The Anglican Communion Covenant and the Church of England: Ramifications

The Anglican Communion Covenant and the Church of England: Ramifications

by Andrew Goddard

It is now clear that less than half the dioceses of the Church of England will agree, in both their house of clergy and house of laity, to “approve the draft Act of Synod adopting the Anglican Communion Covenant”. This article attempts to map out some of the ramifications of this development.

Executive Summary

  • The Church of England cannot reconsider the covenant until 2015.
  • Although diocesan votes are quite strongly against, actual votes cast remain marginally for the covenant and English supporters need to continue advocating for the covenant and its vision.
  • The covenant will continue to be considered around the Communion – eight provinces have embraced it and ACC in November will take stock but cannot end the process. Other provinces should be encouraged to adopt the covenant despite the English decision.
  • The Church of England remains a full member of the Communion.
  • Although the CofE’s representatives cannot now participate in decision-making about the covenant within the Instruments of Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as an Instrument rather than a provincial representative, may be able to do so.
  • There continue to be 3 visions of communion within the Communion – (1) the covenant vision of autonomy and interdependence with accountability, (2) the confessional GAFCON vision and (3) the TEC autonomy-as-independence vision. Only the first vision is likely to get the support of most provinces as, though different, it is compatible with the second but not the third vision.
  • The Communion now must choose between two main paths of significant reconfiguration – (A) A covenant-focussed Communion but with the Church of England outside the covenant, (B) A looser, more incoherent Communion with various networks within or possibly separate from it.
  • Archbishop Rowan’s via media approach of holding the Communion together by enabling conversation within the framework of upholding the Windsor Report, Lambeth I.10 and the covenant now needs major restructuring if it is to survive.
  • Neither the Communion nor the Church of England can remain unchanged by this development which makes it harder for Anglicanism’s distinctive historic tradition and global communion of churches to “survive with all its aspects intact”.

Can the Church of England still adopt the Anglican Communion Covenant?

Even if more people in the dioceses ultimately vote for the covenant than against it (the votes so far show a church divided almost 50:50 but the pattern has been marginally more votes in favour) and most members of General Synod would wish to vote for it, under Article 8 of its Constitution, General Synod is unable to approve the proposed Act of Synod. This is because over half the dioceses – now 23 in total – have voted against with only 15 in favour and another 6 to vote.

It is also the case that General Synod cannot reconsider the Act during this Synod. It would be open to the new Synod, elected in 2015, to again request the dioceses to approve a draft Act of Synod adopting the covenant or consider an alternative way of the Church of England adopting it. However, unless there are significant changes in the text of the covenant or strong evidence of a serious change of mind within the wider church (perhaps if most provinces do adopt it and we are a small minority refusing), both of these paths would appear unwise.

The Archbishop of Canterbury will therefore have to report to the Anglican Consultative Council in November that the Church of England has declined to adopt the Covenant and it is highly unlikely this will have changed by Lambeth 2018. Although other churches may also report such decisions in November, the Church of England is the first province of the Communion formally to reject the invitation to make the covenant’s affirmations and commitments to other provinces by adopting it through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons (4.1.6). [Although opponents of the covenant claim the Philippines has rejected it, strictly all that has happened is that its Council of Bishops have issued a statement opposing it. While continued opposition from bishops would obviously lead to provincial rejection, most opponents of the covenant would normally protest at bishops preventing clergy and laity being involved and it appears that wider synodical deliberation is still to occur in the Philippines and no final decision been reached].

Can covenant supporters in the Church of England continue to support the covenant?

The covenant is currently adopted by provinces (not individuals or sub-provincial synods) according to their own Constitution and Canons. As explained above, the Church of England, has rejected the proposal it adopt it as a province. There is, however, nothing to stop those in the Church of England – including its many bishops who have been strongly supportive of it – from continuing to advocate the covenant and seeking to educate and persuade people of its merits. They can continue publicly expressing their support for its vision, explicitly promising to uphold its affirmations and live out its commitments within their own ministries. As Archbishop Rowan said in commending the covenant in December 2009, “it's open to anybody that wishes to affirm the principles of the Covenant - to say that this is what they wish to live with”.

Does the Church of England’s decision bring an end to the Anglican Communion Covenant?

Those who have opposed the Church of England adopting the covenant clearly hope this will be the consequence. In the Inclusive Church/Modern Church Union advert “Who Runs the Church?” which opened their anti-covenant campaign, they said – “Because the Church of England is the mother church of the Communion, if England declines to sign it will probably not come into effect. This would be the best possible outcome”. This attempt to encourage England to reassert imperial control over the rest of the Communion is, however, unlikely to succeed.

