The case against the Anglican Covenant
by Revd Jonathan Clatworthy, General Secretary of Modern Church.
I'd like to thank Ginnie Kennerley for organising this colloquium, especially as it's a rare occasion. Such an event has not yet taken place in England. I'd also like to thank Bishop Gregory Cameron. Of all the people who have been central to the development of the Covenant, he is the one who is willing to communicate with the opponents. Thank you.
The theological polarisation
Behind the idea of the Covenant lies the polarisation of the last few decades. Bitter controversy over the ethics of same-sex partnerships was the order of the day before the Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay bishop. From the day it was announced, in 2002, that Rowan Williams was to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the campaign against his appointment was front page news. Why? Because he had published liberal views about same-sex partnerships. This one issue has become a symbol of a movement that believes the Church is too tolerant. The underlying issue is how much diversity of belief and practice should be permitted in the Anglican Communion; or to put it another way, by what processes do we find out about God, how we can relate to God and what God wants us to do?
Later on I shall describe the contrasting theological positions, why they are incompatible, and why the Covenant does not satisfy either of them.
First, though, does it offer a fair description of Anglicanism, how does it propose to resolve conflict, and how would it change the Anglican Communion?
Anglo-Catholics are often sympathetic to Rowan Williams and anxious not to make things any worse for him than they already are, but from a Catholic point of view the description of the Church is far too steeped in Reformation Protestantism. The Eucharist only gets mentioned a few times, and is not treated as important even in descriptions of communion. Conservative evangelicals are also unhappy, for reasons I shall come to later. To me it reads like a theological fudge, offering phrases to please both sides while minimising offence to either side.
In addition the Covenant would establish a new account of Anglicanism as normative. The key commitment of signatories is in §4.1.2: "In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches."
So Sections 1-3 would become "foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion". The Communion has never before had any such foundational document. Those who do not consider it a good description of Anglicanism would have to accept that henceforth Anglicanism will be what the Covenant says it is.
Where does this leave non-signatories? The Covenant text accepts that they will remain members of the Communion. However, if the Covenant is "foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches", the implication is that those who have not signed up do not share the same foundation. This distinction is reinforced by §4.2.1: "recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion". Until now mutual recognition and communion have applied across all Anglican provinces; to state that henceforth the Covenant will enable it is to imply that, if you don't sign, mutual recognition and communion will be withheld. Bishop Gregory has made it clear that this is not his interpretation of the Covenant; but even if neither he nor the Covenant Design Group intended that meaning, what matters is how the wording can be interpreted, and we know that others are ready and waiting to interpret it this way.
Moreover, even if we accepted Sections 1-3 as a good description of Anglicanism, the Covenant would turn it into a criterion of Anglicanism. It's one thing to say this is what we believe, another to commit future Anglicans to agreeing with us. The Covenant would become a court of appeal: one province would be able to accuse another of not abiding by a particular statement, and in the light of recent events we could expect this to happen soon enough.
How would it change the nature of the Communion?
The process for monitoring the Covenant is described in Section §4.2. When a "shared mind" is not attained the matter is referred to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee is to attempt to negotiate agreement and, if this fails, request a church to defer an action. If this too fails it (§4.2.7) "shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations".
So if attempts at negotiated agreement fail, the Standing Committee will make a "recommendation". Provinces will be free to reject it, but if they do the "relational consequences" will apply. Critics argue that it will centralise power, limit the autonomy of provinces, and impose what would in effect be punishments. I'll take these in turn.
Firstly the centralisation of power. The Covenant's proponents have repeatedly denied any such intention. What matters, though, is not their intentions but how others with their own agendas would be able to use it. The Standing Committee would respond to objections by making a recommendation. Thereafter no individual church would be able to re-open that question without running the risk of relational consequences. The recommendation would become the Anglican Communion's official position on the matter. Teaching authority on that issue would have shifted from individual churches to the Standing Committee. That's centralisation.
Given the threat of relational consequences, churches would see the need to consult the Standing Committee before making an innovation. Thus, even without a dispute, churches would inevitably grant authority to the Standing Committee on any question which had potential for controversy.
Differences of opinion would of course continue, and so would lobby groups. Lobby groups target whoever has decision-making power. From their point of view it would be pointless to lobby an individual province because the Standing Committee would have the last word. They would therefore have every incentive to escalate local disagreements, and make them international.
Limiting provincial autonomy
The Covenant denies that it limits the autonomy of provinces. The point is made often, and emphatically in §4.1.3: "Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction."
There is good reason. Earlier in the process many campaigners wanted the Covenant precisely in order to threaten the North American provinces with expulsion from the Anglican Communion. However, the Covenant Design Group faced the tricky question of how to persuade autonomous provinces to give up their autonomy. The Covenant now proposes to let them keep their autonomy, abandons the idea of expelling them, and looks for other ways to distinguish between signatories and non-signatories.
