How and why IC & MCU mislead us on the Anglican Covenant - Andrew Goddard

How and why IC & MCU mislead us  on the Anglican Covenant - Andrew Goddard

Introduction and Executive Summary

In the church press on Friday 29th October, two Church of England groups, Inclusive Church (IC) and Modern Church (formerly, Modern Churchpeople’s Union, MCU), published a whole page advert headed ‘Who runs the Church?’. This explains why they believe the Anglican Covenant would be a change for the worse. Having offered an initial short critique of it, this offers a more detailed analysis of its claims. In the week leading to the Synod debate on the covenant and subsequent diocesan discussion, their seriously flawed case risks being given greater circulation and credibility through the wider international (though predominantly Western liberal) No Anglican Covenant Coalition and other publicity such as the recent similar leaflet sent to General Synod members.

The key questions that need to be answered in relation to the covenant are as follows and each section is hyperlinked here so it can be read on its own

(1)    Where does the Anglican Covenant come from, who wants it and why?

(2)    What does the Anglican Covenant actually do?

(3)    What will happen if the Church of England signs the Anglican Covenant?

(4)    But isn’t the covenant disciplinary?

(5)    What if...?: Hypothetical futures and pasts

(6)    Conclusion: What vision and future for Anglicanism should we embrace?

These are explored in dialogue with the IC/MCU ad (which is extensively quoted below, appearing in italics) and its wider vision of the covenant to argue as follows:

(1)    Where does the Anglican Covenant come from, who wants it and why?

This section shows that far from being kept quiet, as IC & MCU claim, the covenant has been subject to wide public consultation and revision over a period of five years and that the Church of England has been fully involved in this process. It is not the creation of conservative neo-Puritans in order to expel the Americans (more conservative evangelicals have actually opposed it) but is the work of a cross-section of Anglicans who have been advised from across the Communion and it has gained widespread support.

(2)    What does the Anglican Covenant actually do?

The major error in IC & MCU’s analysis is to present the covenant as subordinating any signatory to a central body, something which is repeatedly denied in the covenant. As a result it makes false claims about what objectors can do and the limits they would put on a province’s own decision-making as well as ignoring the reality of our interconnectedness in the body of Christ with our without a covenant. The other claim that it would redefine Anglicanism is also false because it grants the covenant a foundational role which the covenant does not claim for itself and asserts that non-signing leads to removal from the Communion which the covenant never claims. In contrast to the image they present the covenant respects provincial autonomy but encourages and enables provinces to acknowledge their interdependence and what they share as Anglicans in terms of faith, order and mission, it enables deepening of communion through mutual commitments, and it provides a framework for handling potentially divisive issues together in a relational manner.

(3)    What will happen if the Church of England signs the Anglican Covenant?

IC & MCU make eight claims about what will happen if the CofE signs and each of these is examined and shown to be seriously misleading or simply erroneous. There is no subordination to an international body and no reason to argue that the CofE would become more dogmatic. Rather than making us more inward-looking it encourages us to look beyond our shores and contains a balance of both backward-looking elements and also a recognition of the reality and need for faithful Spirit-led development. There is no granting of a right of interference in our own decision-making – here again the covenant’s provisions are seriously distorted – and thus no increase in centralisation (though there is a more co-ordinated form of consultation and common counsel) or clericalisation. The claim it would hinder mission is based on a limited understanding of mission and the mission field and ignores the centrality of mission within the covenant itself while the assertion it would hinder ecumenical relations is, like much else, an allegation made without any supporting evidence. The IC/MCU statement is largely scare-mongering which pays little or no attention to the text of the covenant itself.

(4)    But isn’t the covenant disciplinary?

Although given only a passing mention, a large part of the IC/MCU objection seems to be based on the covenant as a form of discipline. It clearly calls on signatories to embrace a more disciplined form of life than in recent years and it also provides an agreed structure for handling disputes. While no decisions under the covenant are binding, by authorising the statement that actions are incompatible with the covenant and proposing relational consequences it has at potentially disciplinary element. What IC & MCU fail to do is to explain why they reject all forms of church discipline or why they believe this form is flawed. Instead they misrepresent the processes as juridical and punitive and fail to address how differences between churches may be better addressed.

(5)    What if...?: Hypothetical futures and pasts

IC & MCU portray the covenant as something which would have stopped developments such as women’s ordination and may still impact CofE debates about women bishops. The former of these claims is based on a combination their misreading of the powers of other provinces and the Standing Committee and a failure to recognise processes similar to those found in the covenant were followed in relation to women’s ordination. The latter ignores the clear mind of the Communion that the consecration of women as bishops is acceptable within the Communion. Looking ahead they argue the CofE, as one of the first provinces considering the final covenant, should take advantage of this and its historic dominance of the Communion to repudiate its consistent support of a covenant to destroy it.

(6)    Conclusion: What vision and future for Anglicanism should we embrace?

This final section highlights the failure of IC/MCU not just to offer a strong argument against the covenant but also to propose any clear alternative. Although presenting themselves as faithful to classic Anglican theology they have failed to see how the covenant seeks to embrace and be inclusive of the range of traditions within Anglicanism – evangelical, catholic and liberal – and gives a proper place to Scripture, tradition and reason. Instead the covenant is falsely portrayed by them as an extreme form of the evangelical and catholic components in Anglicanism.  However, the stance they take shows that they are in fact pushing the liberal strand to an extreme and far from being the authentic voice of Anglicanism are refusing to live with the tensions inherent in Anglicanism and seeking to remake the Communion in their own Western liberal image.

(1)    Where does the Anglican Covenant come from, who wants it and why?

Whatever the problems with most of their answers, at least the questions raised by MCU & IC are generally good questions, with one notable exception – their third question. This asks why the covenant has ‘been kept so quiet’, suggesting that those developing the covenant have intentionally been secretive, presumably because they have something to hide. To this implicit charge of subterfuge there is added the charge of duplicity and deception. It is claimed that it was presented as a means of disciplining North Americans and ‘in other parts of the world it is still being presented like this; but where opposition is likely, it is now being presented as a minor bureaucratic reform – to persuade the provinces to sign it. Once the signing is done we expect the gloves to come off again’. There is no evidence offered for any of these claims which are not only false but border on paranoia.

(a)   Where has the covenant come from?

As the Anglican Communion Office website makes clear, it is ludicrous in the extreme to suggest that the covenant has ‘been kept so quiet’. It was, as IC and MCU acknowledged elsewhere, a major recommendation of the 2004 Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission, a body which was chaired by Archbishop Eames and brought together a wide and representative group of Anglicans from across the Communion. This was then developed in a consultation paper published in March 2006. To imply that it has been kept quiet is particularly disingenuous given that both MCU and IC were among the first few bodies which responded to that consultation paper over four years ago (MCU registering its opposition which it has maintained and IC being more ambivalent at that stage). Each of the three full drafts (Nassau from 2007, St Andrew’s from 2008 and Ridley from 2009) has been subject to widespread consultation and revision, with both MCU and IC again participating in this process and responses from provinces and other interested parties being posted on the ACO website. It was discussed widely at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, with the Archbishop of Canterbury particularly highlighting its significance for the Communion’s future, and also discussed at ACC in 2009. The whole process has also been the subject of a major academic study by Norman Doe – An Anglican Covenant: Theological and Legal Considerations for a Global Debate (DLT, 2008) – and a collection of papers from Affirming Catholicism edited by Mark Chapman – The Anglican Covenant (T&T Clark, 2008).

This has not simply been happening at an international level. The Church of England as a whole has also played a major role through not just the House of Bishops and its Faith and Order bodies (which have submitted a number of responses to the drafts – to Nassau, to St Andrew’s, and to section 4 of the Ridley draft) but through General Synod. This history is helpfully summarized in the briefing paper for the forthcoming Synod debate (GS Misc 966, paras 6-11) and summed up by the Archbishops in their foreword where they write that“The House [of Bishops] noted that the General Synod had had five opportunities to discuss governance issues in the Communion and the possibility of a Covenant since the publication of the Windsor report in October 2004. It also noted that successive drafts of the Covenant had taken account of substantial comments submitted on behalf of the Church of England”.

In contrast to the recent changes to the ACC Constitution (concerns about which are outlined here, here and here) which received much less publicity and scrutiny (even being acted on by the Standing Committee when they were not yet in force and when the ACO were unwilling to post the new constitution publicly on the website), the openness and consultation process in relation to the covenant have been exemplary.

