Anglicanism’s Big Island
  • Monday, April 23, 2012

By John Martin

The colourful and outspoken former Archbishop of New Zealand, the late Paul Reeves, used to tease Church of England representatives on the Anglican Consultative Council by asking, “When will the Church of England join the Anglican Communion?”

That the Anglican Covenant failed to command majority support in the vote among diocesan synods gives his question fresh resonance. Is the Church of England an island of or an island off Anglicanism?

The Rev. Lesley Crawley, Moderator of the No Anglican Covenant coalition, said rejection of it left the Archbishop of Canterbury “in the second tier of the Anglican Communion and excluded from central committees.”

There certainly are questions about what “tier” the Church of England would occupy in a Communion with an active Covenant, but the place of the Archbishop of Canterbury is in no doubt by virtue of his office, not because he leads the Church of England.

Crawley, spouse of a parish priest from of the picturesque villages of Hale with Badshot Lea in the Diocese of Guildford, who describes herself as “a priest, wife, mother, campaigner and house slave,” masterminded a brilliant campaign which caught some complacent pro-Covenant supporters by surprise.

No to the Anglican Covenant marshalled clear messages: the Covenant was “un-Anglican,” it would change Anglicanism into a centralized, hierarchical body and restrict the ability to adapt and change, and persons (not paper) kept the Church together. Its website assembled a vast corpus of documentation. It recruited a formidable list of patrons and drew on contributors from around the world.

Advocates for the Covenant lacked persuasive media sound bites, due in part to the nature and tone of the Covenant text. Official publications promoting the Covenant seemed lukewarm.

Other major global communions have been closely observing progress of the Anglican scene because they all face similar issues to those which prompted creation of the Covenant.

Fingers will point at Archbishop Rowan Williams. The Covenant was his big idea, but detailed strategy has never been one of his strengths. He may share the frustrations of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, whose cherished League of Nations project after the Great War of 1914-18 failed to command support in his home patch.

Only when signs emerged that the Covenant was in danger of being voted down did the pro-case get into action. Late in the day a Yes campaign was launched and Archbishop Williams voiced the latest of several pro-Covenant videos. By then the die was cast.

Reflecting on the result of the votes, Williams said it was “a disappointing outcome” but warned that the issues the Covenant was meant to address “will not go away just because people vote against it.”

More ink will be used to analyse the debate. Said Stephen Kuhrt of Fulcrum, which strenuously supported the Covenant: “No one on either side has yet been able to say how ‘a centralising strait jacket that will impair freedom and innovation’ can simultaneously be ‘a toothless proposal designed to produce constant dialogue and no action.’”

Kuhrt claims the No campaign was underpinned by an ecclesiology with more in common with liberal Protestantism rather than the Catholic and Reformed foundations of Anglicanism.

Now the Covenant has received an amber light from the Governing Body of the Church in Wales. It voted to affirm commitment to the Communion and the Covenant process. But it raised questions for the Anglican Consultative Council, which meets in October, including asking for clarification on whether rejection of the Covenant by the Church of England jeopardised its future among Anglicanism’s leadership bodies.

The Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Rev. Thabo Mukgoba, said in an Easter message that the vote by the CofE “does not mean that the Covenant lapses. Nor does it mean an end to the fundamental underlying questions which the Covenant is intended to address.”

He continued: “We still need to ask ourselves: who do we believe ourselves called to be by God, and what does it mean to speak of an Anglican ‘Communion’ — rather than, say, a ‘Federation’ or other form of association. A ‘Communion’ is so much more — a true family of churches, within the body of Christ.”

While the Covenant was defeated in a majority of diocesan synods, the overall vote was in favour. There will be heart-searching among evangelicals and traditional Catholics who might have been expected to unite in favour. That would have ensured its passage.

Some voices in the No campaign agree that global Anglicanism needs better ways to consult together and the solution is some kind of Covenant.

John Martin is TLC’s London correspondent.

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