How and Why IC & MCU Mislead Us on the Anglican Covenant

Introduction and Executive Summary

In the church press on Friday 29th October, two Church of England groups, Inclusive Church (IC) and Modern Church (formerly, Modern Churchpeople’s Union, MCU), published a whole page advert headed ‘Who runs the Church?’. This explains why they believe the Anglican Covenant would be a change for the worse. Having offered an initial short critique of it, this offers a more detailed analysis of its claims. In the week leading to the Synod debate on the covenant and subsequent diocesan discussion, their seriously flawed case risks being given greater circulation and credibility through the wider international (though predominantly Western liberal) No Anglican Covenant Coalition and other publicity such as the recent similar leaflet sent to General Synod members.
The key questions that need to be answered in relation to the covenant are as follows and each section is hyperlinked here so it can be read on its own

These are explored in dialogue with the IC/MCU ad (which is extensively quoted below, appearing in italics) and its wider vision of the covenant to argue as follows:

(1)Where does the Anglican Covenant come from, who wants it and why?

This section shows that far from being kept quiet, as IC & MCU claim, the covenant has been subject to wide public consultation and revision over a period of five years and that the Church of England has been fully involved in this process. It is not the creation of conservative neo-Puritans in order to expel the Americans (more conservative evangelicals have actually opposed it) but is the work of a cross-section of Anglicans who have been advised from across the Communion and it has gained widespread support.
(2)What does the Anglican Covenant actually do?
The major error in IC & MCU’s analysis is to present the covenant as subordinating any signatory to a central body, something which is repeatedly denied in the covenant. As a result it makes false claims about what objectors can do and the limits they would put on a province’s own decision-making as well as ignoring the reality of our interconnectedness in the body of Christ with our without a covenant. The other claim that it would redefine Anglicanism is also false because it grants the covenant a foundational role which the covenant does not claim for itself and asserts that non-signing leads to removal from the Communion which the covenant never claims. In contrast to the image they present the covenant respects provincial autonomy but encourages and enables provinces to acknowledge their interdependence and what they share as Anglicans in terms of faith, order and mission, it enables deepening of communion through mutual commitments, and it provides a framework for handling potentially divisive issues together in a relational manner.
(3)What will happen if the Church of England signs the Anglican Covenant?
IC & MCU make eight claims about what will happen if the CofE signs and each of these is examined and shown to be seriously misleading or simply erroneous. There is no subordination to an international body and no reason to argue that the CofE would become more dogmatic. Rather than making us more inward-looking it encourages us to look beyond our shores and contains a balance of both backward-looking elements and also a recognition of the reality and need for faithful Spirit-led development. There is no granting of a right of interference in our own decision-making – here again the covenant’s provisions are seriously distorted – and thus no increase in centralisation (though there is a more co-ordinated form of consultation and common counsel) or clericalisation. The claim it would hinder mission is based on a limited understanding of mission and the mission field and ignores the centrality of mission within the covenant itself while the assertion it would hinder ecumenical relations is, like much else, an allegation made without any supporting evidence. The IC/MCU statement is largely scare-mongering which pays little or no attention to the text of the covenant itself.
(4)But isn’t the covenant disciplinary?
Although given only a passing mention, a large part of the IC/MCU objection seems to be based on the covenant as a form of discipline. It clearly calls on signatories to embrace a more disciplined form of life than in recent years and it also provides an agreed structure for handling disputes. While no decisions under the covenant are binding, by authorising the statement that actions are incompatible with the covenant and proposing relational consequences it has at potentially disciplinary element. What IC & MCU fail to do is to explain why they reject all forms of church discipline or why they believe this form is flawed. Instead they misrepresent the processes as juridical and punitive and fail to address how differences between churches may be better addressed.
(5)What if...?: Hypothetical futures and pasts
IC & MCU portray the covenant as something which would have stopped developments such as women’s ordination and may still impact CofE debates about women bishops. The former of these claims is based on a combination their misreading of the powers of other provinces and the Standing Committee and a failure to recognise processes similar to those found in the covenant were followed in relation to women’s ordination. The latter ignores the clear mind of the Communion that the consecration of women as bishops is acceptable within the Communion. Looking ahead they argue the CofE, as one of the first provinces considering the final covenant, should take advantage of this and its historic dominance of the Communion to repudiate its consistent support of a covenant to destroy it.
