What is not being said about the Covenant?

The Rt Revd Mike Hill, Bishop of Bristol
In a long letter to the Church Times the Bishops of Bristol and Oxford set out their commitment to the Covenant and what's at stake should it be defeated.

I choose to believe that many, perhaps the majority, of the English bishops are personally committed to the Covenant - but always and only in broad generalisations.

In essence we are told: the Covenant is A Good Thing, it doesn't change anything but is vital to keeping the Communion together, and the consequences of not passing it are horrendous.

But this advocacy never seems to address what any critical reader of the Covenant text might ask:
  • The bishops' say there are no new powers or structures; but what does the text actually contain?
  • And if there are no new powers or structures then how can choosing or rejecting it possibly make so much difference?
  • In particular, if the Covenant leaves provincial autonomy just where it was then how can it have any effect on future decisions a province might contemplate?
  • In sum: what's so wrong with the Communion that we currently have that it will fall apart without the Covenant, but which the Covenant - by merely restating what we already know and practice - can possibly resolve?
I struggle to see the logic.

The Rt Revd John Pritchard,
Bishop of Oxford
But I do see something missing. The ultimate power of Section 4 of the Covenant is to exclude an offending province by recommending to every other province that they turn their backs on it. All lesser powers of exclusion and demotion stem from this central power.

(And the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury has already arrogated to himself such powers to bind and loose without the Covenant cuts both ways: if he can already make such decisions then it's not new to the Covenant; equally, if he can do it anyway there's no need for a Covenant. And the fact that a province probably can't be excluded from the Anglican Consultative Council legally is another example of the fine mess we're moving towards.)

Anyway, I'm left with the conclusion that what's important about the Covenant, and the supposed reason why the Communion will fall apart without it, is something not being said in the Bishops' letter. The bottom line is: churches of the Global South are only prepared to remain in communion with Canterbury if The Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church in Canada are excluded. This is division in the name of unity. 

Thus, what is not being said is: the Anglican Communion can only hang together if the North Americans are hung separately. 

If that's so, then who's next?

To address some of the Bishops' assertions in more detail :

1) The Covenant has been widely consulted on.
Yes, though official responses to the consultation were often mixed and often from fewer than half the provinces. More importantly, it was normally only the senior hierarchy who were consulted.

There has been no attempt to consult more widely, let alone to give the time that would have been necessary for proper reception.

2) The Covenant is vital for the Communion not by addressing the divisive issues head-on but by (i) reasserting what we hold in common and (ii) by describing best practice in our common life.

3) "The Covenant does not invent anything new"
Now here I simply disagree. The Covenant does and would create new things in exactly the areas set out in (2) above:

A) The Covenant does propose new structure:
I don't want to repeat myself, at least, not too often, and I've already made this argument recently in response to the reported comments of the Bishop of Dover. What the Covenant says is:
(4.2.9) Each Church undertakes to put into place such mechanisms, agencies or institutions, consistent with its own Constitution and Canons, as can undertake 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.
Neither these, nor the consequent structures necessary to maintain co-ordination between these offices currently exist. Therefore they are new structures proposed by the Covenant.

B) The Covenant does propose new powers
But, for one key example, it would give the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion the power and duty to "monitor the functioning of the Covenant" (Covenant, para. 4.2.2.)

This is self-evidently new, since the Covenant is new. It is a duty of oversight and power of scrutiny which the SCAC does not currently have. Where information is power, and with an office in every province, this places the SCAC in an extremely powerful position. It has been moving in this direction for many years. The Covenant will embed its accumulating powers in concrete.

I am well aware that the Covenant reiterates explicitly the autonomy of the provinces. But this is a legal fiction. The autonomy it asserts in one paragraph is taken away in others by the new structures, powers, capacities and sanctions described and effected by Section 4 of the Covenant.

C) A statement of Belief. I don't know whether or not this statement is exactly the basis of ecumenical agreements with other churches but, given the extensive debate over its formulation, this would seem improbable.

It may be that a common statement of belief is a good idea. It might, for example, be of significant help in future ecumenical  discussion. Although, conversely, to ensure conformity with the Covenant there may be a need to revisit the many and varied ecumenical agreements currently in place in the different Provinces.

But what is certainly new is making a detailed doctrinal, creedal, statement the grounds on which Anglicans cohere. (The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was so long-lived because it was not detailed.) This has the potential to replace both being in communion with the See of Canterbury and the legal position of being a Church listed in the Appendix to the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council as the basis of being defined as Anglican. As ACNA has considered.

And, in passing, it is not clear whether future Anglican clergy across the world will be required to assent to this creed or, if so, on what terms.  If so, it would certainly require revision of the Church of England's Canons.

