Covenant, conflict prevention and resolution

This post is effectively a close re-writing of the relevant sections of the proposed Anglican Covenant. I would encourage you to read the original

It is the background to a forthcoming series of posts offering a critique of the conflict prevention and resolution proposals. I plan to post these over the next two or three weeks.


Finding ways to resolve conflicts in the Anglican Communion without fracturing the communion in the process was a key objective of the proposed Anglican Covenant.

The Covenant outlines two strands to meet this goal.

First, conflict prevention, is designed to predispose provinces away from conflict by greater mutual engagement, entanglement and understanding. To sign the Covenant is to give a prior commitment to seek constructive and shared routes away from future conflict.

The second strand, conflict resolution, establishes a process to address conflict when it becomes intractable.

(The related issue of how some provinces within the Covenant and others outside it are supposed to operate is too complex to contemplate until all, or almost all, provinces have declared their hand.)

Strand 1: conflict prevention:
  1. Adopting the Covenant itself.  Signatories declare their prior willingness to enter a non-destructive conciliation processes should potential conflicts arise (3.1.1 and 3.1.2).  In particular signatories' 'common life' will be 'conformed together to the mind of Christ' through the mediation of the 'Instruments of Communion' (3.1.2 and 3.1.4). By inference this would exclude setting up alternative structures in the Global South or anywhere else.
  2. The 'central role of bishops as guardians and teachers of faith, as leaders in mission, and as a visible sign of unity,' is affirmed (3.1.3). This reasserts the episcopal character of Anglicanism and also disavows any super-guardianship of the faith for the Primates' Meeting, contrary to the will of some in the Global South.
  3. Any one of the 'Instruments of Communion' - The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting - 'may initiate and commend a process of discernment and a direction for the Communion and its Churches.' (3.1.4)
  4. In the normal course of events, and in the absence of any particular point of conflict, signatory provinces will re-orientate their way of working to be much more integrated with the Communion as a whole.
  5. Specifically, each Province agrees (a) to 'have regard for the common good' of the whole Communion in its internal decision making, (b) to support the Instruments of Communion with personnel and cash, (c) to take on board the 'work' and 'counsels' of the  Instruments of Communion, and (d) to have a presumption in favour of accepting its 'recommendations'. (3.2.1) At the same time each province will 'respect the constitutional autonomy' of every other province 3.2.2.
  6. Clauses 3.2.3, 3.2.4  and  3.2.7 together are designed to reduce the occasions of potential conflict by creating Communion-wide processes of debate, reflection, prayer and study as the normal condition of the Communion. This is particularly important when innovations in one place or area may give other people elsewhere cause for anxiety (4.2.3). Where there are 'matters of common concern' Covenant signatories commit themselves to seek a 'shared mind' across the Communion according to the tests of Scripture, 'the common standards of faith', and canon law. 
  7. If, however, despite all this communality conflict should arise then each signatory agrees, first, to move with care and caution (3.2.5) and, second, to engage in mediated conversations with a willingness on all sides to 'see the process through' (3.2.6).
  8. The 'functioning of the Covenant' - centrally these conflict prevention and resolution functions - will be monitored by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion on behalf of the Instruments of Communion (4.2.2).
  9. There will also be a mechanism, agency or institution in each signatory church  whose job is to  'oversee the maintenance of the affirmations and commitments of the Covenant in the life of that Church, and to relate to the Instruments of Communion on matters pertinent to the Covenant.' (4.2.9)
The underlying thesis is that greater integration will lead to greater harmony. But, when it doesn't ...

Strand 2: conflict resolution:
  1. Key to the process is the 'question'. There is ambiguity around what exactly constitutes a question in this context but the scale seems to run from 'concern' at one end to complaint at the other. '...  questions may be raised by a Church itself, another covenanting Church or the Instruments of Communion.' (4.2.3)
  2. A question (complaint) triggers a process (or, equally likely, leads to an intensification of a process already under way) to find a 'shared mind' across the Communion (3.2.3).
  3. In the absence of a shared mind the matter is referred to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. Despite the fact that the SCAC have already been monitoring the matter and, presumably, various of its international groups have already engaged with the issue, responsibility is passed to it directly for a further intensification of negotiations. Considerable discussion between the Instruments of Communion is also envisaged (4.2.4).
  4. Yet the only power granted the SCAC is to ask a province to 'defer a controversial action.' (4.2.5).
  5. Then, should the request to defer be refused, 'the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument ...'  (4.2.5).
  6. When everything has failed, and no agreement may be found, the SCAC, with advice from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting, may declare that '... an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”.' (4.2.6) As the trustees of the Anglican Communion the members of SCAC cannot be instructed to make a particular decision. 
  7. On the basis of the same advice the SCAC '...  shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant.' (4.2.7) This is the crunch. Recommendations are to be made to the Churches of the Communion or to the Instruments of Communion (apparently not both). The recommendations will reflect the impact of the action or decision that is deemed incompatible with the Covenant: specifically the extent to which communion is  impaired or limited, and the practical consequences which follow.

*   *   *

The outline given in the Covenant is clearly insufficient. A great deal more work on the detail will need to be done before anything like an adequate structure is created.

I think this will generate a whole new library of Communion-wide rules and procedures that will look increasingly like a unified canon law that will send its tendrils into every part of each Anglican Church. It is quite possible that this work is being done though not yet made public.

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