The covenant therefore comes from a lengthy, open, conciliar, consultative process over a long period. If anyone seriously believes that the covenant has been kept quiet then they have obviously had no interest in the life of the Communion over the last six years. If they want to understand what is being proposed and to contribute intelligently to the discussion in the Church of England then they will need to pay much more attention.

(b)   Who wants the covenant and why?

Turning to who has wanted the covenant, the second question in the ad, IC & MCU have a very definite and highly implausible spin on this history. Noting that ‘it was first proposed by the Windsor Report in 2004’ it is claimed that it was proposed in order ‘to put pressure on the North American churches’. The only justification for this is the claim that ‘Opponents had no legal way to expel the North Americans, so the Covenant is designed to achieve the same result by redefining the Anglican Communion to exclude them’. 

In fact, the Windsor Report’s stated aim was that a covenant ‘would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion’ (para 118). It was proposed in conjunction with a project concerning canon law in a wide-ranging section (Section C) of the report that sought to examine the Communion’s future life together in the light of recent difficulties. This section and set of proposals built on earlier work such as The Virginia Report and was distinct from the section (Section D) which more directly addressed the specific actions of the North American churches.  The covenant, from its conception, was never simply a narrow, backward-looking and limited response to the problems of recent years but a broad, forward-looking, general framework for structuring our life together that will assist when other future problems (perhaps, for example, over lay presidency) arise.

There are therefore two major problems with the IC/MCU  claim: the Windsor Report was not seeking ‘to expel the North Americans’ and, as will become clear, the covenant itself does not – despite IC/MCU’s repeated assertions - redefine the Anglican Communion to exclude the Americans.

At the end of their advertisement, IC/MCU return to the question of who is supporting the covenant and why. They focus on what they label ‘neo-Puritanism’ as the driving force: ‘The Covenant offers a neo-Puritan method’. This is a surprising claim for a covenant with the following pedigree:

  • initially proposed by Norman Doe,
  • recommended in a report unanimously supported by a diverse Commission (though without any obvious neo-Puritans) chaired by Archbishop Eames,
  • drafted by a group chaired by Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies
  • finalized under the chairmanship of Archbishop John Neil of Ireland
  • consistently supported by Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Prima facie, given the theological traditions represented here,it is unlikely to owe much to neo-Puritanism, but it is always possible that this claim is valid. 

In defence of the claim it is argued that ‘Behind the campaign for an Anglican Covenant lies an attempt to re-establish a Puritan dogmatism. Reformation Puritans believed Christians should submit to the supreme authority of the Bible and therefore agree with each other on all matters of doctrine and ethics. Refusing to allow reason a role, their disagreements have often led each side to accuse the other of not being true Christians. This is why parts of Protestantism have a history of repeated schisms. Their successors today support the Covenant because they see disagreements within the Church as a threat’. This is not the place to challenge this rather crude caricature of Reformation Puritans. Even were the historical analysis to be accepted and no further questions asked about why and how so many who are so far from Reformed Puritanism have welcomed the covenant – is it really all explicable on the grounds that ‘some other Anglicans support them in the mistaken hope that this will avoid schism’? - the argument faces another major hurdle. Possibly the best Anglican representatives of what IC and MCU see as ‘neo-Puritanism’, the Australian Church Record and Anglican Church League in the Diocese of Sydney, were among the strongest and earliest critics of the covenant in The Faith Once For All Delivered Thinking Anglicans back in July 2007 – “Is the Anglican covenant a good idea? It appears that Church Society doesn’t think so. Read Is an Anglican Covenant a good idea? and then also read General Synod The Anglican Covenant”. describing it as ‘almost certainly unworkable’ (p5) and ‘a cul de sac’ (p59), part of ‘human ‘quasi-legal’ structures’ to which we are surrendering rather than to Scripture (p26), and something which ‘should be resisted at all costs’ (p39). Here in the Church of England the nearest similar body would be Church Society which has not exactly been a major supporter of the covenant – as Simon Sarmiento (a supporter of the coalition against the covenant) wrote on.

In short, the neo-Puritans have shown themselves not to be the dangerous dogmatists behind the covenant but potential allies of IC and MCU in opposing it!

The neo-Puritan method is then defined as one where ‘when disagreements arise they aim to resolve them as quickly as possible, by means of a pronouncement from the leadership decreeing what all members are to believe and forbidding dissent’. It is perhaps because of the elements of truth in this depiction of some conservative stances that “neo-Puritans” have not in fact been fully behind the covenant which, far from enforcing such a mindset, asks for a commitment ‘to spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection, to listen, pray and study with one another in order to discern the will of God’ (3.2.3) and ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches’ (3.2.4). 

Who then wants a covenant? Through the process of its formation it has been supported by all the Instruments of the Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasizing its importance on a number of occasions, including in his first Presidential address at Lambeth 2008:

It’s my conviction that the option to which we are being led is one whose keywords are of council and covenant. It is the vision of an Anglicanism whose diversity is limited not by centralised control but by consent – consent based on a serious common assessment of the implications of local change. How do we genuinely think together about diverse local challenges? If we can find ways of answering this, we shall have discovered an Anglicanism in which prayerful consultation is routine and accepted and understood as part of what is entailed in belonging to a fellowship that is more than local. The entire Church is present in every local church assembled around the Lord’s table. Yet the local church alone is never the entire Church. We are called to see this not as a circle to be squared but as an invitation to be more and more lovingly engaged with each other. 

The questionnaire at Lambeth on the (subsequently amended) St Andrew’s draft showed that 75% of English bishops were very or reasonably content with the concept of the covenant and its attempt to express a firm foundation for our common life. As noted above, the Church of England through not just the House of Bishops and its Faith and Order bodies but through General Synod has also consistently signaled that it ‘wants an Anglican covenant’ as helpfully summarized in the briefing paper for the forthcoming Synod debate (GS Misc 966, paras 6-11).

Although consideration of the final text is only just beginning around the Communion, so far the two provinces most advanced in accepting it are Mexico (which has adopted it) and South Africa (which has done so in principle). Like the individuals involved in its formation, neither of these provinces are noted as being neo-Puritan or wishing to redefine the Anglican Communion to exclude North American churches.

Although exactly who is supporting the covenant will only become clear as it is more widely considered, it is already clear who is at the forefront of opposing it: those who have misunderstood and/or misrepresented it and those who are committed not just to the actions taken by the North American churches but the way in which they have been taken. There is a logic here - the unilateral and recently duplicitous way in which these actions have been taken is not a faithful enactment of the commitments and vision of life together being proposed in the covenant. However, it would be wrong to determine one’s response to the covenant simply on the basis of one’s views on sexuality.  The covenant does not explicitly and indisputably rule out developments in relation to Anglican teaching and practice on sexuality and hence it has been criticized by many of those whom IC/MCU present as wanting it. What it does do is seek agreement on affirmations and commitments which would mean any such developments, and other significant developments in shared Anglican doctrine or practice, would happen in a different manner from that pursued by TEC and certain dioceses in Canada.  

That recognition leads into the second important question which needs to be considered

(2)    What does the Anglican Covenant actually do?

The fundamental and fatal flaw in the case put by IC/MCU is their total misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the covenant’s content and purpose. This is evident at both the level of the over-arching big question they ask and try to answer and their more specific response to the question ‘What would the Anglican Covenant do?

In considering what is at stake in debates about the Anglican covenant the heading of the IC/MCU advert implies that the primary issue to be addressed in the covenant is that of power and authority – Who runs the Church? Although ‘the Church’ is never defined, the implication is that it is the Church of England. This question and the answer given to it is the first and most significant flaw in the argument. This error runs through their case from beginning to end and undermines almost everything else that is said.

 The simple fact is that the covenant makes absolutely no change whatsoever to who runs the Church of England. Indeed, it explicitly states, that in agreeing to the covenant

mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion (4.1.3). 

What the covenant does is to establish and articulate how in running itself the Church of England (1) recognises it is not in fact ‘the Church’ but part of a communion or fellowship of churches within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and (2) considers the impact of its decisions on that communion and its relationship to other ecclesial bodies.

