No high hurdle for Anglican Covenant

09 February 2011

Anglican Covenant

THE Act of Synod adopting the Anglican Covenant will need only simple majorities for final approval by the General Synod, if a majority of diocesan synods support it. On Monday afternoon, the Synod re­jected a motion to set the bar at a two-thirds majority in each of the General Synod’s three Houses.

The motion, from John Ward (London), was not debated in Novem­ber for lack of time, and would have lapsed if not for a dis­cretionary decision by the Business Committee to test the mind of the Synod at this stage on the use of the relevant power under Article 8 of its constitution.

Mr Ward said that this was an op­portunity for the Synod to “collec­tively discern what God is calling us to do”. The Covenant was divisive, and some saw it as “a serious betrayal of our reformed nature”. The Covenant was a serious thing, he said, and required “serious debate”. A two-thirds majority would help the Synod to engage with the issue.

The issue was not, he said, the old matter of Bishop Gene Robinson, but how Anglicans engaged with scrip­ture, tradition, and reason. Did they use scripture as a weapon, or to il­lumin­ate their lives? If his motion was carried, the Synod could “talk about God and people rather than pro­cesses”. He said that the Synod should not be satisfied with just legislating, but should change the way it did church. There were people worried that the Covenant would stifle debate, mean­ing that they were no longer wel­come in their churches. His motion offered “an elegant middle way to come together”, as the Bishop of Black­burn had suggested in November. He called for Bible-study groups on the theo­logy of covenanting.

Adrian Vincent (Guildford) had reports at home of the Synod’s pro­ceedings from the past 40 years. He said that the provision under Article 8 of the General Synod’s constitution on which Mr Ward relied had been introduced in 1971. The July 1970 report of proceedings recorded the debate, when Dr Ellison, then the Bishop of Chester, said that its pur­pose was to allow the possibility of a special majority for the union scheme between Anglicans and Methodists.


This Measure had been for another denomination: there was no inten­tion of using special majorities on a question of governing relationships within the Anglican Communion. This was just one reason why he urged the Synod to oppose the motion.

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Durham) spoke in favour of the motion because of its significance for the Church. If the Covenant was carried, it would make the Church of England subordinate to a “new quango”; so surely a two-thirds majority was morally called for, even though it was not legally required.

By accepting this new structure they would be effectively acknow­ledging that the Synod was not the prime decision-making body for the Church of England. The only argu­ment for keeping a simple majority was that it would be easier to get out of the Covenant if it did not work. The Covenant would hamper their ability to proclaim the gospel in the cultures to which they were sent, and would have a big impact on the Church’s self-understanding and governance. They needed that it was treated with the importance it de­served.

Dr Anna Thomas-Betts (Oxford) said that she supported Mr Ward’s motion because “signing the Coven­ant is one of the most profoundly significant things Synod has been asked to approve.” The Communion should be like a family, not the United Nations, held together by bonds of affection, not threats of sanction.

Dr Thomas-Betts said she held Dr Williams in the highest esteem, “but what is the guarantee we will always have an Archbishop who has similar intelligence, compassion, and sen­sitivity? We should look beyond the person of Archbishop Rowan.”

Keith Malcouronne (Guildford) asked how the Church of England, “as the Mother Church of the Com­munion, could think of absenting herself from her wider family”. In the light of Jesus’s prayer that the Church would be one, “how can we not strain every sinew to reunite our Com­munion on firmer foundations?”

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, said that the House of Bishops had decided against im­posing special majorities for final approval. The one category of business where the Synod had the ability to set a special majority was for a permanent, substantive change of relationship with one or more other Churches.

It seemed to the House of Bishops that there was “no compelling reason” to impose a special majority. The Anglican Covenant did not involve entering into communion. The Synod had come to a clear conclusion that it was serious about adopting the Coven­ant. Carrying Mr Ward’s motion would be seen as qualifying that. It would be seen as sending a mixed message to dioceses and the Anglican Communion generally.


Dr Jack Shelley (Exeter) spoke in favour of the motion, but said that there would be problems whether the Synod accepted or rejected the Coven­­ant. A further difficulty was that they did not know what those problems would be until they decided “which way to jump”. Schism would continue to occur in the Anglican Communion, whichever course they chose. It was important that the majority of the Synod stood behind or rejected the Covenant. A simple majority was too slim a margin to stand firmly behind whatever de­cision they took. Church and theo­logy and practice had evolved. Diver­sity was a strength. If they discouraged diversity, the Church could decline.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, put forward the scenario that all 44 dioceses affirmed the Covenant, and then the Synod needed a two-thirds majority but one House of the Synod rejected it. The dioceses would ask what the point of con­sulting them was.

He also called for a distinction be­tween a Measure and an Act of Synod. A Measure needed a two-thirds majority to convince Parliament; and Act of Synod was for the Church: it had no other external controls, and if it turned into a Measure, they would have difficulty.

The Covenant had given assurance to some of their ecumenical partners, and would allow them to stand to­gether in communion. Covenant was not about exclusion or people leaving, as Mr Ward had said. He encouraged the Synod to resist the motion.

Councillor Robin Lunn (Wor­cester) said that they were simply dealing with the issue of voting systems. He urged the Synod to reject the motion. He appreciated that on certain issues they had to have a two-thirds majority, but why bring it in when they didn’t have to?

The National Union of Mine­workers required a 55-per-cent ma­jor­ity for strike action, which did not set the bar at an artificially high level. If Mr Ward had moved for 55 per cent, Cllr Lunn would have supported him; but he thought that two-thirds was too high.

The Revd Professor Richard Burridge (University of London) said that he did not really understand what they were talking about, and suspected that others did not under­stand, either. “The grounds on which a simple majority or two-thirds majority are chosen” were not clear; nor the arguments behind these majorities.

He questioned why they needed to have a two-thirds majority for women bishops, but not for the Covenant. It would have a substantial effect on the Church of England and its juris­diction. Where did authority lie: in the Anglican Communion, with the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting, or the Anglican Consulta­tive Council?


At this point, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) sought an adjournment of the debate until July 2012, after the dioceses had discussed the Covenant, so that the Synod could listen to the dioceses.

Mr Ward opposed this, and the adjournment motion was put to the vote and defeated.

Canon Giles Goddard (South­wark) said that there was “an elephant in the room”: lesbian and gay Chris­tians. “Close to the surface of our dis­cussion is the question of the Church’s moving on lesbian and gay Chris­tians. We haven’t discussed it, and it comes out in other ways.”

Canon Goddard said that he sup­ported Mr Ward’s motion, “because the Covenant will make conversations more difficult. It will be used to beat with a stick those who wish to be more inclusive. . . Those who oppose the Covenant should vote for this motion.”

The Revd Dr John Perumbalath (Rochester) said that if the Covenant would involve three-quarters of the Anglicans in the world, “it is not unnatural we should have a two-thirds majority.” He supported the motion.

The motion was voted on by Houses and lost: Bishops: 4 for, 32 against, 2 recorded abstentions; Clergy: 82 for, 92 against, 1 abstention; Laity: 66 for, 112 against.

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