The Covenant will not do

by Paul Bagshaw

from Signs of the Times, No. 30 - Jul 2008

Archbishop Drexel Gomez, chair of the Covenant Design Group, has posed three questions to the bishops assembling at Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference.

  1. Will a Covenant be a help to the Communion at this stage of its life?
  2. What in the draft fits with our understanding of our Anglican inheritance?
  3. Where does further work need to be done?

MCU has consistently opposed the Covenant. Nonetheless we have tried at each stage to set out a reasoned opposition, recognising that the Communion is in crisis and that, whatever happens, it faces extensive change. (See previous papers.)

1. Will a Covenant be a help to the Communion at this stage of its life?

No. We believe that the Covenant along the lines of the present draft will inevitably turn the Communion in a more illiberal and legalist direction. We believe there are alternative, conciliar and co-operative resources within Anglicanism which are strong enough to enable a way forwards through the present impasse, and strong enough to hold together almost all Anglican Provinces - all, that is, except those who refuse to belong unless the whole Communion conforms to their particular way of expressing faith.

2. What in the draft fits with our understanding of our Anglican inheritance?

Of course much of the Covenant accords with much of our Anglican inheritance: it was written by deeply convinced and faithful Anglicans, written to encapsulate much of the Anglican tradition, and written to legitimate itself through a strong claim to continuity with Anglican formularies and traditions.

It also reflects the centralising and legalising of the Anglican Communion which has been happening internationally over the last decade or two. But this development has shallow roots. If this grows it will take the Communion in an authoritarian direction alien to its inheritance.

Another question, what of our Anglican inheritance has been lost in the draft? might also have been asked. What is lost includes

  1. The primary emphasis on conciliarity, on talking together as equals, as the defining characteristic of the Anglican Communion.
  2. The autonomy that Provinces currently enjoy, and thus respect for the jurisdiction of the spiritual and legal authorities in each place.
  3. The recognition, however grudging, that Provinces may come to differing conclusions on important issues and still remain full and faithful members (e.g. on the ordination of women).

3. Where does further work need to be done?

MCU believes the bishops should go back to the drawing board.

As a matter of practical politics this would seem unlikely. Too many senior members of the Anglican Communion have invested too much in the Covenant simply to shrug their collective shoulders and say 'It seemed like a good idea at the time. What's next?'

But it is not unthinkable. The Covenant was intended to hold the Communion together. If schism came to the Communion there would be no need for a Covenant, and no wisdom in acting hastily.

However, if some sort of Covenant is to happen, much more work needs to be done:

  1. To remove the Covenant's legalistic and punitive character.
  2. To reaffirm the inherent value of the Instruments of Unity without subordinating them to the Covenant.
  3. To build in proper checks and balances on any new distribution of power in the Communion.
  4. To re-introduce (from the Windsor Report) subsidiarity and accountability.
  5. To develop a theology of reception of change by the whole church in which the laity play as significant a part as the Primates.
  6. To balance a proper conservatism with encouragement of faithful innovation.
  7. To further detail the processes (e.g. voting mechanisms) by which corporate decisions will be made and thus to make the allocation of power more explicit.
  8. To provide full costing and clarity as to who will pay for the extra costs.
  9. To include a mechanism by which the Covenant itself may be amended.

Second, in some ways the Covenant has already become a mask to cover the deeper problems of Anglicanism. It may disguise the issues for a while, and implementation of the Covenant may distract the international Instruments of Unity (and the media), but deeper problems remain. Much more work still remains to be done on changing relationships within the Anglican Communion.

Globalisation (as shorthand for a range of intractable forces) is continuing to remake the Anglican Communion, as so much else, in ways that are hard to define or predict but are often painful.

Further work is needed, for example, on the integration of geographic and non-geographic dioceses, authority without authoritarianism, the positive and negative consequences of internet communications, Christian education at all levels which is both global and diverse, on conflict resolution and conciliation in ways which avoid creating winners and losers.

The manner in which this further reflection is done is also important. One lesson from the Covenant Design Group is that rapid work by a small group can produce a shared document and alienate many of the constituent Provinces.

Slow work is important with adequate time to explore deeper theological and ecclesiological issues and to enable wide participation. In a global communion it is important to value differing contributions and different answers. Timetables may be necessary, though these can be flexible, but prescribed outcomes are undesirable. The process itself should contribute to mutual understanding and greater integration of Communion partners.

MCU continues to oppose the Covenant. The draft is a weak document unable to address future, different, challenges. Its vision is of a Communion dominated by Primates, international institutions and legal processes at the cost of local autonomy and the diversity of worshipping communities. It is a distraction from the serious internal and external difficulties faced by the Communion. It is wholly inadequate to the task of mission: it would create a Communion with strong brakes and no engine.

The Covenant simply will not do.

Paul Bagshaw lives in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is a volunteer with the East Area Asylum Seekers Support Group.