D) Best practice in conflict resolution
The Bishops' letter says that the Covenant
describes the best practice of how communion may be sustained within the Anglican Communion ...
except that it doesn't. The Covenant prescribes a conflict prevention and resolution mechanism. We'll only know whether it's 'best' after several attempts to use the mechanisms. My prediction is that either it will generate a whole lot more rules and regulations in the attempt to make it work or, in a predictable complex and multi-province conflict, it will simply be bypassed and replaced by the usual politics. (My summary, and critique. Of course, the Covenant could be a one shell cannon, for a single use only, but that might be taking conspiracy theories too far.)

May I add that I think conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms are inherently a good thing. But best practice surely entails parties entering into the process voluntarily and with no threat of sanction. Furthermore there is a conceptual problem which can glue up such mechanisms in theological disputes. Where conflict resolution processes usually look for compromise theological disputants generally want a right or wrong judgment, precluding compromise.

But the point here is, it's new. There is no such common framework in place and no current commitment by provinces to abide by one.

3) We love the Communion
Well, yes. No-one doubts it. But to imply or insinuate, even by omission, that those who oppose the Covenant do not love the Communion is unworthy.

All the existing formal and informal contacts, links, associations, lobby groups at all levels of the Communion have developed without the Covenant. Why should they not continue and proliferate further without the Covenant?

And to imply that the Covenant would have made any difference in Zimbabwe, or to support for Japan fallowing the tsunami, is pushing the boat out far beyond the limits of credulity. Conversely, if the Church of England rejects the Covenant, there is nothing to suggest that all its links around the Communion would wither and die.

The fact is we disagree so passionately precisely because all participants in the debate love the Communion. We do not want to see the Communion held to ransom by provinces in one part of the world who disagree with what is happening in another. Those opposed to the Covenant value the Communion we have inherited and do not want to see its 'bonds of affection' replaced by a single, centralising, coercive, excommunicatory Anglican constitution.

To the contrary: we wish to reaffirm the Communion's traditional mutual regard, its rich diversity, its varied traditions, its mutual aid and mutual criticism, its awkward dispersed authority and its uneveness of orders.

For all these reasons we reject the Covenant.


  1. I sometimes wonder how some of these bishops ever got to be appointed. Words fail to describe them but naive springs to mind.

  2. Bless you for your continued efforts to clear away the smoke-screen. It still amazes me that those who speak these words do not see the inner contradictions between "absolutely essential" and "makes no new demands." Fortunately, many folks can see through this haze -- but your help is crucial, as the lulling siren song of bishops can cloud ones senses...

  3. Well said, Paul, as usual.

    What the bishops are defending is not the Covenant as it is, but the idea of a Covenant as a symbol of commitment to the Communion and loyalty to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I continue to wish that they would address the actual document on the table. In vain, I fear.

  4. Just once, before the entire covenant process is over, I'd like to see a well-reasoned argument by a proponent of adoption of the covenant based on the contents of the document itself. I'd wish to see the most compelling words within the text itself used for the purposes of persuasion. It's long been a mystery to me why the defenders of the covenant so seldom quote the document. Those of us with doubts as to whether the covenant is the solution to the disagreements in the Anglican Communion make frequent use of the of the text itself in our arguments against adoption.

  5. Anonymous5/3/12

    Perhaps we need to go back to Lambeth 1948 which stressed the provisionality of the Anglican communion and fore-saw its ultimate disappearance..into United Churches on the S or N India model?;perhaps...and ask whether the centralising trends since the late 1950's were the right way forward.Ecumenical progress at an institutional level has not been what was expected it is true, though significant progress has been made with the Lutherans..but it remains unclear to me that trying to create a world-wide Anglican Church is the answer.The RC Church has to some extent egged us on in this venture..but since movement on the RC front has now stalled with Rome following a policy of retrenchment why not have a profound re-think as to what the vocation of the Anglican Communion actually is and what future it might have.

    Perry Butler, Canterbury UK

  6. Perry,
    You are entirely right. Earlier generations were quite comfortable with a less centralised Communion.

    Of course, there were problems. I think (from memory) it was the 1948 Lambeth that decided not to recognise the United Church of South India on the grounds that not all its ministers were episcopally consecrated. When the Province of South Africa did enter into communion with them it began an era of 'impaired communion' that has continued since then - albeit that the ground of difference has moved from episcopal ordination to the place of women to the presence of gay and partnered clergy.

    But we all muddled on well enough and left the detail to the lawyers. It didn't stop personal, diocesan, provincial and lots of other links. And I can't see how preferring uniformity over unity-in-diversity is going to suit anyone.