No alternative to the Covenant: Dr Williams’s Advent message

01 December 2011

by Ed Thornton

THE Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Advent letter to Anglican Primates, published on Wednesday, has commended the Anglican Covenant — “as strongly as I can”.

Dr Williams acknowledges that the Anglican Communion “still lives with numerous tensions”. He says that, despite some Primates’ feeling “unable in conscience to attend the Primates’ Meeting in Dublin earlier this year” (News, 28 January), it produced “a number of strong statements” and “a carefully considered statement on what those present believed was the proper role of a Primates’ gathering”. It was clear from the discussions, he writes, “that the position and powers of the Primate were very different in different Provinces.

“These differences affect opinions over the sort of powers a Primates’ Meeting could and should have. They still need more careful and dispassionate discussion, and a sustained willingness on the part of all Provinces to understand the different ways in which each local part of the Anglican family organises its life.”

Dr Williams said that how and when decisions were made about the Covenant “vary a lot from province to province. We hope to see a full report of progress at next year’s Anglican Consultative Council meeting.”

Dr Williams then launched a strongly-worded defence of the Covenant: “In spite of many assurances, some Anglicans evidently still think that the Covenant changes the structure of our Communion or that it gives some sort of absolute power of ‘excommunication’ to some undemocratic or unrepresentative body.

“With all respect to those who have raised these concerns, I must repeat that I do not see the Covenant in this light at all.

“It sets out an understanding of our common life and common faith, and, in the light of that, proposes making a mutual promise to consult and attend to each other, freely undertaken. It recognises that not doing this damages our relations profoundly. It outlines a procedure, such as we urgently need, for attempting reconciliation and for indicating the sorts of consequences that might result from a failure to be fully reconciled.

“It alters no province’s constitution, as it has no canonical force independent of the life of the provinces. It does not create some unaccountable and remote new authority but seeks to identify a representative group that might exercise a crucial advisory function.

“I continue to ask what alternatives there are if we want to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict, and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity. In the absence of such alternatives, I must continue to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can to all who are considering its future.”

Dr Williams said that questions about the Anglican Covenant were made “all the more sharp by the fact that the repeated requests for moratoria on problematic actions issued by various representative Anglican bodies are increasingly ignored”. The effect of this, he said, was “to deepen mutual distrust” which “must surely be bad for our mission together as Anglicans, and alongside other Christians as well.

“The question remains: if the moratoria are ignored and the Covenant suspected, what are the means by which we maintain some theological coherence as a Communion and some personal respect and understanding as a fellowship of people seeking to serve Christ?

“And we should bear in mind that our coherence as a Communion is also a significant concern in relation to other Christian bodies — especially at a moment when the renewed dialogues with Roman Catholics and Orthodox have begun with great enthusiasm and a very constructive spirit.”

In the letter, Dr Williams praised the Anglican Alliance for development, relief and advocacy, which he said had made “an exceptionally good start to its work” and “helped us see more clearly what ‘holistic mission’ means in action”.

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