A very un-Anglican Covenant

The proposed Anglican Covenant is an attempt by some leaders of the Anglican Communion to subordinate national churches to a centralised international authority, with power to forbid developments when another province objects. We have opposed the Covenant since its inception. Here we explain why.

What is the Covenant for?

In the first instance it would establish a clear separation between the Anglican provinces which accept same-sex partnerships and the provinces which forbid them.

In the long term it would create a centralised, authoritarian system with power to forbid any contentious new developments. In effect this is a power struggle, using opposition to same-sex partnerships as a rallying-cry to gather support. The underlying aim is to change the nature of Anglicanism and turn it from an consensual church, where people are generally free to work out their own beliefs and standards, to a confessional church where members are expected to accept the teachings of church leaders.

Who wants it?

Those who have been campaigning against same-sex partnerships. It was first proposed in the Windsor Report of 2004, after the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the USA and the approval of a same-sex blessing service in Canada. Some church leaders were threatening to split the Anglican Communion unless these actions were revoked, and the Primates' Meeting and the Archbishop of Canterbury were persuaded to support them. Since then plans for a Covenant have been developed, there has been a succession of draft texts and the final text was published at the end of 2009.

Is it just about gay bishops?

Not any more. This is indeed the presenting issue, and the current basis for condemning the North American churches. (Why so much controversy about same-sex partnerships?). However the wording of the Covenant does not mention the issue. Instead it proposes giving powers to a new international body of just 15 people, the 'Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion', to judge any development in one province whenever another province disapproves.

This makes it a major, wide-ranging change to the Anglican Communion, in some ways the biggest since the Reformation. We cannot foresee what changes will be needed in the next ten years, let alone the long term future, but we can be sure that new issues will indeed arise and require new responses, and that someone somewhere will disapprove. Would it really be wise to hand, in effect, a right of veto to opponents of any innovation?

How would the Covenant work?

Some church leaders wanted to expel the North American churches from the Anglican Communion, but as this is impossible the Covenant is designed to demote them. Each province is free to sign it or not. Those signing would commit themselves not to undertake any new development whenever another signatory objects, unless granted prior permission from the new Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, which would have power to pass judgement on their decisions and threaten sanctions for disobeying them. It is designed to ensure that the North American provinces cannot sign it unless they abandon their support for same-sex partnerships.

Why would any province want to sign it? Some archbishops are keen to do so, in order to distance themselves from the North American provinces. Others need more persuading. The sub-text is that provinces which refuse to sign it will no longer be treated as fully Anglican. This is implied in the Covenant text; but as though to dispel any uncertainty, the immediate practical implication is that they will be excluded from international structures - and this feature has already been applied to the USA, thus pre-empting the Covenant.

How important is it?

Proponents of the Covenant speak with two voices. Opponents of the North American churches have been reassured, since the publication of the Windsor Report in 2004, that it will be a major new discipline, the forceful structure they have been waiting for to ensure that innovations like gay bishops cannot recur. To the governing bodies of individual provinces wondering whether they really want to give up their autonomy, the message is that this is a small matter, merely asking them to consult with each other from time to time. These claims cannot both be true.

This reveals their main dilemma: how to produce a text which on the one hand is forceful enough impose its demands on the provinces, but on the other will persuade them to sign it. Their solution is to present the Covenant as an entirely voluntary agreement which does not affect a province's governance or autonomy. Provinces signing it would, as before, act as they wished - so long as no other province objected. Once the Standing Committee upheld an objection, it would impose 'relational consequences', which would generally mean treating them like non-signatories.

Thus the Covenant resolves its dilemma with a message familiar from the school playground: 'You are free to do as you like, but if you do not do as we tell you, we shall all turn our backs on you and you will not be one of us'. Legally, provinces cannot be expelled; but the Covenant comes so close that autonomy would, in effect, become a legal fiction.

Over the centuries there have been many changes. It is one thing to disapprove of some of them; it would be quite another to give archbishops in other parts of the world the right to veto them. (More on what the Covenant is likely to achieve in practice and what difference it would have made if we already had it, for example to the introduction of women priests).

Differences of opinion are normal, and should be openly acknowledged. This has been the traditional Anglican approach. It does not mean 'anything goes'; it means caring about truth enough to listen to different viewpoints, accepting that nobody is infallible, and standing up against those who want to suppress debate.

How would it affect my church?

How much will it cost?

And who will pay? No budget has ever been made public, but it might look something like this.

How you can help

The English dioceses are now being asked to decide whether to support the Covenant. The results will inform General Synod when it takes its decisive vote, planned for July 2012. What happens in England will be particularly important as it is likely to influence other provinces. If your diocese has not yet voted, it would be helpful if you could lobby them. Many of your Diocesan Synod representatives may be unaware of the strength of the case against it.

For further comments and questions contact [email protected]. Alternatively you can write to
Covenant Debate, 9 Westward View, Liverpool L17 7EE.

The Covenant pages - read them all