Bouncing the Covenant

through the Anglican Communion

by Paul Bagshaw

from Signs of the Times, No. 26 - Jul 2007

General Synod will not have the opportunity to debate the content of a Anglican Covenant until, perhaps, it's too late.

The process has been designed to exclude legislative bodies from engagement with the substantive issues. Provincial Synods are to be asked:

  1. (The present debate) is the idea of a covenant acceptable in principle?
  2. (In 2010) please give your assent to a document which has already been agreed by every international Anglican body.

Neither General Synod nor the membership of the Church of England are to be given the opportunity to debate the substantive issues. Nor will there be an opportunity to influence the content of the agreement.

Yet what is proposed is (over time) a deep restructuring of the whole Communion. It will reduce the authority of General Synod and limit its competence. It will affect the terms on which clergy and lay people will serve the church. Such major change should only be undertaken after slow, extensive and full discussion.


Those who wish to achieve a Covenant for the Anglican Communion have recognised from the start that it would be hard to sell:

The Commission considers that a brief law would be preferable to and more feasible than incorporation by each church of an elaborate and all-embracing canon defining inter-Anglican relations, which the Commission rejected in the light of the lengthy and almost impossible difficulty of steering such a canon unscathed through the legislative processes of forty-four churches, as well as the possibility of unilateral alteration of such a law. Windsor Report §117.

Part of the difficulty is the sheer number of voices who will wish to be heard and the multitude of cooks each with their different recipe all stirring the same bowl. Part of the difficulty (in any international negotiation) is trading off the interests of the whole against the interests of individual participants.

So the answer has been to try to get the Covenant through with the least number of informed voices, the most general discussion, and the broadest assent - leaving a few lawyers or a small committee of church officers to thrash out the details away from public gaze.

Towards an Anglican Covenant (March 2006) proposed that a final draft be agreed by the ACC. Then Provinces should grant their Primates the authority to sign the Covenant by which they would be committed to 'comply and act in a manner compatible with the covenant' (§ 25(a)). Alternatively the ACC could agree the Covenant and incorporate it in its constitution with ratification by two-thirds of the Provinces (§ 25(b)). This latter proposal has sunk without trace.

The Report of the Covenant Design Group (January 2007) wanted assent to their proposal in principle from the Primates' meeting in Tanzania (February 2007) and didn't get it. But their abbreviated timetable for getting the Covenant signed was accepted.

The Draft Anglican Covenant (January 2007; amended April 2007) was commended to Provinces for a response by September 2007 so that a revised draft could go to Lambeth Conference in 2008 and thence to the ACC meeting in 2009.

The intent of this short timetable is to maintain momentum and also to build up a head of steam to make it very difficult for Provinces to reject the final version. By 2010 the Covenant will have received the endorsement of all the Anglican Communion's Instruments of Unity and individual Provinces will be asked to rubber-stamp it. It will also make it impossible for anyone beyond a very small group of people to address the detail.

General Synod July 2007

The motion before the General Synod echoes this process faithfully. It reminds people: (a) of the unanimous support of the Primates for a process to come to a covenant and then jumps to (b) the conclusion of the process.

Reasonably (if the very short consultation timetable is accepted as reasonable) it asks the Presidents to respond on behalf of the Church of England after limited internal discussion.

The motion is supported by both Archbishops (Annex 1), by the Bishop of Chichester's paper (Annex 2) and by Dr Martin Davie, theological consultant to the House of Bishops (Annex 3). Critical papers from the Modern Churchpeople's Union were also circulated (Annex 4). In volume at least those for and against were roughly equal.

However the Modern Churchpeople's Union papers are partly out of date in that they refer to a discussion paper of November 2006 (Towards and Anglican Covenant). A more up-to-date paper, a critical response to The Draft Anglican Covenant, was available ( The General Synod office declined to circulate it because the other papers and the motion address the principle of a covenant.

The consequence is that all attention is focused on the general principle of a covenant. There is silence on the actual proposal.


The manner in which the Covenant is being bounced though the decision making bodies of the Church is a disturbing example of ecclesiastical realpolitik.

The principle of a covenant is not important. What is important is the substance and implications of the Covenant. The way in which this Covenant is expected to be adopted, as well as its content, reflects the inherently authoritarian, bureaucratic and centralising nature of the proposal.

What is also important is the engagement of the whole Church in these proposed changes. The TEC consultation on the Draft Covenant shows this to be perfectly feasible. General Synod, representing the whole membership of the Church, should be permitted to exercise its responsibilities by full engagement with the substance of the proposals.

Other MCU Covenant responses