St John's Church, Waterbeach

The case against the Anglican Covenant

by Jonathan Clatworthy

See also: C of E resources

The development of the idea

The call for an Anglican Covenant has its roots in a growing polarisation over the last few decades. The terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' indicate the main difference: some seek to protect inherited traditions of Anglican belief and practice while others believe Christianity should be more open to new ideas and insights.

For some time the focus of concern was same-sex partnerships. Heavily publicised events were the campaign against the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury because of his liberal views on the matter, the appointment - later withdrawn - of the gay though celibate Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, the election of the partnered gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and the same-sex blessing service authorised by the Diocese of New Westminster.

Nevertheless both sides in this debate acknowledge an underlying issue, namely how much diversity of belief and practice should be permitted within the Anglican Communion, and how the limits should be determined. Many texts by opponents of same-sex partnerships emphasise the need for tighter discipline more generally; To Mend the Net, for example, proposed a series of formal steps for dealing with an 'erring' Anglican province which refused to 'repent', leading to suspension of communion and the establishment of a new province.[1]

It is this more general issue that the Anglican Covenant aims to address, by establishing procedures to resolve disputes regardless of subject-matter. This makes it far more significant. It should not be assumed that it would only affect matters of sexuality; on the contrary, it is designed to be applicable to any future controversies.

It remains the case that the Primates' decision to work towards a Covenant, and the development of the text, have been heavily influenced by the sexuality debate. This is made clear in the influential Windsor Report, published in 2004 at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 had referred to 'homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture'. Lambeth Conferences have never had authority to establish Anglican doctrine but the Windsor Report, among others, treated this Resolution as though it did:

The Communion has... made its collective position clear on the issue of ordaining those who are involved in same gender unions; and this has been reiterated by the primates through their endorsement of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution. (§127)

Given that the Report was written at a time when it was clear to all that the Anglican Communion did not have a common mind on the matter, this is a remarkable and innovative claim. The implication is that the bishops at Lambeth had authority not only to express what Anglicans believe but to instruct them on what they should believe.

It was from this perspective that the Windsor Report saw fit to propose an Anglican Covenant to 'make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion' (§118). Allowing that Christian doctrines can change, it affirmed the traditional Anglican principle of 'reception' (that a theory can be tested by how the faithful receive it, §§32 & 68), but added that

The doctrine of reception only makes sense if the proposals concern matters on which the Church has not so far made up its mind. It cannot be applied in the case of actions which are explicitly against the current teaching of the Anglican Communion as a whole, and/or of individual provinces. No province, diocese or parish has the right to introduce a novelty which goes against such teaching and excuse it on the grounds that it has simply been put forward for reception (§69).

Thus the Anglican Communion is conceived as having its own teachings, established by its leaders, to which the constituent parts are duty-bound to adhere. Critics argue that this has not hitherto been the case, and ought not to be.

A Covenant Design Group was set up with Drexel Gomez, one of the authors of To Mend the Net, in the chair. It produced a succession of draft Covenant texts. Over the course of the drafts, however, the disciplinary nature of the Covenant declined. By no means all church leaders accepted the centralising agenda or the presumption that the North Americans were to blame. In addition there were a number of practical issues. If there was to be a central authority empowered to monitor the Covenant, who would be on it, how would they be chosen and what sanctions would they be able to impose on dissidents?

The trickiest question of all was how to persuade autonomous provinces to give up their autonomy. Some, including England, have constitutions which forbid them to subordinate themselves to an international body; in any case no province will lightly give away its self-government. The solution was to allow provinces to remain self-governing, abandon the idea of expelling them, and distinguish in some other way between signatories and non-signatories. There has been much discussion of the idea of 'two tracks'. In 2006 Archbishop Williams suggested that 'The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example.'[2]

The Covenant text

The final text was agreed at the end of 2009. Further amendments are not being considered so provinces are invited to sign it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. It contains an Introduction and four sections. The Introduction discusses the nature of communion and the Church by reference to a number of biblical texts. Sections 1-3 are intended to describe Anglicanism. Section 4 describes the mechanisms for administering the new arrangements.

The key commitment of signatories is:

In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches (§4.1.2).

Does it redefine Anglicanism?

Thus Sections 1-3 would become an officially recognised statement of Anglicanism. Defending the Covenant against the accusation that this would redefine Anglicanism, Andrew Goddard has replied that what is foundational is 'not the covenant per se' but the elements of 'faith, mission and interdependence of life' - in other words not Sections 1-3 of the Covenant but their contents.[3]

It is a somewhat forced argument. Whether or not it is accepted, though, even if Sections 1-3 were unanimously agreed to be a fair description of present day Anglicanism, the Covenant would turn them into a criterion of Anglicanism. Instead of being what we do in fact believe, they would become what we are expected to believe. One province would be able to accuse another of not abiding by a particular Covenant commitment, and in the light of recent events we could expect this to happen soon enough.

