Anglican Covenant: where next?
Prof Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch,
(credit: Chris Gibbions)
Twenty years into the reign of that good and pious monarch George III, in 1780, John Dunning MP tabled a motion in the House of Commons that ‘The influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’. It was passed, despite much fury from the government of the day (which had just inadvertently created the United States of America by its stupidity).
Dunning’s Motion did not end the efforts of the executive to accrue power and centralise; those efforts are with us still. Nevertheless, to use a phrase which Dunning would not have recognised, but would have relished, it was a reality check: it reminded royalty and the executive to preserve a delicate balance amid parliamentary politics and not try undue self-assertion. Although George III was pretty cross at the time, his successor still sits on her throne, while the descendants of many monarchs contemporary with King George look back on the guillotine, the firing-squad or ignominous exile.
A triumphalist whiggish anecdote from British history, yes, but on the weekend of 18 February, a very whiggish event happened in England.
Four Anglican diocesan synods were asked to vote in favour of the Anglican Covenant, with every pressure from the executive (that is, the vast majority of the Bench of Bishops), and all four synods declined to do so.
It was a sign that the incoherence of the arguments in favour of the Covenant was beginning to become clear.
We have been assured that the Covenant is vital for the future of the Anglican Communion, and so not to approve it will lead to break-up and theological incoherence. Equally, we have been assured that the Covenant has been watered down so much that it won’t change very much really, so it is perfectly safe to vote for it. Above all, not to vote for it will be very upsetting for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who supports the Covenant.
This argument, widely if a little surreptitiously canvassed, irresistibly reminds me of a MacCulloch family anecdote: my grandfather was taking morning worship in St Columba’s Episcopal Church, Portree, around 1900. It was a hot day; a party had come to church from one of the great houses on the Isle of Skye, and one of the young ladies said to her hostess in a stage whisper, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to faint’. The matriarch majestically retorted ‘You will do no such thing. It would be disrespectful to Almighty God, and distressing for Canon MacCulloch.’ Although the admonition was on that occasion successful, that is no way to do theology.
The future of Anglicanism can’t be decided on whether a momentous theological decision will hurt any one person’s feelings.
The Anglican Covenant is bad theology for many reasons: the most important of which is that it gives to central bodies the authority to decide who is fully an Anglican, in a way that offends every canon of Anglican history.
It also makes an elementary mistake about discipline in our tradition. There is no question but that the Covenant originated in a wish on the part of certain primates of the Communion to put the Episcopal Church of the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada in the Naughty Corner. If anyone tries to deny that, let she or he read a collection of essays from 2002, To mend the net, co-edited by Archbishop Drexel W. Gomez of the West Indies (Chairman of the Covenant Design Group, no less) and by Archbishop Maurice W. Sinclair of the Southern Cone.
Now it is obvious that every body with a common purpose needs rules which may amount to discipline; but discipline in our Church is exercised against erring individuals, not against entire ecclesial bodies which have in prayer and careful thought about real pastoral situations, have come to their own decision about what is right for their own situation in a God-given place.
It is a nonsense to try to spank an entire Church, although authoritarian-minded folk have often tried it over the centuries of Christian history. On 18 February, four Anglican dioceses made that point.
So far, ten dioceses in England have voted down the Covenant, and only five have voted for it. Now, perhaps, those bishops who back this ill-thought-out and potentially disastrous measure should get the message, and let the Covenant quietly subside into the swamp of bad ideas in Anglican history.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford and a Patron of the No Anglican Covenant Campaign.