By Josiah Idowu-Fearon
A significant, if not somewhat controversial, psychological tool was developed by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach in 1921. The Rorschach Test records and analyses a patient’s perceptions of a series of inkblots. Psychologists use this test to examine personality characteristics and emotional functioning.
Quite a lot of ink was used to prepare the Anglican Communion Covenant, which has also proved to be somewhat controversial. The more I travel and gather Anglican perceptions of the Covenant, the more I am convinced that, like the Rorschach test, it functions like a tool that reflects a variety of ecclesiological characteristics around the Anglican Communion. I come to wonder whether the various reactions to the Covenant perhaps are, perhaps, more instructive about the state of the Communion than the document itself!
This presentation will look at the roots of the Anglican Communion Covenant, and the question which it seeks to address. It will contrast the Covenant with two parallel ecumenical processes that also seek to discern a common understanding of the church as communion. I will then look at reactions and responses to the Covenant. Then I will explore what Anglicans might learn from the experience of creating and evaluating the Covenant. Lastly, the paper will imagine some future possibilities, if not of the present Covenant itself, then of other trajectories that may present themselves. Hence my slightly revised title: “The Once and Future Anglican Communion Project.”
By way of introduction, I must add at the beginning of this presentation that I was a member of the Lambeth Commission, established by the Primates’ Meeting in 2003, and completed its work in 2004. The Lambeth Commission in its Windsor Report proposed the idea of Anglican Communion Covenant. In short, I am invested personally in the Anglican Communion Covenant project.
The Question: do we understand what it means “to be church”?
Documents like the Anglican Covenant, or statements such as The Windsor Report, or the emergence of a new instrument of communion such as the Primates’ Meeting, are always seeking to answer a question. The question the Covenant seeks to resolve is one that Anglicans have asked since the creation of the Lambeth Conference in 1865: what does it mean to be churches in communion with one another? And subsequently, what structures, instruments, and ways of acting together best serve a common vision of what it means to be in communion?
The Lambeth Conference emerged at a time when doctrinal incoherence threatened the unity of the Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Quadrilateral arose in 1888, along with the 1920 “Appeal to all Christian People,” in the very new context of a fresh awareness of the abnormal state of Christian disunity, of the urgent quest for Christian unity, both at the global and local levels. The Primates’ Meeting arose in the crisis to communion with the ordination of women, with an impairment of mutual recognition of ordained ministries. The Eames Report was written in the context of the ordination of women as bishops. The Virginia Report was also in this context, but through the 1990s leading up to the 1998 Lambeth Conference it was in the new context of tension over diverse attitude towards homosexuality. With much regret, the debate that led to Resolution 1:10 overshadowed the important insights of the Virginia Report.
None of these initiatives has completely resolved the underlying issue of what it means to live as a communion of churches in diverse contexts when communion is strained. And subsequently, what best serves our common life in communion. These initiatives have all become a part of the narrative or tradition around what it means to be the Anglican Communion of churches. I would hope that the story of the Covenant is not over, but even if no more provinces adopt the Covenant, it will have played a vital role in defining at least what the communion is not.
Whatever happens to the Covenant, the question itself remains, and we need to attend to the question.
Anglicans are not alone in the formulating of contextual responses to the crisis of strained communion. We could profitably learn from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, but that text was written in a different context, and over 50 years ago. Let me offer two more recent parallel and coterminous process, one of from our sister communion, the Lutheran World Federation, and the other from the fellowship of churches of the World Council of Churches, to which most provinces of the Anglican Communion belong.
1. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF)
At its 1990 Assembly the LWF formally identified itself as a “communion of churches.” The LWF is about the same size as the Anglican Communion, and found in the same regional configurations as the churches of the Anglican Communion around the world. The Lutheran churches have experienced degrees of disunity and on a scale (hitherto) unknown to Anglicans with the existence of a smaller but significant number of Lutheran churches are not part of the communion of the Lutheran World Federation such as the International Lutheran Council (ILC), which includes the Missouri Synod in the USA, the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference that includes the Wisconsin Synod in the USA, and some churches in Nigeria.