Thus the Anglican Communion would no longer be held together by its shared history, liturgy, ethos and communion with the See of Canterbury. Instead it would be held together by signatures to what would in effect be an international treaty.

How will the Covenant be monitored?

The process for monitoring the Covenant is described in §4.2. When a 'shared mind' is not attained the matter is referred to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, which is responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting. The Standing Committee is to attempt to negotiate agreement and, if this fails, request a church to defer an action. If this too fails it

shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations (§4.2.7).

Thus if attempts at negotiated agreement fail, the Standing Committee will make a 'recommendation'. Provinces will be free to reject it, but if they do the sanctions will apply. It is this procedure which leads opponents to claim that the Covenant will (1) centralise power, (2) limit the autonomy of provinces and (3) impose punishments.

(1) Does it centralise power?

The Covenant's proponents have repeatedly denied an intention to centralise power. What matters, though, is not their intentions but how it would work in practice.

a) In cases of unresolved conflict the Standing Committee would have the task of making a 'recommendation'. Provinces would know that if they did not accept the recommendation they would be under threat of 'relational consequences'. Thus the recommendation would become the Anglican Communion's official position on the matter. Thereafter no individual church would be able to re-open the question without running the risk of relational consequences. Teaching authority on that issue would have shifted from individual churches to the Standing Committee.

b) Given the threat of relational consequences, churches would be well advised to consult the Standing Committee in advance of an innovation. Thus, even without a dispute, churches would inevitably cede authority to the centre on any question which had potential for controversy.

c) Differences of opinion would of course continue, and so would lobby groups striving to establish their point of view. Such groups would know that it was pointless to lobby an individual diocese or province because the power to determine the 'shared mind' of the Communion would lie with the Standing Committee. There would be no incentive to keep little local difficulties little or local; they would rapidly become international.

(2) Does it limit provincial autonomy?

The Covenant denies any such limitation. The point is made often, but the key text is §4.1.3:

Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion.

Again, what matters is not how the Covenant describes itself, but whether this is what the Covenant would actually do. Ronald Stevenson, QC, a recently retired Chancellor of the Anglican Church of Canada, doubts it: 'If a Church adopts the Covenant without qualification or reservation it might be argued that the Act of adoption does have the effect of altering the Church's Constitution or limiting its autonomy.'[4]

Over and above the position in law, in practice a province disagreeing with a Standing Committee recommendation will be faced with a choice: either it submits to the recommendations or sanctions are applied to it. The sanctions would only apply to its relations with the Anglican Communion, not to its internal governance. The question therefore is whether this constitutes subordination, or whether the province can still properly be described as autonomous. Covenant defenders argue that the sanction does not tell the province what to do: it merely arranges how other provinces will weaken their relationship with it.

Critics of the Covenant have replied that this is like telling a child 'You are free to eat your broccoli or leave it, just as you like, but if you do not eat it you will not have any chocolate'. Whether this is called 'subordination' or a 'relational consequence', the victim feels only too acutely the limitations on freedom caused by an unequal power structure. Although provincial autonomy still exists in a sense, it is clearly reduced.

Without the prospect of exclusion the Covenant would have no function at all. Its supporters argue that its function will be to resolve conflict; but upon examination it turns out that, apart from trying to negotiate a settlement or asking a church to desist from an intended action, (§4.2.4-5), its only method for resolving conflict is this threat to exclude.

(3) Does it impose punishments?

Earlier drafts of the Covenant contained punitive language. The final text speaks only of 'relational consequences'. The question is whether those consequences are in effect punishments.

When a church refuses to accept a recommendation the sanctions available to the Standing Committee are exclusion from some or all of the Communion's international structures. Covenant defenders have argued that this is not a punishment at all; the purpose of the exclusion is to ensure that the international structures are only staffed by those who are in a position to represent Anglicanism.[5] Those speaking on behalf of Anglicanism must themselves agree with Anglican teaching.

From the perspective of those being excluded, however, it is indeed a punishment. They are being excluded for the crime of disagreeing with an opinion which the dominant powers have exalted to the status of official teaching. One of the common temptations facing the powerful is to underrate the oppression they are imposing on others.

The status of non-signatories

Since abandoning the proposal to expel churches from the Communion, Covenant proponents have sought an appropriate way to distinguish between signatories and non-signatories.

