Anglican Churches sent final text of Covenant — ‘not a penal code’

30 December 2009

by Pat Ashworth

THE proposed Anglican Covenant will not solve all the Communion’s problems, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned, as the final draft went out to all the provinces for approval last week.

It was not going to be a constitution, “and it’s certainly not going to be a penal code for punishing people who don’t comply,” Dr Williams said in a short video address, posted on YouTube, after the Communion’s Standing Committee had met from 15 to 18 December.

The meeting approved the revised Section 4, a sticking-point at the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting in Jamaica in May. After long debate and a confused voting pro­cedure, that meeting delayed the dispatch of the full Ridley Draft until a working party had made any revisions consequent on consultation with the provinces (News, 15 May 2009).

At issue was who was entitled to adopt the Covenant, which hinged on what “Churches” meant in the sentence: “It shall be open to other Churches to adopt the Covenant.” It was also deemed unclear from the draft whether groups (the Anglican Church in North Amer­ica, for example) not currently recognised by the Instruments of Communion could sign. There was also concern that systems of dispute resolution had not been assessed by the provinces.

Eighteen provinces responded in time for their views to be considered. All had been given “serious attention”, the working party wrote in an explanatory note that accompanied the final text. The responses show opinion as divided as ever: Uganda is asking for expulsion to be made specific as a penalty for “erring mem­bers”, while Japan, Southern Africa, and Ireland all gave the briefest of responses, approving the Ridley text without alteration.

Tanzania had “NO [sic] issues over unclarity or ambiguity”. The President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Hanna Anis, suggested that any province that had not signed by the end of 2011 should be barred from taking part in any Anglican councils until it had adopted the Covenant.


The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States cannot consider the Covenant until its next meeting, in 2012. If a change to its constitution were required, that could not be made until 2015.

Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia said that some respondents felt that the Com­munion had “committed a vast amount of time and research into the search for coven­antal wording that would be acceptable to the whole Church, and yet it has not addressed the insurmountable problem of the complete intransigence of some dioceses to any process that would accept certain ‘debated categories’ of people as full members of the Church”.

The working party said that the guiding principle had been minimal revision. Several areas of section 4 had required “clearer definition and a change of tone in language”. A new clause, 4.1.1, recognises the provinces as “the historical bodies through which the life of the Anglican Communion has been expressed” and “the primary parties for whom the Coven­ant has been designed”, the working party emphasises.

Consequently, only members of the Anglican Com­munion as listed in the ACC’s Schedule of Membership (i.e. the provinces), have been sent the text and are currently being invited to enter into the Covenant “according to their provincial constitutional procedures”. Others may be invited to adopt the Covenant if they apply to join that membership, a process that would take many years.

The final text did not preclude any “ecclesial body” from committing itself to the Covenant, but the working party emphasised that adopt­ing it “does not confer any right of recognition by, or membership of, the instruments of communion, which shall be decided by those instruments themselves”.

A diocesan synod could commit itself to the Covenant if its canons and constitutions allowed, “thus strengthening its commitment to the interdependent life of the Communion”.

The working group said that the most difficult part of the text had related to those sections that dealt with any disruption in the life of the Communion. “There remains in some quarters a lingering feeling that being in communion requires only positive affirmation and encouragement . . . [but] from our recent history it is evident that some developments bring dispute, disruption and tension.”

The text does not prescribe what should happen to current Communion members who choose not to enter into the Covenant. The working group said that it had felt it “not appropriate to address this question within the text of the Covenant”.


The group said that it had taken seriously representations that this section should avoid a punitive tone, and that it should “emphasise relational and communion aspects, and defer to the dispersed model of authority, which places emphasis on the autonomy of the Churches as final arbiters of maintaining the Communion which their relations constitute”.

The question who should “maintain” the Covenant had bulked large at the ACC meeting in May. The Standing Committee, made up of elected members for the Primates’ Meeting and the ACC, will be the body to declare an action or decision “incompatible with the Covenant”. The secretary general of the Anglican Com­munion, Canon Kenneth Kearon, has asked the provinces to respond at the next meeting of the ACC, in three years’ time.

Dr Williams acknowledged that even by ACC-15, “when the hope is that most provinces will have said yes to it, the process won’t be all over”. Meanwhile, he said, it was “open to anybody that wishes to affirm the principles of the Covenant to say that this is what they wish to live with”.

He defined the text as “the basis on which the Anglican family works and prays and lives and hopes”, and described section 4 as the most controversial “because that’s where we spell out what happens if relationships fail or break down. It doesn’t set out . . . a procedure for punishments and sanctions. It does try and sort out how we will discern the nature of our disagreement. How important is it? How divisive does it have to be? Is it a Communion-breaking issue that’s in question — or is it something we can learn to live with?”

He concluded that what had been attempted was “a practical, sensible, and Christian way of dealing with our conflicts, recognising that they’re always going to be there”. In the next few years, “we expect to see quite a bit of activity around this.”

At its meeting, the Standing Committee also reaffirmed its call for “gracious restraint” after the election of a partnered lesbian priest, Canon Mary Glasspool, as Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles (News, 11 December).

The committee resolved that, in the light of that nomination, “the decisions in a number of US and Canadian dioceses to proceed with formal ceremonies of same-sex blessings” and “continuing cross-jurisdictional activity within the Communion”, it “strongly reaffirms Resolution 14.09 of ACC-14 supporting the three moratoria proposed by the Windsor Report and the associated request for gracious restraint in respect of actions that endanger the unity of the Anglican Communion by going against the declared view of the Instruments of Communion”.


Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)