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Giles Fraser: Learn from Anglicans’ secular cousins

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THE Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the engaging New Zealander Don McKinnon, steps down at the end of this month. By all accounts, he has done a terrific job. Although it is often dismissed as the fag end of the British Empire, the Commonwealth continues to flourish. It celebrated Commonwealth Day this week in good heart.

Made up of 53 nation states containing 1.8 billion people, it draws together 30 per cent of the population of the planet. The extraordinary thing is that, decades after the collapse of British colonialism, so many countries want to be part of it.

Many have made the comparison between the Anglican Communion and the Commonwealth. I have written dismissively of the Communion as the “Commonwealth at prayer”. Perhaps it was a cheap shot, presuming that the Commonwealth is nothing more than a post-colonial aberration. The reality speaks against me. The Commonwealth seems in considerably better moral and political health than its Christian cousin. It interesting to ask why.

The answer might be found in the founding documents, specifically the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles of 1971, and the Harare Declaration, 20 years later. In Harare, Commonwealth leaders agreed to work for the fundamental values of democracy, human rights, individual liberty, and just government. These documents emphasise that each country works for the good of the other from an agreed platform of national autonomy.

The documents are similar in form to the proposed Anglican Covenant. Both contain the possibility that members can be thrown out if they do not go along with the core principles. Zimbabwe is a case in point, having been suspended from the Commonwealth for human-rights violations.

Yet, despite the exclusionary potential in the founding documents of the Commonwealth, they state clearly that the autonomy of each state is to be respected. The emphasis is on valuing difference and promoting freedom. In contrast, the Anglican Covenant is something that has been designed, at a time of emergency, with the express purpose of rejecting freedom and narrowing the possibilities of Anglicanism.

The Covenant is all about control by those who want to remake a new, purified Anglicanism, free from liberals (such as me) and other undesirables. It is a sad carry-on when the secular communion, with its greater differences, gets along a good deal better, and models greater inclusivity, than its Christian counterpart. We could learn from it.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in London.

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