Conservatives' covenant concerns: A critique

Conservatives’ covenant concerns: A critique

by Andrew Goddard

On reading Truth or Conviction: questions over the Anglican Communion Covenant by Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden I did not know whether to laugh or to cry. Part of me wanted to laugh, having just spent some time responding to IC & MCU. In part, that response sought to show that the covenant was not the punitive brainchild of neo-Puritans which ruled out dialogue and which if accepted automatically entailed the expulsion of North American church from the Communion. Here were two leading spokesmen often portrayed as those supporting the covenant because it is punitive and exclusionary making clear that they were far from happy with it because it did not do what IC & MCU claimed it did. But most of me wanted to cry. Here are two distinguished fellow evangelicals and friends not just taking a view with which I disagree but doing so in a manner which had so many of the hallmarks of those they are fighting – no reference to the text of the covenant, making unsubstantiated claims and even some clear falsehoods to raise doubts and fears in their constituency, and approaching the covenant seemingly driven by a wider agenda in pursuit of which the covenant could be distorted and dismissed but with no serious alternative on offer.
Firstly, they open not by reference to the covenant – indeed they never refer to the actual text - but with statements from CAPA and the Global South. CAPA are quoted as saying they “realise the need for further improvement of the Covenant in order to be an effective tool for unity and mutual accountability” but it is not noted that this follows the affirmation – “we accept the rationale for an Anglican Covenant”. Nor is it acknowledged that the covenant has its own system by which it may be amended. Similarly the Global South statement is partially quoted omitting the prior statement that Global South leaders have been in the forefront of the development of the ‘Anglican Covenant’ and not acknowledging that the Global South Chair, Archbishop John Chew, served on the Covenant Design Group.
Secondly, these examples of being “economical with the actualité” are then followed by two false statements. It is not the case that ‘The Anglican Communion Covenant was devised by Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies at the request of the Global South meeting’. It was proposed by The Lambeth Commission (on which Archbishop Gomez served but where Norman Doe appears to have been the major initiator and advocate of a covenant) and it was only sometime after ‘it was embraced and supported by the Primates’ Meeting in Dromantine’ that Archbishop Gomez was invited to chair the Covenant Design Group. Although that group initially worked with a draft covenant from the Global South (that interestingly also made no reference to Lambeth I.10 or sexuality), even its first Nassau draft was significantly different from that of the Global South (drawing as it did on other proposals such as that from Australia). Similarly, while the final stages of approval were indeed messy, it is also untrue to state that ACC passed a motion ‘which led to the revision of section 4 so that all mention of discipline was removed’. The text of the pre-ACC Ridley Draft of Section 4 and the final text are easily compared here. There are clearly changes but it is hard to see what mention of discipline exists in the former and has been removed from the latter. The final text is quite clear that ‘the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below’ (4.2.5, where the only difference from the earlier 4.2.3 is the addition of the second ‘may’ to allow a greater range of recommendations to be made).
Thirdly, as signalled by the title, at the heart of their argument appears to be a stark and unjustified dichotomy between truth and conviction and the claim that ‘The Covenant sets some of the creedal statements of the Christian faith in a specific framework. The premise of this framework is that the doctrinal and theological disagreements which have surfaced within the Communion are not about fundamentals but have arisen through problems in communication and understanding, as people have differing convictions’. It is then asserted that the covenant process is only capable of dealing with disagreements which are ‘matters of personal conviction over which better communication will produce unity and harmony’ not ‘matters of right and wrong, truth and error’. No evidence is offered for these central claims which look much more like the forcing of the covenant into the authors’ own framework and projection onto it of what they are unhappy about in aspects of the present crisis – the mirror-image of the IC/MCU approach to the covenant.
Fourthly, in fact, a reading of sections 1-3 the text of the covenant shows that although everyone probably has places where they would wish to express matters slightly differently or to include some elements which are here omitted it is wholly consistent with the Church of England’s life, doctrine and practice. Indeed, there is much in it that evangelicals should celebrate is being reaffirmed. Section 1 emphasises Scripture and tradition, including the historic formularies and 1.1.2 comes from Canon C15 and the Preface to the Declaration of Assent; section 2 makes mission central to our covenanted life and section 3 preserves provincial autonomy (in the sense, contra some claims, that no other province or Communion body has authority to over-ride provincial decisions, see 4.1.3, and there is no centralization of decision-making) but does so in a way that recognises that each province is part of the wider body of Christ (cf parts of the body in 1 Cor 12) and so legal autonomy must be combined with accountability (3.1.2) and mutual responsibility and interdependence (3.1.4 and 3.2.2). Indeed, although obviously not the same as the Fourteen Tenets of the Jerusalem Declaration, there is nothing in the covenant that contradicts and is incompatible with that Declaration.