The Covenant text accepts that non-signatories will remain members of the Communion. However, as noted above, it expects signatories to recognise Sections 1-3 of the Covenant 'as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches' (§4.1.2). If these Sections are to be foundational it is difficult to see how those who have not formally accepted them can share the same foundation. The distinction is reinforced by the statement that 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion' (§4.2.1). Until now mutual recognition and communion have applied across all Anglican provinces; to state that henceforth the Covenant will enable it is to imply that, without the Covenant, mutual recognition and communion will no longer exist. Once again, even if the Covenant Design Group did not take these words to mean that non-signatories would no longer be part of the Communion, others would.

Other foreseeable effects

In addition critics have drawn attention to other likely or potential effects.

(1) Provincial vetoes

The Covenant would make available a procedure to 'raise a question': that is, lodge an objection with the Standing Committee. It would be up to the Standing Committee to decide whether to uphold it and issue a recommendation accordingly. Thus objectors would be given a new tool. Furthermore the Covenant would give them the benefit of the doubt: it puts the onus on innovating churches 'to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission' (§3.2.5).

In the recent controversies over women priests and same-sex partnerships we have seen campaigners encouraging parishes to declare that they cannot in all conscience accept the ministry of their bishop, and thus demand alternative episcopal oversight. Currently it is all too easy for small groups with substantial resources to whip up a media campaign and give the impression that a substantial body of opinion feels strongly about a matter.

When new developments arise in church life, the normal pattern is that they appear in one or two places in the first instance, and take time to spread more widely. To give such power to objectors to suppress them at the outset, while they are still new and strange, would deprive them of the chance to prove their worth.

(2) Confessionalism

Some denominations are confessional: that is, they distinguish themselves by specific doctrines which they expect their members to believe. Anglicanism has not so far been confessional and the Covenant does not purport to make it such; but every time the Standing Committee made a recommendation, that recommendation would in effect become the Anglican position on the matter. Similarly every time it declared a doctrine or action 'incompatible with the Covenant' its contrary would in effect become Anglican teaching. Over time the number of such declarations would increase. Anglicanism would gradually become less inclusive and more of a confessional sect with its own distinctive dogmas.

(3) Fear of innovation

Anxieties about innovation would increase. Whenever Province A objects to Province B, it will be because Province B is innovating, not because Province B is failing to innovate. Thus the Covenant would constitute one more obstacle in the way of change. Anglican culture would gradually become more cautious.

This fear would not be restricted to occasions when the Standing Committee received an objection. The possibility of objections leading to sanctions would restrain churches from considering potentially contentious action. Formal objections would probably be rare, but self-censorship - just in case - might well become common.

(4) Effects on ecumenism

Covenant proponents claim that it would ease ecumenical relations. This is no doubt true at a worldwide level, though at a heavy price. Representatives of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches can state clearly where their denominations stand on particular issues. Anglicans often find themselves at a disadvantage because they do not have such clearly stated positions. The Covenant, they argue, would facilitate them.

Such positions, though, would nearly always misrepresent what Anglicans actually believe because our views vary. A set of tidy statements declaring Anglican doctrine would only be realistic if Anglicanism were to become a confessional church demanding doctrinal assent from its members.

At a local level the Covenant would often prove counterproductive. It often happens that another denomination's relationship with Anglicans is good in one part of the world but bad in another. To work more closely with another denomination may therefore be a constructive initiative in one place but provoke horror in another. The Covenant would provide a means for objectors to block ecumenical moves in another part of the world.

(5) Declining role of the laity

The Covenant would reduce the role of laity in decision-making. In England, laity constitute one of the Houses of General Synod. The Covenant's administrators would be mainly bishops and archbishops. The four Instruments of Communion are the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primates' Meetings, Lambeth Conferences and the Anglican Consultative Council. Only the ACC has any lay members on it.

(6) Women priests

There has been much discussion of whether the Covenant, had it already been in force, would have prevented the ordination of women. Of course we cannot be sure what would have happened if the Covenant had been in place before there were any women priests, but since its central purpose is to provide a means for one part of the Communion to object to another's innovations, it would have strengthened the hand of objectors.

Depending on the timing it could still affect the introduction of women bishops in the Church of England. If it is in force before the required legislation and Code of Practice are agreed, others will have an opportunity to lodge objections.

