24 March 2014

Anglicanism (2014) 9.1: The Anglican Covenant:
the debate today and the future of Anglicanism

Patrick Comerford

MTh Year II

Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Mondays: 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., The Hartin Room.

Monday, 24 March 2014, 2 p.m.:

9.1: The Anglican Covenant: does it have a future?

The Anglican Covenant is a proposed solution to the public conflicts and threats of schism within the Anglican Communion over the past decade or so.

The idea of a covenant was first suggested in the Windsor Report (2004), which responded sympathetically to the complaints from those parts of the Anglican Communion – described variously described as conservative, traditionalist, or orthodox – that were dissatisfied with developments in the churches of the West, including the election of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire (the US), and the blessing of same-gender partnership in the Diocese of New Westminster (Canada).

But it is sometimes forgotten that the Windsor Report also addressed concerns of cross-border interventions by bishops from the so-called “Global South” in the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Anglican Church of Canada.

Ridley Hall, Cambridge, founded in 1881 … the Ridley Cambridge Draft was finalised there in April 2009 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Covenant went through a number of drafts and comment periods before a “final” text was codified in December 2009. The 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion have since been asked to adopt this text. In June 2010, the Anglican Church of Mexico became the first church to do so.

The Covenant is immediately effective for churches that adopt it. Churches adopting the Covenant commit themselves to a new relationship with other Anglican churches. Churches that do not sign up to the covenant or are in the process of adoption may be allowed to take part in certain Covenant-defined activities, though their status is not completely clear.

At the centre of the new arrangement is the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, formerly the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates’ Meeting.

When conflicts arise, the Standing Committee is to seek consensus. If no consensus is found, the Standing Committee may ask an “offending” church to delay or stop a controversial action.

If that request is ineffective, the Standing Committee can recommend “relational consequences.”

In practice, would enacting “relational consequences” mean demoting or excluding a church from participation in certain bodies?

Or would it mean asking other provinces effectively to shun the offending church, banishing it from the Anglican family?

Even if such extreme actions are never taken, at the heart of the new covenanted relationship among Anglican Churches would always be the threat of exclusion.

At Lambeth 2008, it was initially made clear to the bishops that the conference was not a legislative meeting and that there would be no voting. A series of meetings on the proposed covenant was held.

The bishops were divided up into daily Indaba groups or discussion groups of about 40 bishops each, and the covenant was a discussion topic on one day.

Although there was no voting, the report that came from Lambeth 2008 said that a majority of bishops present favoured an Anglican Covenant.

In December 2009, the text of The Anglican Communion Covenant was sent to all the member churches of the Anglican Communion, asking them to consider it for adoption according to their own internal procedures.

At the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Armagh three years ago, the Church of Ireland agreed to “subscribe” to the Covenant on 13 May 2011. But the General Synod also made it clear that the Covenant did not supplant existing governing documents of the Church of Ireland.

In the Church of England, the Act of Synod adopting the Covenant was sent to the diocesan synods before it could have any possibility of returning to the General Synod for approval.

The General Synod of the Church of England voted on 24 November 2010 to send the Covenant to diocesan synods. If a majority of synods voted in favour of adopting the Covenant, the question would then be brought back to General Synod for a final vote.

The final vote was 26 dioceses against the Covenant and 18 for it:

● 26 voted against the Covenant returning to the General Synod for a final vote: Bath and Wells, Birmingham, Chelmsford, Derby, Ely, Gloucester, Guildford, Hereford, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Portsmouth, Ripon and Leeds, Rochester, St Albans, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Salisbury, Sodor and Man, Southwark, Truro, Wakefield and Worcester.

● 18 have voted for it: Blackburn, Bradford, Bristol, Canterbury, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Coventry, Durham, Exeter, Europe, Lichfield, Norwich, Peterborough, Sheffield, Southwell and Nottingham, Winchester and York.

As a consequence, the Church of England cannot now sign up to the Anglican Covenant, which many have seen as the one plan that might have prevented the global Anglican Communion from fracture and division.