Like the Anglican Communion, the LWF has also experienced strains in communion over the ordination of women, and like us more recently, over the same issues of human sexuality that place strains on us. The response of the LWF to strains and breaks in communion between its member churches — but not with the LWF itself — was not to produce a covenant with a series of protocols, but a theological text to test whether the churches within the federation shared a common vision of what it means to be a communion of churches. The result was The Self-Understanding of the Lutheran Communion: Study Guide prepared for the 2015 meeting of the LWF Council.
It is a short, easy to read and accessible 26-page document, which works under the idea that communion is both a gift and a task. In what I think is its most pertinent section on “Discerning and Living Out Communion,” it takes a frank look at autonomy and accountability, accountable decision-making, and disagreements in the Lutheran communion.
It concludes with two pages of study questions with which congregations, individuals, synods and councils can engage. It does not propose any structures or processes. It merely — or perhaps maximally — proposes a vision of what it means to be a communion of churches. If Lutherans cannot see themselves in a common vision, there is no point in developing structures and protocols to serve such a vision. It is too early to know how the member churches of the LWF will receive the text, but as Anglicans we ought to watch the process closely. Theirs is a different methodology to answer our common question. If Anglicans could start all over again, I think that there is much ecclesial learning to receive from our sister communion.
2. The World Council of Churches (WCC)
As a fellowship of churches, the WCC constitutionally avoids identifying any single ecclesiology as normative. Nonetheless, at the New Delhi Assembly in 1961, the 1976 Assembly at Nairobi, and the 1991 Canberra Assembly, ecclesiology has been very much on the radar screen of the WCC, and in particular of its Commission on Faith & Order.
One of the things that emerged in the responses of the churches to the 1982 convergence text of Faith & Order, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, was some scepticism about a common ecclesiology. While most of the churches could agree with the findings of Faith & Order in the areas of Baptism and the Eucharist (and to a lesser extent on Ministry), there was the suspicion that agreement on these meant little if the churches were not agreed on the fundamental issue of what it means “to be church.” It is extremely difficult to speak of the unity of the Church, let alone to be a local, national or world council of churches — not to mention a communion of churches — if we have not just different, but also irreconcilably different understandings about the very nature and mission of the Church.
Within the WCC, this question almost divided the council in the 1990s around questions posed by the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox members of the WCC. The result was the creation of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches. While the Special Commission proposed all sorts of new ways of being church — such as consensus decision-making — and set in place safeguards to Orthodox participation in the life of the council, it named the outstanding issue of ecclesiology, which it commended to Faith & Order.
Over a 20-year period from 1993 to 2013, the Commission on Faith & Order wrestled within itself to identify the common core principles of ecclesiology. It sent out two draft statements in 1998 (The Nature and Purpose of the Church) and in 2005 (The Nature and Mission of the Church) to test its findings with the churches of the WCC. After responses were received from each draft text, a new text was proposed. In 2012, the Commission on Faith & Order came to a consensus third text, The Church: Towards a Common Vision (TCTCV), that represented its convergence on what it believes the churches can say at this time about what it means to be the Church. The text was approved by the WCC Central Committee in 2012, and was published in 2013 and sent to the churches for study and response. It was studied at the 2013 WCC Assembly at Busan, South Korea.
I understand that Faith & Order has only this year started to analyse the responses to TCTCV from the member churches, and so, again, it is too early to identify how it has been received in the churches. Unlike the LWF’s Self-Understanding of the Lutheran Communion, TCTCV, while not prescriptive, does pose concrete questions to the churches about structures that might serve its mission as the sign and servant of God’s design for creation, which is the communion of all under the lordship of Christ. One proposal is to receive the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, as a universal ministry of unity.