The central IC/MCU criticism was, I believe, never valid in relation to any of the Covenant Design Group (CDG) drafts. At no point was it proposed that covenant churches were handing over ultimate control or direction to anyone in any area of their own internal life. However, it reflects a concern that was raised in relation to earlier drafts. The final version therefore takes great care to emphasise that changing ‘who runs the church’ is neither the intention nor the effect of signing the covenant. The words of the commentary on the Ridley Draft (which is the basis for the final text) merit quoting at length

It is clear that one of the main fears attached to the idea of a Covenant is that it would limit Provincial autonomy. In the responses, this fear worked itself out in two directions. In the first place, there was substantial resistance to the idea that there should be any development of a body which could be seen to be exercising universal jurisdiction in Anglican polity. Anglicans wished to keep the autonomy of their Churches. Secondly, it became clear that the processes of adoption of the Covenant would be immensely complicated if the Covenant were seen to interfere with or to necessitate a change to the Constitution and Canons of any Province. The surrender of any legislative autonomy would in itself prove a stumbling block to the implementation of Covenant.

Section Four of the RCD is therefore constructed on the fundamental principle of the constitutional autonomy of each Church. The Covenant of itself cannot amend or override the Constitution and Canons of any Province. The Instruments of Communion cannot intervene in any jurisdictional way in the internal life of any of the Anglican Churches. The Covenant can only speak to the relationship between the Churches, and of the relational consequences of internal autonomous actions by a Church.

The draft text of Section Four therefore explicitly reaffirms that the Covenant and the Instruments of Communion of themselves do not impose or have any jurisdiction or authority to alter the internal governance of any Church of the Communion. Such a limitation on the Covenant undertakings is repeated in the latter parts of 4.1.1, 4.1.3 and 4.1.4. The Covenant is not intended to alter the Constitution and Canons of any of the Churches; it does not give any power to any Communion body to intervene in a Church's life.

Unsurprisingly, given the overarching perspective is flawed, the two-fold answer to the first question of the ad -  ‘What would the Anglican Covenant do?’ – is also wrong. It is claimed of the covenant that

(a)    ‘It would enable objectors to forbid new developments’

(b)   ‘It would redefine Anglicanism’

(a) What can objectors do?

The claim that the covenant ‘would enable objectors to forbid new developments’ simply has no basis in fact. The allegation is that any of the 38 provinces who sign it ‘undertakes not to introduce any new development if another Anglican province anywhere in the world opposes it – unless granted prior permission from a new international body, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion’. This is simply and totally false. There are numerous commitments made in the covenant but none remotely amounting to anything like giving another province a veto or requiring permission from the Standing Committee. That is perhaps why absolutely no evidence is ever given for this central claim and recurring theme.

It would have been quite possible to write a covenant in which signatories accepted in advance that some institutional body would be an effective final court of appeal. It would then have a final determinative say in such situations that would be binding on, and so could over-turn, the decisions of any province. In contrast, a province is free to continue to do as it wishes. Even when the Standing Committee requests it to defer a proposed action – an unlikely request for it to make if only one province opposes the action - it can decline that request (4.2.5). If the Standing Committee then declares the action incompatible with the covenant (4.2.6) and recommends relational consequences between covenant churches it is explicitly stated that ‘Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations’ (4.2.7). 

The Church of England if it signs the covenant is therefore still legally and constitutionally free to introduce any development it wishes. It not only requires no ‘prior permission’ but it can ignore subsequent decisions and recommendations and proceed with developments if it so determines.

Of course, in reality, these new processes may lead a province to be more cautious about proceeding. However, that is not what IC and MCU are claiming here. Furthermore, as we know too well, even without the covenant, controversial actions by one province can lead to objections and relational consequences in relation to other provinces. This arises because of a range of factors, notably the realities of our global communication system and the very nature of being the body of Christ (‘Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body’, 1 Cor 12.15). The covenant simply seeks to give an agreed structure by which such controversies may be weighed and considered corporately within the life of the Communion so that ‘relational consequences’ do not lead to total chaos and anarchy. 

It is worth here adding a note on The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. The claim that the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion is ‘a new international body’ is presented as if the covenant has created some sort of international Supreme Court without whose say-so no province can proceed in any matter which any other province opposes.  Significant questions remain about the role of this body – indeed it no longer strictly exists (if it ever did) as the last meeting of the body that took that name decided to rename itself as simply ‘the Standing Committee’. However, it is in personnel exactly the same body as the ‘Joint Standing Committee’ (JSC) which has existed for many years. In addition, its track record and current composition (influenced in part by many recent resignations from Global South members) would suggest that – contrary to the impression given by IC and MCU - it will not be likely to rush to judge actions incompatible with the covenant or to propose radical relational consequences. So, for example, when they met in December 2009, shortly after the nomination of Mary Glasspool, a resolution was put to the Standing Committee (this, of course, before the covenant text had any force) ‘That in view of the recent actions of the 76th General Convention, particularly Resolutions DO25 and CO56, representatives of TEC should be invited to withdraw from all Anglican Councils until ACC-15. This [time] would give both TEC and the AC a temporary safe distance for discernment in regard to the issues that currently threaten the unity of the Anglican Communion’. This was lost by 8 votes against and only 2 for. Of course, committees cannot be guaranteed to act in the future as they have in the past but even were it to act out of character and take a stronger stance, the Church of England and every other church which has signed the covenant can ‘carry on regardless’ in relation to their own internal life even if the Instruments accept the Standing Committee’s judgments and ‘specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument’ (4.2.5).

(b) Is Anglicanism redefined?

Given the first claim bears no relation to reality, it is not surprising that the second claim – that the Anglican Covenant ‘would redefine Anglicanism’ – is built on sand.

The first argument made is that “The Covenant would become ‘foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion’”. This quotation is taken from 4.1.2 of the covenant text and strictly refers not to the covenant as such:

In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches.

What is foundational is therefore not the covenant per se which is clearly a novelty. It is the elements of ‘faith, mission and interdependence of life’ as stated in sections 1-3 which are said to be foundational. Far from being a novelty these are what each church recognizes as ‘consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them’.

The question therefore is whether or not sections 1-3 dealing with faith, mission and interdependence is, in fact, faithful to what the Church of England already lives and has received. That is a vital question to consider about the covenant but about which MCU and IC remain silent - are they committed to those elements of classical Anglican faith and practice to which the Covenant refers?

The second claim is that “signatories would agree that ‘recognition of, and fidelity to, the text of this Covenant, enables mutual recognition and communion’”, here a quotation from 4.2.1. Three false conclusions are drawn from this as it is asserted that ‘this means that

  • ‘non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion’
  • ‘the effect is to withdraw recognition and communion from non-signatories’
  • the Anglican Communion would cease to consist of the 38 provinces and instead consist of the new international structure, to which the provinces will only belong if they sign the Covenant’.

The fact that X (covenant faithfulness) enables Y (mutual recognition and communion) does not mean that Y does not exist without X. It simply means that, without X, Y does not exist at as full or as deep a level. This is not a surprising claim for the covenant to make. It would be hard for anyone to argue that recognizing and being faithful to the covenant affirmations and commitments somehow disables ‘mutual recognition and communion’ between those who sign it.

The question of the implications of being a non-signatory is quite simply not addressed in the covenant and has not been determined or even widely discussed. In one sense the question of the implications of being a non-signatory cannot be answered at this stage. The effect on Communion membership of not signing cannot be considered until it becomes clear whether or not the vision of the covenant is a vision embraced widely among the existing provinces asked to sign it. As a result, the question of implications should not, indeed as an unknown it strictly cannot, determine the answer we give at this stage. 

Some current provinces (perhaps one or two, perhaps a dozen or two) may not join. However, nothing in the covenant says what IC and MCU claim - that ‘non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion’. Even less does it mean that covenant signatories have to ‘withdraw recognition and communion’ from those that do not sign. We are, after all, already in communion with a variety of bodies who are not expected at any stage to sign the covenant and each church is, as noted earlier, free to act as it believes best including as regards relationships of communion (eg 4.2.7)

At least three pieces of evidence suggest that the covenant very intentionally does not wish to imply or determine that ‘non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion’.

First, the statement that ‘Adoption of this Covenant does not confer any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion, which shall be decided by those Instruments themselves’ (4.1.5) and the fact that ‘Every Church of the Anglican Communion’ is defined as ‘in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council’ (4.1.4) imply that in the self-understanding of the covenant, signing or not signing the covenant in and of itself has no automatic consequences for being part of the Communion. 