During the voting in the diocesan synods, a consistent the pattern emerged: around 80% of the bishops voted in favour of the covenant, but the clergy and laity votes have split around 50-50 for and against, with votes against nudging ahead among the clergy. Does that suggest that the bishops are out of touch with faithful Anglican churchgoers and clergy in England, as Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford argued in The Guardian two years ago [25 March 2012]?

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, supported the Anglican Covenant in an effort to ensure divisive issues – including gay and lesbian bishops – do not split the Anglican Communion. However, the covenant had already been rejected by conservative many Anglican leaders around the world, even though they are the ones it was intended to placate.

Archbishop Williams said he saw the Anglican Covenant is about the autonomous, self-governing member Churches of the Anglican Communion being “accountable to each other in the Communion.” Defending the Covenant, he said it would not give anybody the power to do anything but recommend courses of action.

However, critics have said the Anglican Covenant is in danger of undermining the traditional independence or autonomy of the member churches of the Anglican Communion.

The concept of an Anglican Covenant grew out of fears that disagreements over the divisive issues between different provinces of the Anglican Communion would lead to irreconcilable division within the Church.

The arguments included the appointment of bishops in non-celibate gay relationships, including Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, and the blessing of same-gender unions, in Anglican dioceses in the US and Canada.

Some provinces in Africa, Latin America and Asia vehemently condemned these developments.

When an Anglican Covenant was first proposed within the recommendations of the Windsor Report, Bishop Bob Anderson warned the House of Bishops in the US that if the Anglican Covenant became a reality, it would change the nature of Anglicanism.

The Primate of Korea said his Church would reject the covenant, because, in their considered opinion, to accept it would be to internalise the colonialism that he felt existed in the relationship between the Anglican provinces of the West and their province.

Provinces critical of the actions of the North American churches have formed a separate grouping known as Gafcon (from the Global Anglican Future Conference held in 2008).

They also supported the foundation of breakaway churches in North America, and these actions served only to worsen the divisions within the Anglican Communion.

Looking at the Covenant

The Anglican Covenant seeks to commit member churches of the Anglican Communion to respect each other’s autonomy, and 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.”

The covenant provides for the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) to consider whether an action by one autonomous Anglican province complies with Anglican teaching if other Churches disagree with it.

Under the covenant, the Standing Committee could request a Church to defer a controversial action, and having consulted other bodies within the Anglican Communion, may declare that an action would be “incompatible with the Covenant.”

The Church of England General Synod backed the covenant in November 2010, despite the misgivings of many, and referred it to the dioceses.

But the covenant received a decisive setback immediately afterwards when it was rejected by the Gafcon Primates’ Council – seen by many as the very Church leaders that the Covenant was intended to placate.

The Gafcon leaders said: “While we acknowledge that the efforts to heal our brokenness through the introduction of an Anglican Covenant were well intentioned, we have come to the conclusion the current text is fatally flawed and so support for this initiative is no longer appropriate.”

The 38 self-governing provinces of the Anglican Communion were asked to sign an agreement under which a Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion would consider actions such as the ordination of gay bishops and whether they were compatible with Anglican teaching.

Those member churches that declined to sign the Anglican Covenant would continue to be Anglicans inside the Anglican Communion, but in an outer or slower tier.

Nine provinces have approved the convent in their own way:

● The Church of Ireland, “subscribed,” May 2011.
● Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, the Hong Kong Anglican Church, adopted, June 2013.
● The Anglican Church of Mexico, adopted, June 2010.
● The Church of the Province of Myanmar (Burma), adopted, November 2010.
● The Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, adopted, November 2011
● The Church of the Province of South East Asia, adopted, April 2011, with an added preamble of its own.
● The Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACNA), adopted, October 2013.
● The Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of America, approved, November 2011.
● The Church in the Province of the West Indies, adopted, November 2010.

On 18 April 2012, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, passed a motion indicating its willingness to consider the Covenant, but it asked the ACC to clarify the status of the Covenant in light of its rejection in the Church of England last year.