What would happen in practice? A province disagreeing with a recommendation would be faced with a choice: either it accepted the recommendations or "relational consequences" would be applied. Because the provinces are autonomous there would be no attempt to interfere with the province's internal affairs. The only sanctions would be to exclude it from some or all of the Communion's international structures.
This is not a minor detail. The whole point of the Covenant is to provide a way to resolve conflict. When we ask what methods it has to do the job, it turns out that, apart from making one last attempt to negotiate a settlement, its only method is this threat to exclude.
Is this subordination, or isn't it? Critics point out that it is like a school playground. You are free to do whatever you like, but if you don't do what we tell you we'll all walk away and we'll have nothing more to do with you. At the very least it's a power game.
Do these relational consequences add up to punishments? Covenant defenders say they do not: the purpose of the exclusion is to ensure that the international structures are only staffed by those who themselves agree with Anglican teaching. But now look at it from the other side. If the Church of Ireland was excluded from all representative international committees, that might not make a big difference to you personally; but how would you feel if the reason for the exclusion was that the Irish Church insisted on upholding a belief which you yourself passionately agreed with? It would be clear to you that you are being punished for the crime of believing something that other Anglicans, outside Ireland, have suddenly decreed to be contrary to Anglican teaching. In case you think Anglicans would never do such a thing, this punishment has already been imposed on the USA, even in advance of the Covenant coming into effect. One of the common temptations facing the powerful is to underrate the oppression they are imposing on others.
There are other foreseeable effects.
Provincial vetoes. In the recent debates over women priests and same-sex partnerships campaigners have encouraged parishes to declare that they cannot in all conscience accept the ministry of their bishop, and thus demand alternative episcopal oversight. Section §4.2 would give such campaigners a new tool for doing just that. Furthermore §3.2.5 would give them the benefit of the doubt by putting the onus on churches "to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion". In other words, don't do anything which another part of the Anglican Communion may object to. The constant threat of objections would make innovations harder.
Some denominations are confessional: that is, they have specific doctrines which they expect their members to believe. Anglicanism has not so far been confessional and the Covenant does not propose to make it such; but every time the Standing Committee made a recommendation, that recommendation would in effect become the Anglican position on the matter. Over time the number of these declarations would increase and Anglicanism would become more of a confessional sect with its own dogmas.
Local projects for mission and ecumenism would face a new obstacle. In your local town you may get on well with a local church of another denomination, while Anglicans in another part of the world disapprove of it. The Covenant would provide a means for them to formally object to your initiatives. You would then have to wait for the Standing Committee's recommendations. Interpreting the Covenant
The Covenant text is often unclear. Key concepts like "faith", "communion" and "shared mind" are undefined. If the Covenant is adopted, appeals to the Standing Committee will lead to debates about the precise meanings of terms. Over time a body of literature will develop to interpret it. We shall become increasingly dependent on lawyers. The underlying issues
I therefore see the Covenant as an administrator's way of concluding a theological disagreement without addressing the theological issues. We shall carry on disagreeing, but with bigger sticks to hit each other with.
Since the sixteenth century Protestants have disagreed about the right method for resolving their disagreements. If the Bible alone is the supreme authority for Christians and the Catholic Church has no authority to interpret it, how then should it be interpreted? We have inherited two contrasting positions.
According to one, the human mind is too fallen to understand true doctrine by itself, so we depend entirely on the Bible. Revelation transcends reason, cannot be judged by it, and is to be accepted as complete and certain.
This tradition expects that on every question of doctrine and ethics there is a single biblical answer which is certainly correct; that a person who disagrees with it must certainly be wrong; and that there is no place for discovering new insights. The philosophical term for this type of theory is "foundationalism". Foundationalism is based on two principles, a foundational truth which is known with certainty and deductive logic which derives other certainties from it.
For those who accept this theory it follows that the Church's duty is to transmit doctrine without changing it. Teaching is always in one direction, from the teacher who has learned revelation to passive learners. The Church should therefore be hierarchical, with positions of leadership restricted to those who accept the Church's teaching on all matters. Christians should not listen to both sides of an argument and make up their own minds, as that would exalt reason above Scripture.
Because this tradition does not allow for open and honest disagreement, when church members find they cannot agree with the views of their leaders, they leave. Sectarian splits are therefore common: every disagreement has the potential to provoke one faction to walk out and set up an alternative church.
This is the tradition that expects uniformity of belief, and treats disagreement within a church as a crisis. For example the GAFCON Jerusalem Statement declares that "We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord." This is the language of people who claim to know exactly what the orthodox faith is, and respond to deviation by calling for repentance. In an article published a few days ago Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream writes, "The doctrinal and theological matters in current dispute are matters of right and wrong, truth and error, not of personal conviction.... The Bible... [calls] the Church to witness faithfully to fundamental and non-negotiable truths. The identity and the mission of the Church depend on this".