(7) Interpreting the Covenant

The Covenant text is often unclear. It seems to give solace now to one group, now to another. Some may welcome the repeated affirmation of 'Scripture and the catholic and apostolic faith' (§1.2.1, cf 1.1.2, 1.2.2, 3.2.4); scripture and tradition, but not reason. Others may welcome the commitment 'to ensure that biblical texts are received, read and interpreted faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and coherently, with the expectation that Scripture continues to illuminate and transform the Church and its members' (§1.2.5, cf 3.2.3). These texts, though, can be read in different senses.

Especially significant is that some key concepts like 'faith', 'communion' and 'shared mind' are undefined and open to contrasting interpretations. Critics suspect that this was a deliberate move to persuade as many provinces as possible to sign.

This vagueness would open the door to considerable refinement after the Covenant was adopted. As appeals to the Standing Committee led to debates about the meanings of terms, over time a body of literature would develop, establishing more precise meanings. We cannot know in advance what those meanings would be, but provinces unhappy with an interpretation would by then find it impossible to dissent without being threatened with relational consequences.

The direction of travel would be towards ever more law-like governance of the Communion, with those responsible for the process becoming increasingly influential.

The underlying issues

The Covenant has been proposed as a response to bitter controversy. Central to any analysis of it must be the question of whether it engages with the true nature of this controversy and whether its methods really can resolve it.

Since the sixteenth century Protestants have disagreed about the right method for resolving their disagreements. The Reformation slogan 'sola scriptura' claimed that the Bible alone was the supreme authority for Christians and the Catholic Church had no authority to interpret it. How then should it be interpreted? Two contrasting positions developed, and they are still with us.


According to one, Scripture should not be interpreted at all. The human mind is too fallen to understand true doctrine by itself, so we depend entirely on divine revelation in the Bible. Thus revelation transcends reason, cannot be judged by it, and even when it seems contrary to all reason is to be accepted as complete and certain.

Many recent responses to the Anglican Covenant express this position. The GAFCON Jerusalem Statement declares that 'the Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense... We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.'[6]

Similarly Archbishop Gregory Venables said in a recent interview:

We're under the wrath of God and we need to preach the Gospel into that situation because although we've received the truth, although we know about God, although we know about this Gospel, people have chosen to go down the path of the pride of human wisdom, of seeking to find answers which are satisfactory to our own self sufficiency and self satisfaction, to go down the path of delighting in wickedness, doing the things that God has forbidden and yet thinking that they're good and wonderful and lovely.[7]

These statements illustrate a particular understanding of authority, knowledge, and the Church. It expects that on every question of doctrine and ethics there is a single biblical answer which is certainly correct; that a person who disagrees with a certainty must certainly be wrong; and that since revelation is inherited from the Christian past there is no place for discovering new insights or learning from other faiths.

The philosophical term for this type of theory is 'foundationalism'. Foundationalism is based on two principles, a truth which is known with certainty and deductive logic which derives other certainties from it. The original certainty can be pictured as a foundation, upon which other certainties are built.

This tradition has an internal coherence with characteristic implications. The Church's duty is to transmit doctrine without changing it. Teaching is always in one direction, from the teacher who has learned revelation to passive learners. The Church should therefore be hierarchical, with positions of leadership restricted to those who accept the church's teaching on all matters. Discussions should not encourage attenders to hear both sides of an argument and make up their own minds, as that would exalt reason above Scripture.

Practical effects of this tradition are intolerance and schism. As the above quotations illustrate, it does not allow for the possibility of open and honest disagreement about the meaning a biblical text, still less about its authority. When church members find they cannot agree with the views of their leaders, they leave. Sectarian splits are therefore common: every disagreement has the potential to provoke one faction to walk out and set up an alternative church.

As a central feature of this tradition is that it expects uniformity of belief, one way to describe it is to call it 'uniformitarianism'.


The other Reformation tradition allowed for variation. These Protestants generally had a higher doctrine of human reason, as a divine gift to be used in reading the Bible. Acknowledging that this produced contrasting interpretations, they took a more positive view of human research and debate as ways to seek truth. Thus knowledge is not all derived from one infallible source, but from a number of sources which need to be balanced against each other.

The philosopical term for this non-foundationalist view of knowledge is 'coherentism', because the strength of our convictions depends on how well our beliefs cohere together. It is often pictured as a web, where each of the nodes supports the others but none is indispensable.

