Debate in the Church of England about the proposed Anglican Covenant is still going on. And this is quite a good moment to take stock of some of the issues surrounding that debate and perhaps also to remind people of some of the concerns that lie behind the proposals affecting the Covenant.
The Covenant, as it stands, is a document that was drawn up over a long period of consultation involving pretty well everybody in the Anglican Communion. The Church of England itself played a very important part in contributing to successive drafts of the Covenant, and I think we can be rightly proud of some of the contributions we have made there.
But what is the Covenant really about? Essentially, it’s about being accountable to each other in the Communion. As in any family, what we do affects those with whom we are in a relationship. The Covenant is about thinking through those relationships, and what the consequences are of whatever we choose to do in our own particular bit of the Communion’s life.
But one of the greatest misunderstandings around concerning the Covenant is that it’s some sort of centralising proposal creating an absolute authority which has the right to punish people for stepping out of line. I have to say I think this is completely misleading and false.
The Covenant suggests a process of scrutiny. That is, when any particular bit of the Anglican Communion decides it wants to do something new, for whatever reason, then that particular bit of the Communion needs to look at what it is doing and think it through in terms of what its effects might be elsewhere in the Anglican family. And as that process of scrutiny goes on other provinces are drawn in, and the instruments of the Communion at large are drawn in. We look at what we’re doing in the light of its effects, not just for us, but for others.
It may be that at the end of the day there are real incompatible possibilities around. Choices have to be made, and relations may suffer as a result. They do already. And what the Covenant proposes is not a set of punishments, but a way of thinking through what the consequences are of decisions people freely and in good conscience make.
But who needs the Covenant, it might be said? There’s one very short answer to that. Some bits of our Communion represent needy and isolated parts of the Christian world. They need relationships. They need the assurance that we won’t drive them into difficult positions. They need to know that we take them seriously enough to engage in conversation with them. And that’s part of what keeps them going and what makes them strong. It’s very interesting that some of the parts of the Communion that have already said yes to the Covenant are exactly that kind of church.
And so, as we in our dioceses think about the Covenant, I believe it’s of the very first importance that we try and bear in mind how it’s going to impact, let’s say, on our companion dioceses in other parts of the Communion: we might want to ask them about it; we might want to think through what they have to say and how they might feel.
A lot of people have said that the first few sections of the Covenant, the first three bits of the Covenant, are uncontroversial. They set out a common ground on which we all agree and they, in general ways, urge us to think about these things – to think about the impact on other parts of the Communion and what we decide to do.
But then people say the difficulty comes with the fourth section. But that fourth section is not a disciplinary system. It’s about a process of discernment and discussion. Nobody has the power to do anything but recommend courses of action. Nobody is forced by that into doing anything.
And it’s worth remembering also that the sort of issues that may arise within the Communion that threaten deeply to divide us are not just the ones that have been most in focus in the last seven or eight years; issues especially around human sexuality. There could be many other developments: developments about how we understand our ordained ministry; how we understand our mission; the limits of diversity in our worship; even perhaps in the public language we use about our doctrine. If we don’t have any way of scrutinising, discerning and discussing, then I think we’re a great deal the poorer.
What’s more, it means that we come into our ecumenical discussions, our discussions with other churches, without any very clear sense of what holds us together. Many of our ecumenical partners are very interested in the Covenant and very enthusiastic about it. They like to think that they're dealing with a family of churches capable of talking to one another intelligently, sympathetically, and critically; a family of churches that has a common language, a common practice, a common set of standards about how to resolve conflicts when they arise. Not to endorse the Covenant does seem to me, in this context, once again an impoverishing sort of thing. It sets us rather on the back foot in our conversations with other churches.
The Covenant won’t solve all our problems, but it will express what a great many people in the Communion and outside need to hear: that we are answerable to one another; that we take each other fully seriously. And in terms of the Church of England, it means that we understand and accept that the Church of England is part of the Anglican family, not some special isolated little bit that doesn’t have to ask these questions.
What do we in the Church of England gain from it? What we gain from being part of a Communion: the wisdom, the challenge – sometimes acceptable, sometimes welcome, sometimes very difficult – of our sister churches. We gain a way of handling the sort of conflicts that otherwise threaten simply to fester. And I believe with all my heart that what’s offered to us in the Covenant is an adult, sensible, workable way of handling the conflicts that will inevitably arise in a spirit of real mutual respect.
We’re being invited not to sign away our freedom but to accept that in the body of Christ we are all obliged to one another. We’re all responsible to, and for, and with one another. If we can approach the Covenant in that spirit then I believe passionately that it’s worth voting for and worth supporting. And my prayers will be with all of those who are making decisions about this in the dioceses of the Church of England.
© Rowan Williams 2012