Jonathan Clatworthy, 28 March 2012

The Anglican Covenant was defeated by the votes of the English dioceses on 24 March. To be adopted by General Synod it needed support from a majority of the dioceses but by the end of  March 25 dioceses - just over half - had voted against it.

An Anglican Covenant was first proposed in the Windsor Report, published at the end of 2004. Modern Church was first off the mark, publishing a short book of responses in February 2005. In those early days we knew what we were talking about: Covenant supporters were quite clear that, because of their liberal views on same-sex partnerships, the North American provinces needed to 'repent', be 'disciplined', or be excluded from the Anglican Communion.

Over time it became clear that most provinces would not sign up to a centralising regime that took away their autonomy just so as to punish the North Americans. A Covenant which started off as a panic reaction, in effect capitulating to threats of schism, turned into something weaker and less focussed but still designed to centralise power and impose 'relational consequences' on dissidents.

Among our contributions were the Church Times advertisement of October 2010, a set of articles on our website, and a variety of responses to arguments in favour of the Covenant, most of which are also on our website.  We have also been supporting the No Anglican Covenant Coalition.  Nevertheless, until a few months ago we assumed that most dioceses would support the Covenant and England would duly adopt it in July 2012. After all, this constitutional stuff isn't everybody's cup of tea, the archbishops were putting a lot of pressure on the bishops, and the official information provided to the dioceses only presented the case in favour.

However it was defeated more easily than we had dared to hope. The dioceses which did hear both sides nearly always voted against. The text of the Covenant was freely available; however much archbishops insisted that they did not intend it to centralise or punish, people could judge for themselves how it would have been used in practice.

Where now?

The commentariat has been in full flow; the most significant texts are on Thinking Anglicans. Particularly recommended is Diarmaid MacCulloch's article on The Guardian's Comment is free.

The situation in England

The Covenant is still due to be discussed in General Synod, probably in July. The Business Committee is to submit a report on the voting in dioceses, and Synod will have a take-note debate on this. This debate may be more than a formality, giving the Covenant's supporters an opportunity to plug it again, but Synod cannot now vote to pass the Act of Synod adopting the Covenant. Some dioceses have passed following motions, which may be debated.

An additional factor is the Archbishop of Canterbury's announcement of his forthcoming retirement. Combined with the defeat of the Covenant, this opens up the possibility of new directions for the Church, with different groupings losing no time promoting their cause. Diarmaid MacCulloch seems to have expressed a common view with his remark (in the article above) about 'an episcopate that is seriously out of touch, not just with the nation as a whole (we knew that already), but even with faithful Anglican churchgoers and clergy in England'.

Constitutionally it would be possible for a second attempt to be made to steer the Covenant through the English decision-making processes, but not until 2015 at the earliest. Opinions differ about whether it would be realistic for a new archbishop to make the attempt, with the majority so far apparently thinking it would not.

Some of our members are suggesting that new initiatives are now needed to reaffirm the Church of England's traditional openness to diversity of opinion, either as part of the process of discerning who should be the next archbishop of Canterbury, or as a way of exploring how we should handle our disagreements in the aftermath of the Covenant. Or both.

The international situation...

Some are arguing that more should be made of an IASCOME proposal as a better way for the provinces to work more closely together. Others foresee a gradual breakdown of the Anglican Communion according to theological position: the GAFCON lobby already seem to be moving in that direction, while some of the Covenant's defenders hope it will still have a future without the more liberal provinces. Others again are arguing that the controversial differences of opinion exist within the provinces rather than between them, so a separation of provinces into two or three groups would not achieve anything. As has happened so often, Paul Bagshaw's analysis is the most detailed; well worth reading is his personal postmortem.

What is clear is that the differences of opinion over same-sex partnerships, which originally triggered the Covenant proposal, are still there. Furthermore the underlying theological disagreements about the authority and interpretation of the Bible are also still with us. These disagreements about ethics and authority still need to be resolved; but perhaps we may now make more progress by engaging with them in their own terms, rather than seeking bureaucratic structures to close down debate prematurely.

... or is the show still on the road?

Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, plays a straight bat officially declaring that the Covenant process goes on, with or without England.

Others are arguing that the situation is more confused. This is because the Covenant text is poorly drafted. The two questions at issue are when the Covenant comes into effect and which churches play a part in administering it.

When does it come into effect? The text states that 'This Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons' (§4.1.6). It is therefore already in force for those who have adopted it: South-East Asia, Myanmar and Mexico can already, if they wish, object to each other's actions by appealing to the Standing Committee.

Who administers it? The text states that objections are submitted to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee, however, is composed of representatives of the churches, and if some churches have rejected the Covenant it would clearly be inappropriate for their representatives to share in overseeing the Covenant process. §4.2.8 therefore states:

Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.

It is comparatively easy to state which provinces have adopted it, though even here there are uncertainties. Which churches, though, are 'in the process of adoption'? Currently the Anglican Communion News Service seems to be taking the view that all churches are 'in the process' except those which have formally decided either to adopt or to reject it. On this basis Covenant proponents are arguing that the Church of England is still 'in the process'. General Synod has not positively voted to reject it; even if it does, there is nothing to stop a future General Synod, after 2015, seeking to revive it. This may seem a strained argument. However it is important to the Covenant's defenders because of the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The text gives the Archbishop a central position; but if his own church stands outside the Covenant, his role becomes anomalous.

Next steps

We at Modern Church are considering whether, and how, we may be able to contribute to the future development of the Anglican Communion. If you would like to make suggestions for future action, or can offer to help, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is editor of Modern Believing and a former Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.