Anglican Covenant

It would make churches more inward-looking

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At present each Anglican province is self-governing. In its decision-making it has to confront issues of many different types. Some are local, some more general. At one extreme nobody expects arrangements for clergy pensions to be the same across the whole Communion; at the other we do not expect provinces to make their own decisions about which books are to be contained in the Bible. On some issues it is more important to take account of local practice, on others it is more important to adhere to Christian tradition.

How do we decide, in each case, where the balance lies between doing what seems best from the local perspective and keeping in step with international Anglicanism? In practice there is no universal principle to settle the matter. Each province is free to consult interested parties like its own dioceses and parishes, relevant specialists and representatives of its host society. The Church of England for example often consults the British Government and civil servants about its proposals. This is as it should be.

The Covenant would not forbid these consultations, but it would tip the balance by subordinating them to international Anglicanism. In 'matters of common concern', it states, 'Each Church will undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion'. The top priority would always be to 'uphold the highest degree of communion possible' with other Anglican provinces (§3.2.4, §3.2.7). Thus the needs and concerns of the local context would be subordinated to international Anglicanism.

In this way the Covenant would push Anglicanism in the direction of a particular view of the Church. Richard Niebuhr's classic book Christ and Culture distinguishes five accounts of the relationship between Christianity and its host society: Christ Against Culture, the Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture. How Christians expect their church to relate to their society varies. At one extreme those who think their society is a very Christian one usually expect their church to engage constructively with it and give priority to its needs. It will learn from society, and expect to teach society in turn. It will order its affairs in the light of society's needs, and expect society to order its affairs in the light of the church's needs. At the other extreme those who think their society is evil will expect their church to protect itself against it, and perhaps relate to it as little as possible except to denounce it. It will be suspicious of any truth-claims coming from society, and therefore cling to its own beliefs as superior.

Anglican churches today vary in the way they perceive themselves. The Covenant does not discuss these differences, but in the way it emphasises the priority of 'the highest degree of communion possible' with international Anglicanism, it in effect recommends a direction of travel towards an inward-looking church, more concerned with international Anglicanism and less with its contribution to its host society in its own nation.

This is deliberate. The Covenant is worded with the intention of finding the North American churches guilty of responding positively to the changing attitudes towards same-sex partnerships within their own provinces. According to the Covenant's authors the top priority should have been to reflect the majority view of the Anglican Communion, regardless of what was going on locally.

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