But the covenant has been rejected by the Council of Bishops in the Philippines. On 8 June 2012, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted decisively against a resolution to adopt the Covenant in principle. On 9 July 2012, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia declared that it was unable to adopt the Covenant. It has subscribed to the covenant’s first three sections but says it cannot adopt section 4, which outlines a process for resolving disputes. On 10 July 2012, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) declined to take a position on the Covenant. The matter cannot come up for debate in TEC before 2015.

In Australia, the Covenant has been sent to the dioceses for study. In Canada, it has been sent to the dioceses for study, and the Church is also seeking theological, ecclesiastical, legal and constitutional implications of action to adopt or not. Korea has acknowledged sections 1-3 as “excellent and useful” but has postponed for further consideration any decision on Section 4. Melanesia has no difficulties with first three sections, but has deferred consideration until this year’s General Synod (2014).

The secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Canon Kenneth Kearon, indicated after the deciding votes in the diocesan synods of the Church of England two years ago, that the Anglican Covenant is still alive and on the agenda of the member provinces of the Anglican Communion.

What next steps are taken by the Church of England is up to the Church of England, he said. But he said that “consideration of the Covenant continues across the Anglican Communion and this was always expected to be a lengthy process.”

Canon Kenneth Kearon ... “consideration of the Covenant continues across the Anglican Communion and this was always expected to be a lengthy process.”

The Anglican Consultative Council, at its meeting in Auckland, New Zealand in 2012 (ACC-15), spent an hour in private conversations on 31 October considering the status of the Anglican Covenant, but it took no action.

Before those conversations began, Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch, New Zealand, asked the members to consider “why [the covenant] is a cause of fear and why is it a sign of hope for others?”

Bishop Matthews said she thought there were two Anglican Communion Covenants: “One is the document that people have in their mind and the other is the Anglican Communion Covenant on paper.”

For that reason, she said, she wanted people “to read the Covenant and be focused on that” because often, when people start talking about the Covenant, “what they describe in their mind as the Covenant is unrecognisable.”

She said that the questions behind the Covenant were: “What is the best way?”, “Is there a way that will keep us together safely?”, ‘and “hat is our deepest fear when we consider decision-making processes?”

The results of the reflections at ACC-15 were sent on to the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) and the Anglican Communion Standing Committee “as they discern the ways to take the matter forward.”

Criticism of the Covenant:

Many opponents of the Covenant within the Church of England would say that they believe in an Anglicanism adapted to local needs and based on a shared heritage of worship, but not on specific understandings of church doctrines to which all must subscribe. Their view of Anglicanism, they say, leads them to conclude that the Anglican Covenant is “profoundly un-Anglican.”

They would argue that the fourth part of the covenant contains a mechanism whereby “errant” provinces could have their status as full and equal members of the Anglican Communion reduced.

Other critics argue that the Anglican Covenant seeks to codify the love that should already be there and to ratify the fear that inspired the Windsor Report.

Writing in The Guardian two years ago [26 March 2012], after that absolute majority of dioceses in the Church of England had voted down the Anglican Covenant, the Revd Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of History of the Church at the University of Oxford, described the covenant as “a pernicious scheme” and a “sorry diversion.”

He sees the Covenant as an attempt “to increase the power of centralising bureaucracy throughout the … Anglican Communion.”

For Professor MacCulloch, the principal aim of the Covenant is to discipline the Anglican churches in the US and Canada.

Some questions:

The compass rose, the symbol of the Anglican Communion … it is surmounted by a bishop’s mitre, in the centre is the cross of Saint George, and the Greek motto, Ἡ ἀλήθεια ἐλευθερώσει ὑμᾶς (“The truth will set you free”), a quotation from John 8: 32.

Would the Covenant bring a measure of discipline and accountability into relationships between the member churches of the Anglican Communion?

Those who support the Anglican Covenant say other Anglican member churches may still ratify the Anglican Covenant. Would this leave the Church of England in the second, outer, tier of a world-wide communion?