(6)Conclusion: What vision and future for Anglicanism should we embrace?
This final section highlights the failure of IC/MCU not just to offer a strong argument against the covenant but also to propose any clear alternative. Although presenting themselves as faithful to classic Anglican theology they have failed to see how the covenant seeks to embrace and be inclusive of the range of traditions within Anglicanism – evangelical, catholic and liberal – and gives a proper place to Scripture, tradition and reason. Instead the covenant is falsely portrayed by them as an extreme form of the evangelical and catholic components in Anglicanism. However, the stance they take shows that they are in fact pushing the liberal strand to an extreme and far from being the authentic voice of Anglicanism are refusing to live with the tensions inherent in Anglicanism and seeking to remake the Communion in their own Western liberal image.
(1)Where does the Anglican Covenant come from, who wants it and why?
Whatever the problems with most of their answers, at least the questions raised by MCU & IC are generally good questions, with one notable exception – their third question. This asks why the covenant has ‘been kept so quiet’, suggesting that those developing the covenant have intentionally been secretive, presumably because they have something to hide. To this implicit charge of subterfuge there is added the charge of duplicity and deception. It is claimed that it was presented as a means of disciplining North Americans and ‘in other parts of the world it is still being presented like this; but where opposition is likely, it is now being presented as a minor bureaucratic reform – to persuade the provinces to sign it. Once the signing is done we expect the gloves to come off again’. There is no evidence offered for any of these claims which are not only false but border on paranoia.
(a)Where has the covenant come from?
As the Anglican Communion Office website makes clear, it is ludicrous in the extreme to suggest that the covenant has ‘been kept so quiet’. It was, as IC and MCU acknowledged elsewhere, a major recommendation of the 2004 Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission, a body which was chaired by Archbishop Eames and brought together a wide and representative group of Anglicans from across the Communion. This was then developed in a consultation paper published in March 2006. To imply that it has been kept quiet is particularly disingenuous given that both MCU and IC were among the first few bodies which responded to that consultation paper over four years ago (MCU registering its opposition which it has maintained and IC being more ambivalent at that stage). Each of the three full drafts (Nassau from 2007, St Andrew’s from 2008 and Ridley from 2009) has been subject to widespread consultation and revision, with both MCU and IC again participating in this process and responses from provinces and other interested parties being posted on the ACO website. It was discussed widely at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, with the Archbishop of Canterbury particularly highlighting its significance for the Communion’s future, and also discussed at ACC in 2009. The whole process has also been the subject of a major academic study by Norman Doe – An Anglican Covenant: Theological and Legal Considerations for a Global Debate (DLT, 2008) – and a collection of papers from Affirming Catholicism edited by Mark Chapman – The Anglican Covenant (T&T Clark, 2008).
This has not simply been happening at an international level. The Church of England as a whole has also played a major role through not just the House of Bishops and its Faith and Order bodies (which have submitted a number of responses to the drafts – to Nassau, to St Andrew’s, and to section 4 of the Ridley draft) but through General Synod. This history is helpfully summarized in the briefing paper for the forthcoming Synod debate (GS Misc 966, paras 6-11) and summed up by the Archbishops in their foreword where they write that“The House [of Bishops] noted that the General Synod had had five opportunities to discuss governance issues in the Communion and the possibility of a Covenant since the publication of the Windsor report in October 2004. It also noted that successive drafts of the Covenant had taken account of substantial comments submitted on behalf of the Church of England”.
In contrast to the recent changes to the ACC Constitution (concerns about which are outlined herehere and here) which received much less publicity and scrutiny (even being acted on by the Standing Committee when they were not yet in force and when the ACO were unwilling to post the new constitution publicly on the website), the openness and consultation process in relation to the covenant have been exemplary.
The covenant therefore comes from a lengthy, open, conciliar, consultative process over a long period. If anyone seriously believes that the covenant has been kept quiet then they have obviously had no interest in the life of the Communion over the last six years. If they want to understand what is being proposed and to contribute intelligently to the discussion in the Church of England then they will need to pay much more attention.
