Anglican Covenant

The Anglican Communion and its beliefs

The Covenant pages - previousnext

The Anglican Communion is the Church of England and its daughter churches in other parts of the world. It is divided into 38 provinces. Most provinces cover one country, but there are exceptions. In England there are two, Canterbury and York. Some provinces, like Central Africa, cover more than one country. Anglicanism has always had a geographical base: under Henry VIII it was simply the continuing Catholic church in England. Provinces are divided into dioceses. Each diocese has one or more bishops. Dioceses are divided into local parishes.

Historically there are three main contributors to Anglican theology, one Catholic, one Reformed and one distinctively Anglican. This means the term 'Anglican theology' can, confusingly, mean one of two things: either what, in practice, Anglican churches have done and taught, or alternatively the distinctively Anglican theological tradition, often called 'classic Anglicanism'.

In the current debates different people emphasise different elements. The Catholic tradition sees the Church of England as a historic continuation of the Christian church in England. King Henry VIII did not change it from Catholic to Protestant; he merely made himself, instead of the Pope, the head of it. Its Catholicism is expressed in the continuity with the medieval Catholic church in England: for example, unlike most Protestants it never abolished bishops. Its Catholicism was later expressed during the Stuart era in the Laudian and High Church tradition, and from the middle of the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement.

The Reformed tradition emphasises the Protestant element, as established in the sixteenth century in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I and largely continued under James I. The main influence was Calvinist, with a heavy emphasis on the Bible. Many were Puritans who expected society to be governed according to biblical principles. The evangelical movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drew on Reformation Protestantism, but innovated in many ways.

Classic Anglicanism appeals to the writings of Richard Hooker, who responded to the Reformation debates by reaffirming the role of reason. Hooker is best known for his balance of authorities: scripture, reason and tradition. Others add experience to the list. The key insight is that no single authority is an infallible source of truth; in our searching, and in our decision-making, we have a range of authorities and need to balance them against each other. (More on Hooker's views and the role of scripture, tradition and reason in Anglicanism).

This is partly for historical reasons. Anglicanism stems from the Church of England, its mother church. Whereas some Christian traditions, like Lutheranism and Calvinism, defined themselves from the start by what they believed, the Church of England has traditionally aimed to express the faith of the people living in England. It has never been entirely successful, but through having this aim it has permitted a wide range of beliefs to coexist.

Within this tradition, the way to resolve a disagreement is to allow the different opinions to be openly expressed and defended for as long as it takes to reach agreement. In this way the various parties can challenge each other and learn from each other, debating the issues until consensus is reached. The corollary is that differences of opinion are normal. We do not expect always to agree with fellow-Anglicans, but we do expect to respect each other's views.

It is this approach which has enabled Anglicans to stay united through controversies; because diversity of opinion is accepted as normal, it does not pose a threat. It is no accident that while the English church was committed to this open method of searching for truth, it also led the world in science.

These three traditions - Catholic, Reformed and 'classic Anglican', have often been complementary. When neither scripture nor reason nor tradition is exalted to infallible status as the only authority, each has its proper place. Thus Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury in the middle of the twentieth century, said: 'We have no doctrine of our own - we only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or diminution'.[1] Michael Ramsey, his successor, agreed:

The Anglican will not suppose that he has a system or a Confession that can be defined and commended side by side with those of others; indeed, the use of the word 'Anglicanism' can be very misleading. Rather will he claim that his tasks look beyond 'isms' to the Gospel of God and to the Catholic Church.[2]

Ramsey argued that 'there is such a thing as Anglican theology', but that 'it is neither a system nor a confession (the idea of an Anglican "confessionalism" suggests something that never has been and never can be) but a method, a use and a direction'.[3] The classic statement of this position is The Spirit of Anglicanism by Archbishop Henry McAdoo. McAdoo writes: 'There is no specifically Anglican corpus of doctrine'. Instead, 'There is a distinctively Anglican theological ethos, and that distinctiveness lies in method rather than in content' (p. 1). Stephen Sykes and Paul Avis have disagreed, but the focus of their argument has been that Anglicans have distinctive ways of ordering the church, not that it offers distinctive teachings about God or moral norms.[4]

Recent polarisation

Classic Anglican theology has dominated most of the Church of England's history. It was developed in the seventeenth century and not seriously challenged until the middle of the nineteenth when the Oxford Movement revived a more dogmatic approach to doctrine, allowing less scope for reason and therefore less for development - an issue on which Newman wrote at great length. Resistance to change still characterises many Anglo-Catholics today.

It has not usually characterised evangelicals; the recent conservative evangelical revival, with its insistence that innovations in the church cannot be accepted without supporting biblical texts, is a more dramatic leapfrog, back behind nineteenth century evangelicalism to those Reformation Puritans who wanted an unchanging church based entirely on scripture.

This history of Anglicanism explains why it is possible for both conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics today to claim that they represent true Anglican theology. They both represent some of what the Church of England has stood for at significant times in its history. However, if any of the three traditions can claim to have characterised the Church of England though most of its history, it is without doubt the more open, undogmatic 'classic Anglicanism' associated with Hooker and his successors.

Anglicanism as a whole is more varied than the Church of England. Many Anglican provinces were founded in the nineteenth century by missionaries who were dissatisfied with the Church of England's liberalism and set out to found a church more to their liking elsewhere. Such provinces may have never experienced the more open-minded balance of scripture, reason and tradition described above. Leaders of these churches have recently been encouraged by American conservatives to adopt a more active international role.

These developments have encouraged an increasingly authoritarian mood, which the Anglican Covenant would encourage. The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion would have power to decree official Anglican teaching on any future controversy, thus declaring that the matter is settled and there is no scope for further debate. This principle has already been invoked since the publication of the Windsor Report to insist that as far as Anglicanism is concerned there is no longer any role for a continuing debate on the ethics of same-sex partnerships. The purpose of the Covenant is to extend this approach to future controversies.

Anglicans who seek to defend the more open approach of classic Anglican theology are, of course, anxious to resist these trends.


  1. Speech at a meeting marking his return from a tour of Australia and New Zealand, Westminster Central Hall, 30 Jan 1951, quoted in Church Times, 2 Feb 1951, p. 1. [back]
  2. Ramsey, A M, 'What is Anglican Theology', Theology 48, 1945, pp. 2-6, at p. 6. [back]
  3. Ibid, p. 2. [back]
  4. Podmore, Colin, Aspects of Anglican Identity, London: Church House Publishing, 2005, pp. 37-38. [back]

The Covenant pages - previousnext