TCTCV attempts to answer the same question that the LWF seeks to respond to in its Self-Understanding document, and the Anglican Communion in its Covenant. There is much I believe that Anglicans can learn not only from the WCC/Faith & Order process, but also from the content of the text itself. I wish that Anglican could have said as well what TCTCV says about communion:
Communion, whose source is the very life of the Trinity, is both the gift by which the Church lives and, at the same time, the gift that God calls the Church to offer to a wounded and divided humanity in hope of reconciliation and healing. (TCTCV §1)
I also wish that some of the insights on authority in the Church from TCTCV could find their way into current Anglican reflection. For instance, “All authority in the Church comes from her Lord and head, Jesus Christ, conveyed with the word exousia” (TCTCV §48), and “The distinctive nature of authority in the Church can be understood and exercised correctly on in the light of the authority of the head, the one who was crucified, who ‘emptied himself’ and ‘obediently accepted death, death upon a cross’” (TCTCV §49). And, more evocatively, “Such authority is recognised wherever the truth which leads to holiness is expressed and the holiness of God is voiced. … Holiness means a greater authenticity in relationship with God, with others and with all creation.” (TCTCV §50)
While TCTCV is a WCC text, since Anglicans are members of the council, it is not a non-Anglican text. Our Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order is monitoring the Anglican responses of TCTC, because like the responses and reactions to the Anglican Communion Covenant, they will give us important information on the understanding of Anglicans about what it means to be a communion of churches.
I would also suggest that the LWF text and process, and the TCTCV text and process, also have to be taken into account when assessing the status and future of our Covenant, or its successor. The Anglican Communion Covenant cannot be adequately understood — or assessed — apart from this wider ecclesial discernment for self-understanding.
Responses to the Anglican Communion Covenant
If you go to the Anglican Communion website, you will find a whole section on the Anglican Covenant, including a page with the list of provincial churches who have responded. To date, 14 churches have formally responded to the Covenant. Of those, ten provinces have formally adopted the Covenant, and one “subscribed” to it. Of the three provinces that formally declined to adopt it, one province indicated that it could “subscribe” to sections 1-3 of the Anglican Communion Covenant.
Then there are the 24 provinces who have not responded to the Covenant. We know that in some provincial churches, the Covenant is still awaiting a decision at the General Synod level. We also know that many provinces simply lack the provincial capacity to make any decision on the Covenant. Some provinces, such as Canada and the United States, have studied the Covenant carefully, and have decided not to make a decision. In the Church of England, the Covenant has not been discussed at the national level because it did not gain enough support at the diocesan level.
That 11 out of 39 provinces have adopted the Covenant — a little over a quarter of the churches of the Communion — means that it is not dead at all. But this is not the result that Lambeth Commission ever could have anticipated. This mixed reception has left us with a confusing and complicated situation.
Reactions to the Anglican Communion Covenant
For some Anglicans, like me, the Covenant is the ecclesiological text that sufficiently defines who we are, and how we can best deal with disagreement. I continue to believe that the Covenant, rightly read and received, offers the best hope for keeping our Communion together. I may, admittedly, be in the minority.
Other Anglicans reading the same text find it disturbingly conservative in direction, especially in its fourth chapter, adding a level of compulsion that leads to a worrisome centralisation that threatens our historic sense of provincial autonomy. There is a fear that the Anglican Communion will look like a world church rather than a communion of churches, one that resembles more the Roman Catholic Church than, say, the structurally lighter family of the Orthodox churches.
Other Anglicans reading the very same text find it disturbingly liberal, especially in the fourth chapter, adding provisions as it does, for conversations that ought not to be allowed in the first place. Furthermore, the fourth chapter threatens provincial autonomy by limiting how provincial churches choose relate to each other, with a central authority which might determine what is church-dividing and what is not.