(b)Who wants the covenant and why?
Turning to who has wanted the covenant, the second question in the ad, IC & MCU have a very definite and highly implausible spin on this history. Noting that ‘it was first proposed by the Windsor Report in 2004’ it is claimed that it was proposed in order ‘to put pressure on the North American churches’. The only justification for this is the claim that ‘Opponents had no legal way to expel the North Americans, so the Covenant is designed to achieve the same result by redefining the Anglican Communion to exclude them’.
In fact, the Windsor Report’s stated aim was that a covenant ‘would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion’ (para 118). It was proposed in conjunction with a project concerning canon law in a wide-ranging section (Section C) of the report that sought to examine the Communion’s future life together in the light of recent difficulties. This section and set of proposals built on earlier work such as The Virginia Report and was distinct from the section (Section D) which more directly addressed the specific actions of the North American churches. The covenant, from its conception, was never simply a narrow, backward-looking and limited response to the problems of recent years but a broad, forward-looking, general framework for structuring our life together that will assist when other future problems (perhaps, for example, over lay presidency) arise.
There are therefore two major problems with the IC/MCU claim: the Windsor Report was not seeking ‘to expel the North Americans’ and, as will become clear, the covenant itself does not – despite IC/MCU’s repeated assertions - redefine the Anglican Communion to exclude the Americans.
At the end of their advertisement, IC/MCU return to the question of who is supporting the covenant and why. They focus on what they label ‘neo-Puritanism’ as the driving force: ‘The Covenant offers a neo-Puritan method’. This is a surprising claim for a covenant with the following pedigree:
  • initially proposed by Norman Doe,
  • recommended in a report unanimously supported by a diverse Commission (though without any obvious neo-Puritans) chaired by Archbishop Eames,
  • drafted by a group chaired by Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies
  • finalized under the chairmanship of Archbishop John Neil of Ireland
  • consistently supported by Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Prima facie, given the theological traditions represented here,it is unlikely to owe much to neo-Puritanism, but it is always possible that this claim is valid.
In defence of the claim it is argued that ‘Behind the campaign for an Anglican Covenant lies an attempt to re-establish a Puritan dogmatism. Reformation Puritans believed Christians should submit to the supreme authority of the Bible and therefore agree with each other on all matters of doctrine and ethics. Refusing to allow reason a role, their disagreements have often led each side to accuse the other of not being true Christians. This is why parts of Protestantism have a history of repeated schisms. Their successors today support the Covenant because they see disagreements within the Church as a threat’. This is not the place to challenge this rather crude caricature of Reformation Puritans. Even were the historical analysis to be accepted and no further questions asked about why and how so many who are so far from Reformed Puritanism have welcomed the covenant – is it really all explicable on the grounds that ‘some other Anglicans support them in the mistaken hope that this will avoid schism’? - the argument faces another major hurdle. Possibly the best Anglican representatives of what IC and MCU see as ‘neo-Puritanism’, the Australian Church Record and Anglican Church League in the Diocese of Sydney, were among the strongest and earliest critics of the covenant in The Faith Once For All DeliveredThinking Anglicans back in July 2007 – “Is the Anglican covenant a good idea? It appears that Church Society doesn’t think so. Read Is an Anglican Covenant a good idea? and then also read General Synod The Anglican Covenant”. describing it as ‘almost certainly unworkable’ (p5) and ‘a cul de sac’ (p59), part of ‘human ‘quasi-legal’ structures’ to which we are surrendering rather than to Scripture (p26), and something which ‘should be resisted at all costs’ (p39). Here in the Church of England the nearest similar body would be Church Society which has not exactly been a major supporter of the covenant – as Simon Sarmiento (a supporter of the coalition against the covenant) wrote on
In short, the neo-Puritans have shown themselves not to be the dangerous dogmatists behind the covenant but potential allies of IC and MCU in opposing it!
