Anglican Covenant

Would it have prevented the ordination of women?

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If it had been introduced in time, yes.

In the future, although it would probably permit practices - like consecrating women bishops - which some provinces have already adopted, it would hinder further development, and since supporters of women's ministry are well aware that there is still much else to do, it would be foolish to support a Covenant designed to hinder new developments.

It was the debate over gay and lesbian sexuality which led the Windsor Report of 2004 to suggest a Covenant. To express its disapproval of recent developments on that matter, Windsor contrasts them with the consultations leading to the introduction of women priests and bishops, which it treats as a model of good practice.

Such affirmation may encourage supporters of women's ministry to think they have nothing to fear, but this would be a mistake. The first Anglican woman priest, Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained in 1944. As the Windsor Report puts it, 'the story gathered pace' when the Diocese brought the matter to the Lambeth Conference in 1968 - 24 years later! Windsor omits to note that the 1958 Conference had not seen fit to debate the matter at all. In 1968 it considered the theological arguments inconclusive and referred the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council. The ACC passed judgement, in 1970, in favour of permitting the ordination of women. The voting was close: 24 to 22. Windsor draws the moral that 'Hong Kong did not understand itself to be so autonomous that it might proceed without bringing the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council as requested by the Lambeth Conference 1968'. Time is going backwards: permission was granted in 1970, so the ordination of 1944 was permitted!

What happened in 1968, in Alan Stephenson's words (Anglicanism and the Lambeth Conferences, SPCK, 1978, p. 262) was that 'Gilbert Baker, Bishop of Hong Kong since 1966, had asked for advice in view of the fact that his diocesan synod had approved in principle the ordination of women to the priesthood. Hong Kong was the diocese where Bishop Hall, Baker's predecessor, had ordained a woman to the priesthood in 1944'. In other words, not only did the 1958 Conference find it unnecessary to debate the matter at all, but the 1968 Conference would not have discussed it either, if Bishop Baker had not sought clarification of the situation.

From 1974 onwards other women were ordained, at first in the USA and Canada but soon afterwards elsewhere too. The 1978 Lambeth Conference recognised 'the autonomy of each of its member Churches, acknowledging the legal right of each Church to make its own decision about the appropriateness of admitting women to Holy Orders.' The Windsor Report commented that that Conference had 'addressed a situation where Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and New Zealand had all ordained women to the priesthood and eight other provinces had accepted the ordination of women in principle.'

Clearly, the Windsor Report's attempt to present the issue as a model of patient international consultation wildly misinterprets even its own data. In reality, provinces did what they believed right and international bodies later accepted the situation.

The story also shows how a development which attracts little controversy at the time can become controversial long afterwards, for reasons to do with the concerns of a later age. We do not know what would have happened in the 1970s if Bishop Baker had not brought the matter up in 1968, thus obliging Lambeth and the ACC to establish a position on it. Would the subsequent ordinations of women have been less controversial? We do not know. What we do know, though, is that the first ordination took place in Hong Kong in 1944 but the height of the controversy was much later and elsewhere.

This often happens: for example Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859 but the main debates about religion and evolution did not take place until the 1920s. What the delay shows is that the controversy is generated by something else, over and above the original event. The authors of the Windsor Report and the proposed Covenant would have been well advised to ask themselves who turns an innovation into a controversy, for what reasons and with what justification. If we ask why women priests and gay bishops justify threats of schism while the remarriage of divorcees and changes to ordination oaths do not, we are more likely to find sociological than theological explanations.

Given this background, how would the Anglican Covenant relate to the development of women's ministry? To distinguish the issues the question is divided into three.

1) How will it affect future development?

Lambeth Conferences and the Anglican Consultative Council have already given the green light to women priests and bishops. The Covenant, like the Windsor Report, acknowledges the authority of these international bodies; indeed, in its determination to centralise Anglicanism it exaggerates the authority they already have. As things stand, therefore, the Covenant's proponents expect the Standing Committee to adhere to Lambeth Conference resolutions, including the one permitting women bishops. Nevertheless the Covenant does not require it to do so, and since Lambeth Conferences can repeal their own earlier resolutions (in 1939 they overturned their earlier ban on contraception) it may well happen that, as the Standing Committee establishes itself as the supreme Anglican authority, it considers itself competent to dissent from Lambeth, or at least enforce its own interpretations of resolutions passed at Lambeth.

2) What difference would it have made to the Church of England if the Covenant had been in place in 1992?

Not only would the ordination of women have needed a two-thirds vote in all three houses of General Synod, but if one or more provinces had objected (which is almost certain) the proposal would then have been referred to the Standing Committee. Since the vote was in any case very close, it would not have been passed if only one or two supporters had decided to vote against in order to avoid a long drawn out conflict with the Standing Committee. This illustrates two features of the way the Covenant would work: it would give great power to small provinces to block innovations elsewhere, and discourage developments in advance through the threat of long bureaucratic struggles.

Nevertheless the Standing Committee could have determined that, as women priests had been introduced in other provinces, they should be permitted in England too. The fact that some provinces already had them would have been their strongest case in favour of granting permission. We should note that other provinces already had them because there was no Anglican Covenant.

3) What difference would it have made if it had been in place in 1944?

Of course it would have been extremely difficult for international bodies to operate during the Second World War, and this was the situation in which the first woman was ordained. However, if the Covenant had been in place then, and if it had operated as currently planned, it is difficult to see how the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi could possibly have been approved. At that time no province had women priests, and it would only have taken one province to lodge an objection with the Standing Committee. In theory the Standing Committee could have ruled in favour of the ordination; but it would have been flying in the face of the objections and approving the very thing it is designed to forbid, namely new developments which other provinces find objectionable. Realistically, the Standing Committee could only have approved the first ordination of a woman if the objections had no strength of feeling behind them - in other words, by virtue of Anglicanism being in a more tolerant mood then than it is now. It was; but this only draws attention to the real character of the Covenant, which is to give power to the intolerant. Once formally forbidden by the Standing Committee, the ordination of women would have remained unavailable until such time as the folly of the Anglican Covenant was publicly acknowledged.

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