This is how consistent uniformitarians refuse to engage in dialogue about the issues, because as far as they are concerned the Bible has decided the matter.
It is this theological tradition which responded to gay bishops by wanting the USA expelled from the Anglican Communion, and initially supported the Covenant as a means to do it. Because the present Covenant will not do this, they no longer support it. For them, excluding provinces from international committees is nowhere near discipline enough.
The other Protestant tradition has a higher doctrine of human reason and takes a more positive view of research and public debate as constructive ways to seek truth. Thus knowledge is not all derived from one infallible source, but from a number of sources which need to be balanced against each other.
The philosopical term for this non-foundationalist view of knowledge is "coherentism", because the strength of our convictions depends on how well our beliefs cohere together.
This understanding of knowledge allows that God may be leading us to new insights which are not in the Bible and not yet in our tradition. Disagreement, far from being a sign of false teaching, is a necessary part of a developing tradition. Churches are at their best when they allow a wide range of voices to be heard. The best known Anglican account of this approach is the sixteenth century theologian Richard Hooker, with his triad of Scripture, reason and tradition. It is often described as Classic Anglicanism. Its most celebrated twentieth century defender was Henry McAdoo. Perhaps someone can explain to me why the Irish defend the Church of England so much better than the English do. This inclusivist tradition has characterised the Church of England from the seventeenth century onwards.
Each of these two traditions has its own internal consistency, based on principles which the Covenant fails to satisfy. Uniformitarians agree on the need for a final authority to lay down what should be believed, but they take that authority to be the Bible, not the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. The question at issue, from this perspective, is how to purify the Church from false witnesses.
Classic Anglicans, on the other hand, expect the insights of modern research to shed light on current church debates. The way to resolve disagreements is to allow the different points of view to be publicly expressed, defended and criticised. Debate should continue until consensus is reached. Any attempt by church authorities to curtail debate and impose their own view would be to abuse power and suppress the search for truth.
For Classic Anglicans, therefore, the Covenant is equally unsatisfactory but for the opposite reason: not because it does not draw a clear enough line between two kinds of Anglican, but because it proposes to draw any line at all. The Covenant is at fault for seeking to pre-empt theological agreement by ecclesiastical decree.
Could the Covenant work as a compromise between these two traditions? Unfortunately it can't. This is because foundationalism, by its nature, claims certainty and therefore cannot compromise. Like a trump suit in a card game, it demands that whenever it is played it wins. This is why uniformitarians have consistently refused to discuss whether same-sex partnerships are immoral. From their perspective, either their view prevails or they walk out.
From a Classic Anglican perspective things are no better. The Covenant may not satisfy uniformitarians but it still offers a uniformitarian solution: objections will be submitted to the Standing Committee, the Standing Committee will declare its recommendations, the recommendations will have the status of official Anglican teaching, and open debate will be suppressed.
As I believe in Classic Anglicanism, I think the Covenant is trying to do the wrong thing. Couched in cuddly non-threatening language, it provides a means for uniformitarians to try to impose their views on the whole Communion. Uniformitarians don't like it because there is no guarantee that they would succeed; Classic Anglicans don't like it because it's the wrong thing do to anyway.
Instead I believe we should protect tolerance and diversity of opinion against those who would undermine it. We should say to uniformitarians that they are welcome within the Anglican Communion, but like everybody else they have no right to impose their own views on others. If they want to belong they must respect our diversity and our open, enquiring search for truth in matters of faith. If the only way to protect this principle is by means of a covenant, this is the kind of covenant we should have; but it will be very different from the Covenant now on offer, and it will a poor day for our Communion if any such thing is necessary.
Finally, should Ireland sign up? Whether you sign the Covenant or not, you can change your mind later. But there the symmetry ends. Presumably you don't want to be excluded from the international structures where you are in the habit of punching above your weight. If you sign, you will increase the chance that the Covenant comes into effect. Once it has come into effect, if you then decide either to leave, or to reject a Standing Committee recommendation, you will find yourselves excluded. Your relationship to the other Anglican provinces will be, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, "not unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church". And as you know, sad though it is, Methodists are not Anglicans. You get the message.
On the other hand, if you decide not to sign, that will encourage other provinces not to sign and you will increase the chance that the Covenant will not come into effect. In that case you can carry on playing your impressive part in the Communion's affairs without any threats from recommendations or relational consequences. Of course if you don't sign, the Covenant may yet come into effect without you, though I think it unlikely. If that happened you would be excluded, but there would be nothing to stop you changing your mind and signing up later if you considered it the right thing to do.
As I see it, over and above the ecclesiastical politics, there is a matter of theological principle at stake. I hope you will stand up for Classic Anglicanism, with its open, inclusive and tolerant agenda. The way to do it is to say no to the Anglican Covenant.