The neo-Puritan method is then defined as one where ‘when disagreements arise they aim to resolve them as quickly as possible, by means of a pronouncement from the leadership decreeing what all members are to believe and forbidding dissent’. It is perhaps because of the elements of truth in this depiction of some conservative stances that “neo-Puritans” have not in fact been fully behind the covenant which, far from enforcing such a mindset, asks for a commitment ‘to spend 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) and ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches’ (3.2.4).
Who then wants a covenant? Through the process of its formation it has been supported by all the Instruments of the Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasizing its importance on a number of occasions, including in his first Presidential address at Lambeth 2008
It’s my conviction that the option to which we are being led is one whose keywords are of council and covenant. It is the vision of an Anglicanism whose diversity is limited not by centralised control but by consent – consent based on a serious common assessment of the implications of local change. How do we genuinely think together about diverse local challenges? If we can find ways of answering this, we shall have discovered an Anglicanism in which prayerful consultation is routine and accepted and understood as part of what is entailed in belonging to a fellowship that is more than local. The entire Church is present in every local church assembled around the Lord’s table. Yet the local church alone is never the entire Church. We are called to see this not as a circle to be squared but as an invitation to be more and more lovingly engaged with each other.
The questionnaire at Lambeth on the (subsequently amended) St Andrew’s draft showed that 75% of English bishops were very or reasonably content with the concept of the covenant and its attempt to express a firm foundation for our common life. As noted above, the Church of England through not just the House of Bishops and its Faith and Order bodies but through General Synod has also consistently signaled that it ‘wants an Anglican covenant’ as helpfully summarized in the briefing paper for the forthcoming Synod debate (GS Misc 966, paras 6-11).
Although consideration of the final text is only just beginning around the Communion, so far the two provinces most advanced in accepting it are Mexico (which has adopted it) and South Africa (which has done so in principle). Like the individuals involved in its formation, neither of these provinces are noted as being neo-Puritan or wishing to redefine the Anglican Communion to exclude North American churches.
Although exactly who is supporting the covenant will only become clear as it is more widely considered, it is already clear who is at the forefront of opposing it: those who have misunderstood and/or misrepresented it and those who are committed not just to the actions taken by the North American churches but the way in which they have been taken. There is a logic here - the unilateral and recently duplicitous way in which these actions have been taken is not a faithful enactment of the commitments and vision of life together being proposed in the covenant. However, it would be wrong to determine one’s response to the covenant simply on the basis of one’s views on sexuality. The covenant does not explicitly and indisputably rule out developments in relation to Anglican teaching and practice on sexuality and hence it has been criticized by many of those whom IC/MCU present as wanting it. What it does do is seek agreement on affirmations and commitments which would mean any such developments, and other significant developments in shared Anglican doctrine or practice, would happen in a different manner from that pursued by TEC and certain dioceses in Canada.
That recognition leads into the second important question which needs to be considered
(2)What does the Anglican Covenant actually do?
The fundamental and fatal flaw in the case put by IC/MCU is their total misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the covenant’s content and purpose. This is evident at both the level of the over-arching big question they ask and try to answer and their more specific response to the question ‘What would the Anglican Covenant do?
In considering what is at stake in debates about the Anglican covenant the heading of the IC/MCU advert implies that the primary issue to be addressed in the covenant is that of power and authority – Who runs the Church? Although ‘the Church’ is never defined, the implication is that it is the Church of England. This question and the answer given to it is the first and most significant flaw in the argument. This error runs through their case from beginning to end and undermines almost everything else that is said.
The simple fact is that the covenant makes absolutely no change whatsoever to who runs the Church of England. Indeed, it explicitly states, that in agreeing to the covenant
mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. 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).
What the covenant does is to establish and articulate how in running itself the Church of England (1) recognises it is not in fact ‘the Church’ but part of a communion or fellowship of churches within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and (2) considers the impact of its decisions on that communion and its relationship to other ecclesial bodies.