This understanding of knowledge, more popular among philosophers today, allows that God may be leading us into new insights which are not in the Bible and not yet in our tradition. Change is to be expected, and when judging which changes to accept we should use all available sources of guidance. Thus the search for truth in matters of religion is largely a community activity. Disagreement, far from being a sign of false teaching, is a necessary part of a developing tradition. It follows that churches are at their best when they allow a wide range of voices to be heard. An influential exponent of this approach is the sixteenth century theologian Richard Hooker, with what has come to be known as his 'three-legged stool': Scripture, reason and tradition. It has characterised the Church of England since 1660, and to some extent before then too. It has enabled the Church to contain controversies within itself without schism. Its most celebrated twentieth century defender, Henry McAdoo, argued that what is distinctive about Classic Anglicanism is not a set of doctrines like those of Lutherans and Calvinists, but a method: 'Anglicanism is not committed to believing anything because it is anglican but only because it is true'.[8]

Because a central feature of this tradition is the desire to include a wide range of opinion, it can be described as 'inclusivism'.

Each of these traditions has its own internal consistency. In practice some people are more concerned about doctrinal consistency than others, and none of us are entirely consistent, so theological positions vary more widely. Nevertheless each of these traditions draws on principles which the Covenant fails to satisfy.

Uniformitarians, characteristically, agree on the need for a final authority to lay down what should be believed, but they take that authority to be the Bible, not the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. Having found the biblical answer they consider the matter settled. From the Kuala Lumpur Conference of 1997 to current statements by GAFCON and Anglican Mainstream, a refusal to discuss the ethics of same-sex partnerships is combined with a sense of outrage that church leaders should tolerate them.

The question at issue, from this perspective, is how to purify the Church from false witnesses. If an Anglican bishop in Rwanda offers 'biblical' teaching, the existence of Anglican bishops in the USA who teach otherwise undermines his claim that Anglicanism is loyal to the Bible. Thus one erring bishop, even thousands of miles away, destroys the spiritual legitimacy of the whole Communion. He seeks a way to assure his congregation that the erring church has no connection with his own church. To such a person the Covenant fails to establish a clear enough distinction: to exclude provinces from representative committees is far from adequate.

Inclusivists, on the other hand, do not believe the Bible can settle controversies so simply. They expect the insights of modern research to shed light on current debates within the church, even if the researchers in question are atheists. The way to resolve disagreements is to allow the different points of view to be publicly expressed, defended and criticised. All relevant information should be made available to all concerned parties. Debate should be allowed to continue until consensus is reached. This is considered best practice in all universities and research institutions. Any attempt by church authorities to curtail debate and impose an 'Anglican teaching' would be to abuse power and suppress the search for truth.

For inclusivists, therefore, the Covenant is equally unsatisfactory but for the opposite reason: not because it does not draw a clear enough line between conservatives and liberals, but because it proposes to draw any line at all. The Covenant is at fault for seeking to pre-empt agreement by ecclesiastical decree.

Seen as an attempted compromise between these two traditions, the Covenant can only be a fudge. Foundationalism, by its nature, claims certainty and therefore cannot compromise. Like a trump suit in a card game, it demands that whenever it is played it wins. A church may hold some beliefs for foundationalist reasons and others for coherentist reasons, but whenever there is conflict between the two the logic of foundationalism demands complete victory. From the uniformitarian perspective there are only two possible outcomes: either the inclusivists capitulate ('repent'), or there must be schism. In this situation the only possible way to hold the Anglican Communion together is for the inclusivists to capitulate.

However inadequate the Covenant may be from a uniformitarian perspective, from an inclusivist perspective it offers a uniformitarian solution: objections will be submitted to the Standing Committee, the Standing Committee will declare its recommendations, the recommendations will have the status of official Anglican teaching, and open debate will be suppressed.

The inclusivist alternative is to protect tolerance and diversity of opinion against those who would undermine it. Inclusivists can be confident that the values of coherentist humility, patience, respect and debate will eventually prevail in matters of religion as they have done in all other fields of research. Uniformitarians are welcome within Anglicanism - indeed some Anglican provinces have a uniformitarian ethos - but Anglicanism as a whole values its diversity and the open, enquiring search for truth in matters of faith. If the only way to protect this principle is by means of a covenant, this is the kind of Covenant we should have; but it will be very different from the Covenant now on offer, and it will a poor day for Anglicanism if any such thing is necessary.

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Jonathan Clatworthy
February 2011


[1] Drexel W. Gomez and Maurice W. Sinclair (eds.) To Mend the Net: Anglican Faith and Order for Renewed Mission (Carrollton: Ekklesia Society, 2001).

[2] The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion, June 2006. Another influential text is his Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future, July 2009.



[5] E.g. Rowan Williams, Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future, July 2009.


[7] Interview with Gregory Venables,

[8] McAdoo, H R, The Spirit of Anglicanism: A Survey of Anglican Theological Method in the Seventeenth Century, London: A & C Black, 1965, p. 1.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.