Anglican Covenant

How was the text decided?

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A Primates' Meeting was held in October 2003, to discuss how to respond to the controversial issues of the time: the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster had authorised a liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships and Gene Robinson, who openly admitted to being in a gay relationship, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA. Disapproval of same-sex partnerships was strong in many places. Some church leaders shared it; others, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were caught on the back foot because they had not expected such strength of feeling. The Primates' Meeting reaffirmed the Lambeth Conference 1998 Resolution, 'valuing especially its emphasis on the need "to listen to the experience of homosexual persons"', but went on to say that

we deeply regret the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster and the Episcopal Church (USA) which appear to a number of provinces to have short-circuited that process, and could be perceived to alter unilaterally the teaching of the Anglican Communion on this issue. They do not. Whilst we recognise the juridical autonomy of each province in our Communion, the mutual interdependence of the provinces means that none has authority unilaterally to substitute an alternative teaching as if it were the teaching of the entire Anglican Communion.

In this statement we can see the Primates beginning to treat the Anglican Communion as a single confessional church where everybody is expected to believe the same thing. The North American churches in no way sought to impose their views of same-sex partnerships onto North Americans, let alone Anglicans in other parts of the world; on the contrary, they were simply making use of traditional autonomy. Nevertheless the Primates, by suggesting that they 'could be perceived to alter unilaterally the teaching of the Anglican Communion', were selling the pass to those who believed there ought to be a single, universally accepted Anglican teaching on the issue.

The Primates' Meeting authorised a Commission, which duly produced The Windsor Report in 2004. At the time there was much talk of expelling the North American provinces from the Anglican Communion, and in keeping with this mood the Windsor Report proposed an Anglican Covenant which would 'make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion' (118). In other words, we are not only to have affection for each other: we shall be forced to have it.

The Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez, was appointed Chair of the Covenant Design Group. He was the perfect man for the job: highly respected, conservative, able, amiable and a subtle politician fully up to the task of effecting global change. He had also co-edited a small book, To Mend the Net, arguing that the Primates should have "enhanced responsibility" - power - over the affairs of the Communion, including the ultimate power to expel a member.

The Covenant text needed to be attractive enough to persuade provinces to sign it. Most provinces do not want to give away their autonomy. Every draft has attempted to square this circle: how to give the Covenant real powers to instruct provinces and threaten punishments, while at the same time making it attractive enough for provinces to sign it.

Each draft in some way or other has tried to present the Covenant as entirely voluntary - each province could choose not to sign it, or sign and subsequently abandon it - but the provinces within the Covenant would turn their backs on the offenders. As the final text puts it, 'Recognition of, and fidelity to, the text of this Covenant, enables mutual recognition and communion' (§4.2.1); and if that is indeed to be the case, the implication is that mutual recognition and communion will no longer be extended to Anglican provinces which do not sign it. It is as though the proposers are saying to the provinces 'You are free to sign or not to sign; but if you do not, you will no longer be one of us'. It is a method of manipulation which many of us first learned in a school playground.

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