Archbishop, I beg to differ

The Archbishop of Canterbury is clearly anxious that the Covenant project is endangered in England. There is still a long way to go and neither side can be confident of victory for a few more weeks.

So, to shore up support, Rowan Williams has had to put out an appeal on YouTube. He has also sent it to those Dioceses which have yet to vote on the Covenant and asked diocesan officers to circulate it.

What's the problem?
What sort of future?
The Archbishop is asking us to accept a vision of the future of the Anglican Communion that I, for one, simply and fundamentally disagree with. I disagree with the diagnosis of the problem that the Covenant is trying to resolve and I disagree with the medicine. I accept I can't offer an alternative blueprint but I also know there are much more creative and constructive alternatives to blueprints.

I think that the immediate problem the Covenant is seeking to resolve is the perceived arrogance and exceptionalism of The Episcopal Church (US) evinced in the decision to officially regard a same-sex relationship as not in itself a bar to ordination or preferment in the Church - and the choice of 'The Episcopal Church' as its official name as symbolically annoying - without consulting the rest of the Communion.

In fact the Covenant is a side-effect of the deeper and intractable problem: an underlying theological, cultural and perhaps irresolvable divide on the manner in which Churches ought not, may, and should conform to postmodernity.

Almost all objections were foreseen by the short-lived group which wrote Towards an Anglican Covenant (2006). They saw that:
Negatively, some worry that a covenant might be seen to alter the nature of the Communion towards that of a narrowly confessional family, with the attendant danger that preparedness to sign up to the covenant becomes a test of authentic membership. Others might see a potential danger in establishing a bureaucratic and legalistic foundation at the very heart of the Communion; putting at risk inspired and prophetic initiatives in God’s mission and threatening Anglican comprehensiveness. There is also a fear that the Anglican Communion might become a centralised jurisdiction. If the covenant were too detailed, it might prove too restrictive or inflexible to address unforeseen future challenges; if it were too general, it might commit the Communion to little or nothing: in either case, it would be inadequate. (§5)
Exactly. Though their next paragraph does begin positively...

Why this medicine?
Thus my objection to the Covenant is, first, on moral and logical grounds: that it is wrong to introduce coercion (even passive-aggressive coercion) into the Anglican Communion where no such coercion currently exists; and it is illogical to try to make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion (Windsor Report, §118, emphasis added).

Family therapy
Second, I object that you do not resolve a problem by expelling (or turning your backs on) one offender. The problems of Anglicanism, as the Archbishop himself has acknowledged, run through provinces as well as between them. Expulsion of one part of the communion may be emotionally satisfying but it immediately begs the question, when do you stop? How many 'recommendations' for the demotion or marginalisation of Anglican Provinces will satisfy those who believe that same-sex relationships are fundamentally and categorically anti-Christian?

Archbishop Drexel Gomez, retired.
And, for those who buy the line that the Covenant is not about excluding anyone, these quotes are from Drexel Gomez, chair of the Covenant Design group and appointed chair when (perhaps because) his views were already known:
The covenant also would provide a mechanism or process by which provinces, once they have signed the covenant, could be determined to have violated the covenant and, thus, to be deemed to have removed themselves from the Communion. (cited here)
And on another occasion,
...in many families, you remain in the family but you can’t stay in the house because your presence in the home is a bad example to other young people, and so you are forced to move out because what you are doing is an offense to the integrity of the family. (cited here)
The Archbishop in his video uses the term 'family' on more than one occasion. It's not clear whether he has this aspect of family life in mind.

Who counts in the Anglican Communion?
I also deeply object to a vision of the Communion which seems to exclude or devalue the majority of its members. The Archbishop in his video says that there has been a long consultation "with almost everyone in the Anglican Communion". This is only true if, by 'everyone', you mean those engaged at a senior level in each province. It excludes ordinary pew-sitting, pulpit-filling members.

Similarly, when the Archbishop says that the Church of England was deeply involved in creating the Covenant then you should know he means that certain members (not least bishops and canon lawyers) have helped shape the Covenant. They are not the Church of England, merely a select group within it. General Synod (the Church of England by representation) has only been allowed to discuss the principle of a Covenant, not its substance.

(And, to avoid misrepresentation, I am not saying every lay person and cleric across the world-wide Communion should have been personally consulted; I am saying that when the Archbishop said 'almost everyone' he was actually referring to a small, elite segment of the Church.)

More significantly than this, the Covenant project from the beginning was based on not taking national or provincial decision making assemblies seriously. Instead they were a problem to be got round or bypassed. The Windsor report said,
The Commission considers that a brief law would be preferable to and more feasible than incorporation by each church of an elaborate and all-embracing canon defining inter-Anglican relations, which the Commission rejected in the light of the lengthy and almost impossible difficulty of steering such a canon unscathed through the legislative processes of forty-four churches, as well as the possibility of unilateral alteration of such a law. (§117)
Thus, irrespective of any content, it was envisaged from the outset that the Covenant would have to evade scrutiny by, and thus marginalising, the representative, legal and supposedly autonomous decision making structures across the Communion. It is no wonder that I and others perceive it to be an attempt at a putsch, an affront to participative membership in the church and an attempt to take power away from its present locations and to pass it to unaccountable Communion-wide (central) bodies.

