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Anglican Covenant: Reservations, but the Covenant moves forward

by
25 November 2010

THE SYNOD voted on Wednesday morning that the Draft Act of Synod Adopting the Anglican Covenant be considered. Two amendments and a following motion were voted down. There was no time to debate a second following motion concerning required majorities at final approval.

The business is to be referred to the House of Bishops and the diocesan synods under Articles 7 and 8 of the Synod’s constitution.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Michael Hill, said: “I think we need to be honest that the background to the Covenant process has made it hard for debate about the Covenant to avoid turning into debates about the gay issue.

“In simple terms, those who saw the de­cision of the American Church to consecrate Gene Robinson as a prophetic act fear that the Covenant might impede other prophetic acts in the future, or introduce some new element of coercion or punishment into Communion business.”

The last Synod, he said, had managed to get beyond that stand-off to consider the case for a Covenant on its merits. Some were still against it, but there was also strong support for seeking to develop the various earlier drafts.

“What the Covenant does is to invite member Churches to commit themselves to greater mutual accountability, consultation, and the pursuit of consensus on issues that are new or controversial and may have serious relational consequences in the Communion. That is what happened with the admission of women to priestly and episcopal ministry, where there was extensive consultation in the Anglican Communion from the 1960s onwards.”

The Covenant, he said, was quite explicit in respecting the constitutional autonomy of all the Churches in the Communion. No indi­vidual Church in the Communion would be able to compel any other Church to set aside a decision taken under its own constitution. Nothing in the Covenant altered the con­stitution of any Church or limited its autonomy; so suggestions that the Church of England would be subordinating itself to an international body were simply not true.

His motion before the Synod was simply that the draft Covenant be considered. If members believed it not to be worth consider­ing, then they would vote against it, but he hoped that most would think it worth dis­cussing.

The effect of a “yes” vote would be to send the Draft Act of Synod to the diocesan synods, as final approval by the General Synod would not be possible unless the majority of them had given their consent.

The Revd Mark Beach (Coventry) said that he started “from a position that anything that can help us hold the Communion together must be a good thing”. The more he read the Covenant, however, the more concerned he was: for example, the reference to “bonds of affection of the Communion”. “Affection cannot be legislated for. The development must be organic and dynamic.”

Mr Beach also expressed concern that the Covenant contained a great deal about scripture and tradition, but less on scholar­ship and reason and their part in the doctrine of the Church. He also expressed a more pragmatic objection: that the provinces that oppose the Covenant because it restricts their freedom will not sign it, “which will result in irrevocable division before we have decided what to do”.

Debrah McIsaac (Salisbury) said that she believed that it was an advantage to come fresh to the Covenant debate, to give the text “a clear read”. She suggested that it shouldn’t be seen as a compromise for the sake of peace: there was scope here to develop adult rela­tion­ships for the sake of the in­culturation of the gospel. It was important to remove echoes of Empire, to consider consequences and not proceedings, to be selfless and sacrificial.

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Newcastle and Durham Universities) emphasised the importance of context. Recent developments in technology meant that everyone was living in multiple contexts, which had an impact on mission and theo­logy. She was concerned at an “abrupt change of direction” in the Covenant text (at 3:2:5), where, in the overriding of local imperatives, context became irrelevant.

She challenged the “use and misuse” of the language of “family” in the document, where “cosy talk of family” changed to something conditional. Families loved and supported each other unconditionally: emotional dam­age resulted when conditions were part of love. “Relational consequences” sounded chilling. In previous debates it had been described as a pre-nuptial agreement; this text sounded like a couple in marriage difficulties.

The Archbishop of Canterbury sought to respond to some of the objections raised in the Synod to the Anglican Covenant. Dr Williams said that he heard and partly understood “the anxieties about legislating for family relationships”; but it was “unduly idealistic to believe that goodwill alone can get us through”.

The Covenant, he said, was “an attempt to set out a structure of consent rather than a structure of discipline”. It aimed for a “consensual Catholicism” where “people are willing to be accountable to one another”.

Dr Williams resisted “very strongly” the idea that the Covenant “creates a central authority”. All organs would be “organs that exist through election by provinces of the Communion. . . We are not creating an ecclesiastical authority in mid-air.”

Anirban Roy (London) said that there was “a lot of great stuff in the Covenant”, but was concerned about the condemnation in the document. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, he said. “The condem­nation is the bit I struggle with in the Cov­enant.”

