The Covenant tightrope walk

by
02 January 2008

The Design Group has to decide how narrow the Covenant should be, says David Walker

Decision time: Archbishop Gomez, who chairs the Design Group REUTERS

Decision time: Archbishop Gomez, who chairs the Design Group REUTERS

My contribution to the consultations that followed the announcement of the retirement of Archbishop George Carey included the suggestion that his successor should spend less time on the Anglican Communion.

It has proved a fond hope. The past five years have seen a constant stream of reports, ultimatums, high-level meetings, and unilateral actions requiring archiepiscopal initiative or response.

They leave the Church, as 2008 begins, with the Covenant Design Group preparing to evaluate the formal responses of the individual provinces, before further deliberation at the Lambeth Conference.

So what will Archbishop Gomez and his colleagues have on their table later this month? They will find that much of the text of the draft Covenant, published in 2006, has proved relatively uncontentious. It took tried-and-trusted phrases from Anglican liturgies and formularies, and wove them together into a document that is warm in tone, but eschews sharper dogmatic content.

Nevertheless, these sections need revision: it would be helpful to avoid the implication that all Anglicans believe that there are only two sacraments; and to soften the statement that Anglican moral thinking is a purely deductive process from biblical texts. But, if this sort of material is wanted, it should not prove difficult to come to an agreed wording.

The most significant attack to date on the Design Group’s decision to keep contested doctrinal and ecclesiological issues out of the draft emerged in the form of the “Covenant for the Church of England”. This document, produced by a group of largely conservative Evangelical leaders, and presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2006, sought to offer a theological justification for restricting fellowship, finances, and oversight to those sharing its own brand of orthodoxy.

It was rapidly disowned by mainstream Evangelical leaders, and its theology was comprehensively demolished by the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright. In the aftermath of this, it is unlikely that attempts to insert narrow “confessional” text into the Covenant proper will make much headway.

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LOOKING at contributions to the debate, one can see a parallel with the way diocesan synods debate parish share. Ostensibly, the discussion is about principles, but (by apparent coincidence) everyone’s proposal just happens to benefit his or her own parish financially.

In the case of the Covenant, many responses rest on whether or not their authors favour a text narrow enough to expel provinces that take unilateral decisions on same-sex relationships. These authors then create the necessary theology to lead to this outcome — again, by apparent coincidence.

The focus of this key part of the debate is Section 6 (5) 3 of the draft, which gives the Primates’ Meeting power, where all else has failed, to “offer guidance and direction”. Exactly what “direction” in such a context means, and how the next draft of the document might put it differently, will be high on the agenda of the Design Group. It is notable that the Irish and English suggest omitting the references to “direction” altogether.

THIS IS the first significant Anglican Communion debate in which bloggers have played a major part. They were particularly in evidence in their responses to Archbishop Rowan’s Advent letter to his fellow Primates, which was hailed by some as a shot across the bows of the theological conservatives, and by others as a capitulation to the right wing.

The challenge, especially once a revised text is issued and subjected to their intense scrutiny, is how to harness the bloggers’ energies and passions for what needs to be a prayerful, reflective, and non-polemical search for the widest degree of consensus. Can they be part of the solution, not just part of the problem?

The Group knows that the stakes are high. Already the notion of committing to a covenant has opened up fractures between what were once thought of as natural allies. The most visible splits have been among Evangelical Anglicans, but they are not alone. The majority of English liberals tend to a “high” view of the institutional and visible Church as the Body of Christ and, consequently, of the authority of holy orders.

Their opposite numbers in the United States are more rooted in a tradition of dissent, and take a “low” view of the institution, seeing it as a human convenience, and one best regulated by the local democratic mechanisms they are familiar with in secular bodies.

This has left American liberals perplexed about how their English counterparts can believe that holding the Communion intact might outweigh their personal theological positions. English liberals, in their turn, are frustrated that their American colleagues are unwilling to accept that they owe anything to the wider Communion other than to act on what the local majority feels is right.

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Whether this fracturing within church traditions will in itself ultimately make a wide consensus easier or more difficult to achieve is hard to predict, but a failure to pay attention to it will inhibit progress.

I believe it is still possible to produce a Covenant that will hold most of the Communion together. It requires a willingness to listen as well as to talk, and to listen beyond one’s own immediate circle. Archbishop Williams’s strategy of promoting structured discussion in depth, over time, and towards clear goals, is one I applaud, despite my earlier hopes that an incumbent of Canterbury could take a light-touch approach to international Anglicanism.

What will matter in 2008 is whether a large enough majority in the Communion is willing to continue to engage in that way, or whether, to paraphrase a well-known political saying, the Church will be at the mercy of “old archbishops in a hurry”.

The Rt Revd David Walker is the Bishop of Dudley.

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