Anglican Covenant: New Covenant draft welcomed more warmly

21 February 2008

Heading forward: the Archbishops of Canterbury and York listen to the debate

Heading forward: the Archbishops of Canterbury and York listen to the debate


THE Synod debated a “note” from the House of Bishops on the Anglican Covenant on Thursday afternoon of last week.

“The Covenant is not a new creed on Anglican-wide canon law, nor an 11th commandment chiselled on Mount Kilimanjaro by the Anglican Primates,” said the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, introducing the take-note debate. The whole intention of the Covenant was to “identify the fundamentals that we have in common and to state the common basics on which our mutual trust can be rebuilt”, he said, quoting the Archbishop of the West Indies, the Most Revd Drexel Gomez.

The House of Bishops had proposed significant changes, including a “more nuanced substitute for the phrase ‘biblically derived moral values’”, and others to make it clear that the General Synod could not delegate its powers to the Primates.

He was confident that most of the response contained nothing that was not consonant with the faith, practice, and legal framework of the Church of England. It was not “erecting a great Anglican work of exclusion”, but empowering the boat of the Communion to sail again, unafraid of the storms, and to reintroduce an abundance mind-set into the Church.

A new draft of the Covenant had come out only the previous week, he said, and it was too early to comment on it in detail; but it had taken on board some of the Church of England suggestions, and was offering some fresh thinking on how matters under dispute should be handled by the Communion.

A vote to take note of the report would not commit the Church of England to every dot and comma of the document. The C of E was only one of 38 provinces, and it was too early to say what the final text would be. But an enthusiastic “take-note” would indicate general support for the direction of travel set out by the Windsor report, and an affirmation of Dr Williams’s efforts to hold the Communion together.

The Revd Brian Lewis (Chelmsford) was grateful that the C of E response had drawn a more generous draft. But he regretted that the Church had not been more directly involved in the early stages of the Covenant process. It could have played a constructive part: the General Synod had theological diversity, but a strong commitment to working together and to dialogue. The “richly resourced” C of E could have made a major contribution. Bishops should take to Lambeth a measure of the “real disquiet” that many felt over this process.

Canon Simon Killwick (Manchester) warmly welcomed the draft and the House of Bishops’ response. Whatever brought greater consistency and union in the Anglican Communion was to be welcomed. “We desperately want to see unity and coherence in the Anglican Communion. We cannot afford the luxury of other provinces doing what it thinks right in its eyes.” The international dimension of the Church was of its essence and nature, not an optional extra.

Towards the end of the response, Canon Killwick had discovered “a real horror”: ensuring that those who had “erred” and had to be “brought to repentance” were ruled outside the covenant. “They may not have erred, but just taken a different view under God, and one which may be shared by other Christian bodies,” he said. That should not be the final arbiter of faith or morals.

Towards the end of the response, Canon Killwick had discovered “a real horror”: ensuring that those who had “erred” and had to be “brought to repentance” were ruled outside the covenant. “They may not have erred, but just taken a different view under God, and one which may be shared by other Christian bodies,” he said. That should not be the final arbiter of faith or morals.

Dr Brian Walker (Winchester) welcomed the clear affirmation of commitments, but was concerned about the clause in the Covenant which said that all nations might truly “be set free”. The Abrahamic Jewish people already had a Covenant with the one true God. He was also concerned about a reference to a province as having to re-establish its covenant relationship with other member Churches. This didn’t reflect Christian values of patience and humility: it should be that “together we re-establish” our Covenant relationship.

Canon Anne Stevens (Southwark) welcomed many of the changes to the text. But she had reservations about its still concluding with the idea that the ACC might deem a Church to have relinquished its Covenant relationship. Logically, the partner of a marriage covenant who chose to relinquish it was the one who initiated the divorce. Theologically, God never stepped away from his Covenant, and this was the understanding of Covenant that the Church was called to model.

The text, Canon Stevens said, “has the language of Covenant, but the feeling of law. It’s a bit like putting the pre-nup in the middle of the marriage vows.” By all means, rebuke other Churches, but don’t put that in your Covenant, she said.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd John Gladwin, was grateful to the work his colleagues had put in — there had been a step forward — but he was wearied by this document. He doubted whether some of these issues were as important to the Kingdom of God as some imagined them to be. “Throughout its text, the gospel of Jesus Christ struggles to break through, but the problems of the Church weigh down upon it.” He wanted to see a more confident, exhilarating tone on the faith.

He was grateful for that part of the Anglican tradition that spoke of reason and experience as “ways that God addresses us. God speaks to us through our life in the world.” This was in Hooker, “in our history and tradition”, and it was what enabled the Church to be forward-looking.

He also felt deep admiration for, and growing anxiety about, the time and spiritual and intellectual energy that the Archbishop of Canterbury was putting into Anglican Communion affairs. There were two ways people could be prevented from exercising their ministry. The first had been seen last weekend — the “disproportionate amount of fuss” (over the sharia lecture). The second was to tie people up in things that seemed to be urgent, but were in fact of lesser importance.

