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Why the new Covenant creates hope

20 February 2008

The latest draft emphasises listening and prayer, not quick discipline, says David Walker

Anglicans as the Body of Christ: the chapel at St Andrew’s House, where the latest draft was produced ACNS/Rosenthal

Anglicans as the Body of Christ: the chapel at St Andrew’s House, where the latest draft was produced ACNS/Rosenthal

If the book of Isaiah shows the work of several authors, brought editorially into a single volume, then the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant is an example of the opposite: one whole mutating into two separate documents.

The recently published St Andrew’s Draft (News, 8 February) invites Churches to recognise themselves in an expanded general statement about Anglicanism and its place within the greater Church, and thereby to co-operate with a loosely tacked-on grievance procedure.

We need to look at the two parts separately. The earlier has changed from the draft circulated and commented on in 2007 (Comment, 4 January) more in tone than content. Subtle alterations, such as replacing nouns by verbs, have created a more dynamic feel. More reference to prayer and worship has emphasised that, for Anglicans, the spiritual practice of faith is central, while any reference to particular disputes has gone.

The scriptural material is now woven into the text alongside quotations from core Anglican formularies rather than standing apart. There is a far better sense of how Anglicans see themselves and their Churches as part of the whole Body of Christ.

One thing that has not changed is significant, too: the pressure to create a confessional constitution beyond traditional Anglican formularies has again been resisted. The draft sets out the four Instruments of Communion more fully, but does not attempt to develop an ecclesiology to indicate the respective force each should have among covenanting Churches. This is an omission that is telling for the grievance procedure.

Reaction to this first part of the Covenant has been muted. A few lone voices from the political right dislike the retention of the Five Marks of Mission, in particular that we “seek to transform unjust structures of society” and “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation”. A small number of religious conservatives hope that an Episcopal Church leadership that they believe is morphing into Unitarianism would baulk at signing up to even the broad, traditional formularies here.

The change from “Kingdom” to “reign” of God reads in the UK as a decision to avoid a term associated with liberal theology; in the United States, it smacks of an option for the gender-inclusive language that many conservatives hate. We are still two nations divided by a common tongue.

What comes towards the end of the draft, though, has been the focus of most attention. The Design Group now includes a detailed early draft of how a grievance might be handled, setting out four “Routes” of varying complexity, but where even the most urgent cases look set to take years rather than months.

Those who wanted a quick “disciplinary” process are clearly disappointed; those who believe that talking and listening are at the heart of the Anglican way see much to approve.

The one concession to speed is the Design Group’s directing many decisions that need to be taken quickly to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presumably, this is because the Primates’ Meeting, Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), and Lambeth Conference are expensive and difficult bodies to convene in haste.

What has not yet been tackled is how to link the grievance timetable with the decision-making processes of a province subject to complaint. Some have large councils that meet only every three years.

The choice for the Design Group lies between a covenant that requires provinces, at the expense of their synodical structures, to devolve their response to a smaller body able to meet more quickly, or one that allows the procedure to be reduced to a snail’s pace by a Church that expects to be given time to refer back to its governing body at each stage of the process.

The most significant development has been that the ACC replaces the Primates’ Meeting as the body to which the most intractable issues would be sent. Anglican Churches share the language of being “episcopally led and synodically governed”, but express it in different ways. It may well be that the ACC is the proper body to determine these issues, but a later draft will have to explain why.

In the mean time, reaction has focused on the make-up of this least understood of the four Instruments. While many applaud that it is the only one not composed exclusively of bishops, some are unconvinced that all provinces have fair appointment mechanisms. Others argue for some form of proportional representation that would, according to one calculation, give Nigeria 13 voting members to the United States two.

A number of commentators focus on the workability of the procedure, and try to determine its acceptability according to how it would apply to the presenting issues of sexuality and territorial incursions. Both poles of the debate take a pessimistic stance: liberals feel it would exclude them; conservatives call it toothless.

Some commentators try to explore how the Covenant procedures would work to prevent new disputes reaching the impasse of the sexuality debate. The Design Group needs to decide whether its proposals are essentially about avoiding future conflicts, or if it intends them to be able to resolve matters that are already rancorous.

In keeping with the spirit of the St Andrew’s Draft, it is worth ending on an upbeat note. I believe that the Covenant is less a reaction to a particular divisive issue than a natural consequence of the Anglican Communion having grown beyond being the Church of England writ large.

The challenge is for us to see this as a sign of maturity rather than a symptom of failure, and to use the text in the first part of the draft as a positive tool for our mission. Slowly, the Design Group is edging towards a confident statement of what Anglicanism strives to be, for God and the world.

The Rt Revd David Walker is the Bishop of Dudley.

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