Already over half a dozen of the Communion’s provinces (Mexico, Ireland, South East Asia, Southern Cone, Papua New Guinea, The West Indies, Burma) have covenanted with each other in the terms of the covenant and South Africa has agreed subject to ratification at its next provincial Synod in 2013. The covenant is clear that “This Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons” (4.1.6). The only way the covenant could therefore cease to exist would be for all those provinces who have adopted it to withdraw from it.

As the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion has said – “In December 2009, as requested by the Standing Committee, I sent the text of The Anglican Communion Covenant to all the Member Churches of the Anglican Communion asking that they consider it for adoption according to their own internal procedures....What next steps are taken by the Church of England is up to that Province. Consideration of the Covenant continues across the Anglican Communion and this was always expected to be a lengthy process”.

What will happen at the Anglican Consultative Council?

At ACC, now nine months away (Nov 2012), the provinces will report “on the progress made in the process of response to, and adoption of, the Covenant”. A significant number of provinces will likely still be in the process of responding.

The ACC has no power to bring those provincial processes it requested to an end and would need to think very carefully before seeking to discourage them from continuing their processes, especially when it appears a majority of those who have completed the process will have adopted the covenant.

Although ACC or the Archbishop of Canterbury could propose amendments it is unclear what good this would do and it would further complicate the process. The amendments would need to be approved by three-quarters of the existing signatories before taking effect. Provinces still in the process of adopting would be left to decide between either adopting a covenant text undergoing amendment or stalling adoption until it was clear whether or not the amendments were accepted (a process likely to take a number of years).

Does the Church of England’s decision change its position in the Instruments of Communion?

The decision not to adopt the covenant does not alter the Church of England’s position in the Instruments of Communion – the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Lambeth Conference – or the eligibility to stand for the Standing Committee.

However, the covenant is clear that “Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption” (4.2.8). The Church of England is no longer “in the process of adoption” and so its representatives cannot participate in the oversight of the covenant. Also, as a non-covenanting Church it cannot propose or vote on amendments to the covenant (4.4.2), although, paradoxically, its representatives in the Instruments would appear to be able to participate in discussion of amendments proposed by an Instrument.

Is the Archbishop of Canterbury excluded from decision-making in relation to the covenant?

An initial reading of the covenant would suggest such exclusion from decision-making about the covenant is likely but the situation remains unclear. He can, it seems, as an Instrument and within the Instruments, propose an amendment under 4.4.2 as 4.2.8 only places limits in relation to section 4.2 not section 4.4

It is not, however, clear whether that section 4.2.8 excludes him from the decision making of the Standing Committee or the Instruments in respect to the controversial section 4.2 on “The Maintenance of the Covenant and Dispute Resolution”. Given his province has not adopted the Covenant and is not “still in the process of adoption” it could be argued that he cannot participate. However, a good case could be made that, uniquely, he does not participate in the Standing Committee or the Instruments as a representative of the Church of England. He is one of the Instruments in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. In that office he also gathers the Primates and in recent meetings has quite explicitly not acted as a representative of the Church of England – that has been the role of the Archbishop of York. He Presides over the Anglican Consultative Council and is not one of the Church of England’s three elected representatives. He is not invited to the Lambeth Conference as a representative of his province but invites all the other bishops to attend. A case could, therefore, be made that although all other English members of the Standing Committee (for example, its current Vice-Chair) or Instruments cannot now participate in the decision-making relating to the covenant’s maintenance and dispute resolution, the Archbishop of Canterbury can participate.

How does this impact the likely future shape and direction of the Anglican Communion?

There have been, broadly, three competing visions of the Anglican Communion in recent years. First, there is the vision of autonomy and interdependence with accountability. This developed out of the Communion’s historic pattern of life together and has been articulated in the Virginia Report, the Windsor Report and the Anglican Communion Covenant. This is the vision which the Church of England, through its diocesan synods, has rejected. It may, however, still prove to be the vision embraced by the Anglican Communion as a whole. If a significant number of Anglican provinces, particularly from the Global South, do adopt the covenant then it and its vision will still become central to the future life of the Communion even without the Church of England and perhaps some other, mainly “northern” provinces.