Second, in the commentary on the Ridley draft covenant, the Covenant Design Group (CDG) simply noted that,

there is a potential problem as the life of covenanting Churches develops, as more Churches adopt the Covenant. There may be members of the Instruments of Communion who represent a Church that has not adopted the Covenant, and there would be an increasingly anomalous situation as the Covenant becomes active and forceful in the life of the Churches which have adopted it. A short clause (4.2.7) limits participation in the arbitration processes of the Covenant to representatives of Churches who have either adopted or who are in the process of adopting the Covenant, but there will in time be a question of how both covenanting and non-covenanting Churches participate together in the life of the Instruments of Communion. At the moment, the Covenant text provides that these matters are uncoupled (see 4.1.5 and 4.3.1), but the CDG note that such matters may become the subject of agreed conventions alongside the Covenant.

Third, the Church of England proposed as a revision to section 4 that rather than leaving “such matters” as the implication of non-signing on Communion membership open-ended, the covenant should include the following:

(4.3.1) Ten years after the first church has signed the Covenant the covenanting members of the Joint Standing Committee shall make a report with recommendations regarding the integration of the Covenant with the life of the Communion as a whole. This report will be shared with the full JSC and the Instruments. The Joint Standing Committee shall then make recommendations as to relational consequences to the covenanting churches and to the Instruments of the Communion of the decision, active or de facto, by a church of the Communion not to become a covenant member. These recommendations shall address the extent to which such a decision damages the communion between that church and the other churches of the Communion. It may recommend whether such action or decision should have a consequence for participation in the life of the Communion and its Instruments. Each covenanting church and each Instrument commits itself to receive and determine its own response to such recommendations.

In failing to follow this suggestion, far from excluding non-signatories from the Communion, the covenant clearly intends to leave the response to such a situation, should it arise, an open question to be determined at a later date by the Communion.

What is perhaps even more illuminating is the fact that it is thought that if the covenant did mean ‘the Anglican Communion would cease to consist of the 38 provinces’ then ‘it would redefine Anglicanism’. Anglicanism, it seems, is defined not by the shared faith, mission and interdependence of life we have received and which is expressed in the covenant. In fact those are adiaphora, matters of indifference, open to revision and so it would be wrong to express our commitment to them. Anglicanism for MCU & IC appears to be essentially defined by the list of churches found at the end of the ACC constitution and to change that is to ‘redefine Anglicanism’.


So, if IC and MCU have misread and distorted the covenant, what would the Anglican covenant really do?

  • It would encourage and enable all covenanting churches to recognise they are part of a wider fellowship of churches which in God’s providence have received a common inheritance of faith, a shared vocation in mission and a common life together.
  • It provides a means by which they commit themselves to nurture and deepen these gifts through making covenantal commitments to each other.
  • While each member church would continue to ‘run itself’ and remain legally free to ignore its sister churches, it would also recognise that it is not the sole possessor of the Spirit and that it is therefore committed to certain patterns of life and the cultivation of certain virtues in order to seek a common mind and maintain unity in the body of Christ.
  • In signing the covenant it does not know which other churches it will find itself bound to in this way – that is in God’s hands - nor does it determine its relationship with churches that are unwilling to sign. Rather, therefore, than redefining Anglicanism it is recognising and affirming the vision of Anglican faith, order and mission which the covenant proposes.

(3)    What will happen if the Church of England signs the Anglican Covenant?

This is, unsurprisingly, the heart of the IC/MCU case and probably the question of most interest in synodical debates. Given the poor foundations laid so far, it is not surprising the eight answers given all prove to be at best implausible and at worst incoherent and incorrect.

i)        Will the Cof E ‘subordinate itself to an international body’?

Perhaps at least subconsciously aware that they have already disregarded the obvious meaning of the covenant, it is initially granted that ‘The Covenant text claims to affect only the relations provinces have with each other, so that they would be unaffected in their internal governance’. In fact, as already noted, this is a clear, carefully guarded and often repeated limit within the covenant. The authors then quickly move on from this reality as they must because it undermines not just this first stated outcome but the whole basis of their campaign. They claim that ‘However the intended effect, as often expressed in international discussions, would be to subordinate the Church to the judgements of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.’ Once again no evidence is offered for this and once again that is because there is no evidence to offer in support of what it is claimed has ‘often’ been expressed. Given the clear disavowals of the covenant text itself, noted and quoted above, any who hope it will achieve this end are going to be bitterly disappointed.

Similarly, there is no evidence provided - because there is none in existence - to substantiate the claim that the covenant ‘would thereby make the Church of England subject to an outside power for the first time since Henry VIII. This would create serious conflict with its role as the established church’.

ii)        Will the CofE ‘become more dogmatic’?

Having sought to object to the covenant because of the alleged threat to our national sovereignty and position as an established church, the authors suddenly change tack and criticise it for undermining our catholicity: ‘Until now Anglicanism has prided itself on being ‘catholic’ in the original sense of expressing universal Christianity, not a sect with its own distinct doctrines’. This fails to recognise that part of the covenant’s aim is precisely to uphold the Communion’s catholicity - by giving expression to its commitment to ‘universal Christianity’ (particularly in section 1) - and to prevent it, or churches within it, becoming ‘a sect with its own distinct doctrines’. This explains why one commitment is ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern, in a way consistent with the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches’ (3.2.4). It also explains why it has a particular concern with the need ‘to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission’ (3.2.5). It is hard to see why such controversial actions – which IC and MCU seem to believe should not be constrained in any way – are a means of ‘expressing universal Christianity’ whereas commitments to ‘seek a shared mind’ make a church into ‘a sect with its own distinct doctrines’.

The feared dynamic is then expressed in the following terms: ‘every time the Standing Committee upholds an objection it will thereby establish a new ruling, another doctrine Anglicans are expected to believe. Over time Anglicanism will become less inclusive and more dogmatic’. It is hard to know where to start with this. There is again the exaggerated and distorted role we have already noted this gives to the Standing Committee – it can do no more than recommend and propose to the Instruments and covenant churches. Then there are also all sorts of other questions raised: What doctrines are the Standing Committee expected to promulgate in addition to those outlined in section 1? Why does ‘a new ruling’ entail becoming ‘less inclusive and more dogmatic’? Would, for example, a decision that a province accepting lay presidency or abandoning infant baptism was acting in a manner incompatible with the covenant fall into these categories?

The argument also fails to give due weight to the other side of the coin which is more likely to favour the outlook of IC & MCU and is at least as likely given the history of reticence shown by the (Joint) Standing Committee in the past. It must be recognized that each time the Standing Committee dismisses an objection it will also have an impact and this may well make Anglicanism what IC & MCU would see as less dogmatic and more inclusive. This is, of course, what happened through the ACC in relation to women’s ordination when ACC-1 passed (by a very narrow margin) the resolution that

In reply to the request of the Council of the Church of South-East Asia, this Council advises the Bishop of Hong Kong, acting with the approval of his Synod, and any other bishop of the Anglican Communion acting with the approval of his Province, that, if he decides to ordain women to the priesthood, his action will be acceptable to this Council; and that this Council will use its good offices to encourage all Provinces of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with these dioceses (ACC-1, resolution 28b)

So, to take the obvious example, how would they describe the situation if the Standing Committee were to judge that, despite the protests of certain provinces, a church’s development of a same-sex blessing liturgy was not incompatible with the covenant and so should have no relational consequences and that the covenanting churches should therefore continue, in line with their covenant commitments to ‘nurture and sustain eucharistic communion’ (1.2.7)?

Just in case readers were not scared enough by this international body making the Church of England more dogmatic, it is then claimed on the basis of the false statements already made that ‘This would affect parishes too. As each new ruling becomes the Anglican position clergy who disagree, or simply prefer a more open-minded approach, will come under greater pressure to avoid telling their congregations what they really think for fear of reprisals’. Here there is both a rather distorted perception of the role of the clergy – is it simply to ‘tell their congregations what they really think’? – and a predicted future that is disturbing not so much for what it describes but for what it reveals about the fantasies and fears being projected onto and read into the covenant text.

iii)      Will the CofE ‘become more inward-looking’?

