The Case for the Covenant
by the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph, Secretary of the Covenant Design Group, 2006-2009.
THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION is in a difficult position at the moment: tensions are high, and this means that all developments in our life are scrutinised with a hermeneutic of suspicion. The debate about the Covenant has been particularly prone to this, so that I wish to begin by strongly asserting what I believe the Covenant is not. A view has been expressed in some quarters that the covenant has been designed with narrow purposes: to squash any consideration of the place of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the Church, and to punish The Episcopal Church with expulsion from the Communion because they had made moves in that direction.
Now there are undoubtedly those in the Communion who feel that this is the right course of action. For them, homosexual practice is contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture, and they do wish to see The Episcopal Church expelled. Such pressure has often been exercised by Churches in the global south, often when there is a close connection between that Church and the conservative forces of the American right. (An American dissenting from the Episcopal Church, for example, is seated as a Bishop in the Anglican Church of Nigeria) Until very recently, such grouping apparently saw the covenant as a weapon to achieve that end. But I have to say that that was not what the Lambeth Commission had in mind when they proposed the idea of a Covenant in the Windsor Report, and, I believe, such an understanding of the covenant is deeply flawed.
In the first place, the Windsor Report acknowledged that the debate about homosexuality in the Anglican Communion was far from over.
Whilst this report criticises those who have propagated change without sufficient regard to the common life of the Communion, it has to be recognised that debate on this issue cannot be closed whilst sincerely but radically different positions continue to be held across the Communion. (The Windsor Report, para. 146)
So it should not be surprising, but it is significant, that the issue of sexuality is not mentioned in the Covenant itself, and, as much as some people want to close the debate on this subject, it remains a matter on which Anglicans are deeply divided, and on which there has to be continuing discussion, preferably in an ordered and cautious way.
The suspicious may say: Well, the issue may not be tackled explicitly, but the mechanisms of punishment are being put in place in the covenant ready for activation. I would have to agree that Section 4 of the Covenant does lay down a number of protocols for processes of discernment, and even of evaluation, but again, this is not about sanctions; this is intended to bring some order, some integrity to the life of the Communion, in a situation where there is currently chaos. As things stand at the moment, some fourteen Provinces or so have declared that they have excommunicated The Episcopal Church; rival churches have been established in North America, there have been boycotts of the Lambeth Conference and the Primates' Meeting, and attacks from left, right and centre on the other Instruments of Communion.
However, the covenant itself is quite clear: it is about processes and not exclusion:
(3.2.3) [Each Church commits itself] to spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection, to listen, pray and study with one another in order to discern the will of God. Such prayer, study and debate are an essential feature of the life of the Church as it seeks to be led by the Spirit into all truth and to proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation.
Still this may not address all the suspicions. What about the "relational consequences"? This has been seen in some quarters as a euphemism for punishment, but I prefer to say that I think it is about realism. Actions do have consequences: if I were to choose to be rude and offensive to you at this meeting, I would do the reputation of the Church in Wales a lot of harm, and might never be invited to the Emerald Isle again! The truth is that our Churches can operate in ways which cause hurt or deep offence, and controversial actions will have relational consequences, whether articulated or not. Should these reactions be dictated by the loudest voice and the most intense objections, or should there be ways to moderate reaction, to compare reactions across the Communion, and offer a measured response to new developments?
If the covenant is a weapon, then it seems a rather clumsy one. Any differences are to be addressed first by processes of patient conversation, mediation, and arbitration (3.2.4 - 3.2.7). If this fails, then a reference can be made in the last resort to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee has to refer the matters to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting (4.2.4). These meetings must come to a common mind, and offer advice to the Standing Committee, who on the basis of that advice can offer a recommendation to the Churches (4.2.6). All this effort and consensus building, and then only a recommendation which the churches themselves are free to ignore! As a tool of discipline, the covenant falls apart in the hands of those who wish to use it combatively.
If the covenant really is this innocuous, say its detractors, what use is it? No use at all, if the covenant is about disciplining naughty churches. But this is precisely the point - that is not what the covenant is designed to do.
So at last we can come to the crucial question: what is the covenant designed to do?
At the moment, the Communion is suffering from a severe breakdown of trust. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has articulated, the patterns of Christian discipleship in one part of the Communion have become unrecognisable to other parts of the Communion, and there appear to be two major grounds for complaint.
In the first place, says Churches of the global south, the Anglican Churches of the developed world are still guilty of a colonial paternalism. They behave as if it is still for them to determine questions of Anglican doctrine or discipline, and take what action they will, and expect the rest of the Communion to accept their judgement. Of course, the Western churches don't see it like that, but it remains a real and deep-seated sense and resentment in the developing parts of the Communion.
The second cause of distrust is that for the Churches of the developing world, the Churches immersed in Western culture seem to be betraying some of the central tenets of Christian faith. Biblical criticism, increasing diversity and other features seem to these Churches to be moves away from authentic Christianity, and this is represented no more clearly, in their eyes, than in the matter of sexuality. For those who adopt a conservative position on this matter, the teaching of scripture is clear, and traditional patterns, which confine sexual activity to marriage, do not permit the acknowledgement, let alone the blessing, of same sex relationships. Are all Anglican Churches really being faithful to the one Lord?
