The Covenant Behemoth

The Archbishop of Canterbury on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was his day off.

Ephraim Radner at The Anglican Communion Institute, Inc. has made some proposals on the Anglican Covenant.

(This was intended to be a critique of Radner's proposals but in fact I've just used some of what he wrote to spark off a rant of my own.)

Radner's proposals are broad brush and not so very different from those in the present Appendix of the St Andrew's Draft Covenant (official papers and responses here).

The lack of detail is a problem in two ways. First it makes any alternative seem thin and indequately thought through. Second, more seriously, the necessity to assess any proposal against the present Appendix reinforces the sense that a Covenant is inevitable - it's only a matter of agreeing the procedural details and fine-tuning the text.

It seemed evident (insofar as anything could be discerned through the fog) that the procedural Appendix was heavily criticised at the Lambeth Conference. It would also seem that the response to this criticism was to look for other mechanisms to implement the Covenant and not to question the need for a Covenant in the first place. Given the insistence of the host that support of the Covenant was a precondition for attendance at Lambeth this was perhaps no surprise.

We can expect further versions (refinements) of the Covenant to be discussed
  • At the next Primates' Meeting (early 2009) - though the detailed proposal may not be made public or, if it is, only after the meeting.

  • At the next ACC meeting in 2009 (which has long been part of the timetable for adopting the Covenant. A new draft will be made public just before this meeting, to judge by past practice. ACC will be expected to endorse it and to commend it to the provincial legislatures for ratification.)

Radner is right that the proposed Faith and Order group will need to be integrated with the Covenant (and perhaps the Pastoral Forum too). It is, however, foolish to recommend its composition, as Radner does, before specifying its terms of reference, authority and mode of working.

Radner's proposals come close to identifying the Faith and Order group with the Commission envisaged in the Covenant Appendix to which the ABC may refer a contested matter. This could well be in the mind of the Windsor Continuation Group but to date I've seen no details of the proposal to be able to evaluate what it is to be asked to do nor how it will act.

This raises a significant question about the relationship between the Covenant, the existing Instruments of Unity, and the proposed new bodies. The ACC has a constitution which, presumably, will either be amended to fit the Covenant or, in the case of a clash, the rules of the constitution will take precedence. Conversely the Covenant presumes the existence of cetain bodies - the Primates' meeting, the Lambeth Conference and the ACC - but claims no authority over them. Those bodies could make decisions about their own membership, structures, supporting bodies and procedures which could conceivably disrupt the working of the Covenant.

This may seem unlikely but certain changes are not improbable. The creation of new provinces, for example, and the insistence that each province had its Primate could skew the balance of power in the Primates' Meetings (and England could already claim two members). At the moment (I think) the ACC and the ABC together control such things but this may not last, or be politically feasible, if the role of the ACC is reduced and that of the Covenant enhanced.

As a second example, the membership of the Anglican Communion is determined by the ACC and the ABC together. Members are those bodies (not all of which are provinces) which are in communion with the ABC. In the future members of the Communion will be those bodies which are signatory to the Covenant. Will this be by vote of the existing Covenant members? Or by the vote of the ACC and possible veto of the ABC as at present?

The creation of new bodies - the Faith and Order Commission and the Pastoral Forum - is another matter. Presumably they will be constructed with a view to cohering (legally and procedurally) with the Covenant mechanisms from the beginning. This will only add to the pressure to integrate (and subordinate) the existing Instruments of Unity to the Covenant structures.

One way and another - and the continued pressure to create a common canon law for the whole Communion is a central part of this - the Covenant will slowly generate a constitution for the whole Communion. And the genesis of this programme will shape its growth and final shape. The whole process is being created by an elite within the Communion to solve a conflict between the elite in the communion. The result will inevitably be top-down and authoritarian, it will take powers from the provinces (because there is nowhere else to take them from) and pass them to new central bodies controlled by a few men supported by small executive groups, powers will be granted to central bodies in legal documents and consequent government will, I predict, be legalistic in tone.

Whether this is good thing I leave you to judge. I don't think it is.


  1. All this assumes that the synods will hand over these powers. Some cannot and some will not want to do so - and if there are groups of Anglican Churches that result in having this Covenant, and some that don't, and some that organise otherwise (GAFCON) then it formalises the very thing it was meant to prevent: splits. But no matter what institutions get set up, these synods will not hand over what is their own. There will only ever be powers of persuasion.

  2. Yes, but ...

    This is the politics of squaring the circle. On the one hand each province (I assume) wants to retain its independence and its distinctiveness. On the other hand they are all bound together by bonds of affection - and history, worship, finance, friendships, ecclesiastical outfitters, theology, ... And they are members of the Instruments of Unity, which are highly valued in some places.

    To map these links would show both a great degree of commonality and difference.

    The only detailed mapping of linkages of which I am aware is of canon law - a project Norman Doe began 20-25 years ago. His work showed both much in common and many differences. This has been followed up by the creation of the Ecclesiastical Law Society in the UK which then turned itself into an international union of canon lawyers.

    Their proposal to square the circle, and one I believe is being actively followed, is to argue that it would only take a small step, really no more than a brief clause or two in most provinces' canons, to stitch the whole communion together in a way that would be formal, justiciable, and yet would make very little difference in practice. Honest.

    The covenant is merely one outworking of this thinking (cf. the Windsor Report). After all (the parallel argument goes) since 1963 the Communion has accepted principles of mutual responsibility and interdependence - writing this down in a document would only be a small constitutional step that would make very little difference in practice, and that difference would be positive. Honest.

    I suspect a careful mapping of all the other links would show many grounds for optimism about the possibility of a new non-juridical basis of communion - but no-one has done the work, nor put it into organizational form, and therefore it cannot offer church leaders hope of a solid way through the present conflicts.

    I agree that one probable outcome of the covenant process is balkanisation. It is not the only possible outcome. And, in some minds at least, the purpose of the covenant was to split the communion by dividing off TEC and Canada from the rest.

    And because the covenant is 'the only game in town' and 'there is no plan B' failure to achieve a covenant would not leave the Communion at status quo ante but in much worse disarray. Its senior leadership would be discredited and there would inevitably be a hiatus (though not necessarily too long) before a new generation of leaders could the start to look for new ways to square the circle.

    I would not underestimate this negative pressure alongside the positive: a choice between covenant or outer darkness may well prove persuasive to all but the strongest provinces.