This is probably the most bizarre of all the claims. Noting that ‘At present when General Synod makes new proposals it consults interested parties like the dioceses and parishes, relevant specialists and the Government’ the authors appear blind to the fact that their aim – ‘encourage your General Synod representatives to vote against the Anglican Covenant’ – is to prevent such wider consultation. They then claim that ‘The Covenant would subordinate this to international Anglicanism’ which we have seen is a conclusion difficult to draw from the commitments of the covenant itself. One would have thought that if a church were to embark on ‘new proposals’ that risked arousing opposition from ‘international Anglicanism’ then there would be even more concern to ensure that dioceses, parishes etc were fully consulted and persuaded. But the tortured logic has still to reach its climax – the covenant will make the Church of England ‘become more inward-looking’  because ‘the top priority would always be to ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches’ at the expense of national and local context’.QED!?

iv)        Will the CofE ‘become more backward-looking’?

The defence of this claim is at least more logical even if not much more persuasive than that advanced for the covenant making us more inward-looking by requiring us to seek a shared mind with those outside the Church of England. It is argued that ‘Instead of Classic Anglican theology’s balance of scripture, reason and tradition, which allows for new developments, the Covenant reduces Anglicanism’s authorities to ‘the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches’, thus making it harder to justify changes.

Although better, this is, nevertheless, still a remarkably weak argument. It is, of course, far from clear that ‘Classic Anglican theology’ is best summarized as a ‘balance of’ Scripture, reason and tradition which suggests an equality and parity between these three sources of authority whereas in the words of The Virginia Report (3.6-7, italics added)

Anglicans affirm the sovereign authority of the Holy Scriptures as the medium through which God by the Spirit communicates his word in the Church and thus enables people to respond with understanding and faith. The Scriptures are "uniquely inspired witness to divine revelation", and "the primary norm for Christian faith and life". The Scriptures, however, must be translated, read, and understood, and their meaning grasped through a continuing process of interpretation. Since the seventeenth century Anglicans have held that Scripture is to be understood and read in the light afforded by the contexts of "tradition" and "reason".

It is also unclear why the covenant’s approach represents a ‘backward-looking’ shift from classic Anglicanism. The quotation comes from the covenant commitment ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern, in a way consistent with the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches’ (3.2.4, italics added). The seeking of a shared mind through taking counsel together is a central feature of respect for reason and so a crucial commitment – reflecting classic Anglican theology - is ‘to uphold and proclaim a pattern of Christian theological and moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in and answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the catholic tradition’ (1.2.2). It is a serious error to think that a commitment to act in a way ‘consistent with’ Scripture and tradition is to be ‘backward-looking’ or to prevent ‘new developments’. It is in fact the way to ensure these are reasonable developments out of what we have received – different but in continuity with what has gone before. The covenant also makes quite clear that signatory churches are ‘to encourage and be open to prophetic and faithful leadership in ministry and mission’ (1.2.6) and ‘continually to discern the fullness of truth into which the Spirit leads us’ (1.2.8), both of which make clear that its vision is not ‘more backward-looking’ but actually striking the balance of classic Anglican theology.

v)     Will the CofE suffer more ‘interference from outside’?

The first question that must be raised here is why the opinions of fellow Anglicans outside England is viewed as ‘interference’. This represents a highly shrunken view of the church which runs the risk of being more like ‘a sect’ unconcerned about the risk of developing ‘its own distinct doctrine’.

The second question is the constant one raised by the advert – in what sense does the covenant ‘increase interference’?

Here the current situation is described – ‘General Synod openly debates proposals and votes on them’ – though with the intriguing qualifier ‘at present’ as if the covenant in some way threatened such open debate and decision-making. It is then stated that ‘the Covenant would oblige it ‘to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion’.  This quotation is taken from 3.2.5 though, omitting another key constraining factor – ‘and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission’. On the surface there is surely nothing wrong with this – it does not prohibit controversial actions but simply asks that those undertaking them act with diligence, care and caution. Are IC and MCU in contrast advocating neglect, carelessness and recklessness as qualities Synod needs to be free to display, especially when considering controversial matters?

The IC/MCU concern is two-fold. The first is that ‘This would put pressure on churches to avoid changes which other Anglicans, anywhere in the world, might dislike, and would encourage opponents to exaggerate the strength of their objections’. This is, of course, a risk, but the question is whether or not the covenant increases that risk and what the alternative is. Such pressures will likely arise whether or not we sign the covenant.

It is not clear why what the covenant commits us to is an unacceptable response to objections from fellow Anglicans. Yes, opponents may well exaggerate the strength of objections – it is always the case when criteria are set for something that some people will seek to show they are being met even whey are not. However, first the Synod and then, perhaps, the Standing Committee, will provide a context in which a judgment can be made as to whether claims are exaggerated (and the warning of the boy who cried ‘wolf’ suggests that conservatives seeking to follow such a strategy need to be careful of not over-playing their hand). Once again the key question is whether these criteria are valid? Are IC and MCU advocating that the Church of England pay no regard to the fact their actions could ‘threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission’? If not, what criteria other than the ‘intensity, substance or extent’ of controversy do they think should be considered and weighed when deciding to proceed?

The second concern is that of uncertainty – ‘We cannot know in advance which issues may generate objections from overseas hierarchies in the future’. That of course is true whether or not we sign the covenant. A refusal to sign does not endow the Church of England with a prophetic gift it would otherwise lack! That is also why the covenant is so important. For example, an Anglican church in future may act in a way so as to appear complicit with racial segregation or even genocide. Should not the Church of England as an ‘overseas hierarchy’ be authorized to generate objections when this happens? Does the covenant not provide as good a procedure as we could expect for examining such objections?

 Finally, the nature of the interference is defined – ‘To sign the Covenant would in effect give them the right to lodge formal objections to any change we may wish to make in the future’. Indeed it would do this although again it needs to be restated that it is false to say that this means we in turn undertake ‘not to introduce any new development if another Anglican province anywhere in the world’ objects. We would simply follow the procedures laid down in the covenant, such as ‘to participate in mediated conversations, which involve face to face meetings, agreed parameters and a willingness to see such processes through’ (3.2.6). Throughout the process we, and any covenanting province, remain free to act despite such formal objections even if they are upheld by the wider Communion as valid.

vi)       Will the CofE ‘become more centralised and clerical’?

This alleged outcome is again dependent on the erroneous claim that ‘General Synod may not be perfect, but it does aim to be representative and allow a voice to laity. The Covenant would subordinate it to the new centralised authorities, the Standing Committee and the four Instruments of Communion.  Power would be centralised and concentrated in smaller numbers, mostly bishops and archbishops. The voice of the laity would be significantly reduced’. Given that there is no such ‘subordination’, no ‘new centralized authorities’ the rest of the argument falls.

 The argument is also flawed in that it fails to acknowledge that in General Synod ‘A provision touching doctrinal formulae or the services or ceremonies of the Church of England or the administration of the sacraments or sacred rites thereof shall, before it is finally approved by the General Synod, be referred to the House of Bishops, and shall be submitted for such final approval in terms proposed by the House of Bishops and not otherwise’ (Article 7) and therefore, in the areas most realistically likely to be raised under the covenant, power has always been rather concentrated in the hands of bishops and archbishops.

vii)       Will the covenant ‘hinder mission’?

Here again both premise and argument are seriously flawed. First, mission is focused on one particular section of British society – ‘younger people’. Second, it is then claimed that ‘many’ of them ‘are put off by the Church’s apparent reluctance to change and backward-looking stance on many issues’, again with no solid evidence . Although I similarly lack statistical evidence, I have experience of teaching in evangelical theological colleges over the last ten years and of churches ranging from HTB and New Wine congregations at the more charismatic end to those of the Co-Mission congregations from a more conservative evangelical end. This suggests that there are also ‘many younger people’ who have been drawn to believe in and follow Christ through churches which IC & MCU would doubtless consider reluctant to change and backward-looking. Third, with a surprising disregard for truth and reason, it is asserted that anyway the rightness of such rejection is actually irrelevant to the claim about to be made – ‘Whether or not they are right…’. Fourth, presumably based on the earlier fallacious claims, it is asserted that to accept the covenant would be ‘to turn this stance into an essential feature of Anglicanism’ . And so the argument draws to its conclusion that, because it will ‘accentuate the problem’, the covenantwill ‘create a new obstacle to mission’. We are left with the not wholly convincing image of hordes of teenagers refusing to darken the doors of Church of England churches because they’ve heard we’ve signed the Anglican covenant.