The Revd Simon Cawdell (Hereford) compared the Covenant to the Revelation picture of the City of God, both defined but welcoming. As with any community, there were times when it could be dysfunctional, but the Covenant offered ways in which disputes could be resolved in love when ordinary consideration could not produce a way ahead.

People had told him that “the ACC hath no jurisdiction” over the Church of England. He found that extraordinary. So many of the arguments against the Covenant were fleeing from something that was not even there. It was all about grace and how the Church was part of the Body of Christ, but it seemed that grace was conspicuous by its absence.

The Revd Professor Paul Fiddes (Baptist Union) feared that he might be presumptuous in speaking about how the Church of England might order its life. But, as a Baptist, as in other Free Churches, he was familiar with covenants. He looked forward to seeing where the Holy Spirit led the Synod, and whether they might follow.

Christ called the Churches into com­munion, which led to the making of coven­ants together. “This is at the heart of our own tradition of covenant-making.”

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) found parallels in the troubles in Northern Ireland, where dogged negotiation had in the end largely won the day. She believed that the Covenant would split the Communion and damage mission. It needed lengthy, patient negotiation until both sides learned to respect each other’s views. If it could be done in Northern Ireland, surely it could be done in the Communion?

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, said that it was wrong to think that the consecration of Gene Robinson had given rise to the Covenant. It stemmed from the 1992 report Belonging Together, which sought to establish principles of relationship and governance.

Section 4 had come to be seen as punitive and contractual rather than covenanted. It clearly stated that the Covenant could not override the constitution of a province. It had moved from judicial to relational. The issue of governance would not go away, but voices had been heard and listened to. He had reserva­tions, but believed that the Synod should vote to continue the process.

Jacqueline Humphreys (Bristol) described herself as a “Covenant sceptic”. A lawyer with a background in family and canon law, she said that, while looking at the impact across the Communion, “we must be aware of the impact on our own Church. We don’t have those implications properly spelled out.”

Ms Humphreys asked how, when an issue was determined by the Anglican Consultative Council, it would play out in the running of the Church. “It is a complex area, and we have no guidance.”

“‘Relational consequences’ is a gentle way of saying that’s a judicial decision. . . The Standing Committee of the ACC is not suited or resourced to take these kinds of judicial decisions.”

Canon Gary Jenkins (Southwark) described the Covenant as “an attempt to square a circle, and it just about succeeds”. The Covenant respects the principle of provincial autonomy, “but asks provinces to exercise their autonomy in such a way that they take into account the effect their decisions will have on other Churches. This gives a real cash value to the concept of Communion.”

Canon Anne Stevens (Southwark) asked how the Covenant would “affect the voice of prophecy in the Church”. Section 3.2.5 said that each Church was committed “to act[ing] with diligence, care, and caution in respect to any action which may produce controversy”. “The trouble is”, she said, “the prophet’s journey is to be controversial . . . to ask awkward questions and challenge the status quo.”

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield), a lay representative and vice-chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, told the Synod that the Standing Committee was “fully representative of the Communion”. Anglican Churches around the world still loved the Church of England and looked to it for leadership.

Making his last speech to the Synod before his retirement, the Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, said that he entirely supported the Covenant process so long as it never ended. Anglicanism didn’t need it, because Anglicanism was a covenant. It was predicated on grace and goodwill, and if there were no grace and goodwill, then a covenant would not work. Cardinal Wolsey had said that the making of a treaty was the treaty, and where there was no goodwill, the treaty was broken. There were times when a proposed cure had unintended consequences, and action could make matters worse.

Making his last speech to the Synod before his retirement, the Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, said that he entirely supported the Covenant process so long as it never ended. Anglicanism didn’t need it, because Anglicanism was a covenant. It was predicated on grace and goodwill, and if there were no grace and goodwill, then a covenant would not work. Cardinal Wolsey had said that the making of a treaty was the treaty, and where there was no goodwill, the treaty was broken. There were times when a proposed cure had unintended consequences, and action could make matters worse.

He loved the Anglican Communion, but he didn’t love it so much that he could continue with it if it had room for no one but Anglicans. He wanted a “free-range faith”. His farewell message to the Synod was that he hoped they could enjoy going on discussing the Covenant, but never get round to signing it.

