Why the Covenant won’t work.

The Covenant will work in all sorts of ways, of course, some intended some predictable if unintended.

What it won’t do and can’t do, is what it says on the tin. It cannot ‘prevent and manage’ disputes:

This Commission believes that the case for adoption of an Anglican Covenant is overwhelming:

  • The Anglican Communion cannot again afford, in every sense, the crippling prospect of repeated worldwide inter-Anglican conflict such as that engendered by the current crisis. Given the imperfections of our communion and human nature, doubtless there will be more disagreements. It is our shared responsibility to have in place an agreed mechanism to enable and maintain life in communion, and to prevent and manage communion disputes. (Windsor Report §119)

The reason it cannot ‘prevent and manage’ disputes is simple. If the Covenant mechanisms can be applied retrospectively (which is effectively what is being attempted) then these mechanisms are applied as it were from the outside of the dispute. They step in like courts and police to adjudicate and enforce an outcome – in this case the expulsion (in whole or part) of the offending members of the Communion.

But once the Covenant is in place it can never act as if from the outside of the dispute. The next disputes, large and small, will be conducted by people who will be acutely conscious of the Covenant and its conflict resolution provisions. The Covenant will be inside the next dispute and party to it.

The Windsor Report sought to address a situation in which the storm blew across the whole Communion and no-one could catch it or control it. Logically, therefore, they proposed a mechanism which would catch and control the next one.

But, in creating the Covenant, they changed the weather-pattern of next dispute. The next storm will be funnelled very quickly into the narrower and narrower space of: mediation – Primates’ Meeting and ACC – Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. There will be no point in disputants doing anything else. If the SCAC is the point where things are determined then there is every incentive to get the SCAC to decide the issue as soon as possible.

The very presence of the SCAC will be an invitation to belligerents not to accept local resolution but to magnify their case, to internationalise it, and to deliberately engage the SCAC as a means of self-promotion, win or lose. The very existence of a single, international, focal point will attract small storms and will encourage them to expand.

For example;

In 1913 in Kikuyu, a village in what is now Kenya, a conference took place between Anglican and Presbyterian missionaries to address the issue of how migrant Christians were to be welcomed in one another’s churches. They outlined the terms of co-operative work in the mission field and, buoyed up with shared enthusiasm, they concluded with a shared Holy Communion celebrated by the Bishop of Mombassa, W.G. Peel.

The neighbouring, High Church, unsubtle, passionate Bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston took deep exception. He had not been present and he did not realise that there had been no formal agreement at Kikuyu. Weston started a dispute over inter-communion, the recognition of non-episcopally ordained clergy, and the validity of their sacraments. Bigger things were at stake. Weston feared the spread of liberalism in the Church, the prospect of a pan-protestant alliance which would marginalise Catholics, and the impact on his missionary work where he competed with Islam and Roman Catholicism both of which evangelised with single, clear voices.

The disagreement rapidly expanded. The Archbishop of Canterbury set up a ‘conflict resolution mechanism’ (an international committee of bishops). The committee broadly supported Weston’s views though they did accept that, in some narrow circumstances, nonconformists could receive communion in Anglican churches. The dispute was conducted by post and pamphlet during the first world war: consider how it would be with today’s communications.

If the SCAC is successful in resolving a few minor ecclesiastical skirmishes its mechanisms will be hailed as proven and greater expectations will be laid on its shoulders. Small successes will set up bigger failures.

Disputes of the scale of the current dispute over sexuality are thankfully infrequent. But they are analogous to civil war, not to cases of marital disharmony. In a civil war, by definition, the mechanisms of law and order break down and ‘ordinary’ conflict resolution is replaced by force of arms.

The predictable result will be that, sooner or later, a storm will destroy the Covenant arrangements. When the storm is still at its most destructive it will be concentrated into a committee of 15 people, many of whom will be partisan and none of whom will be neutral. Sooner or later the depth and intractability of such disputes will destroy the SCAC and the Anglican Communion will have to start again looking for a new structure.

Instead of doing what it says on the tin the Covenant will have achieved its opposite.

* * * *

The leaders of the Anglican Communion are intelligent, reflective, careful people. It maybe that hope has clouded their vision as to this outcome of the Covenant arrangements or that, having once run their colours up this particular flagpole it would be too embarrassing to haul them down again. But I doubt it.

I suspect a more cynical consciousness. I suspect the purpose of the Covenant and its conflict resolution mechanisms was never to ‘prevent and manage’ future disputes.

I suspect the Covenant was intended merely to give effect to the terms on which the most vociferous conservatives were willing to remain within the Anglican Communion: the exclusion of TEC. It is a one-shot weapon. Any longer-term consequences are left to be dealt with when the time arises.


  1. Thanks for this sudden flurry of articles on the Covenant.

    This is one of the few blogs where one can get an authoritative overview of the Covenant.

    I'm glad you are exposing its flaws. It was after all a 'knee jerk' response that came out as an ill-thought -through panic response from the Windsor Report.

    As I think you have blogged before it is likely to end up enshrining and formalising a three way schism in the Anglican Communion as follows:

    1. Those who out of loyalty to Canterbury sign up
    2. Those who won't or who can't
    3. The schismatic groups who dare not

    If the C of E General Synod rejects it then Williams will need to resign. It is rather unlikely to do that, rather it'll obfuscate by referring it to the dioceses (as it has to) but then what if only a bare majority accept it?

    I suspect that the Bishop of London (who is currently courting the evangelicals like mad) hasn't yet given up hope of becoming Williams's successor. His installation (which is very likely as the English Establishment is fed up with the wider Communion) would be rather as in the time of Donald Coggan who was put in as a caretaker for five years after the saintly (Williams like) Michael Ramsey. Chartres is about 64 at the moment and 70 is the mandatory retirement age.

  2. What are the chances that a bishop who has never ordained a woman to the priesthood - which I understand is the case with Chartres - could be appointed ABC? I imagine there would be a hell of an outcry.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Dear Lapinbizarre,

    As I have blogged on a later article on this illustrious site - 'Last time around Chartres said publicly that he would ordain women if he became Archbishop because the office required it'.