The Anglican Covenant: Background and Resources

The Original Proposal

The proposal for a covenant was made by the Lambeth Commission on Communion in The Windsor Report published in October 2004. In paras 113-120 of Section C ('Our Future Life Together'), the Commission discussed the work of the Anglican Communion Legal Advisers' Network, especially on the common principles of canon law and proposed 'the adoption by the churches of the Communion of a common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion' (§118). The Windsor Report offered a draft covenant as an appendix to its report.

Initial Responses to the Covenant Proposal in Windsor

The Reception Process

As part of the Windsor Reception Process the Primates' Standing Committee asked "How would you evaluate the arguments for an Anglican Covenant set out in paragraph 119 of the Report? How far do the elements included in the possible draft for such a covenant in Appendix Two of the Report represent an appropriate development of the existing life of the Anglican Communion?"

In their report in the light of responses the Reception Group noted in relation to the covenant proposal:

  • Most seemed to be in agreement, but had reservations or would like more work to be done on it to become acceptable
  • Some concerned that it betrayed Anglican tradition and would lead us to be a confessional church
  • Desire for it to be less legalistic and more statement of principle
  • Draft covenant seems to express one strand of Anglicanism
  • Scepticism that it would make any difference in moments of conflict
  • Call for canons of a province to recognise membership in the Communion and the role of the Covenant in requiring and guiding consultation and resolution of disputes. Is this necessary? Will it be acceptable?
  • Is the network of Anglican Communion legal advisors likely to become another Instrument of Unity or is its role in serving the Instruments by identifying common themes or threads in canon law in the provinces? Is this helpful, or does it lead to a more formal and legalistic approach to problems?

In the presentation to the Primates at Dromantine, on the responses to the Report, the Scottish Primate reported on covenant

There seemed to be agreement and welcome for the principle of a covenant (note Scottish reservation about the name 'covenant' since in its ecclesiastical history, covenant had resulted in violence and division, not unity and reconciliation!).

However, a number felt more work had to be done on the Appendix 'example' given in the Windsor Report before it would become acceptable.

Some expressed concern about turning the Anglican Church into a 'confessional' church and there was a desire expressed by some that it should be less legalistic and more a statement of principle.

On the other hand, there are those who fear any 'watering down' of what is outlined in the Windsor Report and that it should remain a "legal authorisation by each church for signing and solemnizing by the primates in a liturgical context."

The Archbishop of Canterbury

In his November 2004 Advent Letter to Primates the Archbishop of Canterbury referred positively to the covenant proposal

The Windsor document sets out a possible future in which we willingly bind ourselves closer together by some form of covenant. I hope we will see virtue in this. No-one can or will impose this, but it may be a creative way of expressing a unity that is neither theoretical nor tyrannical. We have experience of making covenants with our ecumenical partners; why should there not be appropriate commitments which we can freely and honestly make with one another?

The Primates

At their meeting in Dromantine in Februrary 2005 the Primates received the Windsor Report and their communiqué (para 9) spoke specifically of the covenant proposal:

We welcome the proposals in Section C for the future development of the Instruments of Unity, although we recognise that serious questions about the content of the proposal for an Anglican Covenant and the practicalities of its implementation mean that this is a longer term process. We were glad to be reminded of the extensive precedents for covenants that many Anglican churches have established with ecumenical partners, and that even within our Communion the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral has already been effectively operating as a form of covenant that secures our basic commitment to scripture, the Nicene Creed, the two Sacraments of the Gospel and the Historic Episcopate. We therefore commend this proposal as a project that should be given further consideration in the Provinces of the Communion between now and the Lambeth Conference 2008. In addition, we ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to explore ways of implementing this.

Anglican Consultative Council

The ACC meeting in Nottingham in June 2005 did not pass a resolution directly relating to the covenant but did pass a resolution (§27) commending a proposed Covenant for Communion in Mission from the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism (IASCOME) which it forwarded "to those bodies of the Anglican Communion tasked to consider an Anglican Covenant as commended by the Windsor Report and the Statement of the February 2005 Primates' Meeting".

