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The Anglican Covenant: worse than schism?

22 February 2012


From the Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford

Sir, — Twenty years into the reign of George III, in 1780, John Dunning MP tabled a motion in the House of Commons that “The in­fluence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.” It was passed, despite much fury from the government of the day (which had just inadvert­ently created the United States of America by its stupidity).

Dunning’s motion reminded royalty and the executive to preserve a delicate balance amid parliament­ary politics, and not to try undue self-assertion. Although George III was pretty cross at the time, his successor still sits on her throne, while the descendants of many monarchs contemporary with King George look back on the guillotine, the firing-squad, or ignominious exile.

A triumphalist Whiggish anec­dote from British history, yes, but, on the weekend of 18 February, a very Whiggish event happened in England. Four Anglican diocesan synods declined to vote in favour of the Anglican Covenant, with every pressure from the executive (that is, the vast majority of the Bench of Bishops) to do so.

We have been assured that the Covenant is vital for the future of the Anglican Communion, and so not to approve it will lead to break-up and theological incoherence. Equally, we have been assured that the Covenant has been watered down so much that it won’t change very much really; so it is perfectly safe to vote for it. Above all, not to vote for it will be very upsetting for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who supports the Covenant.

This argument reminds me of a MacCulloch family anecdote: my grandfather was taking morning worship in St Columba’s Episcopal Church, Portree, around 1900. It was a hot day; a party had come to church from one of the great houses on the Isle of Skye, and one of the young ladies said to her hostess in a stage whisper: “Oh, I think I’m going to faint.”

The matriarch retorted: “You will do no such thing. It would be disrespectful to Almighty God, and distressing for Canon MacCulloch.”

Although the admonition was on that occasion successful, that is no way to do theology. The future of Anglicanism cannot be decided on whether a momentous theological decision will hurt any one person’s feelings. The Anglican Covenant is bad theology for many reasons: the most important is that it gives to central bodies the authority to decide who is fully an Anglican, in a way that offends every canon of Anglican history.

It is obvious that every body with a common purpose needs rules that may amount to discipline; but dis­cipline in our Church is exercised against erring individuals, not against entire ecclesial bodies that have, in prayer and careful thought about real pastoral situations, come to their own decision about what is right for their own situation.

Now, perhaps, those bishops who back this ill-thought-out and poten­tially disastrous measure should get the message, and let the Covenant quietly subside into the swamp of bad ideas in Anglican history.

St Cross College, Oxford OX1 3LZ

From Mrs Mary P. Roe

Sir, — I was truly heartened by the extract from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at the service of reconciliation (Comment, 17 February).

I couldn’t, however, ignore the question that later came into my mind: would these great men from different strands of our faith have been such an inspiration to us in our day if each had remained deeply suspicious of the other’s claim to be a true follower of Christ, but had agreed to sign a document that would limit either from pursuing any search for a closer walk with God (the vision of William Cowper) to which the other could not agree?

Is their story not an argument against the proposed Covenant?

1 The North Lodge, Kings End
Bicester, Oxon OX26 6NT

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