In this increasing atmosphere of separation, what are we to do? Are we to drift or break apart as Christian faith splinters into mutually opposed camps? Are we to give up finding a common ground, and descend into mutual incomprehension or excommunication? But, as brothers and sisters in Christ, the truth is that we are, already, in a covenant relationship. To be a Christian is to partake in the life of Christ by the grace of God, we are brought together, and the wall of hosility in broken down (Ephesians 2.14). The Body of Christ is one in Christ, and we are called by God to live into that unity.
The Covenant is therefore an attempt to express that covenanted relationship. Is it possible to provide a brief but coherent account of the Christian faith we share, that holds us together in Communion? The bulk of the covenant document is just that: an attempt to describe historic Anglicanism, its parameters and processes. When the Covenant Design Group, established by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2006, set about its work, it determined to invent nothing new, to write no new confession of faith, but to set down what already existed in the Communion, to provide a patient recentring of Anglicanism around which, in hope, all Anglicans could gather.
And if you look at the Covenant text, the inheritance of faith in Section 1 is virtually nothing more than a restatement of the Declaration of Assent as used in the Church of England (long hailed as a classic example of balanced Anglican formulation), the Lambeth Quadrilateral, and an acknowledgement of the tradition of common prayer shared among us (Section 1.1). A little further on, there comes a restatement of the classically acknowledged sources of Anglican authority, Scripture, Reason and Tradition (Section 1.2.2); a formulation, which as in Hooker, privileges the place of Scripture in Anglican doctrine.
Undoubtedly the most difficult part of the exercise was to describe how the Anglican Churches of the Communion related to one another, as Anglican polity has historically privileged the autonomy of each national or regional Church. The Communion has never offered a description of its processes, the ways in which the Anglican Churches acknowledge one another in Communion, nor has it set out processes for discernment, a rationale for the Instruments of Communion. But Anglicans are not congregational in polity; we accept that parishes are bound in mutual obligation to incorporate their lives in the life of a diocese; that dioceses are bound in the mutual life of a Province. The Bishop of Cashel and Ossory would have something to say if a parish suddenly evolved its own divergent theology; the General Synod, if one diocese were suddenly to forge its own future direction in controversial areas. Our constitutions are a kind of covenant which hold us together. How then are Provinces bound together in the Communion?
Three different drafts of the Covenant were produced, and each one was responsive to the process of consultation which was taking place. A fundamental principle was to acknowledge the autonomy of the Provinces, an explicit statement to this effect being made in the Ridley Cambridge draft:
Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion. (Section 4.1.3)
There remained the intention to create nothing new. Some may ask about the role of the Standing Committee in the Ridley Cambridge draft, where it is given a prime role in the discernment processes of the Communion. But it is important to note that while the Standing Committee is given new tasks in the covenant, it is not given new powers. It can only make recommendations, which are not enforceable in themselves, but only as a persuasive indication of the consensus in the Communion.
Such provisions are not intended as blank cheques for any future disciplinary process, nor are they amenable to such distortion, but are designed to regulate and limit the way in which provinces or instruments may react to critical developments. Take for instance, Section 4.2.5.
The Standing Committee may request a Church to defer a controversial action. If a Church declines to defer such action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below.
On the face of it, this may be construed as granting a new power. But the provision is designed to address and correct a situation which has already come into existence. In 2005, the Primates' Meeting tried to exclude the representatives of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada from participation in the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council. In the course of their meeting, they realised that they had no power to compel, but only to request withdrawal of representatives, a request which was observed, perhaps unwisely by the North American Churches, in a spirit of reconciliation. However, at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Nottingham in 2005, members expressed disquiet that one instrument of communion was now seen to be interfering with the membership of another. In 2010, The Archbishop of Canterbury took a unilateral decision to downgrade the status of the members of certain Anglican Communion bodies from full membership to consultants, if they came from Provinces that were, in his opinion, in breach of the moratoria adopted by the Primates at the Dromantine meeting in 2005 on the basis of the Windsor Report.
In both cases, the Covenant would have prevented these actions, applying an agreed process to any suggestion that particular actions might give rise to the need for distance, withdrawal, or formal relational consequences. In this way, the Covenant represents not an extension of power, but a limitation in the current workings of the Communion.
In other words, the Covenant seeks, by providing agreed channels and agreed processes, to avoid the rather unregulated and even arbitrary responses that have been generated in the life of the Communion in recent years. It seeks to find a proper balance between autonomy, and interdependence. Anglicanism has historically tended to find the middle way, a via media, a middle way which has been sought between different extremes and different tensions over the centuries. The Covenant seeks to articulate a fine balance between a communion in which the proper autonomy of the Churches are preserved, but in which they are kept on a common course and in communion by setting out a short description of the core Anglican way, and offering protocols and processes for consensus building and dialogue.
I hope still for a united future for Anglicanism in which there is an Anglican Communion which lives in faithfulness to the Gospel, which is global, and in which the one Lord draws us into a real and deep fellowship, a Communion which is diverse and able to respond to the challenges of the different mission contexts in which we find ourselves, and yet recognisable to one another as faithful disciples of Christ. I want to see a Communion in which there is coherence in our faith, and in our behaviour as a Communion. We need at this juncture a confident restatement of what the Anglican Churches believe together, and how we live as one family, one Communion. In other words, we need to express explicitly the covenant that has implicitly held us together in the past - the Anglican Communion Covenant is a step forward for our common life.