The central IC/MCU criticism was, I believe, never valid in relation to any of the Covenant Design Group (CDG) drafts. At no point was it proposed that covenant churches were handing over ultimate control or direction to anyone in any area of their own internal life. However, it reflects a concern that was raised in relation to earlier drafts. The final version therefore takes great care to emphasise that changing ‘who runs the church’ is neither the intention nor the effect of signing the covenant. The words of the commentary on the Ridley Draft (which is the basis for the final text) merit quoting at length
It is clear that one of the main fears attached to the idea of a Covenant is that it would limit Provincial autonomy. In the responses, this fear worked itself out in two directions. In the first place, there was substantial resistance to the idea that there should be any development of a body which could be seen to be exercising universal jurisdiction in Anglican polity. Anglicans wished to keep the autonomy of their Churches. Secondly, it became clear that the processes of adoption of the Covenant would be immensely complicated if the Covenant were seen to interfere with or to necessitate a change to the Constitution and Canons of any Province. The surrender of any legislative autonomy would in itself prove a stumbling block to the implementation of Covenant.
Section Four of the RCD is therefore constructed on the fundamental principle of the constitutional autonomy of each Church. The Covenant of itself cannot amend or override the Constitution and Canons of any Province. The Instruments of Communion cannot intervene in any jurisdictional way in the internal life of any of the Anglican Churches. The Covenant can only speak to the relationship between the Churches, and of the relational consequences of internal autonomous actions by a Church.
The draft text of Section Four therefore explicitly reaffirms that the Covenant and the Instruments of Communion of themselves do not impose or have any jurisdiction or authority to alter the internal governance of any Church of the Communion. Such a limitation on the Covenant undertakings is repeated in the latter parts of 4.1.1, 4.1.3 and 4.1.4. The Covenant is not intended to alter the Constitution and Canons of any of the Churches; it does not give any power to any Communion body to intervene in a Church's life.
Unsurprisingly, given the overarching perspective is flawed, the two-fold answer to the first question of the ad - ‘What would the Anglican Covenant do?’ – is also wrong. It is claimed of the covenant that
(a) ‘It would enable objectors to forbid new developments’
(b)‘It would redefine Anglicanism’
(a) What can objectors do?
The claim that the covenant ‘would enable objectors to forbid new developments’ simply has no basis in fact. The allegation is that any of the 38 provinces who sign it ‘undertakes not to introduce any new development if another Anglican province anywhere in the world opposes it – unless granted prior permission from a new international body, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion’. This is simply and totally false. There are numerous commitments made in the covenant but none remotely amounting to anything like giving another province a veto or requiring permission from the Standing Committee. That is perhaps why absolutely no evidence is ever given for this central claim and recurring theme.
It would have been quite possible to write a covenant in which signatories accepted in advance that some institutional body would be an effective final court of appeal. It would then have a final determinative say in such situations that would be binding on, and so could over-turn, the decisions of any province. In contrast, a province is free to continue to do as it wishes. Even when the Standing Committee requests it to defer a proposed action – an unlikely request for it to make if only one province opposes the action - it can decline that request (4.2.5). If the Standing Committee then declares the action incompatible with the covenant (4.2.6) and recommends relational consequences between covenant churches it is explicitly stated that ‘Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations’ (4.2.7).
The Church of England if it signs the covenant is therefore still legally and constitutionally free to introduce any development it wishes. It not only requires no ‘prior permission’ but it can ignore subsequent decisions and recommendations and proceed with developments if it so determines.
Of course, in reality, these new processes may lead a province to be more cautious about proceeding. However, that is not what IC and MCU are claiming here. Furthermore, as we know too well, even without the covenant, controversial actions by one province can lead to objections and relational consequences in relation to other provinces. This arises because of a range of factors, notably the realities of our global communication system and the very nature of being the body of Christ (‘Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body’, 1 Cor 12.15). The covenant simply seeks to give an agreed structure by which such controversies may be weighed and considered corporately within the life of the Communion so that ‘relational consequences’ do not lead to total chaos and anarchy.