Fifthly, the authors then proceed to make the important distinction between ‘fundamental and non-negotiable’ truths and ‘matters of indifference’ but claim that ‘the absence of discipline risks moving some of the fundamentals into the indifference category’. The evidence cited is that apparently ‘the covenant puts a number of fully acceptable creedal statements in the framework of communication and listening which renders them as convictions open to change’. It is not clear which statements they think the covenant assign to this category. Nor is it clear why they then object to Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan’s statement in favour of collaborative communion discernment as to what may further and what may impede the gospel – are they opposed to such consultation?
It would appear here that they believe any recognition we may need to discuss whether something is a fundamental non-negotiable or a matter of indifference is a capitulation which ‘risks moving some of the fundamentals into the indifference category’. Is, to give an intriguing example they cite, ‘how to relate to same-sex couples...bringing surrogate children for baptism’ clearly in the former category and if so with what conclusion? A large part of the work of the covenant is to provide a framework for exactly the sort of common discernment about which differences among Anglicans are differences that matter and are fundamental and which differences are not. As is said 3.2.3 – ‘Some issues, which are perceived as controversial or new when they arise, may well evoke a deeper understanding of the implications of God’s revelation to us; others may prove to be distractions or even obstacles to the faith. All such matters therefore need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church’.
The concern is then raised that not only might some fundamentals be treated as matters of indifference but that the move may happen the other way, especially in relation to ‘orthodox Anglicans in North America’ who have left TEC and the Canadian church to form ACNA. There are two issues here. First, it again will not do simply to assert without evidence that ‘the Covenant process is also seen [by who? On what basis in the covenant?] as means by which sanctions could be taken [how given it has been claimed the covenant has removed all discipline?] against those of the Communion who insist that truth and error are not matters of poor communication, lack of openness and failure to listen’. Second, there may indeed be a risk that cross-border activity will be judged contrary to the covenant (as 3.2.2 commits signatories to ‘respect the constitutional authority of all of the churches of the Anglican Communion’) but most of those who have intervened have done so because they have seen it as a sad necessity in a state of emergency. It has to be recognised that it would be better if this had not been necessary – hence, for example, the Dar Primates’ Meeting proposals. The covenant therefore rightly views negatively any unilateral intervention based on purely provincial rather than conciliar assessments that fundamental non-negotiables are at stake. Such responses are undesirable and damaging to our common life. It therefore seeks to create a context – through affirmations, commitments and processes – in which independent judgments and actions are less likely to be necessary.
Sixthly, it is alleged that ‘the current Covenant process interminably delays judgement...we are left in a permanent state of dialogue and conversation’. Here again it is hard to square this with the wording of the covenant. Section 4.2.5 is quite clear that there is authorisation to pass judgment in the form of a request to halt – ‘The Standing Committee may request a Church to defer a controversial action. If a Church declines to defer such action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below’. There is also the possibility (4.2.6) to ‘make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”’ and (4.2.7) to ‘make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant’. These are, of course, all only requests and recommendations but it is clearly stated that these may relate to ‘the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation’ (4.2.7). Is it seriously proposed that some body should be empowered– without dialogue or conversation - to require all covenant churches to declare impaired communion or to force the Instruments to suspend?
Although stated more strongly, the concern here may ultimately be a practical one – ‘OK, the covenant does allow such judgment in theory but will it ever happen in practice?’. Here there is an important question about the role and composition of the Standing Committee and also the working of the Instruments which does merit further discussion. However, refusing to support the covenant does not adequately respond to that question. It is clear that many recognise the Instruments are in need of reform and that is being considered by IASCUFO. It is also clear that the covenant is only overseen by those on the Standing Committee whose provinces which have adopted or are in the process of adopting the covenant (4.2.8) and that we are now at a stage in which the text will have to be amended by due processes among signatory provinces as set out in the covenant (4.4). What happens in practice with the covenant is therefore now largely dependent on which provinces sign the covenant. Those who decide not to sign it will – understandably - have no say in these matters and cannot justifiably complain if those who do have a say do not do as they would wish. There is the real danger here of slipping into a corrosive form of politics in which prophets of doom advocate strategies which if followed would help make their jeremiads self-fulfilling. In such an approach it is claimed – usually with little evidence but building on people’s suspicions and fears – that ‘process X is going to lead to outcome Y and so if you don’t want Y you must not support X’. If this advice is followed and those who are opposed to Y withdraw from X then of course Y is much more likely to happen as a result of their absence. This in turn allows those calling for such a strategy to say ‘see, we were right, process X was the problem all along and those who supported it and now find themselves at Y have only themselves to blame’.