The Archbishop says that it is "misleading and false" to argue that the Covenant is a centralising proposal, that it will create an absolute authority, and that it will lead to people being punished for stepping out of line. These assertions deserve to be treated separately.

1) absolute authority
I entirely accept that the Covenant will not create an absolute authority. It doesn't make a Pope.

But it does do two contrary things and I believe neither of them are positive developments. First, and for the sake of this argument accepting that the 'Anglican Communion' means select members of each province, it provides a new network of rules and relationships through which future disputes and differences of vision may be played out. Thus the necessary politics of church decision making will, to an important degree, be translated from the provincial (and sub-provincial) level to the international level. In turn the politics of that level will feed back into the select groups of each provincial and local decision making body.

This will happen simply because new structures are being written to enable it to happen. Although nominally consultative and without legal powers these structures will inexorably accumulate and concentrate political power. (The Windsor Report said subsidiarity was important §§38, 83, 94-95; I don't believe it has been mentioned once in the whole process of writing the Covenant.)

Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu,
Philippe de Champaigne
This is a long way from absolute authority - but it is the transfer of power and influence that once subsisted in provincial and other structures to the larger scale. To put it another way - the distance between the person in the pew and effective decision making will grow greater by an order of magnitude. (And never forget that it is the person in the pew who ultimately pays for it all.)

Second, the structures that will mediate such politics are the existing Instruments of Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is pivotal in them all. He (or maybe, one day, she) will inevitably be the most powerful person in this whole political skein merely by being in the post. Furthermore once Anglican politics is dominated by the proposed international networks then their existing powers of patronage will become much more substantial. No Pope, but perhaps a Richelieu.

(I am pleased that the Archbishop didn't repeat the assertion that the Covenant would not create new structures, and Gregory Cameron now says no new 'institutions'. I guess they've heard some of the critique.)

2) Centralising
Here, I suppose, we will just have to differ. Perhaps it depends on what is meant by 'centralising'. But I've set out above (and elsewhere in this blog) some of what I think it means and the mechanisms by which it will happen.

So perhaps I can propose an indirect test: if the budget of the Anglican Communion increases markedly (absolutely or proportionately) as a consequence of the Covenant, will that not suggest that a great deal more is being done at the 'centre'? After all the recipients of this money will be accountable to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion who, legally, are the trustees of the Communion.

I agree that the words of the Covenant do not say: we will take powers from provinces and hold them centrally. But I do think that will be the inevitable consequence of the Covenant. I agree that the Covenant says only 'recommendations' can be made to provinces. However (in the absence of any other evidence) I point you to the manner with which the Covenant itself is being adopted - where the local decision making mechanisms are being regarded as a problem and opposition first unexpected and later dismissed.

Yet centralising, in at least one sense, is explicit in Rowan Williams' own words. Our ecumenical interlocutors want, he says,
a common language, a common practice, common set of standards about how to resolve conflicts when they arise ...
Perhaps greater uniformity is not itself greater centralisation but surely its enforcement must be?

(And, by the way, it is entirely possible to have shared conflict resolution processes without the rest of the Covenant superstructure.)

3) You can step out of line without punishment
Well, alright. It is hyperbole to say that every preacher had better watch what they say in the pulpit or they'll get hauled before some international Star Chamber. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!)

However, first, it is evident that the motivation for the Covenant (and not only in the eyes of Drexel Gomez and Maurice Sinclair) was to create the means to exclude TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada from the Anglican Communion against their will. Forgive me, but even if it's done by every other province turning their back on these two malefactors surely this constitutes punishment - ('the infliction of a penalty in retribution for an offence' OED.)

Second, the presence of the new international networks will inevitably lead to a degree of self-restraint, aided by the proposed Covenant office in each province and the proposed new duty of the Standing Committee to scrutinise new and potentially disturbing developments in all provinces. I predict that the positive and laudable goal of mutual consideration and accountability is likely to be recast in a negative form: no-one will want to risk being dragged into a dispute with another province; each decision making body will watch warily what everyone else is doing. Caution and self-censorship will replace the adventure of shared pilgrimage.

Lionel's chart of relationships in Section 4 (pdf)
His chart of its issue handling process is here (pdf)
Section 4 of the Covenant (decoded here) may not be written as a disciplinary system but it certainly reads like one. There is much that is positive in the ideas of conflict prevention and resolution which lie behind the Covenant. But the whole is spoiled by the bitter taste of the possibility of recommending exclusion from the club.

