by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 41 - Apr 2011

An Anglican Covenant was formally proposed by the Windsor Report in 2004, as a way to ensure that future contentious actions are not taken without consulting the whole Anglican Communion. Some were threatening schism after a diocese in Canada had approved a same-sex blessing service and a diocese in the USA had appointed an openly gay bishop.

The Windsor Report argued that the 1998 Lambeth Conference had established, as Anglican teaching, the immorality of 'homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture'. It saw in the Covenant a means to establish an international authority, backed up by the threat of sanctions, empowered to ensure compliance.

The main theological objection is that it was the wrong response. Some Protestant denominations expect uniformity of belief in their members; Anglicanism, since at least 1660 but arguably from even before, has aimed to encompass a wide range of opinion and allow truth to be sought through open debate, as expressed by Richard Hooker's balance of 'scripture, reason and tradition'. In keeping with this tradition, and contrary to the Windsor Report, Lambeth Conference resolutions have never been binding.

The Covenant offers a conflict-resolving process based on uniformity: an international authority will 'recommend' a solution, and expect all Anglicans to accept it. It treats the recent controversies as an aberration which should not have happened, and seeks resolution not in public research and debate about the matter in hand, but in decrees by ecclesiastical authority. For those content to being told what to believe this may seem appropriate, but for traditional Anglicans it is a major change, a suppression of honest and open dialogue.

The final text, published at the end of 2009, is very different from the Covenant originally conceived in 2004. It became clear that the provinces are not keen to sign away their own autonomy, and cannot be obliged to do so. Successive Covenant drafts therefore reduced the emphasis on sanctions and stressed that signatories would remain autonomous. Nevertheless, without any sanctions it could not achieve anything. It therefore gives the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion responsibility to study objections to the actions of a church and make appropriate 'recommendations'. Churches refusing to accept the recommendations can be excluded from representative functions like international committees, and the USA already has been. Though there is no method to exclude them altogether from the Communion, there has been talk of treating them as 'second track'. Thus there remains a tension. On the one hand provinces are free to sign or not, and if they do sign they can leave at any time. On the other hand, if they do not sign, or if they do not obey the 'recommendations', they are likely to find themselves excluded from various functions and treated as second-rate Anglicans. Such a province, while it cannot be expelled, may find that others have turned their backs on it.

The Covenant is far less punitive than originally envisaged, and lacks any guarantee that sanctions would be applied in any particular case. Many of its original proponents have therefore withdrawn their support. On the other hand an authoritarian element remains; the Covenant still proposes to resolve future controversies by ecclesiastical decree rather than allowing differences of opinion to be freely discussed.

Earlier drafts spelled out in detail the mechanisms for conflict resolution. The final text leaves more to the discretion of the Standing Committee and the Instruments of Communion. Again, however, this satisfies neither side: for some it is inadequate because it may forbid a practice (whether gay bishops or any other issue), while for others it is inadequate because it may fail to forbid it.

For further information read the Modern Church resources on the Anglican Covenant or visit www.noanglicancovenant.org


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.