It is worth here adding a note on The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. The claim that the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion is ‘a new international body’ is presented as if the covenant has created some sort of international Supreme Court without whose say-so no province can proceed in any matter which any other province opposes. Significant questions remain about the role of this body – indeed it no longer strictly exists (if it ever did) as the last meeting of the body that took that name decided to rename itself as simply ‘the Standing Committee’. However, it is in personnel exactly the same body as the ‘Joint Standing Committee’ (JSC) which has existed for many years. In addition, its track record and current composition (influenced in part by many recent resignations from Global South members) would suggest that – contrary to the impression given by IC and MCU - it will not be likely to rush to judge actions incompatible with the covenant or to propose radical relational consequences. So, for example, when they met in December 2009, shortly after the nomination of Mary Glasspool, a resolution was put to the Standing Committee (this, of course, before the covenant text had any force) ‘That in view of the recent actions of the 76th General Convention, particularly Resolutions DO25 and CO56, representatives of TEC should be invited to withdraw from all Anglican Councils until ACC-15. This [time] would give both TEC and the AC a temporary safe distance for discernment in regard to the issues that currently threaten the unity of the Anglican Communion’. This was lost by 8 votes against and only 2 for. Of course, committees cannot be guaranteed to act in the future as they have in the past but even were it to act out of character and take a stronger stance, the Church of England and every other church which has signed the covenant can ‘carry on regardless’ in relation to their own internal life even if the Instruments accept the Standing Committee’s judgments and ‘specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument’ (4.2.5).
(b) Is Anglicanism redefined?
Given the first claim bears no relation to reality, it is not surprising that the second claim – that the Anglican Covenant ‘would redefine Anglicanism’ – is built on sand.
The first argument made is that “The Covenant would become ‘foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion’”. This quotation is taken from 4.1.2 of the covenant text and strictly refers not to the covenant as such:
In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches.
What is foundational is therefore not the covenant per se which is clearly a novelty. It is the elements of ‘faith, mission and interdependence of life’ as stated in sections 1-3 which are said to be foundational. Far from being a novelty these are what each church recognizes as ‘consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them’.
The question therefore is whether or not sections 1-3 dealing with faith, mission and interdependence is, in fact, faithful to what the Church of England already lives and has received. That is a vital question to consider about the covenant but about which MCU and IC remain silent - are they committed to those elements of classical Anglican faith and practice to which the Covenant refers?
The second claim is that “signatories would agree that ‘recognition of, and fidelity to, the text of this Covenant, enables mutual recognition and communion’”, here a quotation from 4.2.1. Three false conclusions are drawn from this as it is asserted that ‘this means that
  • ‘non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion’
  • ‘the effect is to withdraw recognition and communion from non-signatories’
  • the Anglican Communion would cease to consist of the 38 provinces and instead consist of the new international structure, to which the provinces will only belong if they sign the Covenant’.
The fact that X (covenant faithfulness) enables Y (mutual recognition and communion) does not mean that Y does not exist without X. It simply means that, without X, Y does not exist at as full or as deep a level. This is not a surprising claim for the covenant to make. It would be hard for anyone to argue that recognizing and being faithful to the covenant affirmations and commitments somehow disables ‘mutual recognition and communion’ between those who sign it.
The question of the implications of being a non-signatory is quite simply not addressed in the covenant and has not been determined or even widely discussed. In one sense the question of the implications of being a non-signatory cannot be answered at this stage. The effect on Communion membership of not signing cannot be considered until it becomes clear whether or not the vision of the covenant is a vision embraced widely among the existing provinces asked to sign it. As a result, the question of implications should not, indeed as an unknown it strictly cannot, determine the answer we give at this stage.
Some current provinces (perhaps one or two, perhaps a dozen or two) may not join. However, nothing in the covenant says what IC and MCU claim - that ‘non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion’. Even less does it mean that covenant signatories have to ‘withdraw recognition and communion’ from those that do not sign. We are, after all, already in communion with a variety of bodies who are not expected at any stage to sign the covenant and each church is, as noted earlier, free to act as it believes best including as regards relationships of communion (eg 4.2.7)
At least three pieces of evidence suggest that the covenant very intentionally does not wish to imply or determine that ‘non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion’.
First, the statement that ‘Adoption of this Covenant does not confer any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion, which shall be decided by those Instruments themselves’ (4.1.5) and the fact that ‘Every Church of the Anglican Communion’ is defined as ‘in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council’ (4.1.4) imply that in the self-understanding of the covenant, signing or not signing the covenant in and of itself has no automatic consequences for being part of the Communion.