In addition to the massive holes in the reasoning, there are of course much more fundamental theological questions: Why is mission not being defined in terms of the gospel and the mission of God or even the Five Marks of Mission which have been formulated and accepted by the Communion and are absolutely central to the covenant itself? Why is this – the only reference to mission – defining it by reference to the alleged beliefs of one particular section of British society which happen to reflect the belief system of IC & MCU? Why is there no interest in whether or not the covenant hinders or helps global mission?

viii)       Will the covenant ‘hinder ecumenical relations’?

Finally, just when it might be thought that the list of negative labels had been exhausted – subordination to an international body, more dogmatic, more inward-looking, more backward-looking, interference from outside, more centralised and clerical, hinderance to mission – one more bullet is found to fire at the target. It is again a surprising criticism to raise against the covenant for, as it is acknowledged, ‘Proponents of the Covenant hope it would ease ecumenical discussions at an international level’ and there is considerable evidence to support this hope. That is, however, countered by the claim that ‘At a local level, however, initiatives would become subject to objections from Anglicans in other parts of the world who do not know the local situation’. Here again the bogey-man of ‘Anglicans in other parts of the world’ reappears and it now seems that local ecumenical initiatives are their target. Unfortunately, this problem is not filled out but it is hard to see how a covenant which affirms that ‘mission is shared with other Churches and traditions beyond this Covenant’ (1.1.8) and so asks for commitment to striving ‘under God for the fuller realisation of the communion of all Christians’ (1.2.7) and ‘a common pilgrimage with the whole Body of Christ’ (1.2.8) can hinder ecumenical relations, especially when its vision of mission is

that our common mission is a mission shared with other Churches and traditions beyond this Covenant.  We embrace opportunities for the discovery of the life of the whole gospel, and for reconciliation and shared mission with the Church throughout the world.  We affirm the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism to the full visible unity of the Church in accordance with Christ’s prayer that “all may be one”.  It is with all the saints in every place and time that we will comprehend the fuller dimensions of Christ’s redemptive and immeasurable love (2.1.5)

In opposing the covenant, IC and MCU either need to be clear that they reject such ecumenical affirmations or commitments or else demonstrate why the covenant as a whole will so disastrously fail to achieve its stated objectives.


In summary, every one of the eight claimed consequences if the Church of England signs the covenant is extreme scare-mongering which ignores or even outright contradicts the wording and intent of the covenant. The heart of the IC/MCU case presents as true – in a quasi-fundamentalist style of dogmatic assertion with little or no supporting evidence – what is plainly contradicted by a simple reading of the text of the covenant.

(4)    But isn’t the covenant disciplinary?

Although most of what is said about the covenant by IC/MCU is therefore misleading, distorted or false, at one point in the ad they make a claim that may reveal where there is place for discussion and debate. In answer to why the covenant has (allegedly) been kept so quiet, it is claimed that ‘For a few years it was being publicly promoted as a way to ‘discipline’ the North Americans’. This is the single reference to discipline in the whole advertisement and sadly it is here presented as simply a boo-word, a euphemism (hence presumably the quote/scare marks) for alleged expulsion of provinces and ‘the gloves coming off’. The question of discipline is, however, an area of importance.

For any church committed to discipleship, discipline in its proper and wider sense is something good. In that good and proper sense the covenant may indeed be a way of discipline for it requires solemn affirmations and commitments to be made and thus a heart and will for a particular way of life. But that is a discipline which all covenanting churches embrace, not something enacted against one or two churches. As the introduction to the covenant states (italics added)

We recognise the wonder, beauty and challenge of maintaining communion in this family of churches, and the need for mutual commitment and discipline as a witness to God’s promise in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation.  Therefore, we covenant together as churches of this Anglican Communion to be faithful to God’s promises through the historic faith we confess, our common worship, our participation in God’s mission, and the way we live together’ (para 4).

The covenant is therefore undoubtedly a way of discipline but it is first and foremost a path of self-discipline and mutual discipline and accountability which churches are being asked to embrace both for their own good and the good of the fellowship of churches in the Communion (and, indeed, the wider ecumenical good).

In contrast, by speaking of ‘a way to ‘discipline’ the North Americans’, IC and MCU are clearly claiming something else – a disciplinary procedure with certain sanctions. It is important to recognise that this too is a good in a fallen world. That is why the Church of England has not only a structure of canon law but a Clergy Discipline Measure and churches, like all workplaces, will have a ‘disciplinary policy’ in relation to church staff. Such procedures can of course fail to achieve the good they seek by being unfair, disproportionate, discriminatory, procedurally flawed, harshly punitive etc. They can also, even when good, be abused in practice if the culture and environment in which they are set is unhealthy and destructive (and a large part of MCU/IC’s critique is probably due to their fears on this front rather than the covenant itself). However, processes of discipline cannot be dismissed as in some sense inherently un-Anglican or sub-Christian or anti-Christian. By referring to ‘relational consequences’ and identifying these as possibly including proposals of ‘a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from’ an Instrument (4.2.5) on the basis of a judgment as to ‘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’ (4.2.7), the covenant clearly has a potentially disciplinary or at least a quasi-disciplinary function in relation to the relationship between Anglican churches.

There are a number of problems with the IC/MCU response in relation to discipline:

  1. As already shown, their account totally distorts the covenant’s proposed disciplinary element by giving it undue prominence and misrepresenting its scope and content.

  2. The account therefore fails to provide any reasoned critique of what the covenant actually says in this area. 

  3. By limiting its description to ‘the North Americans’ it does not acknowledge a number of key points. First and foremost, of course, is that the covenant processes will only be able to ‘discipline’ them if they commit themselves to the covenant. Furthermore, the outcome of any such ‘discipline’ is dependent on those processes – where ultimate decisions are taken by each Instrument - and not determined in advance.  Finally, all other provinces are subject to the same processes including, for example, those which unilaterally break communion with another province without reference to the covenant or consecrate bishops to serve in the territory of another covenanting church. 

  4. Their account does not make clear whether they believe in church discipline in any sense? If they do not then the theological basis of this position needs to be articulated and a critique offered of existing disciplinary procedures within church life. If they do believe in church discipline then they need to be clear as to what specifically is wrong with the proposals actually set out in the Anglican Covenant and what would be their alternative proposal

  5. Finally, the other crucial question is whether what might be called the undisciplined disciplinary processes of recent years really offer a better alternative to that proposed in the covenant.

Rather than address these serious issues, the ad implies that any form of discipline is simply about the removal of gloves with the clear intention being to suggest that beneath the velvet glove is an iron fist. To be persuasive in this it is necessary to engage with the actual text of the covenant and when that is done we discover again that IC & MCU paint a picture which bears little or no resemblance to the provisions of the covenant. Far from encouraging and enabling ‘the gloves to come off again’, the covenant commits those who sign it

  • ‘to seek in all things to uphold the solemn obligation to nurture and sustain eucharistic communion, in accordance with existing canonical disciplines, as we strive under God for the fuller realisation of the communion of all Christians’ (1.2.7),
  • ‘to pursue a common pilgrimage with the whole Body of Christ continually to discern the fullness of truth into which the Spirit leads us, that peoples from all nations may be set free to receive new and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ (1.2.8),
  • ‘to spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection, to listen, pray and study with one another in order to discern the will of God’ (3.2.3),
  • ‘in situations of conflict, to participate in mediated conversations, which involve face to face meetings, agreed parameters and a willingness to see such processes through’ (3.2.6)
  • ‘to have in mind that our bonds of affection and the love of Christ compel us always to uphold the highest degree of communion possible. (3.2.7)

It is also clear that ‘when questions arise relating to the meaning of the Covenant, or about the compatibility of an action by a covenanting Church with the Covenant, it is the duty of each covenanting Church to seek to live out the commitments of Section 3.2’ (4.2.3). These do not sound like the best principles and framework for anyone eager to take the gloves off for a bloody bare-knuckle fight!