Seventhly, the objections being raised here are not only misrepresenting the covenant but also show a remarkably narrow view of what the covenant is about. The argument is that – in stark contrast to the claims of IC & MCU - section 4 is actually too weak, a view sometimes expressed in terms of ‘lacking teeth’. Here, a number of points need to be considered. (1) The covenant is not to be judged simply in terms of whether or how it might address our current difficulties – it is something much bigger and forward-looking and the question is whether this is a biblical vision of life together in the body of Christ whose articulation is an advance on the current situation in the Communion. (2) To view the covenant primarily – let alone exclusively – through the frame of discipline, sanctions and ‘teeth’ is to lose both the central biblical elements of covenantal language and to build our life together on suspicion and fear rather than trust and grace. (3) The covenant does recognise that actions which are contrary to the faith, mission and unity that are the foundation of the Communion (4.1.2) will have ‘relational consequences’ of impairing communion and that both individual provinces and the Instruments may need to act to express this, including possibly suspension from the Instruments. (4) The covenant sets out a conciliar process which, without interfering in the life of a province, enables a common mind to be reached concerning actions incompatible with the covenant and a proper, proportionate response to them.
Eighthly, the article concludes by building one more level on its shaky foundations – a suggestion that the covenant will somehow make matters works through ‘practical implications at parish level’ so that ‘if the covenant process in the Communion becomes the state of affairs in the Church of England...endless appeal could be made to conviction, openness, listening and time...’ and ‘where the current Anglican Communion process is going today could be used to allow for English Dioceses to move in TEC’s direction tomorrow on the grounds that this is accepted Anglican practice’. Here again we have the exact opposite scary scenario to that offered by IC & MCU – they see the covenant limiting and preventing diversity and imposing conservative uniformity down to parish level whereas Samuel and Sugden raise the spectre of the opposite. But we also see key similarities. What they share is an inability to base either of these hypothetical scenarios in the covenant text itself. Both are also equally guilty of misrepresenting the covenant and using the inevitable uncertainty about what the future holds and what this development might mean in practice to project onto it their fears and anxieties. From polar opposite positions they both therefore suggest that the covenant itself must be some sort of Trojan horse which is going to bring about what their ecclesial opponents are seeking and so it must not be allowed to enter the Anglican camp.
Finally, unlike IC/MCU these evangelical critics only ‘suggest abstention in the vote in General Synod next week’. However, like them, they offer no constructive alternative to the covenant. Anyone unwilling to support the covenant but who wishes to be responsible and to show due care for the unity and witness of the Communion must answer this crucial question – if not this, then what are we to do instead and why is that more faithful theologically and more practical politically given where we are?

One suspects that the authors may hope that GAFCON/FCA will benefit if the covenant fails but the weaknesses in that approach are already becoming clear in multiple ways. Its internal tensions are increasingly evident in, for example, the decision of AMiA to change its status in ACNA, the decision of a diocese in the Southern Cone to seek membership in another province following the province’s decision - on what is supposedly a ‘matter of indifference’in GAFCON - not to permit it to ordain women priests and the departure to Rome of some involved in the launch of FCAUK. It has also failed to build out from its original base and attract more Primates from the wider Global South to its Primates’ Council. More fundamentally, it is possibly fatally weakened by its failure to complement its proper confessional concern with the sort of practical commitments to patterns of common life and processes of common discernment found in the covenant.

If GAFCON and its supporters are genuinely seeking to be not an alternative Communion hoping for the breakup of the existing Communion but a reform movement within the Communion then rather than majoring on the covenant’s minor weaknesses and disparaging and distorting its content they should be embracing and working with the covenant as a reform which moves us in the right direction. Although not without its problems, by God’s grace and through our patience and perseverance the covenant holds out the prospect of gradually bringing greater faithfulness and order to global Anglicanism and so strengthening us to share in the mission of God.

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