by Jonathan Clatworthy, 10 November 2010

On 29 October 2010 the church press carried an advertisement by Modern Church and Inclusive Church arguing against the proposed Anglican Covenant. Since then widespread concern about the proposal has been expressed; the Church Times poll, for example, produced over 80% opposition. In defence of the Covenant a Briefing Paper for England's General Synod has been published and two defenders have replied to the advertisement, Andrew Goddard and Gregory Cameron.

This article offers a brief response to the main arguments in these three documents.

The background

The idea of an Anglican Covenant historically stems from a disagreement about authority. Since the reign of Elizabeth I the Church of England has accepted diversity of opinion as normal, but other Protestants (including some Anglican provinces) expect uniformity of belief because they hold that proper Christian submission to the Bible should produce agreement on all matters of faith.

The controversy reached its height with a series of events in 2002-3: the appointments of Rowan Williams to Canterbury and Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson to other bishopricks, and the Canadian same-sex blessing services. Even before then, however, pressure for a more authoritarian Communion had been building up, with rival bishops being appointed to dioceses.

In 2004 the Windsor Report appealed to a 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution to argue that the immorality of homosexuality had already been established as the Anglican 'consensus'. It proposed a Covenant as a way of committing provinces to consult across the whole Communion before rejecting any such consensus. In this way it sided with the uniformitarians.

Current attitudes vary but can be classified into three types. Some reject uniformity of belief and defend traditional Church of England inclusiveness. They think the ethics of same-sex partnerships is a proper topic for open debate, which should continue until consensus is reached. From this perspective the Windsor Report was at fault in attempting to close down debate, and any Covenant with the same agenda should be opposed. This is the position from which this article has been written.

Others support the Covenant primarily or only because they are strongly opposed to same-sex partnerships. They would like to reassure church members and enquirers that the whole Anglican denomination disapproves of them. This means that any province with practising gay bishops should not belong to the Anglican Communion, so the USA should be excluded until such time as it changes its position.

Others again are more generally concerned to establish a uniformitarian system with power to close down debate on future controversies, whatever they may be. From this perspective even if the Covenant comes into force too late to 'discipline' provinces with gay bishops, it will still be valued for its potential impact on future controversies.

Will the Covenant centralise power?

The Briefing Paper answers that 'the Covenant will function within the existing Anglican structures; it does not envisage new structures, although it will probably bring about some formalisation of what were originally more flexible arrangements.' This is a defensible claim, though when the Standing Committee of the ACC gave itself new powers and a new name - it is now the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion - it is at least arguable that it created something new. In addition the powers of the four Instruments of Communion have been considerably strengthened since 2003 in preparation for the Covenant.

The Briefing Paper in effect admits as much. It speaks of 'committing' the Communion's churches 'to mutual accountability, consultation and the achievement of consensus' and of seeking 'structures that will express the need for mutual recognisability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making'. The Covenant 'intends to offer a means by which the commitment of a member church of the Anglican Communion to the Anglican Communion as a whole can be reflected in the decision-making processes of that church.' None of this would be possible without a central process, and a commitment by the provinces to honour its decisions.

Will provinces submit to an outside body?

The Covenant text repeatedly denies that there is any submission (3.1.2, 3.2.2, 4.1.3), and all three documents agree. However two questions remain. Firstly, is the rest of the Covenant text consistent with this denial? Secondly, what would be the effect in practice?

The Covenant offers an account of Anglicanism in Sections 1-3. It asks signatories to accept this account as 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches' (4.1.2), and states that 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion' (4.2.1). Until now mutual recognition and communion have applied across all Anglican provinces. Even if the Covenant Design Group did not take these words to mean that non-signatories will no longer be part of the Communion, others will.

The question of how to reconcile this centralisation with provincial autonomy has been a major dilemma. On the one hand the Covenant cannot come into effect until the provinces have freely signed it; on the other, the intention is to persuade provinces to accept direction. The text seeks to resolve the dilemma by presenting the Covenant as a voluntary arrangement. To belong to the Anglican Communion is to sign the Covenant voluntarily. Thereafter each province may continue to act in whatever way it pleases, as long as no other province objects that its actions are incompatible with the Covenant. When there is an objection, though, there must be sanctions of some sort. The dilemma remains: if the province's freedom remains unchanged the sanctions are ineffective, but if the sanctions have an effect the province's freedom has been curtailed.

Would it make the Church more inward-looking?

The advertisement argued that the Covenant would subordinate each local church to international Anglicanism: 'the top priority would always be to "to seek a shared mind with other Churches" at the expense of national and local context'. Goddard replies that the Covenant 'seeks to be truly catholic and uphold "universal Christianity". It does so by facilitating global discernment together that will help distinguish potentially Spirit-led developments from idiosyncratic actions of misguided minorities'.

The question at issue is how a local church weighs its commitment to universal Anglicanism against its own assessments of local situations. The Covenant proposes to shift the emphasis towards universal Anglicanism. This would make each church more hierarchical and ecclesiastical: more authority would accrue to the spokespeople for international Anglicanism, at the expense of those who represent local circumstances.

Would the Covenant hinder change?

