Autonomy emphasised in new Covenant draft

15 April 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Ridley Hall, Cambridge

Ridley Hall, Cambridge

THE third draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant has been published and will be put before the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) at its meeting in Jamaica next month.

The Ridley Cambridge report has had input from 21 provinces as well as from bishops at the Lambeth Conference and from individuals and organisations. Its biggest innovation is a completely new fourth section, “Our Covenanted Life Together”, which emphasises respect for the autonomy of individual national Churches, and gives assurances that the Covenant cannot override the Constitution and Canons of any province.

The Covenant Design Group (CDG), chaired by the Archbishop of the West Indies, the Most Revd Drexel Gomez, has wrestled throughout the process with particular concerns over who should resolve disputes in the Anglican Communion. The first version, the Nassau Draft, was felt to be too punitive in directing its provisions towards the possible exclusion of churches. Other sticking points have been fears of a central jurisdiction, and over-importance given to the Primates as final arbiters on the one hand, and the ACC, with its limitations, on the other.

In the St Andrew’s Draft of February 2008, the CDG said that it had resisted making the Covenant a definitive statement of Anglican ecclesiology, opting for a more open-ended approach and for a more “minimalist” ap­proach to doctrinal argument.

Section 1 of the Ridley draft, “Our Inheri­tance of Faith”, gives new weight to the fact that the Church of England’s formularies — the 1662 Prayer Book and Ordinal and the Thirty-Nine Articles — have been appropriated — “that is, adapted, inculturated and treated — in different ways across the historic development of the provinces of the Anglican Communion”, the commentary says.

The section now reads: “The historic formularies of the Church of England, forged in the context of the European Reformation and acknowledged and appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion, bear authentic witness to this faith.”

The Communion’s life of common worship is given “its proper emphasis in shaping our common life, alongside the affirmations of the Quadrilateral”. The section on scripture, theology, teaching, and discipleship has been reworked, including an emphasis on the place of the Holy Spirit: “The guidance of the Holy Spirit has been emphasised in the discernment of truth.”

There is a new note of penitence in Section 2: “The Life We Share with Others: Our Anglican Vocation”. A new section here recognises what the commentary calls “the need for humility and repentance where the actions of the churches have undermined the credibility of the Church’s mission and the integrity of the gospel”.

So: “Each Church affirms . . . in humility our call to constant repentance: for our failures in exercising patience and charity and in recognising Christ in one another; our misuse of God’s gracious gifts; our failure to heed God’s call to serve; and our exploitation of one another.” The request for a stronger emphasis on mission has also been heeded.

The commitments in Section 3, “Our Unity and Common Life”, have been reworked “to emphasise the mutual obligations which arise from communion, while respecting the autonomy of individual Churches”. “The Communion guides, each Church decides,” suggests the CDG in summary.

The draft clarifies the significance of the Archbishop of Canterbury as “the bishop of the See of Canterbury, with which Anglicans have traditionally been in communion, a primacy of honour and respect among the college of bishops in the Anglican Communion as first among equals (primus inter pares).”

Each Church commits itself to “act[ing] with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion or the credibility of its mission.” This commitment was substantially reworked. It is now meant, says the group, to provide “a standard or test by which a Church could anticipate when it ought to act with caution or avoid taking any action, in ‘gracious restraint’” (the phrase used by the Primates at their February meeting in Alexandria).

Adoption of the Covenant does not in itself imply any change to a Church’s Constitution and Canons, but implies “a recognition of those elements which must be maintained in its own life in order to sustain the relationship of covenanted communion established by this Covenant”.

Those adopting it agree to participate in mediated conversation and commit themselves to “seeing such processes through”. The Primates’ Meeting and the ACC will jointly oversee a disciplinary process. “If a Church refuses to defer a controversial action, the Joint Standing Committee [of the ACC] may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which specify a provisional limitation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below.”

In what is possibly a veiled reference to the proposed Anglican Church in North America, the draft provides for “other churches” to adopt the covenant, though it emphasises that adop­tion “does not bring any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion. Such recognition and member­ship are dependent on the satisfaction of those conditions set out by each of the Instruments.” A formal request for recognition can accompany an adoption request.

There will be a mixed response among the 21 provinces who responded to the St Andrew’s Draft and thus contributed to this one. Australia wanted “advisory, aspirational and relational language”, while Brazil dismissed the Covenant altogether as “anti-Anglican and contrary to the needs of the age”. Ireland specified a need to focus on conciliation and mediation; and Korea opposed the Covenant, concerned over loss of “local and contextual autonomy”.

Nigeria expressed its support as “highly qualified”, described the processes for dealing with conflict and a threat to the faith as too slow. It expressed concern that too much responsibility was given to Canterbury, and sought increased authority for the Primates’ Meeting.

Scotland found it all too rushed. Uganda called for greater emphasis on the authority of scripture, with more effective enforce­ment processes and a lesser role for Canterbury. The United States thought it could take up to six years for it to adopt the Covenant. West Africa identified a need for a “more robust section on mission; more emphasis on worship”.

The CDG said that it had “laboured to produce the best possible draft which we can commend together to serve the needs of the Communion at this juncture in its life.”

The draft and commentary are at

The draft and commentary are at

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