Background: Values of the Anglican Covenant challenged


Attempts to justify the controversial Anglican Covenant have failed to convince its critics. In the run-up to a debate in the Church of England’s General Synod in November 2010, a number of commentators have warned that the proposals are likely to do more harm than good. This paper sets out some of the key arguments.

Attempts to justify the controversial Anglican Covenant have failed to convince its critics. In the run-up to a debate in the Church of England’s General Synod in November 2010, a number of commentators have warned that the proposals are likely to do more harm than good.

A more centralised Anglican Communion?

Member churches of the Anglican Communion have long been autonomous, though there have been a range of ways of sharing views and experiences internationally. However in recent years a number of leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have been pressing for a Covenant with disciplinary procedures for provinces which step out of line, while others objected. “The true communion is nurtured by the Spirit,” the Brazilian bishops declared in response to an earlier draft. “Faith in the Risen Christ does not presuppose text, but rather an open heart and a humble faith.”

Given the influence that the C of E (rightly or wrongly) still wields in England, there has been surprisingly little discussion outside church circles about the Covenant. The official website declares, “The Church of England plays a vital role in the life of the nation... Its network of parishes cover the country... Twenty-six bishops are members of the House of Lords and are engaged in debates about legislation and national and international affairs... More than 4 in 10 in England regard themselves as belonging to the Church of England... 85 per cent of the population visit a church or place of worship in the course of a year... Latest available statistics indicate one in four primary schools and one in 16 secondary schools in England are Church of England schools.”

Yet the wider public, indeed most C of E members who do not regularly attend church, have been largely unaware of the Covenant. Even among regular worshippers, many are vague about the background and implications. And very few have had the chance to compare this Covenant with the alternative approach reflected in the Covenant for Communion in Mission, commended to member churches by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2005.

Covenant debate takes off

However, discussion intensified in late October 2010 (largely in the church press and religious blogs) after an advertisement appeared in Church Times, criticising the Covenant. This was placed by Inclusive Church (in which I am active) and Modern Church, and warned that the Covenant, which “could be the biggest change to the Church since the Reformation”, would enable objectors in other churches to forbid new developments in the C of E. If it signed, it would subordinate itself to an international body (the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion) for the first time since Henry VIII, and become more dogmatic, centralised and clerical, while mission would be hindered.

This triggered an extreme response from Gregory Cameron, a vigorous champion of the Covenant when he worked for the Anglican Communion Office and now a Church in Wales bishop. He wrote to the Church Times condemning Inclusive Church and Modern Church as resembling “an ecclesiastical BNP” (a far-right organisation) and “little Englanders”. He later stated that he had not meant that these groups were racist (which would indeed have been an odd accusation).

Meanwhile an international campaign against the Covenant had been launched, and much was published (largely online) about its flaws, and the likelihood that it would in the long term lead to more, not less, disunity.

A more thoughtful defence than Cameron’s came from Andrew Goddard, a key figure in the conservative evangelical group Fulcrum and strong advocate of the Covenant. He claimed that “the covenant respects provincial autonomy but encourages and enables provinces to acknowledge their interdependence and what they share as Anglicans in terms of faith, order and mission”, though he recognised that the Covenant “clearly calls on signatories to embrace a more disciplined form of life than in recent years and it also provides an agreed structure for handling disputes. While no decisions under the covenant are binding, by authorising the statement that actions are incompatible with the covenant and proposing relational consequences it has at potentially disciplinary element. What IC & MCU fail to do is to explain why they reject all forms of church discipline or why they believe this form is flawed.”

He also argued against opponents of inclusion who felt the Covenant was not strong enough, suggesting they were being too negative.

Jonathan Clatworthy of Modern Church responded, pointing out that “What counts about the Covenant text is not whether it claims to be punitive, or even whether its framers intend it to be, but whether it can be used in a punitive manner, and the answer is clearly yes. Although the text states that provinces continue to be self-governing, when one of them refuses to accept the 'recommendations' of the Standing Committee there will be 'relational consequences': withdrawal from some, many or all of the international structures of Anglicanism.” He suggested that “The bitter controversies of the last decade have indeed been most unfortunate. The presenting issues have been ethical and theological disagreement. They should be resolved by patient, informed ethical and theological dialogue, not by ecclesiastical power politics and threats of exclusion.”

Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity Faith and Order at the Anglican Communion Office, also came to the Covenant’s defence. On disputed questions, the Standing Committee would indeed propose, “if processes of mediation have broken down, what the relational consequences might be” but this did not mean that provinces would have to submit. “In a globalised world, it is no longer possible (if it ever was) for one church to act entirely for itself; decisions have ramifications, and the intention is for these to be explored together,” she argued

Among those who were not convinced was Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham. What drives and resources his faith, he declared in his blog, is Jesus’ self-offering on the cross, in itself “a mighty powerful mediation process”. To him:

When I become a follower of Jesus Christ in baptism, when I receive the bread and wine, I am swept up personally into a process of reconciliation between heaven and earth in which all principalities and powers are disarmed, all sins forgiven, all and, in the end, every tear wiped away from all eyes. The ordinary business of worship is my point of contact, now, with that glorious reality where Christ will one day be all in all.

I really believe this stuff, and, it has, for me, unmistakable “relational consequences” of its own that are far deeper than any merely human falling out however justified. I exercise saving faith when I allow Jesus to break down barriers that divide people, not when I define them. Any label I slap on others who disgust me (what a comical concept in itself) will be torn off anyway, on the day of unveiling. Any dividing wall has been fatally undermined by the earthquake that came after Jesus died. Any protecting veil for what human beings hold, rightly or wrongly, to be holy, been torn in two.

Therefore, in the end, if we take the cross seriously, there can no longer be “us” and “them.”

Lack of safeguards

The Covenant has also been criticised for failing to set limits on the issues which can give rise to disputes, and to provide procedural safeguards for those accused. This is not only unjust but also may undermine churches’ ability to respond to repeated calls by international Anglican gatherings to act boldly to defend the underprivileged and marginalised, and also take new theological and spiritual approaches.

For instance in 1973 the Anglican Consultative Council urged member churches “to acknowledge the Church's vocation to side with the oppressed in empowering them to live their own lives in freedom, even at some sacrifice to itself” and also stated that “The changing pattern of society demands that the Churches seek and engage in new methods of Bible study and liturgy to uncover their power for our times as revelatory instruments of the unique Christ”. Either of these could result in controversy, and if those offended turned to their friends and allies in other member churches for support, could internationalise conflict and trigger disciplinary measures.

As Jim Naughton pointed out on the Episcopal Cafe site: One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to notice that the covenant contains no standards of evidence, and provides for nothing resembling due process, The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion can investigate complaints in whatever manner it sees fit. Perhaps this is unsurprising. If the only fact at issue is whether a party has given offense, the only evidence necessary is the offended party’s assertion that they are, indeed offended. Having conducted an investigation under standards of its own devising, the Standing Committee can then respond in whatever manner it chooses including the imposition of “relational consequences.”

What is more: ...much of the evil in our world exists because it serves the self interest of powerful people and powerful institutions. These are people who can always arrange for a fuss to be made on their behalf—who can always claim that any attempt to rectify the balance of power in this world “tears at the fabric” of whatever community has summoned the fortitude to challenge their dominance. The covenant is a handy tool for maintaining the status quo—for making certain that the meek never come into the inheritance that Jesus promised them.

Other kinds of Covenant

In many people’s view, the proposed Anglican Covenant falls far short compared to the new Covenant between God and humankind.

It has also been compared unfavourably to the shorter Covenant for Communion in Mission, which “signifies our common call to share in God’s healing and reconciling mission for our blessed but broken and hurting world.” This begins with a commitment to “Recognise Jesus in each other’s contexts and lives” – probably essential if current divisions are to be overcome – while also pledging to “Meet to share common purpose and explore differences and disagreements” and “Be willing to change in response to critique and challenge from others”.

To “Work together for the sustainability of God’s creation” and “Live into the promise of God’s reconciliation for ourselves and for the world” are among the other pledges, as Christians experience “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ”. Such an approach might, in the longer term, be more fruitful.



© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice, including Anglican affairs. Savi is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist. She has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (with a Preface by Desmond Tutu), published by Shoving Leopard and Ekklesia in 2008.


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