He feared that the appendix to this document institutionalised this in giving the Archbishop a constant role in sorting out disputes in the Communion. This was not the right use of his skills or his office.

Canon Tim Dakin (Oxford) said he was excited by the Covenant. The Anglican Communion was born out of mission; so he read the Covenant from that perspective, as a resource for mission. Mission was dynamic, not static, and he thought the C of E version reflected this rather than the St Andrew’s Draft. The Covenant should be useful in the unity of mission, but at the moment it looked more as though it was all about solving disunity.

Kevin Carey (Chichester) said that he shared the Bishop of Chelmsford’s weariness. The origins of the Covenant had been an attempt to shut down free speech. It was people, he said, who wanted to shut down discussion who were also refusing to come to the Lambeth Conference. At the very least, he said, if they refused to come, they should not be part of the drawing up of the Covenant.

The Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd John Hind, reminded the Synod that it was a second draft of the Covenant that was before them for consultation. There would in due course be a version that would come for approval. So far, all the responses had come from the “old white Churches” — New Zealand, Canada, England, Hong Kong — who always found it easier to respond. This was exactly the same response as came to any text. Most Christians in other parts of the world did not find it so easy.

He thought it a pity if people concentrated too much on the mechanisms at this stage. He did not “read the story in the same way” as Mr Carey. The heart of the Covenant was to discover mutual recognition in the Body of Christ.

The Revd Moira Astin (Oxford) questioned whether the document should really be called a Covenant. In the Synod last July, they had dealt with both the Anglican Covenant and the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, and they had both meant something different. The Anglican-Methodist one was about drawing people together. The Anglican Covenant seemed to be asking “How far can we go?” “If we want a constitution or rule book, we should call it that, not a Covenant.”

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) said that discipline was a necessity in any organisation, but it needed the application of truth and grace. His concern was to get the grace and truth right across the Communion, but he felt the new draft had lost some clarity.

Dr Christina Baxter (Southwell & Nottingham) said that she was excited by the process of discussing the way of being together as Anglicans. The Communion needed structures, and the Anglican Consultative Council was not a structure. The C of E needed a more robust relationship with other parts of the Communion. She hoped that the Synod would not falter in the process. “We need to have a bigger vision of what we are about.”

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, was thankful for Dr Baxter. “It’s important we don’t get weary,” he said. The Covenant could be improved, and he cited the preface to the Declaration of Assent, which had been “extremely durable”, as an example of what the Synod could achieve. Work on the Covenant had a very significant tactical place in enabling the Communion to move on from where it was. Did they belong to the Anglican Communion because they were Anglicans, or were they Anglicans because they belonged to the Anglican Communion?

The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN (Religious Communities) had been “somewhat perturbed” (“English for absolutely furious”) when it had seemed that the response to the Covenant would be made by the Bishops without a contribution from the Synod. Now she was reassured by a good deal of the report, although she thought the judicial function for the Primates inadvisable, and was disappointed that the Bishops had decided that they did not need to think about it because it would simply be illegal in England: this would not be true of other provinces.

The revised draft of the Covenant was improved, but it still needed to say more clearly that there were other ways in which Anglicans thought about difficult issues than simply referring to the Bible. The appendix was “punitive and exclusionary”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to comments about the “mechanics of exclusion”. “That is a very unpleasant term, and I agree with those who said that they feel that discomfort and that unpleasantness in it. Behind it lies the very difficult but, I think, unavoidable question: ‘Are the limits of plurality infinitely extendable?’ Put in those terms, I doubt whether we would any of us say that they were, but our problem in the Communion is that there are something we know we can disagree about and some things we don’t quite know that we can disagree about.”

There was an issue in the Communion about “who speaks for whom”, felt very acutely by Churches that felt they did not have the same access to communication and to the English language, and that sort of thing. “Some of the energy and some of the abrasion in this question of limits and exclusion does come from that set of issues around power.”

Dr Williams had “a lot of sympathy” with what Bishop Gladwin had said about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s position. But, he said, “In some circumstances it can be a saving of energy rather than otherwise, if you know what you can’t do or what you’re supposed to do rather than being endlessly at the mercies of fantasies and projections about what an Archbishop of Canterbury ought to do.”

Covenant was about self-giving, “the absolute self-giving of God, which calls out a self-giving on the part of human beings to whom God’s love is given”. When the human response was inadequate, then something was fractured that had to be rebuilt. “Not giving in response to God’s giving has consequences. . . A covenant relationship between Christians is a promise to be willing to be converted by each other. I think that works ecumenically, and in the Communion as well. But that’s why I think the word ‘Covenant’ is not so wildly inappropriate as all that.”

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) welcomed the Covenant process, but pleaded for a stronger reference to the historic formularies of the C of E. This had been diluted in the Bishops’ report, and diluted further in the St Andrew’s Draft. She understood the sentiment behind that, but it was a mistake.

Justin Brett (Oxford) said that if the C of E was going to sign up to a set of conditions of membership, he was worried that it was going to become exclusive in a way it never had been.

The Synod voted to take note of the report by 266 to 20, with 19 recorded abstentions.

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