Towards An Anglican Covenant

At the meeting in March 2006 the Joint Standing Committees of the Primates and the ACC considered how the proposal for an Anglican Covenant could be carried forward. They received and commended the paper Towards an Anglican Covenant, which had been presented to them as a basis for discussion and reflection in the Communion. They also requested the appointment of a group to work on the proposal.

Among the responses to this document is a highly critical analysis from the Modern Churchpeople's Union within the Church of England (subsequently circulated with General Synod paper on covenant for July 2007 debate). Other responses were produced by Affirming Catholicism, Canon Vincent Strudwick for Inclusive Church (here and here) and Stephen Noll.

Further important resources were produced by the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission (IATDC) as a result of its meeting in September 2006.

Challenge and Hope

Following the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (at which a resolution - A166 - was passed supporting 'the process of the development of an Anglican Covenant that underscores our unity in faith, order, and common life in the service of God's mission'), the Archbishop of Canterbury issued (on June 27th 2006) a reflection - The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion. This included a lengthy discussion of the covenant proposal:

But what our Communion lacks is a set of adequately developed structures which is able to cope with the diversity of views that will inevitably arise in a world of rapid global communication and huge cultural variety. The tacit conventions between us need spelling out - not for the sake of some central mechanism of control but so that we have ways of being sure we're still talking the same language, aware of belonging to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ. It is becoming urgent to work at what adequate structures for decision-making might look like. 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 (developing alongside the existing work being done on harmonising the church law of different local Churches) is one method that has been suggested, and it seems to me the best way forward. It is necessarily an 'opt-in' matter. Those Churches that were prepared to take this on as an expression of their responsibility to each other would limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness; and some might not be willing to do this. We could arrive at a situation where there were 'constituent' Churches in covenant in the Anglican Communion and other 'churches in association', which were still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures. The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example. The 'associated' Churches would have no direct part in the decision making of the 'constituent' Churches, though they might well be observers whose views were sought or whose expertise was shared from time to time, and with whom significant areas of co-operation might be possible.

This leaves many unanswered questions, I know, given that lines of division run within local Churches as well as between them - and not only on one issue (we might note the continuing debates on the legitimacy of lay presidency at the Eucharist). It could mean the need for local Churches to work at ordered and mutually respectful separation between 'constituent' and 'associated' elements; but it could also mean a positive challenge for Churches to work out what they believed to be involved in belonging in a global sacramental fellowship, a chance to rediscover a positive common obedience to the mystery of God's gift that was not a matter of coercion from above but of that 'waiting for each other' that St Paul commends to the Corinthians.

The distinction between 'constituent' and 'associated' churches (developing an idea from Towards An Anglican Covenant) inevitably drew much attention and in his address to the General Synod on July 7th, Archbishop Rowan returned to explain further what he meant in relation to developing a covenant:

But if there is such a structure, and if we do depend on consent, the logical implication is that particular churches are free to say yes or no; and a no has consequences, not as 'punishment' but simply as a statement of what can and cannot be taken for granted in a relationship between two particular churches. When I spoke as I did of 'churches in association', I was trying to envisage what such a relation might be if it was less than full eucharistic communion and more than mutual repudiation. It was not an attempt to muddy the waters but to offer a vocabulary for thinking about how levels of seriously impaired or interrupted communion could be understood. In other words, I can envisage - though I don't in the least want to see - a situation in which there may be more divisions than at present within the churches that claim an Anglican heritage. But I want there to be some rationale for this other than pure localism or arbitrary and ad hoc definitions of who and what is acceptable.

