Framing the Anglican Covenant: Trick or Treat? A response to Inclusive Church and Modern Church

The propaganda on the Anglican covenant produced by Inclusive Church (IC) and Modern Church (previously MCU) and published in the church press reveals a most frightening development in contemporary Anglicanism. Two of the Church of England groups most associated with an appeal to reason have demonstrated themselves to be incapable of reasoned argument. They have also revealed themselves so hermeneutically challenged when faced with a relatively simple and short text whose contemporary context is well known that, did I not know some of the groups’ leaders, I would conclude they were deliberately misrepresenting the situation and framing false charges just in order to rally their troops and engender fear in those relatively uninformed of the covenant’s background and content.

The advertisement’s distorted account of the covenant brought to mind Mrs Thatcher’s perception of Europe as described in Geoffrey Howe’s famous resignation speech - a “nightmare image...conjured up by my right hon. Friend, who seems sometimes to look out upon a continent that is positively teeming with ill-intentioned people, scheming, in her words, to "extinguish democracy"”.

We are presented with a vision of the covenant as an oppressive mechanism which will be used against us by such dangerous elements as “neo-Puritans” and “Anglicans in other parts of the world”. It has allegedly “been kept so quiet” because it will “impose restrictions on any future church developments which another province opposes”, “make the Church of England subject to an outside power for the first time since Henry VIII” and “subordinate” General Synod to “new centralised authorities” in order to “make Anglicanism more dogmatic” instead of “Classic Anglican theology’s balance of scripture, reason and tradition”.

Every one of these claims and every answer to the seven questions IC & MCU ask is flawed, at best incomplete, often simply erroneous.

What does the covenant do? It does not enable anyone – certainly not some self-appointed ‘objectors’ – to forbid new developments in the Church of England or any other province. It simply sets out a path by which proposed controversial developments in provinces can be weighed across the Communion (as happened with women’s ordination) and establishes agreed processes for responding to relational difficulties when there is conflict. The Standing Committee is neither required to grant permission to anyone nor authorised to forbid anyone in relation to anything in any province. The most it can do is to respond to tensions by making proposals to the Instruments and provinces about relational consequences between churches. Those proposals are for the provinces and Instruments to respond to as they wish. At no point does the covenant state, imply or produce the effect that the Communion or Anglicanism will be redefined by withdrawing recognition although its development means that relationships within the Instruments between signatories and non-signatories may need to be considered at some stage in the future.

Astonishingly, the authors imply the covenant has been kept quiet. Did they really fail to notice it has been through four versions with each earlier draft posted on the Anglican Communion Office website and sent to provinces for comment (and the Church of England’s comments proving influential)? Have they forgotten that General Synod has also had no less than five opportunities to discuss Communion governance and the covenant since it was first proposed in October 2004? A very strange way to keep something quiet.

Given such a distorted perception, predictably all eight claimed consequences for the Church of England are highly tendentious. Some are simply false – there is no subordination to an international body or increased interference from outside. In fact, quite the opposite.Covenanting churches affirm that ‘each Church, with its bishops in synod, orders and regulates its own affairs and its local responsibility for mission through its own system of government’ and that ‘Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together “not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” and of the other instruments of Communion’ (3.1.2). Signatories must commit to ‘respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the Churches of the Anglican Communion’ (3.2.2) and the covenant explicitly states that signing it ‘does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction’ as ‘the Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion’ (4.1.3).

Some claimed consequences are also incoherent. For example the two groups shift from appealing to being an established national church to seeking to wear the mantle of catholicity and they claim that the covenant would somehow make us more inward-looking because it would require us ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches’. Throughout there is an apparent blindness to the fact that the covenant seeks to be truly catholic and uphold ‘universal Christianity’. It does so by facilitating global discernment together that will help distinguish potentially Spirit-led developments from idiosyncratic actions of misguided minorities that if followed by a province would make it what the advert warns against Anglicanism becoming - ‘a sect with its own distinctive doctrines’.

The fatal flaws in its understanding also undermine its claims about what would have happened if we had the covenant.Leaving aside the rather ridiculous merging of slavery, divorce, contraception and ordination oaths into the same category and the repeated falsehood that the covenant gives provinces the right to veto a province developing its teaching and practice, there is the suggestion the covenant would have forbidden women priests in every Anglican province and may yet delay women bishops in England. This shows remarkable ignorance of not only the covenant text but also of how these developments – in contrast to recent developments in relation to same-sex relationships - occurred precisely through the sort of corporate discernment processes now being explicitly articulated in the covenant (for a summary of the process see Colin Craston's article).

So, who wants an Anglican covenant? For some reason it is never acknowledged that the only province to sign up so far is Mexico, whose primate is a Patron of Inclusive Church (the other province close to signing is that well-known neo-Puritan African province, South Africa). He perhaps wants it for the same reasons many others have welcomed it.

The covenant will, for example, force the Church of England to stop thinking of itself simply as, in the words of the advertisement, ‘the mother church of the Communion’ whose actions are so important that on its own it can prevent developments such as the covenant.It will create a more egalitarian and post-colonial international fellowship of churches affirming not simply an English 'mother church' but a common inheritance of faith and shared vision of life together “in communion with autonomy and accountability” (3.1.2). That will then shape their commitments, including mutual accountability, to one another and to a pattern of life marked by such virtues as spending time "with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection, to listen, pray and study with one another in order to discern the will of God" (3.2.3).

Above all, the covenant will hopefully help refocus the Church of England and all covenanting churches on mission. That mission is not, as in the advert, defined by whether or not some outside the church are ‘put off by the Church’s apparent reluctance to change’. It is rather ‘God’s call to undertake evangelisation’ and ‘share in the healing and reconciling mission’ of God in Christ ‘"for our blessed but broken, hurting and fallen world"’ (2.2.1).

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