How might the Anglican Covenant work in England?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
6 Dec 2010

In November 2010, the Church of England moved a step further to accepting an Anglican Covenant which could be used to discipline member churches – though those it was meant to placate firmly rejected it.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams urged support for the Covenant, warning of dire consequences if it was not taken forward, the General Synod, the Church of England's governing body, agreed to send it out to dioceses. If most of these accept it, it will return to Synod to be adopted. It was clear, however, that many of those present were concerned about the effects of such a Covenant.

“It frankly feels like we will be sending sincere and faithful Anglicans to stand in the corner until they have seen the error of their ways and can return to the ranks of the pure and spotless,” explained John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln, during the debate. “As an answer to a difficult and complex problem, this Covenant is simple, straight-forward and I still believe probably wrong. There is too much religion in the world and not enough faith, and I think this Covenant seems to be more about factory-farmed religion than free-range faith.”

In recent years Dr Williams has championed the Covenant in a quest for greater ‘unity’, after Anglican leaders in some provinces strongly objected to the actions of others, especially moves towards equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people.

Yet, on the day of the Synod vote, a statement was issued by the Primates' Council of the Global Anglican Futures (GAFCON) movement stating that “we will not be present at the next Primates’ meeting to be held in Ireland. And while we acknowledge that the efforts to heal our brokenness through the introduction of an Anglican Covenant were well intentioned, we have come to the conclusion the current text is fatally flawed and so support for this initiative is no longer appropriate.” (Each primate is the most senior bishop in one of the Anglican Communion’s provinces.)

So the Covenant will not succeed in overcoming divisions, or even creating superficial unity among the vast majority of provinces, in the Anglican Communion. What will happen over the next three or four years is uncertain.

It is still possible however that Dr Williams and his allies will push ahead, and leadership of the Communion will pass to an inner core of provinces signed up to the Covenant, including the Church of England, while a sizeable number of other churches – both in favour of and opposed to greater inclusion – remain on the outside. The C of E would then have to live within the constraints of the Covenant.

How Covenant might work

The Covenant text contains various ambiguities, and how it is interpreted will depend to a large extent on the priorities of whoever the key figures in Anglican circles are at any time and on shifts in the balance of power.

The most immediate effect would probably be to block progress towards greater inclusion of LGBT people (and heterosexual people who regard such discrimination as wrong and find it off-putting). Williams, in his address to Synod, urged greater focus on the theological debate around homosexuality.

The Church of England is supposedly committed to ongoing reflection on this. Yet, even if the vast majority of its leaders come to believe that – as numerous eminent theologians have argued – same-sex partnerships involving physical intimacy are not always wrong, they may be unable to act on this. Covenant signatories pledge “to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern” and “to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission”.

Several of the overseas church leaders who have refused even to consider the possibility that such relationships might be acceptable, scorning dialogue with their own LGBT members and thorough theological study, may well sign up to the Covenant. To avoid upsetting them, the Church of England might have to go on discriminating against partnered LGBT people, at least over the next few decades, however badly this damages its own credibility.

The Church of E’nglands position in British society might create further difficulties which other provinces signed up to the Covenant avoid. For instance, many of those passionately opposed to greater inclusion of LGBT people have also vocally attacked Western churches for not insisting strongly enough on the superiority of Christianity, and in some cases on its status as the only path to salvation. While some might argue that this view is contradictory to the overall biblical trajectory and much church tradition (including the more nuanced statements of Vatican II and the Church of England's own Doctrine Commission report on The Mystery of Salvation), this is treated by their critics as a symptom of departure from the 'true faith'.

Let us suppose that, a few years from now, a UK government-funded research study finds that schools could in many cases improve their support to bereaved pupils. The Church of England runs numerous state-funded schools in England, taking in children of all faith backgrounds and none, and its education division sets out to produce an up-to-date guidance pack for staff on what to do when a child experiences the death of a family member or friend, taking into account the psychological and spiritual dimensions.

Churches signed up to the Covenant affirm “the catholic and apostolic faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures... The historic formularies of the Church of England [which include the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion], forged in the context of the European Reformation and acknowledged and appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion, bear authentic witness to this faith.”

To quote from articles 17 and 18, which are among the most controversial:

“Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour... As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation... They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”

If Church of England members committed to this view were to appeal to an overseas primate, who then declared that any such pack must uphold the doctrine of predestination and damnation of all non-Christians, or communion would be impaired, the Church of England could find itself in a very difficult position. It would be expected under the Covenant to try to reach an agreement with the church leader; if he were insistent, the matter might be referred to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.

This might tell him he was being unreasonable, pointing out that numerous Anglicans worldwide do not today hold to those particular Articles, and that it would anyway be impractical for the Church of England to insist on it in such a context. Or it might threaten ‘relational consequences’ if the Church of England did not agree to the demand: for instance, humiliatingly, English bishops might be reduced to ‘observer’ status at the next Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury debarred from representing Anglicans at an historic meeting with senior Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders.

Meanwhile a heated debate might be underway in England, with questions in Parliament about the possibility that grieving six-year-olds might be told that their beloved grandparents were burning in hell, and threats of resignation from teachers in Church of England schools who would find such an approach inhumane and unprofessional, who might well get backing from unions and professional bodies. Other Christians might however insist that watering down true doctrine ultimately did no-one any favours.

Another potential conflict zone

It is impossible to be certain how the Covenant would work in practice. The example chosen here would perhaps prove to be far in excess of actual outcomes. But then again, fifteen years ago few would have predicted the level of vituperation over issues of sexuality within the church, nor the conflicts between church practice and equalities legislation occasioned by strongly socially conservative interpretations of Christian tradition.

Whatever the specific issues and responses, it seems likely, however, that the Anglican Covenant in its present form is set to cause more problems than it solves.

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© 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.

See also: http://noanglicancovenant.org/

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