Second, in the commentary on the Ridley draft covenant, the Covenant Design Group (CDG) simply noted that,
there is a potential problem as the life of covenanting Churches develops, as more Churches adopt the Covenant. There may be members of the Instruments of Communion who represent a Church that has not adopted the Covenant, and there would be an increasingly anomalous situation as the Covenant becomes active and forceful in the life of the Churches which have adopted it. A short clause (4.2.7) limits participation in the arbitration processes of the Covenant to representatives of Churches who have either adopted or who are in the process of adopting the Covenant, but there will in time be a question of how both covenanting and non-covenanting Churches participate together in the life of the Instruments of Communion. At the moment, the Covenant text provides that these matters are uncoupled (see 4.1.5 and 4.3.1), but the CDG note that such matters may become the subject of agreed conventions alongside the Covenant.
Third, the Church of England proposed as a revision to section 4 that rather than leaving “such matters” as the implication of non-signing on Communion membership open-ended, the covenant should include the following:
(4.3.1) Ten years after the first church has signed the Covenant the covenanting members of the Joint Standing Committee shall make a report with recommendations regarding the integration of the Covenant with the life of the Communion as a whole. This report will be shared with the full JSC and the Instruments. The Joint Standing Committee shall then make recommendations as to relational consequences to the covenanting churches and to the Instruments of the Communion of the decision, active or de facto, by a church of the Communion not to become a covenant member. These recommendations shall address the extent to which such a decision damages the communion between that church and the other churches of the Communion. It may recommend whether such action or decision should have a consequence for participation in the life of the Communion and its Instruments. Each covenanting church and each Instrument commits itself to receive and determine its own response to such recommendations.
In failing to follow this suggestion, far from excluding non-signatories from the Communion, the covenant clearly intends to leave the response to such a situation, should it arise, an open question to be determined at a later date by the Communion.
What is perhaps even more illuminating is the fact that it is thought that if the covenant did mean ‘the Anglican Communion would cease to consist of the 38 provinces’ then ‘it would redefine Anglicanism’. Anglicanism, it seems, is defined not by the shared faith, mission and interdependence of life we have received and which is expressed in the covenant. In fact those are adiaphora, matters of indifference, open to revision and so it would be wrong to express our commitment to them. Anglicanism for MCU & IC appears to be essentially defined by the list of churches found at the end of the ACC constitution and to change that is to ‘redefine Anglicanism’.
So, if IC and MCU have misread and distorted the covenant, what would the Anglican covenant really do?
·It would encourage and enable all covenanting churches to recognise they are part of a wider fellowship of churches which in God’s providence have received a common inheritance of faith, a shared vocation in mission and a common life together.
·It provides a means by which they commit themselves to nurture and deepen these gifts through making covenantal commitments to each other.
·While each member church would continue to ‘run itself’ and remain legally free to ignore its sister churches, it would also recognise that it is not the sole possessor of the Spirit and that it is therefore committed to certain patterns of life and the cultivation of certain virtues in order to seek a common mind and maintain unity in the body of Christ.
·In signing the covenant it does not know which other churches it will find itself bound to in this way – that is in God’s hands - nor does it determine its relationship with churches that are unwilling to sign. Rather, therefore, than redefining Anglicanism it is recognising and affirming the vision of Anglican faith, order and mission which the covenant proposes.
(3)What will happen if the Church of England signs the Anglican Covenant?
This is, unsurprisingly, the heart of the IC/MCU case and probably the question of most interest in synodical debates. Given the poor foundations laid so far, it is not surprising the eight answers given all prove to be at best implausible and at worst incoherent and incorrect.
i)Will the Cof E ‘subordinate itself to an international body’?
Perhaps at least subconsciously aware that they have already disregarded the obvious meaning of the covenant, it is initially granted that ‘The Covenant text claims to affect only the relations provinces have with each other, so that they would be unaffected in their internal governance’. In fact, as already noted, this is a clear, carefully guarded and often repeated limit within the covenant. The authors then quickly move on from this reality as they must because it undermines not just this first stated outcome but the whole basis of their campaign. They claim that ‘However the intended effect, as often expressed in international discussions, would be to subordinate the Church to the judgements of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.’ Once again no evidence is offered for this and once again that is because there is no evidence to offer in support of what it is claimed has ‘often’ been expressed. Given the clear disavowals of the covenant text itself, noted and quoted above, any who hope it will achieve this end are going to be bitterly disappointed.