In summary, MCU and IC are right that the covenant is not ‘a minor bureaucratic reform’. If it were, it would not need to be considered by diocesan Synods. But neither is it a punitive measure. It simply recognises – in the last of its four main sections - that in a family of autonomous churches, as in a family of autonomous individuals, there needs to be an agreed way of addressing differences if we are to live together well. It is not sufficient to say there will be no differences between members or that all differences are the same in their significance and ultimately none of them should have an impact on relationships. The covenant is not – despite the false claims made - proposing that everyone in the family accepts the word of one member as determinative on all.

Rather, when affirmations made appear to be denied, when commitments made are felt to have been reneged on or people are unclear what the commitments mean for them in practice, we know how we will handle these challenges even if we do not know in advance what we will decide which in some cases will be more permissive and in other cases more a defining of a significant boundary. In the words of Archbishop Rowan commending the covenant,

The last bit of the Covenant text is the one that’s perhaps been the most controversial, because that’s where we spell out what happens if relationships fail or break down. It doesn’t set out, as I’ve already said, a procedure for punishments and sanctions. It does try and sort out how we will discern the nature of our disagreement, how important is it? How divisive does it have to be? Is it a Communion breaking issue that’s in question – or is it something we can learn to live with? And so in these sections of the Covenant what we’re trying to do is simply to give a practical, sensible and Christian way of dealing with our conflicts, recognising that they’re always going to be there.

(5)    What if...?: Hypothetical futures and pasts

Given that the case made against the covenant is so weak when it is engaging with the reality of the text, it is not surprising that there are also problems when the authors turn to hypothetical scenarios and so have even more freedom for their imagination. Having given their account of what they think will follow if the Church of England signs the covenant, the authors turn to the alternative, clearly preferred, path in which we do not sign up to it and to the question of how history might have been different if we had the covenant. 

(a)    What will happen if the Church does not sign it?’

The first and preferred consequence – ‘the best possible outcome’ – is that ‘Because the Church of England is the mother church of the Communion, if England declines to sign it will probably not come into effect’. While undoubtedly the Church of England’s refusal would be very significant and traumatic, and may well sink the covenant (and perhaps with it the Communion), the imperial mindset this statement reveals among those who present themselves as reasonable and inclusive Anglicans is alarming. Those opposing the covenant appear to think it both likely and acceptable that no matter how many provinces wish to covenant, the Church of England remains so decisive that it effectively can veto the covenant. What is more they are arguing that it should not be ashamed to use its powerful position to make a pre-emptive strike at the covenant before most provinces have been able to consider the final text in an attempt to destroy it. Here it becomes clear that, paradoxically for those often seen as radicals and progressives, the authors have a deep-seated ‘reluctance to change and backward-looking stance’.

The other outcome is clearly that ‘the Covenant goes ahead’. In case this leads to a fear that it is therefore better to be on the inside, non-signing is again made attractive by the reassurance that ‘provinces not signing will govern themselves in the same way as now’. This of course repeats the myth that those who have signed it will, in some significant way, no longer be able to govern themselves in the same way. Then the relational consequences are summed up in terms of ‘signatories will no longer count them as part of the Anglican Communion. They will be excluded from representative institutions and counted as ‘second track’ or ‘churches in association’’. As explained in looking at what the Anglican covenant will do, neither the covenant itself nor the Instruments have stated this outcome of exclusion. However, the language of ‘churches in association’ has been used by the Archbishop of Canterbury in an attempt to explain how the distinction between signatories and non-signatories might come to be understood and impact the life of the Communion. In their relation to covenant-signing churches, or ‘constituent churches’, non-signatories would, in his words, be ‘still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures’. For the Church of England to decide to place itself in that situation would clearly entail an even more radical reconfiguration of global covenantal Anglicanism given the traditional role of the Primate of All England.

For Christians, consequences can never be determinative in deciding a right course action but prudential action requires consideration be given to them and, in some circumstances, they may play a decisive role in decision-making. While predicting the future is never easy, the answer here sets out a possible map and highlights the significance of any decision by the Church of England’s not to sign it: either we unilaterally destroy the covenant which has been widely welcomed and which we are committed ‘to engage positively with’ (General Synod motion, July 2007) on the basis that ‘there is nothing in it contrary to Church of England faith and order and...approval of the Covenant would therefore be in keeping with the precedents set by synodical support for previous ecumenical agreements and Covenants’ (GS1716, para 23) or we set ourselves apart from this development and, by saying we do not share the covenant’s vision of communion life, declare we are willing, if this results, to no longer be ‘bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion’ with those who sign.

(b)    ‘What if we already had the Covenant?’

Having attempted to predict the future, this question seeks to reconstruct a hypothetical past. It does so on the presumption that the covenant is simply a check on change and so it produces a list of issues which has no theological coherence other than being a list of some of the changes that have occurred over the centuries – ‘The Church no longer approves of slavery, but does permit divorce and contraception. We have introduced new orders of service, terms of ordinations and ordination oaths. In 1992 we permitted women priests. It is then claimed that ‘If the Covenant had already been in force other provinces could, and almost certainly would, have objected to these changes. It is one thing to disapprove of some of them, quite another to give other provinces the right to veto them’. Once again the emotive but wholly false language of ‘veto’ appears here and it needs to be again stated that even if others objected and even if they managed to gain widespread support from across the Communion (it would be interesting to know which ‘new orders of service’ and ‘terms of ordinations and ordination oaths’ it is thought would have succeeded in doing this or which church it is thought would have raised objections to the change referred to by ‘no longer approves of slavery’!), signing the covenant would not give them a veto and the Church of England could still have proceeded with the changes.

Turning to the hot topic of women’s ordination it is claimed that ‘If it had been in force in 1944 the ordination of the first Anglican woman would almost certainly have been forbidden’. Again there is no power to forbid in the covenant and there is also a failure to recognise what happened in the past. In 1944, in what was recognized to be an emergency situation, Bishop Hall actually wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury about his predicament and desire to ordain Florence Li Tim Oi – an example of the sort of ‘autonomy with interdependence’ the covenant seeks to embody. However, the reply came too late. Even without the covenant, the reality of life in communion meant that after the war Li Tim Oi surrendered her licence (though did not renounce her orders) and there was, in effect, a moratorium on further ordinations. There is, in other words, not some glorious ‘traditional Anglican’ past where relational consequences did not exist and which the straitjacket of a covenant will now harshly impose.

For some reason it is claimed that not only would the covenant have led to the forbidding of the ordination but that ‘from then onwards women priests would have been forbidden in every Anglican province’. Again the covenant has no power to forbid anything in any province let alone in ‘every Anglican province’ and in perpetuity. It simply asks provinces to follow the sort of pattern that was followed at Lambeth 1968 and ACC-1 in 1971 – taking counsel with other provinces. Just as the earlier common counsel (without a covenant) relating to women’s ordination could be overturned by the Instruments, so any decision arising under the covenant is neither forbidding in every Anglican province nor some law of the Medes and Persians which means that ‘from then onwards’ the situation is fixed.

The authors have to admit that ‘The Covenant is not now expected to rule out women bishops because some provinces already have them’, failing to recognise that Anglican provinces now have women bishops as the result of following the sort of conciliar process now explicitly and more formally expressed in the covenant. It then, however, claims that ‘if it is in force before the Church of England’s legislation and Code of Practice are agreed, other provinces will have an opportunity to lodge objection’  which is clearly a possibility although it raises unfounded fears in the context of the falsehood that any such objection has force unless and until permission is given to ignore it. A more truthful statement would be that, although signing the covenant would enable other covenant churches to object to the Church of England proceeding to consecrate women, this is highly unlikely either to happen or to be upheld given the decisions of Lambeth 1988 and subsequent developments in the Communion, and even were it to happen the Church of England would not be prevented from proceeding anyway.

(6)    Conclusion: What vision and future for Anglicanism should we embrace?

It may be that, although they have demonstrated a woefully inadequate understanding of the covenant, MC and IC are able to offer a better alternative. One way of considering this would be to bring together a number of questions raised in this analysis. First, do they believe that there should be any limits at all to Anglican belief and practice?  If the answer here is ‘no’ then it must be acknowledged that this is contrary to Anglican teaching and practice and the position of the Church of England. If there are limits then the question is how they are to be expressed and whether they see them in traditional Anglican theology and ecclesiology. If not, then they are cutting off the branch on which they are sitting when they oppose the covenant as un-Anglican. If, however, they do recognise Anglican tradition then they need to show why the covenant is not doing what it claims in 4.1.2 and simply asking churches in sections 1-3 to affirm and commit to traditional Anglican theology and ecclesiology. Finally, in relation to section 4, they need either to reject all church discipline and offer a theological rationale for that break with Church of England practice, or they need to engage with the specific proposals found in the Anglican Covenant and offer an alternative proposal .