Not surprising, significant “conservative” provinces (such as my provincial church of Nigeria) and significant “liberal” provinces (such as the Episcopal Church), have declined to adopt or even to decide to live within the Covenant. But the text itself cannot be both conservative and liberal at the same time.
Others consider the Covenant to be weak or imprecise biblically. Others find it weak theologically, considering that its view of communion or koinonia sounds a bit Pelagian, the result of goodwill, reasonableness, and successful negotiation processes, rather than as a gift, the irreversible achievement of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the power of his Spirit in the life of the Church.
Admittedly, most evaluations of the Anglican Communion Covenant are drawn from the realm of perception and anecdote, and certainly from contextual projections. In the Church of England, for instance, the impression I hear the most is that the Covenant is dead, yesterday’s solutions to today’s problem.
As I said, the Covenant functions a little like a Rorschach test in the life of the Anglican Communion. It reflects lots of emotion, with lots of anxiety. This all tells us something important about the Anglican Communion and ecclesiology. In short, it matters.
Evaluation: Lessons of the Covenant?
To ask whether the Anglican Communion Covenant is a success or a failure is not the right question. A more interesting question would be: in what way has the Covenant failed? And, in what ways has the Covenant succeeded?
It has indeed failed to capture the ecclesiological imagination of the Anglican Communion. That a quarter of provinces have adopted it, but not the church that contains within it the See of Canterbury, is deeply problematic. It has failed to provide a framework that can hold disagreement and define legitimate diversity.
There are other ways that the Covenant has been a success. It was not one of those texts, like other ecclesiological or theological texts, that were read by a few scholars and consigned to the library or archives. The Covenant was extremely well read. In all my years of engaging the Anglican Communion, I cannot remember a text where so many people had an opinion. Whether people liked or not, they read it. Even its strongest critics have suggested that the process that led to the final version of the Covenant may have kept the Communion together at a very fragile time.
The Covenant has become a common point of reference for any future reflection within the Anglican Communion. It has made would-be ecclesiologists of those who have never heard the word! Lastly, like a Rorschach test, the reactions to the Covenant reveal a disturbance in the life of the Anglican Communion, an itch which needs scratching, a deep, existential question that needs probing.
If — and this is only a perception — the Covenant is not the best answer, it at least points to an urgent question that is still in search of an answer.
If there is a need for a fresh exploration about what it means to be a communion, I think that there is much ecclesial learning to receive from the Lutheran World Federation in terms of the content of its 2015 Self-Understanding text, as well as the process that led to it.
While I gather that only seven or eight Anglican member churches of the WCC have responded to The Church: Towards a Common Vision, I think that we need to pay attention to these responses. I would be happy to promote an internal Anglican Communion study of this text.
Is there a future for the Covenant?
I live in hope that there may be a future for the Anglican Communion Covenant, even though that might happen for a very long time indeed. I take some cold comfort in the fact that the 1897 Lambeth Conference proposed a consultative body for the Anglican Communion, which would only be realised with the creation of the Anglican Consultative Council in 1968. There are, I suggest, some shorter-term possibilities for the Covenant.
I learned so much as a member of the Lambeth Commission through the process of deliberation, debate, and eventual convergence that left me even more committed to the Anglican Communion. I would wish that Anglicans could also engage in the same process of receiving the Covenant through discussion, debate, and convergence.
One possibility is sending to the provinces the first three sections of the Covenant in order to determine whether Anglicans have a common mind on what it means to be a communion of churches. I am aware that every chapter of the text is covenantal, not just the fourth. If the responses were to prove positive, as I expect they would, then a possible new fourth chapter outlining how disagreement might be managed and resolved could be drafted. While I think there is merit in this proposal, I am aware that such a proposal would be difficult for the Instruments of Communion to propose, given the recent “Rorschachist” history of the Covenant. Even though the final version of the Covenant was completed in 2009, it might already be yesterday’s solutions for today’s problems.
