical authority. The Advent has viewed Scripture as the inspired, clear, true, and authoritative Word of God. Though other aspects in theology also inform doctrine and practice (such as tradition and reason), Scripture is the first and final authority – the base of the pyramid upon which all other courses are laid.
- From the Bible’s teaching, tradition, and from lived experience, we affirm a biblical, traditional view of sin. This is the view that most of the Church has held for most of its existence, that all have sinned and are under sin, and are in desperate need of salvation.
- The grace of God is truly gratuitous; that is, God acts on our behalf without consideration of any inherent worth or work on our part. We are not born children of God but sinners; we become his children by adoption (Gal. 4:4-7). We are adopted by God’s grace through faith in Christ so that all who are given to believe in him are his children.
- Christ’s death and resurrection. As the only begotten Son of God, Christ came into the world to save sinners by his death, resurrection, and ascension. The cross of Christ is the central act in history.
- The gospel. We speak often of the gospel. When we do, we believe that the gospel is God’s authoritative and creative word of salvation – the very power of God for all who believe. To speak of the gospel is to speak of the Bible’s authority, our sin, God’s grace, and his definitive, final, and completed work specifically in Christ’s death and resurrection. The gospel is at the center of all we do and is the reason we place an emphasis on preaching and teaching.
- During the 2019 conversations, it was evident that the Advent thinks of church in a more universal sense – as in “Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”, referring to how Christians have understood and ordered their lives by the Scriptures, across time and geography. The contrast is speaking of the church in a more localized sense, referring to how the Episcopal Church has ordered itself over the last twenty years or so. These two contrasting tendencies become readily apparent when one asks the question, “What does the church believe about ___?”
To lay out these six distinctives is not to say others in the Diocese do not share any or all of these convictions, nor that every Adventer would readily and eagerly agree with each of them. In fact, in the discussions with Bishop Curry’s negotiating team, many of the Diocesan team expressed agreement with the Advent’s views on many of these topics. Likewise, the Advent is a diverse church, with members representing something of a spectrum on where they would place an emphasis on any of these convictions. Nonetheless, from the centrality of the gospel, they do seem to typify much of our congregational life in a unique way, and represent the Advent’s identity for the past decades. Lord willing, the Covenant will continue to allow us to move forward in our life and ministry, proclaiming the good news of the gospel for sinners like each of us.
How long will it last?
The Covenant is an agreement specifically between Bishop Curry (who represents the Diocese) and the Advent. Our denomination (the Episcopal Church) is structured in such a way that each Diocese and Diocesan Bishop has significant autonomy. There are no assurances that the Covenant will extend beyond Bishop Curry’s tenure. Lord willing, if it is able to effect a good, cooperative relationship between the Advent and the Diocese, future bishops, deans, and other leaders will recognize the mutual benefits and continue to operate under the spirit and intent of the Covenant. As a covenant, it is not a contract and depends upon the continued good will of everyone involved.
What if the Episcopal Church changes something in the future?
We would deal with those developments accordingly and at that time. Previous General Conventions (the legislative gatherings of our denomination which occur every three years) indicated a strong possibility of future revisions of the Prayer Book, likely moving further away from the distinctives noted earlier. And there will likely be other efforts or legislative actions which present challenges to us. Being confident in the Lord’s provision, we will deal with each of those possibilities as they become realities, hopefully working cooperatively with the Diocese.
What are we agreeing to?
We will continue to be a parish church in the Diocese of Alabama while also serving as the Cathedral. This arrangement was made in 1981 and will continue. Moreover, we are agreeing to work cooperatively with the Diocese in a spirit of mutual respect.
What does the Advent gain?
We gain the express agreement to allow us to continue to develop our ministries and life together as the Advent. Our theological expression is recognized, affirmed, and protected, allowing us to continue our ministries and programs. We are able to call clergy who share our biblical and theological convictions – this of course includes the call of our next Dean and Rector. And we are able to develop and send individuals who are discerning calls to ordination to seminaries with theological expressions aligned with the Advent, which will better support and deepen their future ministries and help us spread the gospel both within and outside the Episcopal Church.
What will change for us?
There are three primary changes that we have agreed to in the Covenant. (It is worth noting that all three of these changes are simply a return of how we operated up until 2016. We are rolling back to standards that were in place during the tenure of previous Deans, from Brinkley Morton to Frank Limehouse, and including the early years of Andrew Pearson’s Deanship.)
- We will transition from using our current communion liturgy to the Rite I liturgy in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This is the liturgy that we have used for nearly 40 years. (Our current liturgy is a combination of the 1979 liturgy, along with parts of the 1552 and 1662 Prayer Books.)
- We will recognize our denominational affiliation (Episcopal) in some of our outward facing communication (website, signage, etc.).
- We will remove the explicit option for “Advent Only” on our pledge cards, though parishioners may continue to designate their giving as they are led.
What else is in the Covenant?
As you read the Covenant, you will see other items or areas addressed as well. In an effort to give the Advent greater visibility to Diocesan activity and governance, our vestry will nominate a member of the Advent to serve as an ex officio member of Diocesan Council, and another to serve as a member of the Diocesan Commission on Ministry. To facilitate better ongoing relationships, the bishop and dean will continue to meet regularly, and the bishop may meet with our vestry each year.
How does this help our next Dean and Rector?
This Covenant gives a significant amount of clarity to our next Dean and Rector. Rather than coming into an ambiguous context needing further navigation and negotiation, our next Dean will be able to begin ministry at the Advent with a clearer sense of what to expect and how to move forward. Similarly, having this Covenant in place gives our Search Committee a written agreement as they have conversations with candidates.
What does this change? What will be different?
The most obvious change will be the changes to our Sunday morning liturgy. The communion liturgy we have used for several years effectively communicates the gospel as it orders our worship. We believe Rite I can organize our worship around the gospel’s proclamation as well. We will gather for our worship together beneath the living and active word of God, as it convicts us of our sin, drives us to Christ, and gives us the Lord’s saving word of hope, comfort, and peace.
And as mentioned, you will see two options rather than three on this year’s pledge card – the options of an unrestricted pledge (where a certain percentage of money given to the Advent will go to the Diocese, which in turn will give a percentage to the national church) and a restricted pledge (where a certain percentage of money given to the Advent will go only to the Diocese and not to the national church). Please note that how an individual parishioner desires to designate or restrict their giving will continue to be honored, of course.
What does not change? What will remain the same?
- Our preaching, teaching and all the ministries that “make the Advent the Advent”.
- Our ability to call clergy.
- Our commitment to being a gospel-centered church, with a living, daring confidence in God’s grace that finds the cross and resurrection of Jesus ever and only at its center.
- Our mission to proclaim the freeing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples wherever God has placed us.
- Our ability to provide Christian education and programs where our children can experience the love of Christ and grow in his word and gospel.
What should we expect from here?
The Covenant certainly does not answer every question. It is not a constitution or set of by-laws, intended to govern all aspects of our administration and ministry. We will need to continue to work out any number of specific issues as particular situations arise. As time passes and our denomination likely continues its commitment to progressive theologies and expressions, we will have to contend for the faith – that will not be a surprise. But in that time, as the Lord would continue to grant us his grace and favor, it remains our humble prayer and confident expectation that lives will be changed by and for the gospel.