The Anglican Covenant: Why a “Yes” vote is significant

As General Synod approaches its crucial vote on the Anglican covenant, recent discussions have revealed that there are at least three significant perspectives at work in the debate on the covenant and that there are some important differences between them which have not been explicitly articulated. Broadly speaking there are (1) those who, though unhappy with elements of the final text, are supportive of the covenant, (2) those who are against it and whose views are represented on the left by Inclusive Church and Modern Church and (3) those who are against it (though appear to be proposing to abstain in the Synod vote) on the right from a more conservative/GAFCON perspective. What are the reasons for the differences? In the light of the responses from Jonathan Clatworthy and Chris Sugden and Vinay Samuel to pieces I’ve written engaging with both the alternative perspectives (here and here) I believe there are three main areas to consider.

Text, Context, and Practice

In his response from the Modern Church perspective, Jonathan Clatworthy claims that although they have read the text – ‘we judge it in the light of its potential. What matters is not how it describes itself, but how it could be used once it was in place’. Thus, when he disagrees with me he notes that ‘in each case he [Goddard] focuses on what the Covenant says, while we focus on how it could be used’. This is clearly an important difference in approach. The problem is that the IC/MCU focus on ‘how it could be used’ at times almost appears to become one of ‘it doesn't really matter what the covenant says’. There has, for example, been no retraction of the bold but false statements in the original advertisement even if they are now sometimes being more carefully phrased.

More seriously, as section 4 is largely procedural, how it will be used in practice will depend on who participates in the covenant. It is noteworthy that opponents and critics on both left and right are not approaching it with hope and vision and as an opportunity to shape the future. Their interpretation is driven instead by fear, anxiety and distrust. Rather than asking how their vision of Anglicanism can find a place through the covenant, each side assumes that ‘how it could be used’ is only to favour those they oppose – GAFCON see it as leading to open-ended discussion and listening with no discipline, IC/MCU see it as leading to a centralised conservative veto on all developments and silencing of minorities. Cases which depend on limited concern with how the covenant describes itself and then claim to focus on its practice but project onto it their anxieties and animosities in order to undermine it and stir up conflict are difficult to receive as the work of the Spirit of Christ and the God of peace.

There are, however, also substantive disagreements and these fall into two connected areas – how we understand autonomy and interdependence (mainly the concern of the left) and how we distinguish essentials and adiaphora (mainly the concern of the right).

Autonomy and interdependence

Jonathan Clatworthy is quite clear that their opposition stems from their opposition to the Windsor Report and his consistency in opposition to the Windsor and covenant processes as they have developed cannot be doubted. Although dressed up in terms of rejecting Windsor’s response to TEC, this is a more fundamental rejection of its whole vision of life in communion. The IC/MCU stance is one in favour of unrestricted autonomy, hence what many heard as a ‘little Englander’ tone in its initial ad. From this perspective, anything which in any way expresses our interdependence and so could in any sense limit our autonomy – even though there are no legal limits - is smeared as ‘centralisation’. There is on this vision no place for any regard for the wider Communion – each must do what they believe is right in their own eyes without attention to anyone else and everyone else must simply accept others’ decisions.

It is, therefore, not simply that the covenant might be used by GAFCON-ites to secure their agenda. The ‘independent island’ mentality is so strongly held that when I asked whether they could not welcome a structure that could, in principle, recognise same-sex blessings as a faithful Anglican development (just as ACC did in relation to women’s ordination in 1971), the response was ‘Such a move would certainly not make Anglicanism more inclusive. It would mean a massive reduction of freedom: instead of being free to decide either way, provinces would depend on being given permission’. So the very structure of seeking a common mind and co-ordinating discernment is rejected as ‘a massive reduction of freedom’. The vision embedded in their critique is one which breaks with how we have worked in the past and how we have to work in our interconnected contemporary world where ‘relational consequences’ will follow with or without the covenant. It represents an ecclesial form of individualistic libertarianism – ‘my church must be free to do whatever it wishes with no ‘interference’ of any form from outside its jurisdiction’. Such a vision is incompatible with a claim to catholicity and a sense of belonging together in the body of Christ.

In contrast, the covenant offers a biblical and traditional Anglican vision of what it means to be part of God’s people that holds together both a proper autonomy and our interdependence as members together in the body of Christ. It does so without infringing legal provincial autonomy but by providing what we currently lack – an orderly pattern of co-ordinating and expressing interdependence and mutual loyalty and responsibility. Even though it is not perfect, to reject it on the basis of IC/MCU’s critique is to abandon any claim to be an ecclesial communion, ‘a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church...bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference’ (Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 49 cf Anglican Covenant 3.1.2).