I am also aware that if the responses to chapters 1-3 were not able to be received, it would signal that the Anglican Communion is in more of an ecclesiological crisis than anticipated. Such an honest result, however, might prepare the way to a wholly new and fresh initiative.
Such a rejection of sections 1-3 would necessitate starting again, but in new ways the Windsor process and the Covenant design group did not undertake. For instance, I come to see that not to engage in a more liturgically oriented text — beyond a few references to the Book of Common Prayer as a point of reference—was a strategic loss. Engaging the Inter-Anglican Liturgical Consultation, with its stronger links to the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO), in articulating a more liturgically based communion ecclesiology would be an asset.
A fresh initiative would need to draw on the rich conversations between ecclesiologists and missiologists. I think of the IASCUFO paper that was received by ACC-16 on “A Mission-shaped Communion,” a resource to help the member churches of the Anglican Communion to appreciate deeply the gift and responsibility of the communion we share.
In the context of this conference, I commend the 2008 and 2013 texts on Anglican ecclesiology by Paul Avis, as well has his even more challenging 2010 book, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology. And from Ephraim Radner, I commend his critical but important book (with Philip Turner), The Fate of Communion, and his even more challenging 2012 book, A Brutal Unity. Paul and Ephraim represent a flourishing of Anglican scholarship and reflection on communion and the Church since the Windsor Report that needs to be received as a whole.
A fresh initiative on Anglican Communion ecclesiology would need to draw on the wealth of materials and experiences of our ecumenical partners, and indeed, of our own ecumenical dialogues. In a process of receptive ecumenism, Anglicans have much to learn from both the LWF’s Self-Understanding text, as well as the WCC’s The Church: Towards a Common Vision. On the whole, I think Anglicans can profitably gain from the wider ecumenical reflection on Church as Communion, both theologically and practically, as well as our own ecclesiologists.
I have the sense that Anglicans talk more readily and with greater depth with our ecumenical partners than amongst ourselves. Our discourse is much more open, restrained and constructive with our ecumenical partners than are the corresponding intra-Anglican conversations on divisive issues. Even the way we talk about churches with whom we are not in communion is more measured. Consider, for instance, these words from the Lambeth 1920 bishops to Christians of other traditions:
The times call us to new outlook and new measures. The faith cannot be adequately apprehended and the battle of the Kingdom cannot be worthily fought while the body is divided, and is thus unable to grow up into the fullness of the life of Christ. The time has come, we believe, for all the separated groups of Christians to agree in forgetting the things which are behind and reaching out towards the goal of a reunited Catholic Church. The removal of the barriers which have arisen between them will only be brought about by a new comradeship of those whose faces are definitely set this way.
With some translation, can Anglicans say the same things to one another? If not, then we stand in need of “Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal.”
Or more recently, consider these words from the Common Declaration of Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis, given in Rome in October 2016. I tried to reduce this long quotation, but could simply not find anything that was not worth keeping:
Fifty years ago our predecessors recognized the “serious obstacles” that stood in the way of a restoration of complete faith and sacramental life between us. Nevertheless, they set out undeterred, not knowing what steps could be taken along the way, but in fidelity to the Lord’s Prayer that his disciples be one. Much progress has been made concerning many areas that have kept us apart. Yet new circumstances have presented new disagreements among us, particularly regarding the ordination of women and more recent questions regarding human sexuality. Behind these differences lies a perennial question about how authority is exercised in the Christian community. These are today some of the concerns that constitute serious obstacles to our full unity. While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred. In our trust and joy in the Holy Spirit we are confident that dialogue and engagement with one another will deepen our understanding and help us to discern the mind of Christ for his Church. We trust in God’s grace and providence, knowing that the Holy Spirit will open new doors and lead us into all truth (cf. John 16: 13).
