A clearer, less divisive Anglican Covenant?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
15 Nov 2011

Attempts to bring in an Anglican Covenant which can be used to define Anglicanism and discipline member churches have run into difficulties.

Many are uneasy with this development. In November 2011, it became apparent that the province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia would reject it.

In the words of a diocesan resolution, one of its clauses contains ‘provisions which are contrary to our understanding of Anglican ecclesiology, to our understanding of the way of Christ, and to justice’.

Perhaps it is time to abandon such efforts and build on the foundations laid six years ago by the Anglican Consultative Council, when it agreed a very different Covenant for Communion in Mission.

A confusing and divisive Covenant

The Anglican Communion is an international family of churches, in which there is considerable theological diversity and no central authority. However there are periodic gatherings and other connections. In recent years some Anglican leaders – including Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury – have urged member churches throughout the world to adopt a Covenant. This is supposed to strengthen unity in the face of divisions, especially over human sexuality, but has proved highly controversial.

In an attempt to win wide support, earlier drafts have been revised, to the point that some feel it is too weak. In 2010 the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) primates declared that “the current text is fatally flawed and so support for this initiative is no longer appropriate”. However, many other Anglicans still see it as too punitive, damaging the autonomy of member churches and likely to result in a divided Communion, with an inner circle made up of provinces which have signed up, while others are marginalised.

There is now widespread confusion about what the Covenant means and how it will be used, even among its supporters.

According to a Pentecost letter from Williams in 2010, “the Covenant is nothing if not a tool for mission. I want to stress yet again that the Covenant is not envisaged as an instrument of control.”

Likewise Gregory Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph in Wales and formerly Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, claimed in early 2011 that “A view has been expressed in some quarters that the covenant has been designed with narrow purposes: to squash any consideration of the place of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the Church, and to punish The Episcopal Church with expulsion from the Communion because they had made moves in that direction... that was not what the Lambeth Commission had in mind when they proposed the idea of a Covenant in the Windsor Report, and, I believe, such an understanding of the covenant is deeply flawed... the covenant itself is quite clear: it is about processes and not exclusion”.

Yet in May 2011, the Province of Southeast Asia signed up to the Covenant for the very reason that it was about control and exclusion. To quote the Preamble to this province’s Letter of Accession:

The implicit theologies that underlie unscriptural practices in some parts of the Church have been a matter of huge concern to many in the Communion. This prompted the appeal in the Kuala Lumpur Statement to “uphold the authority of Scripture in every aspect life, including the family and human sexuality”. Lambeth Conference 1998 embraced these concerns

...our accession to the Anglican Communion Covenant is based on the following understanding:

(a) that those who accede to the Anglican Communion Covenant will unequivocally abide by Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10 in its spirit and intent;

(b) that those Provinces and Dioceses whose actions violate Lambeth Resolution 1.10 as well as subsequent Primates Communiqué statements that have placed a moratorium on the consecration of gay bishops and the authorisation and implementation of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions, are expected to rescind their actions, and bring their public doctrine and practice in line with Lambeth 1.10, before acceding to the Anglican Communion Covenant; and

(c) that Churches that accede to the Anglican Communion Covenant should bear authentic witness to the orthodox faith by an unequivocal commitment to the standards of moral and ethical holiness as set by Biblical norms in all aspects of their communal life. (Mt 19:4-6; Rom 1:21-32; 1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:16-26; Eph 5:3-14; Col 3:5-14; 1 Thess 4:3-12; 2 Tim 3:1-5; Heb 13:1-5; 1 Pet 4:1-11; 2 Pet 2:13-22; Jude v18-21; Rev 18:1-8).

(d) that the Primates Meeting, being responsible for Faith and Order, should be the body to oversee the Anglican Communion Covenant in its implementation.

Scripture and church discipline

It could be argued that Anglican churches should indeed be guided by ‘Biblical norms’ on the family and human sexuality. But what are they? Even a focus on the New Testament offers a range of possibilities.

The South East Asia document gives a number of references (only one of these from the Gospels). But why these and not others, e.g. Mt 5.21-22, Mt 19.10-12, 1 Jn 4.7-8? Where are there are different translations of these passages, which is correct? And what is their significance for Christians in today’s world?

Interpreting the Bible is not a simple task, and those striving to do so often disagree. Discerning where the living Word is leading may involve being attentive to Scripture, tradition, reason and experience – and being humble enough to admit to the possibility of being wrong.

For a faction within a wider movement to insist that their approach alone should be considered is divisive, and risks marginalising the work of the Holy Spirit. And a Covenant which gives greatest power to those most willing or able to insist on getting their own way fails to live up to what is best in Anglicanism’s diverse heritage.

Lambeth Conference and Anglican Consultative Committee motions are not as complex – and inspiring – as the Bible, but they do vary in emphasis, and few provinces abide by all, even those of recent years. It is perhaps a good thing that they are advisory rather than binding, since attempting to adhere to some can lead to a breach of others.

Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Conference is to some extent contradictory. Opponents of inclusion tend to emphasise the parts about “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and not advising “the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions”. Those in favour, or at least wanting dialogue, may point to the commitment “to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ”, and call “to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals”.

Part a of the resolution “commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality”. This states:

We call upon the Church and all its members to work to end any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to oppose homophobia...

We must confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality...

We request the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council to establish a means of monitoring work done in the Communion on these issues and to share statements and resources among us.

The challenge to our Church is to maintain its unity while we seek, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discern the way of Christ for the world today with respect to human sexuality. To do so will require sacrifice, trust and charity towards one another, remembering that ultimately the identity of each person is defined by Christ.

To adopt a Covenant and use it to silence and exclude those with other views would not seem to be in keeping with this.

There are all kinds of issues besides sexuality on which the Covenant could be invoked, if adopted internationally. It would be likely to promote factionalism within as well as between provinces, even within the ‘inner track’ of signatories.

The other Anglican Covenant

Fortunately, there is a shorter, clearer Covenant which has already been agreed, though in some provinces (such as the Church of England) it seems to be little known.

In Resolution 27 of the 2005 Anglican Consultative Council, the Covenant for Communion in Mission was commended “to the churches of the Anglican Communion for study and application as a vision for Anglican faithfulness to the mission of God”. It was also forwarded “to those bodies of the Anglican Communion tasked to consider an Anglican Covenant”, though they chose to go down another route.

The Covenant for Communion in Mission reads:

This Covenant signifies our common call to share in God’s healing and reconciling mission for our blessed but broken and hurting world.

In our relationships as Anglican sisters and brothers in Christ, we live in the hope of the unity that God has brought about through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nourished by Scripture and Sacrament, we pledge ourselves to:

1. Recognise Jesus in each other’s contexts and lives
2. Support one another in our participation in God’s mission
3. Encourage expressions of our new life in Christ
4. Meet to share common purpose and explore differences and disagreements.
5. Be willing to change in response to critique and challenge from others
6. Celebrate our strengths and mourn over our failures.
7. Share equitably our God-given resources.
8. Work together for the sustainability of God’s creation.
9. Live into the promise of God’s reconciliation for ourselves and for the world.

We make this covenant in the promise of our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.

It is time for champions of the other Covenant to abandon their efforts and instead seek to build a more authentic unity based on mutual respect and willingness to listen to others as well as expressing one’s own views. No section of the Anglican Communion or wider church has a monopoly on the workings of the Holy Spirit.

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© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator or religious and political affairs. An Ekklesia associate, she has a long-standing interest in the development of the Anglican Communion. She contributed to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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