Covenant Design Group & Proposed Draft Covenant

On September 15th 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the Primates to inform them of the creation of a Covenant Design Group:

The Joint Standing Committee also asked me to appoint a small Covenant Design Group to take forward the work. I have asked Archbishop Drexel Gomez to chair this and would now welcome your suggestions for membership before I proceed to nominate people who might serve. We are envisaging a small number of full members (perhaps no more than ten in the core group) with a wider circle of 'corresponding members', and in the first instance I shall be looking for nominations representing expertise in ecclesiology, missiology, ecumenical relation and canon law...I hope, as I wrote earlier, that this will be a major and serious focus for the Lambeth Conference, and the work now commissioned will be a vital task in preparation for the Conference.

On January 9th 2007, the membership of the group was officially announced with unofficial reports as to the 'corresponding members' of the group.

The group met January 15th-18th 2007 in the Bahamas. Drawing on responses to Towards An Anglican Covenant and work already done on a possible covenant by Australia and the Global South it produced both a report and the text of a proposed draft covenant (also in Spanish and French).

These were discussed by both the Joint Standing Committees of the Primates and the ACC and The Primates' Meeting in Tanzania in February 2007. The Primates' Communique of Feb 19th stated (paras 15 & 16):

Archbishop Drexel Gomez reported to us on the work of the Covenant Design Group. The Group met in Nassau last month, and has made substantial progress. We commend the Report of the Covenant Design Group for study and urge the Provinces to submit an initial response to the draft through the Anglican Communion Office by the end of 2007. In the meantime, we hope that the Anglican Communion Office will move in the near future to the publication of the minutes of the discussion that we have had, together with the minutes of the Joint Standing Committee's discussion, so that some of the ideas and reflection that have already begun to emerge might assist and stimulate reflection throughout the Communion.

The proposal is that a revised draft will be discussed at the Lambeth Conference, so that the bishops may offer further reflections and contributions. Following a further round of consultation, a final text will be presented to ACC-14, and then, if adopted as definitive, offered to the Provinces for ratification. The covenant process will conclude when any definitive text is adopted or rejected finally through the synodical processes of the Provinces.

The Proposed Draft Covenant - A Brief Introduction

The draft covenant falls into seven parts: a preamble, five central sections, and a concluding declaration. Its basic structure - though partially obscured in its current form - is that it addresses three areas in the form of both affirmations and commitments. The three areas are broadly confession of faith, mission, and life together and are stated in the preface which can be broken down as follows:

We, the Churches of the Anglican Communion, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, solemnly covenant together in these articles, in order:
1. to proclaim more effectively in our different contexts the Grace of God revealed in the Gospel,
2. to offer God's love in responding to the needs of the world,
3. to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and to grow up together as a worldwide Communion to the full stature of Christ.

Sections 2 & 3 focus on confession of faith. Affirmations in §2 are based on the Preface to the Declaration of Assent of the Church of England and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. These are followed by five commitments in §3.

Section 4 focuses on mission and combines both affirmations and commitments (taken from the five Marks of Mission).

Sections 5 & 6 focus on unity and common life. The affirmations in §5 draw on the Quadrilateral to reaffirm the historic episcopate and also describe the four current Instruments of Communion. The commitments in §6 relate to how autonomy will be exercised interdependently with respect for the common mind of the wider Communion in matters of essential concern as articulated by the Instruments of Communion.

Responses to Covenant proposals

In March 2007, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church met and received contrasting presentations from two members of the Covenant Design Group - Katherine Grieb and Ephraim Radner.

The Episcopal Church has also produced its own short study guide on the draft covenant.

The Church of England General Synod is debating the covenant proposal (not the draft text) in July 2007. Papers prepared for this include a foreword by the Archbishops, a contextual note by the Bishop of Chichester, a detailed background note by Dr Martin Davie drawing on the work of the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG), and the MCU's original response to the covenant proposal noted above.

A strong critique of the draft covenant has also been circulated to General Synod members by a group including Colin Slee and Professor Marilyn McCord Adams. More favourable assessments have been offered by Chris Sugden and Andrew Goddard.

Other responses to the covenant include:

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