Essentials and adiaphora

The central concern from the right is focussed on another important issue – the distinction between essential (or first order) matters and adiaphora, matters of indifference. The left seem to have little or no place for this as even if there are essentials it appears they must never be stated as such for in doing so we fix what must be open to change. So Clatworthy writes, ‘the contents of Sections 1-3 would initially be accepted as a description of Anglicanism, but as soon as the Covenant was in force they would turn into a criterion of Anglicanism. Even if the authors of the text are right to think it accurately expresses what Anglicans actually believe, once the provinces have signed up to it it will then become possible to tell people that if they want to count as Anglicans they will have to believe it’. It seems that not only does the left believe we need to be free from any external constraints – the inviolability of autonomy-as-independence - we must also be free from the constraints of any statement of what we believe as Anglicans.

The right in contrast are concerned that the covenant does not have enough essential truths explicitly stated and requiring adherence. They appear to believe that the distinction between these is always self-evident and are concerned that anyone who suggests otherwise is seeking to diminish the core of essentials and make some of them – clearly sexual ethics is at the front of their minds – into matters of indifference. One guesses that the essentials are most clearly expressed today in the Jerusalem Declaration.

This approach does not do justice to the substantive and well-founded statement of common faith in section 1 of the covenant. It also fails to recognise that in a communion of churches we need to have some way to discern together which category any action or proposed action falls into and how to respond to any departure from an essential or relational difficulties arising from divergence in matters indifferent. Finally, it does not address the reality that no matter how specific we are able to get in the articulation of core belief and practice this must be interpreted, applied and sometimes revised, and that cannot be done by simple reference to the agreed confession. Their alternative - which appears to involve bringing together a self-selected sub-set of ‘like-minded’ people within the current Communion to set and police boundaries and to trust that it is sufficient to state ‘we acknowledge freedom in secondary matters. We pledge to work together to seek the mind of Christ on issues that divide us’ (Jerusalem Declaration 12) – must address these concerns if it is to be credible and gain wider support.

In contrast, the covenant offers a clear statement of Anglican faith and order as we have received it in the Communion. It then articulates the disciplined patterns of life and structures of communication and mutual accountability through which we can discern which differences that arise among us are differences that matter and which are indeed matters indifferent. This cannot be something left to everyone to decide on their own (the left’s vision) but neither can it be imposed on everyone by one small sub-group (the danger in the right’s vision). It has to be a genuinely corporate seeking the mind of Christ together through reasoned discussion rooted in Scripture and tradition by those committed to a wider vision – articulated in the covenant – of our shared faith, mission and life together.

Which future for Anglicanism?

The danger in the current situation is that arguments over the details of the covenant text or how the covenant might be used are distracting us from central theological and ecclesiological questions which lie at the heart of the vision of our life together articulated in the covenant. Those rejecting the covenant have not, in their critiques, set out any credible theological and practical alternative either of a vision of our life as a fellowship of churches or of what we should do now given the reality of our fractured but still much treasured communion. Indeed, Jonathan Clatworthy claims ‘Those who oppose a change do not normally feel obliged to propose a different change’ while Chris Sugden and Vinay Samuel simply claim we need ‘to recognise the role that the Jerusalem Declaration could play’. More seriously, although never clearly articulated or justified, behind their critiques are understandings on some key theological areas addressed by the covenant which are seriously flawed.

Jonathan Clatworthy ends his response by claiming that recent controversies and ethical and theological disagreement ‘should be resolved by patient, informed ethical and theological dialogue, not by ecclesiastical power politics and threats of exclusion’. That will require scrutiny not only of the covenant but of the arguments and alternatives of those rejecting it from polar opposite and incompatible perspectives. We need to hear and weigh not just the criticisms of the proposed covenant but the alternative proposals of those who are currently challenging the covenant’s way forward.

The only way to allow the Church of England – and perhaps the wider Communion - to engage in ‘patient, informed ethical and theological dialogue’ about this crucial issue is to vote for the motion in Synod. This makes no binding commitment but allows diocesan synods and ongoing debate in other arenas to inform Synod’s final decision in 2012. To vote against or to abstain suddenly puts into reverse the general support given to the Windsor and covenant processes by the Church of England and its General Synod and makes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s already difficult calling well-nigh impossible. Anything but a ‘yes’ vote is, in short, to engage in ‘ecclesiastical power politics’ and, far from being inclusive, excludes much of the church from further informed discussion and discernment about how we should live together in future.

Leave a comment