Without the Anglican Covenant, can the Anglican Communion hold together as a spiritual body, yet whose bonds are more than affection, where each community within the Anglican Communion is respected equally?

Would the Anglican Communion collapse without the covenant?

Would the Anglican Communion collapse without the Church of England?

Is it fair to argue that the covenant would not change much?

If so, why was it introduced?

Is it possible, as Professor McCulloch, describes it, to lay down the law “in that delicate, nuanced thing that is religious belief?”

Or do “you end up damaging or hurting a great many people”?

The fourth part – the part “with teeth” – has stayed in every draft of the covenant. Does this make it a firmly fixed, constituent part of the covenant? Is accepting any part of the covenant to be taken as approval of the fourth part as well?

Dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion have “companion diocese” links, and a variety of lines of mutual ministry and service across the whole Communion. Is affirming the Covenant necessary to hold the Anglican Communion together?

Some additional thoughts

Richard Hooker’s statue at Exeter Cathedral ... he set out the Anglican theological method of Scripture, Reason and Tradition

The issue underlying the conflicts in the Anglican Communion is one of authority. Who decides what is acceptable and on what basis do they do so?

Concern about homosexuality resulted in a powerful alliance of some Evangelicals and some Anglo-Catholics opposing the “innovations” of more liberal and tolerant Anglicans. The Evangelicals objected to homosexuality on the basis of what they see as biblical prohibitions, and Anglo-Catholics objected to the alleged rejection of Church tradition.

Classic Anglican theology stems from the writings of the 16th century theologian Richard Hooker, who argued in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that, in addition to scripture and tradition, we have reason to guide us. With these three sources of authority – Scripture, Reason and Tradition – change becomes possible and proper as conditions and understandings change and allowing a diversity of opinion allows us to explore new possibilities.

But Evangelicals are worried less about a change in interpreting Scripture as a rejection of Scripture and its authority.

Have the traditional forms of holding Anglicans together – the Lambeth Quadrilateral and the Four Instruments of Communion – lost their effectiveness in holding together the Anglican Communion?

Appendix 1: The Lambeth Quadrilateral

Lambeth Palace, seen from Westminster on the opposite bank of the River Thames ... the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury also gives its name to the Lambeth Conference(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, frequently referred to as the Lambeth Quadrilateral or the Lambeth-Chicago Quadrilateral, is a four-point articulation of Anglican identity, often cited as encapsulating the fundamentals of the Anglican Communion’s doctrine and as a reference-point for ecumenical discussion with other Christian denominations.

The four points are:

1, The Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation.
2, The Creeds (specifically, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) as the sufficient statement of Christian faith.
3, The Sacrament of Baptism and Holy Communion.
4, The historic episcopate, locally adapted.

Resolution 11 of the third Lambeth Conference (1888) reads:

That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion:
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

Appendix 2: The instruments of communion in the Anglican Communion:

The Primates of the Anglican Communion at their meeting in Swords, Co Dublin, three years ago. Seated on each side of Archbishop Rowan Williams are Archbishop Alan Harper and Canon Kenneth Kearon; in the back row (second from left) is the Irish-born Scottish primus, Bishop David Chillingworth

The Anglican Communion is served by four “Instruments of Communion”:

1, The Archbishop of Canterbury
2, The Lambeth Conferences
3, The Primates’ Meeting
4, The Anglican Consultative Council


Anglican Studies (2014) 9.2: Anglicanism, ecumenical engagement and inter-religious dialogue.

Online later today:

10.1: Is there an Anglican culture? Anthony Trollope and the Barchester novels.

Next week:, Monday, 31 March 2014

10.2, Is there a way of talking about an ‘Anglican Culture’? (1), The poetry of TS Eliot.
10.3, Is there a way of talking about an ‘Anglican Culture’? (2), Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond


1, Essays

2, Evaluations

3, Dissertation proposals

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a lecture and seminar on the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Monday 24 March 2014.

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