The nearest they get to doing any of this is in a conclusion which claims that ‘Classic Anglicanism offers a better method’. Reflecting the tradition within Anglicanism they represent (and giving little recognition to other Anglican traditions), it is claimed that ‘Anglicans traditionally value the role of reason and thus expect to learn from other people’. It is not explained why the covenant - as written, rather than as imagined and constructed here - is incompatible with these features but clearly it is thought to be a major threat.

The benefit of this ‘classic Anglicanism’ is then presented as the fact that ‘we have therefore been better at staying united because we have debated our disagreements openly within the Church, without threatening schism, until such time as consensus is reached’. It is thus claimed that ‘The way to keep united is to insist, as the Church of England has normally done, that differences of opinion may be freely and openly debated within the Church, in the interests of seeking truth, without invoking power games or threats of schism’.

Once again, it cannot be too often repeated or too strongly stressed that the covenant puts no stop to free and open debate – in fact it encourages it based on the recognition that this is essential precisely for seeking truth: ‘Such prayer, study and debate is an essential feature of the life of the Church as it seeks to be led by the Spirit into all truth and to proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation.  Some issues, which are perceived as controversial or new when they arise, may well evoke a deeper understanding of the implications of God’s revelation to us; others may prove to be distractions or even obstacles to the faith.  All such matters therefore need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church’ (3.2.3). 

The covenant also does not threaten schism or invoke power games (though we are in a context where many view other Anglicans as guilty of these sins and that has clearly distorted the IC/MCU reading of the covenant). Rather than pushing for division, the covenant commits churches ‘to seek in all things to uphold the solemn obligation to nurture and sustain eucharistic communion’ (1.2.7). The covenant, finally, is not opposed to reaching consensus but rather establishes processes by which it can be reached and then protected when undermined.

Why then are IC and MCU so vociferously and unreasonably opposed to the covenant? In part they are opposed because of their multiple and very serious misunderstandings about the covenant which run throughout their critique. In part they are opposed because they rightly recognise that accepting its vision of what it means to be the body of Christ and making its commitments is incompatible with the way the North American provinces have behaved since 2003. That is clearly a problem for those who desire to follow the method of North American provinces by proceeding unilaterally in relation to revising Church of England teaching and practice on same-sex relationships. There are, however, two other deeper and perhaps related reasons for their stance.

First, they are, quite simply, refusing to face reality, the reality of the Church of England, the reality of the covenant and the reality of the situation in the wider Communion. As a fellowship of churches, the Communion has never held that any church is free to do whatever it likes and then expect no objections or response from other churches in the fellowship. It has certainly not considered it wrong for other churches or the Instruments to speak out on contentious issues. It has always encouraged common counsel before proceeding with potentially divisive actions (as shown in relation to women’s ordination). The last decade has shown that, in our globalised world, objections and responses to controversial actions can happen very rapidly and in ways that are detrimental to our common life and mission. These are realities which must be faced and addressed if we are to move forward.

The covenant asks all churches of the Communion, faced with current tensions, to find again our common ground as Anglicans in its affirmations, to learn lessons from the failures of the recent past and to express those through its commitments, and to agree on both patterns of conduct and structures of deliberation which can discern where key boundaries lie and propose paths of common action for the future. IC and MCU not only misrepresent this process but have no credible alternative to offer.

Second, these bodies against the covenant are also perhaps opposed because of a more fundamental theological and ecclesiological difference, one which ultimately undermines their claim to be the genuine and inclusive Anglicans.

In speaking of ‘until such time as consensus is reached’ and stressing ‘the role of reason’ the groups may signal a failure to recognise that in many significant areas – notably but not solely those expressly articulated in section 1 of the covenant – a consensus has already been reached among Anglicans. While that consensus may indeed be wrong, it exists and needs to be respected even when it is being questioned. We are therefore not to view any and every disagreement or proposed development as a sign that consensus has not yet been reached. When a small minority act against a consensus we cannot simply conclude that therefore a variety of incompatible courses of action are legitimate among Anglicans. Nor can we therefore conclude that any and every breaking with the common mind of Anglicans should not result in objections from others nor lead to impairment of communion.  In speaking of ‘such time as consensus is reached’ there is no acknowledgment that the church does not actually believe the will of God is only to be found in some consensus which may arise among Christians at some future point in time. Rather, Anglicans believe that although as sinners in history we never know God’s will fully and perfectly, it has been revealed in Christ and in the Spirit-inspired biblical witness to him, to which both tradition and reason are ultimately subordinate.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has described Anglicanism in the following terms

The different components in our heritage can, up to a point, flourish in isolation from each other. But any one of them pursued on its own would lead in a direction ultimately outside historic Anglicanism The reformed concern may lead towards a looser form of ministerial order and a stronger emphasis on the sole, unmediated authority of the Bible. The catholic concern may lead to a high doctrine of visible and structural unification of the ordained ministry around a focal point. The cultural and intellectual concern may lead to a style of Christian life aimed at giving spiritual depth to the general shape of the culture around and de-emphasising revelation and history. Pursued far enough in isolation, each of these would lead to a different place - to strict evangelical Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, to religious liberalism. To accept that each of these has a place in the church's life and that they need each other means that the enthusiasts for each aspect have to be prepared to live with certain tensions or even sacrifices - with a tradition of being positive about a responsible critical approach to Scripture, with the anomalies of a historic ministry not universally recognised in the Catholic world, with limits on the degree of adjustment to the culture and its habits that is thought possible or acceptable.

He went on to warn

The different components in our heritage can, up to a point, flourish in isolation from each other. But any one of them pursued on its own would lead in a direction ultimately outside historic Anglicanism The reformed concern may lead towards a looser form of ministerial order and a stronger emphasis on the sole, unmediated authority of the Bible. The catholic concern may lead to a high doctrine of visible and structural unification of the ordained ministry around a focal point. The cultural and intellectual concern may lead to a style of Christian life aimed at giving spiritual depth to the general shape of the culture around and de-emphasising revelation and history. Pursued far enough in isolation, each of these would lead to a different place - to strict evangelical Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, to religious liberalism. To accept that each of these has a place in the church's life and that they need each other means that the enthusiasts for each aspect have to be prepared to live with certain tensions or even sacrifices - with a tradition of being positive about a responsible critical approach to Scripture, with the anomalies of a historic ministry not universally recognised in the Catholic world, with limits on the degree of adjustment to the culture and its habits that is thought possible or acceptable.

A proper reading of the covenant shows it is, on this account, indisputably Anglican and inclusive of all these components of our Anglican heritage accepting that ‘each of these has a place in the church’s life’.

The critique of IC and MCU distorts this by unfairly and unreasonably painting the covenant as simply a mixture of two concerns pushed to their extremes: ‘strict evangelical Protestantism’ (the neo-Puritan method) and ‘Roman Catholicism’ (more centralised and clerical, subordination to an international body). In doing so, they show no awareness of the many elements of the covenant reflecting their own emphases and its overall nuance and balance. Even more worrying is their apparent blindness to the dangers in their own tendency of ‘de-emphasising revelation and history’. In fact, in the substance and tone of their campaign, they demonstrate that they have become ‘enthusiasts’ for an isolated ‘religious liberalism’ who have little regard for – or even fundamentally reject – any ‘limits on the degree of adjustment to the culture and its habits’.

In summary, their response to the covenant reveals that they are far from being the authentic voice of Anglicanism or the Church of England. Instead, they are at risk of seeking to remake the Communion in their own particular Western liberal image and thus make it captive to what Oliver O’Donovan described as The failure of the liberal paradigm in his first Fulcrum sermon on subjects of the day (now published by SCM as A Conversation Waiting to Begin).  At root, their ill-informed polemic suggests that ultimately they cannot accept that their own tradition in Anglicanism must – like evangelical and catholic perspectives – also learn ‘to live with certain tensions or even sacrifices’ if it is to be truly Anglican. As a result, they rail against a covenant one of whose main strengths is precisely that it prevents any one part of Anglicanism from heading where they sadly risk heading - ‘in a direction ultimately outside historic Anglicanism’.

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