Canon Simon Killwick (Manchester) believed that the international dimension was vital, a Catholic vision of the Church, a gospel for all nations. He had previously been suspicious of things that tried to “tidy up” the Church of England. But untidiness was straining relationships. The Covenant was not about straitjacketing, but a framework in which people could relate to one another and through which Churches of the Communion could work through their differences. It was a prophetic gesture, calling for wholehearted support.

Vasantha Gnanadoss (Southwark) argued that the Covenant was an authentic development in the structure of communion, along with the four Instruments. It might constrain the pace of development in other parts of the Communion, but this was nothing new. Surely it was right to put an orderly system in place to address provincial differences.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, believed that the Anglican Communion needed a solution to enable it to decide which differences needed to divide it and which didn’t. With no Petrine ministry, no curia, how to do it? The four Instruments of Communion were all essentially consult­ative. There was a real gap.

The Covenant was not perfect, but it gave the benefit of the doubt to all who had worked and prayed for so many years. It could later be modified in the light of experience.

Canon Richard Franklin (Salisbury) had a problem with the ecclesiology, and felt that the text was a principally political, not theological, document. The Covenant was proposing the Anglican Communion as a construct. Surely it was essentially something given to it by God. The document implied an ecclesiology that acknowledged the Com­munion as a gift from God, but denied it as a reality. The Communion was not something to be forced by human means. He had severe doubts about this approach as a moral enterprise.

Sally Muggeridge (Canterbury) had one big question: would it work? The sum of the whole should be greater than the individual parts. There was a need to think carefully about the leadership of the Anglican Communion, described as “untidy but lovable”.

Mark Russell (Archbishops’ Council) said that peacemaking was always a messy business. He had hated the Good Friday Agreement, but they had needed it as a springboard for local solutions. He warned that the Synod needed to be sure what it was doing if it did not back the Archbishop.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, said that he would vote for it, very reluctantly, for two reasons: first, to support the Archbishop; second, “because it keeps us talking”. He hoped that if the talks went on long enough, by the time the Synod reached the signing process it would ask “What is this for? We don’t need it.”

He wished the indaba process could be spread more widely to enable the Anglican Communion to build relationships in trust and love. He regretted only that it had not started ten years earlier, and hoped that it was not too late.

The Revd Dr John Perumbalath (Ro­chester) asked whether the word “covenant” was appropriate. The document was “ecclesiologically un-Anglican”. He urged members to vote against it.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) asked what those who opposed the Covenant were proposing as an alternative. Did they think the problem would go away, or that there was no problem?

Mary Johnston (London) moved an adjournment until July 2011. “This is a very serious debate with huge implications. One third of us are entirely new to Synod; yet on our first morning of business we are dealing with a huge issue.”

Bishop Hill resisted her motion, because the Synod was being asked to refer the matter to the dioceses. “This is not a final decision.”

Dr Sentamu reminded the Synod that debates had already taken place, and any new legislative body always inherited legislation.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) favoured adjourning. Members needed time to reflect “whether it is right to send the Covenant to the Church of England as a whole without a clear picture of what those problems are.”

The procedural motion was lost.

The motion for consideration of the draft Act of Synod was carried in a vote by Houses: Bishops: 39 to 0 with 1 recorded abstention; Clergy: 145 to 32 with 11 recorded absten­tions; Laity 147 to 25 with 8 recorded abstentions.

The Synod went on to debate an amend­ment from Justin Brett (Chichester) to eliminate section 4:2. He warned the Synod that once the text had gone to the dioceses and returned to Synod in the same form, it would be too late to amend it. Bishop Hill opposed this amendment, and, after some debate, it was lost.

The Synod then debated an amendment from Dr Brian Walker (Winchester) to insert the words: “The Church of England will not participate in or support any limitations or suspensions of the kind provided for in Section 4.2.5 or sanctions affected under Section 4.2.7.” This amendment lapsed.

The Synod then considered a following motion from Canon Robert Cotton (Guildford), who aimed to delay Article 8 reference “until after we have dealt with Article 8 reference on women bishops”. Bishop Hill urged the Synod not to support this. The Synod “owes it to our Communion partners to get on with the debate and vote”.

The following motion was lost.

Synod reporting by Glyn Paflin, Margaret Duggan, Pat Ashworth, Ed Beavan, and Ed Thornton. Photos Geoff Crawford.

Synod reporting by Glyn Paflin, Margaret Duggan, Pat Ashworth, Ed Beavan, and Ed Thornton. Photos Geoff Crawford.

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