The Briefing Paper notes that

Any process of discernment runs the danger of stifling the work of the Spirit; however, any call (whether to change or to stay the same) requires a process of discernment in order to determine whether it is of the Spirit... Properly used, the processes outlined in the Covenant should assist this process of discerning the work of the Spirit within the Anglican Communion.

Of course the Covenant's processes will only be used when the 'discernment' does not produce consensus. Whenever Province A objects to Province B, it will be because Province B is innovating, not because Province B is remaining unchanged. Inevitably the Covenant will constitute one more obstacle in the way of change.

Would Anglicanism become more confessional?

The Briefing Paper responds to the complaint that the Covenant is not sufficiently confessional and biblical, noting that signatories affirm 'the catholic and apostolic faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds,' and that 'the historic formularies of the Church of England bear authentic witness to this faith' (1.1.2). The Church of England has traditionally been careful not to add to the beliefs expected of its members, over and above an essential minimum. Other churches however have distinguished themselves by their own doctrines, and many hope to move Anglicanism in this direction.

Although the Covenant does not propose to make Anglicanism more confessional, in practice it would. The Windsor Report set a precedent by arguing that in the light of Lambeth 1998 homosexuality is, for Anglicans, 'incompatible with scripture', so the matter has been decided and is no longer open to debate. The Covenant's mechanism for conflict resolution would work in a similar way: each disagreement would be submitted to the Standing Committee, and if after due process a doctrine or action is judged 'incompatible with the Covenant', its contrary will in effect become official Anglican teaching.

Is the Covenant punitive?

Earlier drafts of the Covenant contained punitive language. The final text speaks only of 'relational consequences'. Some interpret this change as a genuine decision to do no punishing. In this case it would have been helpful if the Covenant Design Group had made a formal statement to the effect that they had abandoned the Windsor Report's aims and were seeking a very different solution. Because they have not, others suspect a sleight of hand in which a still punitive document is put into gentler language in order to persuade the provinces to sign it.

The long term effect will depend not on what the Covenant Design Group intended, but on whether the text can be interpreted  in a punitive manner. We already know that an influential constitutency intends to use it, as the Windsor Report envisaged, to forbid gay bishops, and if this is possible it will be possible for future issues too.

The text states that in cases of controversy, when a church declines a request by the Standing Committee to defer a particular action, the Standing Committee consults two of the Instruments of Communion (the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting) and may then declare an action 'incompatible with the Covenant'. It would then make recommendations which would 'address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation.' On this basis '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' (4.2.5-4.2.7).

Defenders of the Covenant deny that this is punitive. According to Cameron,

the most extreme power at the Standing Committee's disposal under the Covenant is... 'to make recommendations' (4.2.7)... There is no element of coercion anywhere in the text, but there is an acknowledgement that neither can everything that one Church does be foisted on the whole Communion without the recognition that relations can be damaged.

At present no church can foist anything onto another province; the Covenant would enable such foisting for the first time, through objections to the Standing Committee. Nor are 'recommendations' necessarily powerless. They are also made by judges and generals, and whether they are punitive depends on intentions and the power to enforce them. The key question is whether the 'relational consequences' available to the central authorities can have the effect of punishments.

Those who have worked hard to produce the final text must be only too aware how much less obligation there is than some want. This is no doubt partly because of opposition to a punitive text, but it is primarily because every province is self-governing and few if any would freely give up their autonomy. This means the only sanctions which can be imposed on a province are those which affect its relationship to the rest of the Communion.

Thus the response to transgressing the Covenant would be 'relational consequences': withdrawal from some, many or all of the international structures of Anglicanism. Is this a punishment? For some it is not punishment enough; others including Cameron and Goddard claim that it not a punishment at all. Such a claim is hardly convincing. Once the Standing Committee has made one or more recommendations, the provinces would in effect be told: 'You are free to do whatever you like, but if you do not do what we tell you we may just turn our backs on you and no longer count you as one of us'. This is, in reality, a punishment.


Over the last eight years the internal divisions of Anglicanism have repeatedly made front page news. A succession of parishes, dioceses, and newly formed societies have trumpeted their dissatisfaction with Anglicanism, performed some schismatic act, and been told by the Communion's leaders that they should have waited for the Covenant. Rival bishops have been appointed to dioceses, and have been condemned for jumping the gun because the Covenant is on the way. Are we really to believe that after eight years of such agonising labour, the elephant is about to give birth - to a mouse?

The main weakness of the whole process is that it misinterprets the tensions within Anglicanism. The significant change in 2003 was not that some provinces abandoned their disapproval of same-sex partnerships - changing views on ethical issues are normal - but that an authoritarian pressure group convincingly threatened schism. The Communion's leaders should have insisted that Anglicanism welcomes diversity of opinion and seeks truth through open debate and mutual respect. Instead they tried to appease it with a punitive Covenant designed to expel the North American provinces.

Since then opposition has ensured that the final text avoids punitive language; but it still contains sanctions, and without those sanctions it would serve no purpose at all. It remains the offspring of a centralising, authoritarian project. Those who value diversity of opinion and open debate should oppose 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.