Anglican Covenant: a briefing paper (part 3)

This is part 3 of my response to GS Misc 966 (pdf)The Faith and Order Commission, The Anglican Covenant: a briefing paper.  This is a briefing for members of the Church of England's General Synod who are to debate the Covenant on November 24th.  I am using the same headings as the briefing paper.

Part 1: centralisation  ~  Part 2: the radical agenda  ~  Part 3: answering the critics
(pdf - All three parts slightly edited)

Answering the critics

Does the Covenant represent a new departure in Anglican life?
Yes.  For key reasons set out in my previous post.

I would like to pick up one comment in particular:
27. In 1867, the first Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops was called, when Canadian bishops objected both to the liberal tendencies in biblical exegesis demonstrated by the Bishop of Natal, John Colenso and to the chaos that ensued when Colenso was deposed by the Archbishop of Cape Town. 
It was, of course, not just the Canadian bishops.  However my quibble is with the word 'chaos' - most Anglicans around the world carried on much as they had before.  There was certainly legal confusion, not all of it caused by the deposition of Colenso.  Where there was chaos - and farce on occasions - was in the Diocese of Natal when attempts were made to insert a second jurisdiction on the ground where Colenso was still living and working as a bishop.

Yet this has been the plan of some conservatives for nearly a decade.  In 2002 Drexel Gomez co-edited with Maurice Sinclair a book called To Mend the Net: Anglican Faith and Order for Renewed Mission (2002). It was a critique of The Virginia Report (pdf) and a prescription for dealing with The Episcopal Church in the USA.  The prescription included changing the structures of the Communion in such a way as to enable the demotion of a Church within the Communion and the creation of a new jurisdiction to supplant a Church which persistently refused to conform to the Biblical standards of the Communion. (See earlier post.) The Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) embodies a province-in-waiting, following a plan leaked in 2004 (the so-called Chapman Report, see also Background reading (TA) and  Fr Jake stops the World).

The Archbishop of Canterbury chose Archbishop Drexel Gomez as Chair of the Covenant design Group knowing his published views.  If the Covenant (as many conservatives wish) leads to the expulsion of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada from the Communion it will be followed by attempts by ACNA to assert itself as the legitimate Anglican Province in the US.  It will also retrospectively justify all the conservative intrusions into TEC's jurisdiction.

And then we'll see chaos. 

There is, of course, no objection to the continued evolution of the Communion and its inter-Church instruments. The objection is to evolution in this particular form.

Section 4 is not a 'technical' section.  It has exactly the same standing as any other section (except the introduction).  Section 4 is essential to understanding the Covenant as it outlines just how the Covenant is to be implemented.

Will the Covenant create highly centralised, and un-Anglican, structures?

Yes to centralisation, see earlier post.

The question of whether it's un-Anglican depends in part what you mean by Anglicanism.  In my judgement the Covenant will (if passed) inaugurate a step-change in Anglican structures and  in the relationship between the constituent Churches.  They will still be recognisably Anglican but they will also have lost much of what was previously distinctively Anglican, specifically the ambiguity and flexibility around dispersed authority of which Anglicans were once very proud.

There are other aspects of the Covenant's implementation which may be un-Anglican (again, depending on what you mean by  ...).  In particular Jonathan Clatworthy explores questions of theology and theological tradition and the extent to which traditional Anglican (Hooker's) theology, resting on scripture, reason and tradition, is in danger of having at least one of its legs cut off.

Is the Covenant basically a disciplinary measure?
It is not only a disciplinary measure - but that is its basis.  

The disciplinary (punitive) aspects of the Covenant are basic because:
  1. the Covenant emerged from a desire to punish and exclude from the Communion TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada, or at least those parts of these bodies which were seen to have moved  away from Biblical Christianity and stepped into cultural relativism.
  2. the disciplinary processes set out in section 4 may or may not be invoked.  But their presence shapes the nature of the Covenant and will always lie at the base of the relationships between signatories.
  3. there is no clear alternative base in subsidiarity or the affirmation of the re-presentation of the Gospel in new times and places.
Most of the overtly juridical aspects of the Covenant have been removed from the text - leading to some curious terminology such as 'relational consequences'. Quasi-juridical processes remain.  However, instead of legal thinking and lawyers governing the processes, now the processes will be governed by church bureaucrats.

Rowan Williams is quoted as saying (para. 47),
The last bit of the Covenant text is the one that’s perhaps been the most controversial, because that’s where we spell out what happens if relationships fail or break down. It doesn’t set out, as I’ve already said, a procedure for punishments and sanctions. It does try and sort out how we will discern the nature of our disagreement, how important is it? How divisive does it have to be? Is it a Communion breaking issue that’s in question – or is it something we can learn to live with? And so in these sections of the Covenant what we’re trying to do is simply to give a practical, sensible and Christian way of dealing with our conflicts, recognising that they’re always going to be there.
Yet Section 4 clearly does set out 'a procedure for punishments and sanctions' even if the terms are not used. Whether it will meet the more positive aspects of this quote - discerning the significance of a dispute and whether or not it's something the Communion can live with - is not in fact spelled out in the Covenant.  The facility is there in the two rounds of consultation seeking a 'shared mind' (4.2.3, 4.2.4), but exactly how it works will depend very much on the people involved at the time (and on whatever 'Communion Code' is developed). The constructive use of the Covenant in the face of potential disputes is not inherent in the text of Section 4.

Is the Covenant confessional and biblical?
This is not something I've explored from a liberal perspective although I have commented on the uneven use of the bible in the final text.  It is, however, a concern for many conservatives.

