What should the Covenant actually say?

29 October 2008

Christopher Hill has a look at a leading canonist’s analysis

An Anglican Covenant: Theological and legal considerations for a global debate
Norman Doe

FROM the beginnings of the Coven­ant idea, after the publication of the Windsor report in 2004, Anglican discussion has been shaped as much by the divide on questions of human sexuality as the actual content of the proposals. Truth or Unity have been declaimed on either side without much obvious attention to the range of possibilities and potential of the Covenant idea.

Robert Runcie once preached a sermon at a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Newcastle calling for an Anglican “Passionate Coolness”. Norman Doe’s book on the Covenant is an example of this.

Professor Doe was not only a member of the Lambeth Com­mission, which produced the Windsor report, but also a consul­tant to the London meeting of the Coven­ant Design Group which produced the current St Andrew’s Draft. Doe is Professor of Law at Cardiff, and has been a mastermind behind the revival of the study of canon law in the UK.

This book is not only about legal considerations, however. Doe also brings theological considerations to the fore, and the combination of law (international law) and ecclesiology (ecumenical ecclesial constitutions) is highly significant.

Covenants, Doe explains, are voluntary relationships, embodied in an agreement involving mutual exchange and promises that generate commitment. Covenants are not contracts, but they do have contrac­tual dimensions.

Critics have claimed that coven­ants are non-Anglican. Yet our ecu­menical partners use “covenantal” structures: Lutherans and Reformed at the world level, the Orthodox Churches in the United States, the Old Catholic Churches through a “statute”, and the Roman Catholic Church in Church-State “concor­dats”. The closest to our need, I believe, are the Old Catholic and Orthodox models. World Christian communion structures also offer models of differentiated degrees of relationship and commitment.

Behind Doe’s text lies the sub­versive question: has the Anglican Communion ever been a commu­nion in the full sense? To put it another way: were we not always closer to being a federation aspiring to communion than to being a single Church in communion in the same sense as the Church of England is (or was)?


In the second part of the book, we look at the structure and substance of a Covenant. A Covenant needs to be written. But should it be descrip­tive or prescriptive? The St Andrew’s Draft is both. The Covenant touches on matters of faith, mission, and unity. In addition, critics have wanted it to include scriptural interpretation as well as scripture itself. Doe patiently spells out the arguments on both sides.

Do we want a confessional Covenant? The content of the cur­rent draft is very largely derived from existing Anglican (or ecumeni­cally agreed) texts: especially the Lambeth Quadrilateral, the Declara­tion of Assent, and the more recent “Marks of Mission”. The adoption of a Covenant (it can never be an imposition) by an Anglican province would be by an appropriate legal enactment of a “communion law” — as nation-states may adopt inter­national law by voluntary accept­ance. A Covenant would be binding only if a province voluntarily accepted such self-limitation.

At the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury helpfully disparaged the language of a “Covenant with teeth”, in favour of a “Covenant with consequences”. At the Conference, the Chief Rabbi also, enigmatically, alluded to covenant as “the redemption of solitude”. Reflections on the Cov­enant from the Lambeth Conference have just been published. As we continue to debate the Covenant — within such a redemptive process, I hope — Norman Doe’s book de­serves to be read with passionate coolness, to forestall further mega­phone diplomacy.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is the Bishop of Guildford.

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