Similarly, there is no evidence provided - because there is none in existence - to substantiate the claim that the covenant ‘would thereby make the Church of England subject to an outside power for the first time since Henry VIII. This would create serious conflict with its role as the established church’.
ii)Will the CofE ‘become more dogmatic’?
Having sought to object to the covenant because of the alleged threat to our national sovereignty and position as an established church, the authors suddenly change tack and criticise it for undermining our catholicity: ‘Until now Anglicanism has prided itself on being ‘catholic’ in the original sense of expressing universal Christianity, not a sect with its own distinct doctrines’. This fails to recognise that part of the covenant’s aim is precisely to uphold the Communion’s catholicity - by giving expression to its commitment to ‘universal Christianity’ (particularly in section 1) - and to prevent it, or churches within it, becoming ‘a sect with its own distinct doctrines’. This explains why one commitment is ‘to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern, in a way consistent with the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches’ (3.2.4). It also explains why it has a particular concern with the need ‘to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission’ (3.2.5). It is hard to see why such controversial actions – which IC and MCU seem to believe should not be constrained in any way – are a means of ‘expressing universal Christianity’ whereas commitments to ‘seek a shared mind’ make a church into ‘a sect with its own distinct doctrines’.
The feared dynamic is then expressed in the following terms: ‘every time the Standing Committee upholds an objection it will thereby establish a new ruling, another doctrine Anglicans are expected to believe. Over time Anglicanism will become less inclusive and more dogmatic’. It is hard to know where to start with this. There is again the exaggerated and distorted role we have already noted this gives to the Standing Committee – it can do no more than recommend and propose to the Instruments and covenant churches. Then there are also all sorts of other questions raised: What doctrines are the Standing Committee expected to promulgate in addition to those outlined in section 1? Why does ‘a new ruling’ entail becoming ‘less inclusive and more dogmatic’? Would, for example, a decision that a province accepting lay presidency or abandoning infant baptism was acting in a manner incompatible with the covenant fall into these categories?
The argument also fails to give due weight to the other side of the coin which is more likely to favour the outlook of IC & MCU and is at least as likely given the history of reticence shown by the (Joint) Standing Committee in the past. It must be recognized that each time the Standing Committee dismisses an objection it will also have an impact and this may well make Anglicanism what IC & MCU would see as less dogmatic and more inclusive. This is, of course, what happened through the ACC in relation to women’s ordination when ACC-1 passed (by a very narrow margin) the resolution that
In reply to the request of the Council of the Church of South-East Asia, this Council advises the Bishop of Hong Kong, acting with the approval of his Synod, and any other bishop of the Anglican Communion acting with the approval of his Province, that, if he decides to ordain women to the priesthood, his action will be acceptable to this Council; and that this Council will use its good offices to encourage all Provinces of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with these dioceses (ACC-1, resolution 28b)
So, to take the obvious example, how would they describe the situation if the Standing Committee were to judge that, despite the protests of certain provinces, a church’s development of a same-sex blessing liturgy was not incompatible with the covenant and so should have no relational consequences and that the covenanting churches should therefore continue, in line with their covenant commitments to ‘nurture and sustain eucharistic communion’ (1.2.7)?
Just in case readers were not scared enough by this international body making the Church of England more dogmatic, it is then claimed on the basis of the false statements already made that ‘This would affect parishes too. As each new ruling becomes the Anglican position clergy who disagree, or simply prefer a more open-minded approach, will come under greater pressure to avoid telling their congregations what they really think for fear of reprisals’. Here there is both a rather distorted perception of the role of the clergy – is it simply to ‘tell their congregations what they really think’? – and a predicted future that is disturbing not so much for what it describes but for what it reveals about the fantasies and fears being projected onto and read into the covenant text.

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