Confessional?  In one sense Anglicanism has never been a confessional church.  In another, more important, sense the confession of faith in the liturgy and in action have been central to realising Anglican discipleship.  So I suppose the way the Covenant uses and refers to Scripture is thoroughly Anglican.

Will the Covenant tend to quench the Spirit?
Yes.  But ..

Insofar as the Covenant will encourage all its signatories to watch its back and avoid taking steps which might offend others (as much out of self-censorship as out of the reality of 'questions' being asked) then it will tend to reduce experimentation, to frown on new expressions of faith and to be highly suspicious of fresh presentations of the Gospel.

Insofar as those who instigate action under the Covenant are (at least given the present constellation of attitudes in the Communion) more likely to be more conservative then it will consistently be the more spiritually adventurous people who will have most to fear.  It will become even more difficult for local experimentation to be endorsed formally by a province.  

The briefing paper itself acknowledges the risk that the Covenant may well not be constructive:
56. Properly used, the processes outlined in the Covenant should assist this process of discerning the work of the Spirit within the Anglican Communion. However, this will only be possible if a conscious effort is made to foster proper lines of communication and deeper bonds of friendship across the Communion.

The problem, of course, is that we have to work with the text of the Covenant and the arrangements currently in place.  We can't ask people to sign a document on the hope that a 'conscious effort' will be made effectively.

But the Spirit will not be quenched so easily.  People will continue to explore and express their personal and corporate faith in ways that others would not approve.  People will continue to write books that others will condemn.  There is no way that people are going to agree, even on the most basic aspects of Christian discipleship, faith and order.  Nor will any document make them agree.  'Twas ever thus.  This is the normal and healthy life of the Church.

Though what might happen, and I do not think this would be a good thing, could be the further extension of the gap between official and actual government of the Church.  The Church of England (I can't comment on anywhere else) runs on secrets everyone knows, on willful ignorance of the rules, of rules not meant to be taken literally, of laws that are unenforced and sometimes unenforceable.  It stems from generations of being a State Church and yet believing the Church governs its own affairs.

What difference will the Covenant make?
Well, that's the question.  Yet the briefing paper only addresses this question in one respect: who will constitute the Anglican Communion?

Paragraphs 59-63 seem to suggest that major changes in the membership of the Communion are more likely than not (though this is speculative and uncertain, para. 63).  The options are:
  1. other churches not currently in the Communion may join (ACNA?) (4.1.5)
  2. some currently in the Communion may not adopt the Covenant.  They may wish to stay within but would then be relegated to a second tier.
  3. some would want to maintain links with the covenanting Churches while their primary allegiance is to another structure (GAFCON?)
  4. and some, of course, may find themselves excluded (TEC, ACoC?).
Thus, in the name of unity, the advent of the Covenant may well force the issue of who's in the club and who's out - by no means all will want to join, some won't be able to join because of legal constraints, while others may be blackballed.  

For those within the Covenant I predict its implementation will lead to certain other differences:
  1. The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury will have to be re-thought
  2. The culture of the Communion will become more legalistic, 
  3. Individual churches will become more cautious
  4. If there is full-scale re-aligment, then diocesan, parochial, mission society and other links will all have to be re-thought.
  5. Over time, power and authority will steadily leach from member Churches to the central bodies of the Communion. One corollary of which will be:
  6. that when the next divisive row breaks out there will be little incentive to keep it local.  Small vociferous and implacable groups would be well advised to make disputes global quickly.

Questions the briefing paper doesn't address
  1. How much will it cost?
  2. What will happen to those provinces (e.g. North and South India, Hong Kong) who can't legally join?  Or to other united Churches whose concerns and formal relationships are not merely Anglican?
  3. If the Covenant is used to expel TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada how will the aftermath be addressed? Will alternative jurisdictions be recognised?  Will provinces which sponsored intrusion into North America suffer no sanctions?  Who will fill the hole in the Communion's budget?
  4. Section 4 of the Covenant is written as though there is one offending Covenant member at a time.  But experience suggests that any significant conflict will cut across the whole Communion and international division will be echoed by division within Provinces.  How will the Covenant mechanisms address multi-directional conflicts?

"64. The outcome of the Covenant process across the Communion remains unclear. However, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his first address to the 2008 Lambeth Conference:
A Covenant should not be thought of as a means for excluding the difficult or rebellious but as an intensification – for those who so choose – of relations that already exist. And those who in conscience could not make those intensified commitments are not thereby shut off from all fellowship; it is just that they have chosen not to seek that kind of unity, for reasons that may be utterly serious and prayerful. Whatever the popular perception, the options before us are not irreparable schism or forced assimilation. We need to think through what all this involves in the conviction that all our existing bonds of friendship and fellowship are valuable and channels of grace, even if some want to give such bonds a more formal and demanding shape."
My conclusion is that I do not trust a document or a process if I have to be told how I should think about it.  I wish to read what it actually says, to look at the context in which it will be operated, and to judge for myself what the options are.

I judge that the Covenant will replace the bonds of friendship and fellowship with bonds of a legally enforceable contract (even if it's only enforceable in the negative).  It may be that friendship and fellowship will defeat legalism, but it's an unnecessary risk and I, for one, do not think the Church should take it.


(pdf - All three parts slightly edited)


  1. Thank you for these comments. The insights and synopses of the covenant statements and its intents are most useful. Following my sermon this morning some interest has been aroused and I shall make use of your stuff in the ensuing process.