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Anglicans and covenants: a very brief history

Via Yes to the Covenant. This piece is also available as a .pdf.


Anglicans and Covenants:
A Very Brief History

Benjamin M. Guyer
Episcopal Church (USA)

‘We dare to hope…’[1]
– 1964 British Conference on Faith and Order

If the Church of England rejects the Anglican Covenant, how will it honor its ecumenical covenants? In 1964, the Church of England made covenanting central to its ecumenical endeavors; is it now abandoning that legacy? A historical review is necessary, for the Anglican Covenant is a historical document shaped by Anglican precedents.[2]

When the World Council of Churches concluded its first assembly in 1948, it made covenanting central to the ecumenical process. The concluding Message of the Council stated, ‘we have committed ourselves afresh to Him, and have covenanted with one another in constituting the World Council of Churches. We intend to stay together. We call upon Christian congregations everywhere to endorse and fulfill this covenant in their relations one with another.’[3] A number of Anglicans helped found the World Council of Churches (hereafter, WCC); a number of Anglicans, most notably Michael Ramsey and Oliver Tomkins, attended the first WCC assembly. In 1964, Tomkins chaired the first British Conference on Faith and Order. Like the WCC in 1948, the British Conference endorsed covenanting: ‘United in our urgent desire for One Church Renewed for Mission, this Conference invites the member churches of the British Council of Churches, in appropriate groupings such as nations, to covenant together to work and pray for the inauguration of union by a date agreed amongst them.’[4] In 2014, the Church of England will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this ecumenical watershed. Will it do so having rejected the covenanting that it once passionately embraced?

Let us consider the matter further. In the 1960s and 1970s, covenanting proceeded apace at the grassroots level through Local Ecumenical Projects. In 1994, these were re-named Local Ecumenical Partnerships (hereafter, LEPs).[5] Here we see the fruit of formal covenanting: what was once a ‘project’—the implication being that it was tentative, and its outcome unsure—is now a ‘partnership’ between equals, defined not only by shared struggles but also by shared hopes and shared successes. The presence of the 1964 Conference is still felt in LEPs through the ‘Covenant Partnership’, which contains both a written Declaration of Intent and a Constitution. These stated commitments make interdependence possible.[6] At the local level the Church of England is oftentimes already covenanted. But the entirety of the Church of England is also covenanted through the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, which the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain signed in 2003. The affirmations and commitments in this covenant are expressly identified as ‘interdependent’.[7] This same emphasis upon affirmation, commitment, and interdependence defines the Anglican Covenant’s vision for Anglican relations.[8] Ecumenical and Anglican covenantal aspirations are one and the same. No one argued against covenanting in 2003. Why do some argue against it now?

The Anglican Covenant invites all Anglicans to bring these ecumenical commitments home. If we are willing to pursue covenanting and interdependence with other churches, why should we not pursue the same with other Anglicans? Our actions speak far more loudly than our words. If the Church of England refuses Anglican interdependence, its promises of ecumenical interdependence will only ring hollow.


Year Event
1948 The World Council of Churches endorses ecumenical covenanting.
1964 Oliver Tomkins, bishop of Bristol, chairs the 1964 British Conference on Faith and Order. The Conference resolves to covenant.
1978 The British Council of Churches forms the Churches’ Council for Covenanting, which drafts the 1980 report Towards Visible Unity: Proposals for a Covenant.
1980 Towards Visible Unity defeated in the Church of England. Adrian Hastings described the aftermath as one of ‘numbed uncertainty’.[9]
1988 In Resolution 13, the Lambeth Conference states that ‘the withdrawal of Anglicans from several previous covenanting proposals and schemes of unity with Methodist, Reformed and other Churches is a cause for sorrow and repentance’.
1998 In Resolution IV.4, the Lambeth Conference encourages ecumenical covenanting in South Africa.
2003 The Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain sign the first Anglican-Methodist Covenant.
2004 The National Council of Churches in Australia publishes Australian Churches Covenanting Together. The Anglican Church of Australia covenants accordingly.
2004 The Windsor Report proposes the creation of an Anglican Covenant.
2009 Anglicans and Methodists in New Zealand enter An Anglican-Methodist Covenant.
2009 The Anglican Covenant is completed.
2010 The Anglican provinces of Mexico and the West Indies adopt the Anglican Covenant.
2011 The Anglican provinces of Ireland, Myanmar, South East Asia, Papua New Guinea, and the Southern Cone adopt the Anglican Covenant.
2012 The Church of England: TBD.


[1] British Council of Churches, Unity Begins at Home: A Report from the First British Conference on Faith and Order (London: SCM Press, 1964), 78 (Res. V.A.2).

[2] What follows is very much condensed from Benjamin M. Guyer, ‘Editor’s Introduction: A Covenantal Horizon’, in Benjamin M. Guyer (ed.), Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant (Pickwick, forthcoming).

[3] World Council of Churches, ‘Message,’ in Man’s Disorder and God’s Design: The Amsterdam Assembly Series, Four Volumes in One (New York: Harper & Brothers, n.d.) Volume Four, 231; emphasis added.

[4] British Council of Churches, Unity Begins at Home, 77 (Res. V.A.1); emphasis added.

[5] Elizabeth Welch and Flora Winfield, Travelling Together: A Handbook on Local Ecumenical Partnerships, revised ed. (London: Churches Together in England, 2004), 17.

[6] Ibid., 18–21.

[7] The Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Church of England, An Anglican-Methodist Covenant  (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House and Church Publishing House, 2001), para. 194

[8] For affirmations and commitments, see the Anglican Covenant, Preamble; the first three sections of the Anglican Covenant contain both affirmations and commitments. For interdependence, see ibid., Introduction para. 7, 2.1.4, 3.1.4 (III), 3.2, 3.2.2, 4.1.1, 4.1.2.

[9] Adrian Hastings, Robert Runcie (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 131.


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