Second, there is the more confessional vision represented by the Jerusalem Declaration and GAFCON. Although the GAFCON primates have spoken against the covenant, one GAFCON province – the Southern Cone – has already adopted it and others are in the process of considering it. If the covenant is rejected by major liberal northern provinces, then the more conservative GAFCON provinces may conclude that their fears are unfounded that the covenant’s oversight would be not dominated by them and render it ineffectual. Rather, if supported, it provides the means of reforming the Communion. Alternatively, they may seek to persuade provinces that the Jerusalem Declaration now offers the best or only way to give expression to orthodox Anglicanism.

Third, there is the autonomy-as-independence vision which drives the Episcopal Church and to a lesser degree parts of the Canadian church. This also lay behind the anti-covenant campaign that has now triumphed in England and so this vision may increase its influence here. This vision is unlikely to be able to win the support of most Anglican provinces but the question is whether those who advocate it, because of their historic power and disproportionate influence in Communion structures, will be allowed to wreck the covenant just as they have successfully ignored the moratoria. If so, they will prevent a shared vision of what it means to be a communion of churches taking shape and so potentially secure their much looser vision by default, though perhaps driving more provinces into the GAFCON vision as a result and causing the divisions evident in North America to appear elsewhere, including England.

In short, a major reconfiguration of the Anglican Communion now appears inevitable in broadly one of these forms:

PATH A - A Communion focussed on the covenant and comprising most Anglicans but with the Church of England and any other future non-adopters no longer at its heart.

PATH B – A looser, more incoherent Communion (which would be more of a Federation or Association) with no shared understanding of its common life and thus an increasingly dysfunctional set of Instruments. Either within this - or perhaps increasingly separated from this - there may be one or more networks seeking deeper communion and developing out of bodies such as GAFCON, the Global South, CAPA etc.

Two developments would help the Communion avoid path B which risks being the default, “do nothing” outcome. First, a significant number of provinces should adopt the covenant. Second, the Instruments should – particularly if faced with further disregard of the moratoria (TEC’s General Convention this summer will likely authorise rites for same-sex unions including same-sex marriages where these are legal and may be asked to confirm a priest in a same-sex marriage as Gene Robinson’s successor in New Hampshire) – seek to exercise the authority they already have over the ordering of their own affairs which the covenant provides with formal structure and processes. They have been reluctant to use this authority but, as a result, the Instruments have not been able to function as they should.

What is to be the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Communion?

The rejection of the covenant by the Archbishop’s own province and the continued disregard for the moratoria in North America creates a new and very serious situation. It means that the Anglican via media advocated by Rowan Williams – creating a framework to enable conversation and communion within agreed boundaries almost universally accepted across the Communion - looks like it has become a cul-de-sac.

The "holding together and keep talking while upholding Windsor and I.10 and covenant" approach that Archbishop Rowan fought so hard for is in need of major restructuring if it is to survive now that the covenant has been defeated in the Church of England. He, in his final months in office, or his successor on taking office, need to find a way forward given key elements of this vision of the Communion have been rejected by the Church of England.

If path A is followed then the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a focus of unity and linchpin of the other Instruments becomes increasingly difficult. Pressure will likely grow either for the leadership of the Communion to be moved away from the Primate of All England or for the new Archbishop to persuade the Church of England urgently to reconsider its rejection of the covenant.

Pressure on the Archbishop to either lead or acquiesce in a move towards path B could well increase within the Church of England. This could arise as a result of reviews on civil partnerships in 2012 and sexuality more widely in 2013 and the increasing lobbying, following their victory over the covenant, of those who hope the Church of England will follow a more TEC-sympathetic “inclusive” and “autonomy” vision of the Communion.


In 2006, in one of his many statements supporting the covenant and reflecting on the challenge and hope of being an Anglican, Archbishop Rowan warned “that lines of division run within local Churches as well as between them”. Although the impression is of a solid rejection of the covenant, in reality the votes cast in the Church of England dioceses on the covenant show us to be split down the middle on whether the Church of England should adopt the covenant and its vision of life in communion.

He continued to say “There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment” and warned

We do have a distinctive historic tradition - a reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine, a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly. But for this to survive with all its aspects intact, we need closer and more visible formal commitments to each other.

Many of us see in the covenant a brilliant expression of that distinctive tradition and a truly Anglican path for those closer and more visible formal commitments to each other. Now the Church of England dioceses have refused to authorise us adopting it as a province, we have to face the reality that Anglicanism’s distinctive historic tradition and global communion of churches may not “survive with all its aspects intact”. It must now be acknowledged that there is no way in which either the Anglican Communion or the Church of England can remain unchanged by what has happened.


The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is part-time Tutor in Christian Ethics at Trinity College, Bristol

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