A secondary but important consequence of this scrutiny will be pressure (quiet words, encouragement, advice) applied on some Provinces to change their internal polity. As things stand with the Covenant at the moment those provinces where dioceses are the effective decision makers and the provincial bodies are weaker (Canada, Australia, for example) will effectively be untouchable by Covenant mechanisms addressed to provincial decisions. New Zealand too, with its unique three-tikanga structure would come under pressure. Although this is all further down the line, I'd call it centralising.

Exclusion (punishment) is only likely to be evoked very rarely. However it is already clear (and see Louie Crew's video) that lesser punishments (sorry, 'relational consequences') - derived from the ultimate sanction of exclusion - may occur more frequently.

Smaller provinces
This section of the Archbishop's video is an argument for the Covenant that's new to me and which needs to be taken seriously. The Archbishop appears to say that smaller and vulnerable provinces are exactly the groups which need the Covenant most. But, unless someone can show me otherwise, I am convinced they were never in the thinking of the Covenant designers. It seems like an after-thought, to me. The Archbishop says,
But who needs the Covenant, it might be said? There's one very short answer to that. Some bits of our Communion represent needy and isolated parts of the Christian world. They need relationships. They need the assurance that we won't drive them into difficult positions. They need to know that we take them seriously enough to engage in conversation with them. And that's part of what keeps them going, and what makes them strong. It’s very interesting that some of the parts of the Communion that have already said yes to the Covenant are exactly that kind of church.
He omits to mention that the Philippines have rejected the Covenant.

First I wish to reiterate that all parties to the Covenant debate so far as I can see value the Communion very highly. It is precisely because we hold it dear that we get emotional and hyperbolic about it. (You might like the account of how the Covenant was considered thoughtfully in Glasgow and Galloway, and its conclusions on the Communion.)

Second, it is clear that the Anglican Communion offers a great deal of support and strength to its members who are under considerable strain (Zimbabwe, for example, and Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere). This happens without a Covenant already and will happen with or without one in the future. So I don't really think it's an argument for this Covenant. It is an important reminder about the significance of the Communion overall.
Rowan Williams in Zimbabwe, October 2011

It is true that their enemies have been able to use TEC's acceptance of the normality of gay people in the community against them. Indeed, in some areas where the Anglican Church is strong, the issue of acceptance of homosexuality is used by Islamic and other Christian denominations as a stick to beat the Anglicans. This may have made life more difficult, though it was difficult enough to start with.

But no church, howsoever considerate, can give a blank cheque to another that it will always hold back from acting in ways that it discerns to be right in its territory. It would end up with the intolerable position of staying with something wrong in one place for the sake of something wrong elsewhere. I entirely endorse the themes of mutual consultation, accountability and restraint as general principles. But no-one can wait for ever at someone else's behest: win-win solutions are seldom easily available and hard choices have to be made.

And, finally, Ecumenism
If the Archbishop means the Roman Catholic Church when he talks about ecumenism then he should say so. Anglican Churches have many ecumenical informal and formal associations without the Covenant. Indeed, it seems important that conversations with other churches are conducted on the basis of the reality of each church, not on the desire to be something else.

And with thanks to the volunteer copy editors: all remaining errors I cheerfully own as mine.


  1. Anonymous9/3/12

    Refreshing! Marilyn McCord Adams

  2. Thanks, Paul. I'm pleased to see your review of our Anglican family history, with quotes from Archbishop Gomez included in your excellent post. He was present at the birth of the idea of the covenant. I expect that the ABC and Bishop Cameron might wish to disown certain of Abp Gomez's commentary at this particular time, but alas...

    I hope the intrusion into your comments of a member of the (arrogant and exceptionalist?) Episcopal Church doesn't spoil the entire thread here.

  3. Grandmère Mimi, you know you are always welcome in my house.

  4. Well done, once again. I love the little graphics showing the difference between centralized and decentralized and distributed. The latter looks an awful lot what the pilot phase of the Continuing Indaba looked like when we put it in graphic form last fall. I'm very happy to see the following motion that is popping up in some of the upcoming diocesan synods: a good way to say yes to the Communion -- and I think it will be a big help in loosening the grip the Covenant may hold on some...

  5. Anonymous11/3/12

    Oh, oh, oh!

    If only we could turn back the clock
    to those times,
    those glorious times
    of empire

    where what we didn't wish to see
    didn't exist!

    Oh, oh, oh!
    Exclusive god is under attack
    Hide your babies,
    protect your wives
    don't let them

    return the ribs
    they took from you
    in their creation

    Don't let the scars
    be seen to be equal.

    Oh, oh, oh,
    why such diversity
    in the world
    without permission?

    Why such confusing variety
    why such love, such passions
    issue from
    the same font
    the same fount
    the same fountain but

    refuse the same stream?