These differences we have named cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions. These differences must not lead to a lessening of our ecumenical endeavours. Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper that all might be one (cf. John 17: 20-23) is as imperative for his disciples today as it was at that moment of his impending passion, death and resurrection, and consequent birth of his Church. Nor should our differences come in the way of our common prayer: not only can we pray together, we must pray together, giving voice to our shared faith and joy in the Gospel of Christ, the ancient Creeds, and the power of God’s love, made present in the Holy Spirit, to overcome all sin and division. And so, with our predecessors, we urge our clergy and faithful not to neglect or undervalue that certain yet imperfect communion that we already share.
Again, with translation, are Anglicans able to speak to each other across “serious obstacles” with the same mutual love, hope, and faith in the Holy Spirit who will open new doors and lead us into all truth? If not, then again, we stand in need of “Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal.”
In summary, the Anglican Communion Covenant emerged in a particular time to answer a particular strain to our communion with one another in Christ. The present text may or may be received and lived into by the Anglican Communion. Anglicans are free to reject it or accept it; this is all part of reception.
What we cannot do is ignore the fact that it has its place in our common story. There are lessons to be learned from the text and its process which we may want to keep or abandon. There are certain other texts from our ecumenical sisters and brothers that I believe are open to ecclesial learning by Anglicans. The question to which the Covenant seeks to respond is perennial. I think I can safely say that wherever two or three Anglicans are gathered together, there will be a question and an exploration about what it means to be in communion.
I am sorry that I will need to return to my duties in London tomorrow. I have a request to make of you before I leave. The Anglican Communion needs this conference. I would hope that you would make the findings of the gathering available as soon as possible to the wider Church.
I would urge you to produce a single page of insights and challenges to the churches of the Anglican Communion, calling them to repentance, reconciliation and renewal in Communion, “whose source is the very life of the Trinity, is both the gift by which the Church lives and, at the same time, the gift that God calls the Church to offer to a wounded and divided humanity in hope of reconciliation and healing.”
 The Lutheran World Federation, The Self-Understanding of the Lutheran Communion: Study Guide (LWF: Geneva, 2015);
 See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/doctrine/covenant/responses.aspx For further information about the Anglican Communion Covenant and its development, see http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/doctrine/covenant.aspx
 Please note: this list only includes those churches which have sent official confirmation of their decision to the Secretary General.
- The Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan has adopted the Anglican Communion Covenant. May 2014
- The Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA) has adopted the Anglican Communion Covenant. October 2013
- Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, the Hong Kong Anglican Church, has adopted the Anglican Communion Covenant. June 2013
- The Scottish Episcopal Church — General Synod defeated a resolution to agree in principle to adopt the Covenant in June 2012.
- Church of Ireland — General Synod subscribed the Covenant in May 2011
- La Iglesia Anglicana de Mexico — General Synod adopted the Covenant in June 2010
- The Church of the Province of Myanmar — Provincial Council adopted the Covenant in November 2010
- Church in the Province of the West Indies — Provincial Standing Committee in November 2010 ratified an approval in principle by the Provincial Synod of December 2009, thus adopting the Covenant
- Church of the Province of South East Asia — Provincial Synod adopted the Covenant, together with their own Preamble, in April 2011
- Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea — Provincial Council adopted the Covenant in November 2011
- Iglesia Anglicana del Cono Sur de America — Executive Committee together with its Bishops approved the Covenant in November 2011
- The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia subscribed sections 1-3, but said that it was unable to adopt section 4. May 2014
- The Anglican Church of Australia declined to adopt the Covenant but adopted a resolution affirming its commitment to the Anglican Communion. July 2014.
- The Anglican Church of Melanesia adopted the covenant at the General Synod between 8 to 14 November 2014
 Resolution 5: “That it is advisable that a consultative body should be formed to which resort may be had, if desired, by the national Churches, provinces, and extra-provincial dioceses of the Anglican Communion either for information or for advice, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury be requested to take such steps as he may think most desirable for the creation of this consultative body. ”
 “Common Declaration of His Holiness Pope Francis and His Grace Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury.” Rome, 5 October 2016.