An Anglican Communion Covenant

A personal view by Chris Sugden (Oxford)

The Anglican Covenant Proposal will be introduced by the Archbishop of the West Indies, Rt Rev Drexel Gomez, who is chair of the Covenant Design Group for the Communion.

The motion (to be moved by a member of the House of Bishops):

That this Synod:

 a)      affirm its willingness to engage positively with the unanimous recommendation of the Primates in February 2007 for a process designed to produce a covenant for the Anglican Communion.

b)      note that such a process will only be concluded when any definitive text has been duly considered through the synodical processes of the provinces of the Communion

c)      invite the Presidents, having consulted the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council, to agree to the terms of a considered response from the Covenant Design Group for submission to the Anglican Communion Office by the end of the year.

The issues

Is the idea of a Covenant of value?

The question it answers:  What is the nature of our accountability to each other as Anglican Provinces?

The consequences: “It may be easier to express and explore the consequences of developments proposed so that decisions may be better informed and strategies dor dealing with conflict be created.”

Is the idea of Covenant Anglican? 

Is the Church of England / the Anglican Communion a confessional church?  It confesses the supreme authority of the Holy Scripture and subscribes to the Catholic Creeds.  It has spelt out its confession in its formularies, ( the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of Religion and the 1662 ordinal).  The Church of Nigeria recently amended its constitution to clarify its confessional status.

 Martin Davie argues that some documents are seen by the Church of England and other Churches of the Communion as declaring where they stand and what they stand for.  This means that an Anglican covenant that restated where the churches of the Anglican Communion stand and what they stand for would not be alien to the Anglican tradition.  The Anglican Communion is already a confessional body of churches, and one that upholds certain specific beliefs and practices to which not everyone is able to sign up.

Will a covenant narrow the basis of Anglican belief? 

Rules are necessary to avoid chaos and conflict and give order to the ideals of communities, and those wishing to be members of the communities have to agree to live by them. And a covenant will only contain what the churches of the Communion believe it ought to contain.

The real question is “One the communion as a whole has decided what the rules should be, is it legitimate for once church to claim exemption and continue membership on its own terms.” (Davie)

The timing

Provinces have been asked to comment on the proposal by the end of 2007. It may be worth noting:

1. The idea of a Covenant springs from the Archbishop of Canterbury who was a supporter of Professor Norman Doe of the Cardiff Law School and his proposal for a Lex Communionis.   The recommendation for a Covenant was a recommendation of the Windsor Report.  Windsor saw four advantages in a covenant:

a. A mechanism to manage communion disputes

b. A visible foundation  for Anglicanism

c. Prevent unilateral action

d. Assist religious liberty when churches are in disputes with their host states.

 A covenant will be relational, educational and institutional,

2. There is remarkable commonality between the provinces in their canons and formularies but no “Communion Law” as such.

3. The grant of enhanced authority to the Primates to intervene in Provinces where internal dissensions could not be resolved internally was made at Lambeth 1998 in response to dealing with problems of convening a credible House of Bishops following the Rwandan genocide.

4. The final content of the Covenant is not being decided now. What is being asked for is endorsement of the process.

Agreeing to disagree

 The concept of agreeing to disagree fails to do justice to the nature of the commitments and convictions that command our loyalty and obedience and bind us together. What we disagree about is not what has brought us together. We have not come together because we have diverse views on things. Diversity of opinions is not what people have committed themselves to.  This is a via negativa – we do not agree on this, we do not agree on that.

 The focus of the paper by Colin Slee and his colleagues is on agreement and disagreement. “The Covenant is an attempt to impose agreement where this did not exist before”.   “A true family cannot exist without disagreements”.  “The Anglican tradition of living with difference”.   This is typical of the current approach to religion in a secularist context.  It is argued that since there are disagreements on some matters, it follows that there is no standard of truth, no body of authoritative teaching at: all that is left is the expression of various views, agreements and disagreements. 

But this is surely too sweeping.   Because some matters are contested it does not imply that all are.  And if some are, and some are not, a method is needed to establish where the mere existence of dissenting views means there is no body of authoritative.  Take, for example, the incarnation of the Son of God, or the Trinity:  there may be people, very distinguished people, in the Anglican Communion who at one time or another have expressed deep reservations about some fundamental matters of those doctrines. But those doctrines remain authentic Anglican doctrine, even though some have dissented from them.  

What is at issue here is not whether we are all totally agreed, nor whether we should accept there may be some people who disagree. The question is what is the standard of teaching to which the Anglican Communion is committed.  It is that question, and the need for a process to decide it when challenged, that the Covenant proposal seeks to address. There is probably only one province that does not in its documents express what is expressed in Lambeth 1.10. That is the Province of Canada which at its General Synod in 2004 affirmed the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same sex relationships.

Dean Slee and his colleagues strongly dismisses the notion of a Covenant.  They want it to remain with an unwritten constitution.  Britain has an unwritten constitution.  So who interprets the constitution when matters are in doubt or dispute?  Well, the Government Executive, the Houses of Parliament, and the law lords. In other words, the people who run things, the people in power.  The people in power are quite happy to have an unwritten constitution because it means that they can interpret tradition in the way that best suits them.   The people of the United States revolted against that principle and adopted a constitution which applies equally to all – a ‘government of laws, not of men’.But – like the British Constitution – Anglicans actually do have some foundation documents upon which our traditions are built.  For the Anglican Communion the primary foundation document is Holy Scripture. We have a text. It is that text that is at the root of the tradition of the church.  If they are in conflict, our polity says that Scripture wins. A covenant offers us a text which sets out clearly and simply our mutual commitments, allegiance and obligations, built upon that Scriptural foundation.

Is it just a coincidence  that the opposition to the Covenant is being led by a senior Dean and a Regius Professor, pillars of the establishment?  Neither of them has been elected to their post.  Bishops and Archbishops throughout the communion (in all but the Church of England) are elected.  The dean and professor’s comments about representation might be true if the whole Communion’s representation were founded on that the Church of England. It is not.

So we must have our eyes open when discussing this matter.

The issue is not about agreement and disagreement, but conformity to the standard of teaching of the faith, expressed in a text – the Covenant - that is accepted by the Communion as a family of churches rather than by individuals.  

The issue is about the clarity of what the Communion is committed to which is public and accessible

 It is also about what the Communion is committed to being accessible to all, not kept unwritten, vague and therefore only to be interpreted by those in power.