The whole Anglican Communion is considering whether to adopt the Anglican Communion Covenant. All Church of England dioceses and many deaneries are discussing it in coming months before it returns to General Synod in 2012. Fulcrum has consistently supported the Covenant but is aware that there is little accessible material explaining it. As a result, many people are relatively uninformed or are being misinformed about it and its significance by some opponents. We have therefore produced this short briefing paper which answers some common questions and provides ten reasons to support the Covenant.
What is the Covenant?
- An agreement among Communion churches in the form of shared affirmations and mutual commitments.
- A nine-page document representing more than three years work by a diverse international committee in dialogue with Anglicans around the world.
- There is a Preamble, four substantive Sections, and a concluding Declaration. An Introduction expressing some of its theological rationale is not part of it but is required to be printed with it.
What prompted calls for a Covenant?
- The Communion has constantly evolved as it has grown in size and diversity and this proposal is in line with earlier developments.
- The Covenant was initially proposed in the 2004 Windsor Report. This responded to two facts. First, North American provinces had abandoned longstanding Anglican principles of consultation and interdependence (especially in relation to controversial issues) which had been upheld in relation to women’s ordination within the Communion. Second, some other Anglican churches accepted into their own provinces clergy and churches who left the American and Canadian churches and crossed provincial boundaries by consecrating bishops to serve in North America.
In what way were Anglican principles abandoned?
- In 1998 the Lambeth Conference overwhelmingly passed Resolution I.10. Among other things, the bishops declared homosexual practice “incompatible with Scripture.” This was a significant boundary in a communion of churches committed to the authority of Scripture and episcopal oversight. It also rejected blessing or ordaining those in same-sex unions.
- Despite this, without further consultation, some churches proceeded with these developments. In 2003, the Episcopal Church elected and confirmed a partnered gay bishop and the Canadian diocese of New Westminster approved a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions. This disregard for the clearly expressed mind of the Anglican Communion represented an unprecedented rejection of its longstanding pattern of life together.
How did the Communion respond?
The Archbishop of Canterbury called an emergency meeting of the heads of the provinces. They all agreed
- To proceed with these actions in this way would ‘tear the fabric of the Communion at the deepest level’
- To establish the Lambeth Commission under Robin Eames to address the maintenance of communion among Anglican churches. This produced the Windsor Report which, through the Windsor Process, was well received by the wider Communion and the Instruments of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) which are structures assisting the discernment and articulation of our Anglican common life.
After further consideration and consultation, in 2006 Rowan Williams appointed a Covenant Design Group. This was chaired by a senior Primate who was a moderate leader within the Global South and had served on the Lambeth Commission.
How did the Design Group work?
- It produced and consulted widely on three draft covenants.
- The Church of England made a significant positive contribution to this process.
- In December 2009 the churches of the Communion were asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to adopt the “final text” of a Covenant.
What does the Covenant do?
- It articulates the shared beliefs and longstanding conventions of the Communion as a fellowship of autonomous churches
- It provides an agreed process of shared discernment which will strengthen both our life as a Communion and our ecumenical relationships as we discuss controversial issues together.
How has the content developed?
- As drafts developed the Covenant became less legal and punitive in tone.
- The expression of provincial autonomy has become clearer alongside our interdependence expressed through consultation and mutual accountability.
What is the key content?
- Section 1 draws on the Declaration of Assent and the Lambeth Quadrilateral to articulate our common Anglican faith.
- Section 2 reaffirms the Five Marks of Mission in its statement of our shared mission.
- Section 3 describes the structures that have evolved to enable consultation and discernment — the Instruments of Communion — and commits churches to work with one another through these.
- Section 4 addresses how conflicts about interpretation or alleged breach of the Covenant will be handled.
Does it override the rights of provinces?
- Churches are still free to make autonomous decisions. There is no un-Anglican ‘curial’ structure and no church by signing the Covenant empowers some extra-provincial body to overturn its own decisions.
- While upholding provincial autonomy, interdependence is supported by establishing procedures to enable a shared discernment on contentious issues. These include enabling the Communion to identify together any “relational consequences” if a province acts without consultation or in breach of the Covenant.
What happens to a province that does not adopt the Covenant?
It remains unclear what will happen within the Communion if some churches sign and others do not. Although not signing does not mean automatic exclusion there may develop some institutional expression of two levels of commitment to life in communion.
Is there substantial support for the Covenant?
- Already Mexico, Ireland, South East Asia and South Africa have responded positively.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury has been among the strongest advocates for adoption of the Anglican Covenant.
- It has had the consistent support of the Global South churches, representing the vast majority of Anglicans.
- Some Global South leaders now believe the Covenant is too little and too late to address the Communion crisis. They support a more confessional structure based on the Jerusalem Declaration and structured around the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and GAFCON Primates.
- There are two main alternative visions competing with the Covenant — GAFCON’s more narrowly defined confessional approach and the path of unaccountable independence through unilateral innovation. Despite their fundamental differences, these minority views may unite in rejecting the Covenant which is much more recognisably Anglican than both of them.
In Conclusion: Ten Reasons to Support the Anglican Communion Covenant
- It has been consistently supported by the Church of England which significantly shaped its content through the years of its development and so we should not now reverse our positive and constructive response.
- It is a development in line with the Communion’s evolving life and is faithful to Anglicanism’s theological and ecclesiological tradition and identity.
- It gives form to a vision of ‘communion with autonomy and accountability’ that has been central to the Communion’s self-understanding and is a genuine Anglican via media avoiding the dangers of both a centralised, controlling Curia and a fragmenting, fractious federation.
- It enables Anglicans across the world and Christians in other denominations to understand who we are as Anglicans and how we seek to live together and share in God’s mission together as part of the body of Christ.
- It provides a clear agreed framework for debate, diversity and development through shared discernment within agreed affirmations and commitments.
- It facilitates changes in continuity and dialogue with both our Anglican tradition and our fellow Anglicans around the world and thus serves our unity in Christ.
- It preserves provincial autonomy but allows the clear articulation of the catholic consensus within the Communion and an ordered — rather than the recent chaotic — response within Anglicanism when provinces believe they need to act contrary to this.
- It offers the best, perhaps the only, means of preventing further bitter fragmentation by enabling the highest degree of communion among Anglicans.
- It does not explicitly address specific controversial issues but cultivates practices and provides processes for addressing whatever innovations — for example, lay presidency — might arise when some Anglicans may feel called to act in a way that others do not recognise as faithful developments.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked the Church of England to support him and the other Instruments in working for the widest possible acceptance of the Covenant within the Communion.