A Briefing Paper for the Evangelical Group on General Synod
by Andrew Goddard
What is the proposed Anglican Covenant?
The idea of an Anglican Covenant originates in one of the main proposals of The Windsor Report (TWR) as a response to the recent crisis in the Communion. The principles of TWR were supported by General Synod in Feb 2005 before the Primates met at Dromantine. Following the support for developing a covenant from the Primates and the ACC, a consultation paper Towards an Anglican Covenant was written and commended to the Communion in 2006. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave further support to the covenant in his June 2006 address when he said:
We need ways of translating this underlying sacramental communion into a more effective institutional reality, so that we don't compromise or embarrass each other in ways that get in the way of our local and our universal mission, but learn how to share responsibility. The idea of a 'covenant' between local Churches...is one method that has been suggested, and it seems to me the best way forward.
The Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG) responded to the consultation paper in a submission to the Communion Covenant Design Group (CDG) that met in January. As someone involved in the FOAG submission, it is clear from the Covenant Design Group's report and draft covenant that the Church of England's voice is seriously listened to and concerns and ideas contributed to the process bear fruit. This confirmed to me the value of constructive engagement with the developing covenant process on the part of the Church of England.
What is being asked of Synod?
It is important to be clear what Synod is and is not committing itself to at this stage. This is simply a synodical commitment to continue working constructively with the covenant process that is underway. It is not a response to the details of the current draft (though that draft gives some sense of the likely contours of a covenant). Nor is it a commitment to agree to whatever is produced through the process. It is clear that Synod cannot 'buy a pig in a poke' or 'write a blank cheque' but it is being asked to do neither of these things.
Why is it important to make such a commitment to the covenant process?
The work of the Covenant Design Group is the focus of the ongoing 'Windsor process' and the Archbishop of Canterbury has signalled the importance of this in his letter of invitation to bishops to the Lambeth Conference where he wrote:
Coming to the Conference...I hope...does commit us all to striving together for a more effective and coherent worldwide body, working for God's glory and Christ's Kingdom. The Instruments of Communion have offered for this purpose a set of resources and processes, focused on the Windsor Report and the Covenant proposals. My hope is that as we gather we can trust that your acceptance of the invitation carries a willingness to work with these tools to shape our future.
Commitment to engaging positively with this process is therefore essential if Synod and the wider church are committed to strengthening the bonds of affection, rebuilding trust and mutual recognition across current divisions in the Communion, and agreeing structures to enable future tensions to be faced more constructively than at present and in the recent past.
As the work of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission on covenant makes clear, we need to recognise we are already in covenant relationship with one another in Christ. The current covenant process is the means by which the Communion gives expression to this and finds a way of both articulating the traditions and unwritten conventions of our historic life together and of developing new patterns of relationship for a global missionary communion coming of age.
Why is there opposition to the covenant process?
At the heart of much opposition to the covenant process is a belief in the 'autonomy' of provinces that is theologically and legally flawed and corrosive of the interdependence that is central to life together in the body of Christ - as the work of the Lambeth Commission showed. Paul famously reminded the Galatians that it was for freedom that Christ set them free (5.1) but went on to warn them that they must not use their freedom to indulge the flesh but rather be enslaved to one another in love (5.13). The covenant process seeks both to find a proper place for the freedom of member churches and to be a theologically rich means of expressing our mutual enslavement to one another in love through covenanting with one another about how we will act in our own provinces.
It is clear also that much of the most vehement opposition to the covenant comes from those most determined to lead Anglicanism in an increasingly liberal direction theologically and morally. They oppose any idea of covenant because they do not wish to be accountable to the wider Communion or to develop means to enable us to keep in step with one another and with the Spirit as he leads us together in faithful obedience to Scripture.
Some opposition is based on misplaced fears and false understandings. The covenant is not intended to be a straitjacket imposing uniformity and ending diversity. Nor is it a threat to the Church of England's governance: even once it has been ratified (still several years away), provinces will retain (as the current draft acknowledges) the legal freedom to choose not to fulfil the substance of the covenant at any stage. Nor is it a process leading to some new papal or curial powers being created within the Communion.
There is perhaps the danger of some in the Church of England repeating wider traditional English political responses to international co-operation. Part of the value of the covenant process is that it will enable the Communion to move more clearly away from its historic Anglo-centricism by owning a covenantal self-understanding developed across the provinces of the Communion as a whole. For the Church of England to refuse even to engage this process positively runs the risk of being seen by some as an attempt to destroy this development, perhaps out of a preference for structures more tied to our imperial past. If a refusal to commit to participate in the development of the covenant is not in fact an attempt on the part of 'the mother church' to sabotage the Communion's natural growth and development then it would at least appear to be an 'opt-out' decision. This would send the message that we do not wish to be involved in the creative collaborative process with others and so are either determined to walk apart or will have to negotiate involvement once the covenant has been finalised.
Why should evangelicals support the covenant process?
The Communion has grown and developed through the missionary vision and labours of, among others, Evangelical Anglicans in the Church of England. Evangelicals have never understood the Church of England as simply the national church of the English people but part of the worldwide church of Christ sharing in his mission. We should have a vision for a global communion committed to mission and to partnership together in mission with other provinces. The covenant process provides a means of developing structures for such a missional vision. It also offers the hope of being able (in a theologically rich and biblically based form of a covenant) to express biblical and creedal faith and to develop the structures of a distinctive global Anglicanism which is both Catholic and Reformed and which will help us work for the unity among all his disciples for which Christ prayed.
There are no solid reasons - either in principle or pragmatically in the current political context - for evangelicals or anyone else to object to Synod making a commitment to positive participation in the covenant process. There are many reasons - theological and political - why evangelicals and others who share our commitments to world mission, to learning from Anglicans around the globe, to safeguarding biblical faith and to facilitating harmony among Anglicans should wish the Church of England wholeheartedly to support the covenant process. Indeed, in terms of our life together as a Communion, the covenant process is - like the Windsor Report in which it originated - now 'the only poker game in town'. If the Communion is to have a future together then the form of this will be discerned in and through this covenant process. For the Church of England to abandon that process through non-participation, or destructive participation, would therefore be for the eye to say to the hand 'I don't need you' and for us as a province to embrace a vision of Anglicanism in which every one does what is right in their own eyes.