co-published with the Church of England Newspaper 23 December 2011
Life is always more interesting when things don’t go as planned. That alone should make the Anglican Communion Covenant interesting in 2012. General Synod rarely refers matters to dioceses. When it does, it often seems – as with women bishops – a procedural necessity with a foregone positive conclusion. As 2011 closes, the covenant has departed from that script. It has the support of four dioceses but been rejected by four dioceses. At least 23 of the 44 dioceses must support it for it to return to General Synod for final approval. The 2012 diocesan synod debates are therefore crucial. To resource these, Fulcrum has recently collated various articles and produced a short “Churchgoer’s Guide to the Anglican Communion Covenant”. This concludes with the following ten reasons to support the covenant.
1. It has been consistently supported by the Church of England which significantly shaped its content through the years of its development and so we should not now reverse our positive and constructive response
2. It is a development in line with the Communion’s evolving life and is faithful to Anglicanism’s theological and ecclesiological tradition and identity.
3. It gives form to a vision of ‘communion with autonomy and accountability’ that has been central to the Communion’s self-understanding and is a genuine Anglican via media avoiding the dangers of both a centralised, controlling Curia and a fragmenting, fractious federation
4. It enables Anglicans across the world and Christians in other denominations to understand who we are as Anglicans and how we seek to live together and share in God’s mission together as part of the body of Christ.
5. It provides a clear agreed framework for debate, diversity and development through shared discernment within agreed affirmations and commitments.
6. It facilitates changes in continuity and dialogue with both our Anglican tradition and our fellow Anglicans around the world and thus serves our unity in Christ
7. It preserves provincial autonomy but allows the clear articulation of the catholic consensus within the Communion and an ordered – rather than the recent chaotic – response within Anglicanism when provinces believe they need to act contrary to this.
8. It offers the best, perhaps the only, means of preventing further bitter fragmentation by enabling the highest degree of communion among Anglicans.
9. It does not explicitly address specific controversial issues but cultivates practices and provides processes for addressing whatever innovations – for example, lay presidency – might arise when some Anglicans may feel called to act in a way that others do not recognise as faithful developments.
10. The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked the Church of England to support him and the other Instruments in working for the widest possible acceptance of the covenant within the Communion.
Given these, and many other reasons, why has the Church of England so far appeared half-hearted?
There are various factors. For some, the covenant has appeared from nowhere and is tainted by recent Communion divisions. For others, opposition may reflect an inherent natural conservatism suspicious of new developments or even a sub-Christian nationalism that fails to recognise the importance of living within a global communion of churches. In addition, relatively little has been done until now to explain the covenant simply and show its importance and value – hence Fulcrum’s recent guide. In contrast, there has been a vociferous organised international campaign against it.
The No Anglican Covenant Coalition is driven by various commitments. It has an alternative, incompatible vision of life in communion whose theory and practice are rarely explained or scrutinised. This is centred on a minimalist Anglican identity (sometimes almost reduced to a principle of celebrating unbounded diversity) which rejects interdependence and mutual accountability so provinces can unilaterally act however they wish without reference to Anglicans elsewhere.
This vision lay behind the actions of North American dioceses and provinces which in 2003 tore the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level. Despite the rhetoric of inclusive diversity, it has divided the church and established liberal dominance in the Episcopal Church in America (TEC). It also justifies their continued refusal to heed repeated requests to stop, wait, consult and persuade for the good of the wider church. A covenant that could help repair the tear by re-affirming provinces’ commitment to longstanding Anglican patterns of life in communion is something this vision’s supporters are determined to resist. Sadly, despite appealing to reason and tolerance, their campaign has at times misrepresented the covenant and painted extreme scenarios based on such distortions to engender anxiety and fear.
Evangelicals won’t be attracted by this alternative vision but some seem tempted to form an unholy alliance with it by opposing the covenant or abstaining. Their concern is the mirror-opposite: the covenant is too weak and should be abandoned for the GAFCON vision of confessional Anglicanism. That vision, however, whatever its strengths, lacks the covenant’s commitments to cultivate ecclesial virtues and institutions which nourish communion. It isn't clear how it will reform and strengthen the Communion rather than facilitate its fragmentation and demise.
In fact, much in the covenant should delight and encourage evangelicals. There is nothing to which we fundamentally object. That’s why it has been consistently supported by the Global South leadership. There can also be little doubt its defeat in the Church of England would be claimed – and widely seen – as a triumph for those who have supported TEC.
Archbishop Rowan’s recent Advent letter continued “to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can”, arguing it will enable us “to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity”. For those reasons and the others outlined by Fulcrum, in 2012 evangelicals from across evangelicalism should be well-informed, enthusiastic and committed supporters of the covenant, speaking and voting for it in deanery and diocesan synods and then in General Synod.