Geoffrey Kirk considers the prospects for the Anglican Covenant

The old ones are undoubtedly the best – so here goes. Q: How many Orthodox bishops does it take to change a light bulb? A: I am sorry, but did you say change?

Seriously, though, the world-wide Orthodox community – without a magisterium and without much of a centralised bureaucracy – has succeeded in maintaining unity in faith and morals by sheer inflexibility. Such a result is not available to the Anglican Communion, which prides itself on its prompt response to modernity and its democratic institutions. Anglicans are not merely involved in the changing of light bulbs: they are into whole new methods of illumination.

These are precisely the reasons why the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant (about which Gregory Cameron has been getting hot under the collar recently) is probably a proposal too far, and would in any case prove ineffectual even if agreed. The tragedy is that the opponents of the Covenant – who now have thier own website and are advertising in the Church press – are absolutely right about it. The project will founder on nothing less than the very nature of Anglicanism.

The problem of democracy, especially as it applies to doctrine and morals, is the recurrent problem of subsidiarity. At what level should a decision be taken for it to be binding? For Anglicans the possibilities range from the individual conscience to the autonomous province. (There isany no communion-wide arena for decision making, and the impossibility of creating one is the problem which the Covenant is supposed to resolve.) The appropriate level, therefore, will always be a matter of dispute. The American experience provides a cautionary tale for the whole Communion.

When Gene Robinson was proposed as the Bishop of New Hampshire, despite clearrules definingthe required consents by bishops with jurisdiction and diocesan standing committees, the claim was made that none of these had the right to overturn the decision of the episcopalians of New Hampshire. The very same people who made that claim are now strenuously protesting their right to veto the appointment of the conservative Dan Martins to the diocese of Springfield!

What was a free association of dioceses (many of which preexisted the creation of the national Episcopal Church) has turned into an ecclesiological re-run of the War of 1861. Seceding dioceses have been pursued with every rigour of the law, and by means of doubtful canonical innovations. Potemkin dioceses have been erected in their territory, which have then sued the legitimate diocese for trading under the name which they themselves have arrogated.

None of this bodes well for the Communion as a whole. Its fate was effectively sealed when, in order to solve its problems over women’s ordination, it erected the doctrine of Provincial Autonomy. It did so, of course, in the very area – of mutually recognised ministry – which made no sense at all, either in terms of its own cohesion or its ecumenical aspirations. ‘Untune that string; and hark what discord follows’.

The truth is that in recent years Anglicans, whilst being outspoken advocates of ‘full visible unity’ among Christians, have unfailingly chosen the wrong options where their own institutional coherence was concerned. Michael Ramsay, whilst disapproving of the Hong Kong ordinations of women under Bishop Hall, did nothing to restrain him. And the Anglican Consultative Council, at its first and fateful meeting, exercised an authority it did not possess to grant him an autonomy which it could not confer. Since then there has been a virtual undeclared war between the ACC and the more recently created Primate’s Meeting, which with the erection of the snappily titled Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primate’s Meeting (recently renamed – by what authority? – ‘The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion’) has degenerated into something between a soap opera and a farce. Alongside this has limped the ‘Windsor Process’, which Rowan Williams unblushingly commended to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome as a blueprint for the ecumenical future!

It is truly a wonder that anyone bothers to be opposed to the Covenant; its failure is so predictable, and indeed assured. The most ambitious project which the present management of the Anglican Communion can realistically entertain, therefore, is to sustain ‘continuous dialogue’.

To be successful, of course, it must be dialogue intended never to come to any very serious conclusion – for the moment it did so, the Communion would dissolve in schism. There is no denying it: we have seen the future, and it is an endless procession of ‘periods of reception’ about absolutely everything!

But cheer up! A ‘listening process’ with no positive end in view, does at least extend employment prospects for the very sort of liberal quasi-academics that church bureaucracies favour. It gives them a positive raison d’etre. Facilitating open discussion is, after all, what they suppose themselves to be good at!

Radical revisionists, on the other hand, should also welcome such extended ‘listening processes’: for they are assuredly the most efficacious way of riding the Church of religious dogma and assimilating it to the contemporary secular consensus. ND