Chris Sugden on two very different understandings of the purpose of the Anglican Communion Covenant

On 24 November, General Synod voted overwhelmingly to send the text of the Anglican Communion Covenant to the Dioceses for consideration. Coincidentally on the same day seven primates from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, West Africa and the Southern Cone of Latin America representing 40 million Anglicans released a statement that in their view ‘the covenant was fatally flawed and so support for this initiative is no longer appropriate’.

Bishop Saxbee of Lincoln said he was in favour of the Covenant process as long as it never ends. Dr Philip Giddings said he voted in favour reluctantly because its key part was only a quarter of a loaf and badly baked at that.

The confusion dates from the 1998 Lambeth Conference, where the bishops voted by 526 to 70 that homosexual practice was not compatible with Scripture. They also made the pastoral point that the experience of homosexuals should be listened to.

Immediately some bishops including Archbishop Williams published a letter apologizing to homosexual Anglicans for the result. TEC has ignored the vote and consecrated two actively homosexual bishops, arguing that Lambeth 1.10 is actually a policy about listening to the experience of homosexuals, so the issue of compatibility with Scripture was still open.

When the Windsor Commission was set up to forward the Covenant process, the issue of same-sex relations was specifically excluded from its remit.

The Covenant was seen by Global South archbishops as a means of setting out agreed Anglican Communion teaching and practice to define the common ground of unity and accountability for our belief and practice. They recognized that it would be inconsistent for TEC to sign it. Succeeding drafts privilege covenant-making as a continual listening process and seriously weaken accountability to the truth.

Lack of support

The Covenant is so weak that TEC is said to be able to sign it. Hence Archbishop Chew of Singapore told the Global South Conference in April 2010 that he could not sign it without a preamble to restore some strength.

In November 2010 Bishop Martyn Minns told a BBC interviewer following the GAFCON Primates statement that ‘There’s simply a lack of trust in the process. One of the Primates said, “Look, why do we keep going? All the decisions we have made, the documents we signed have never been honoured. There’s no point.”’

We might well ask how a proposal that is known not to have the support of the leaders of a substantial part of the Anglican Communion, and to have only lukewarm support from the Church of England synod, can still keep its head above the water. Is it that some of the smaller but more numerous provinces in the Anglican Communion are hanging on to Canterbury’s coat-tails for the sake of their own identity?

Is it that the leadership of the Communion can only keep the ‘family’ together by not exercising discipline on those who have consistently flouted Christian and Anglican teaching and practice on the one side nor accepting the discipline offered by the Global South leaders in conformity with the prescription of the Anglican Communion Constitution on the other (see below)?

It is because they feel that the Communion’s leadership has ignored their concerns that some senior primates from the Global South have resigned from the Standing Committee and declined to attend the Primates’ Meeting in Dublin.

A mechanism for consensus?

The above responses reflect very different understandings of the key issues. For some, those issues are about theology and truth. For others, the issue is how to provide a mechanism to achieve consensus so the Communion can stay together.

For some, the Covenant sets some of the credal statements of the Christian faith in a framework whose premise is that the doctrinal and theological disagreements within the Communion are not about fundamentals but have arisen through problems in communication and understanding, as people have differing convictions.

So how different would the Communion be if the current Covenant text were to apply? Contradictory positions could be lived with because what appears mutually incompatible is not finally so because they are all personal convictions even though espoused by groups. ‘Better’ listening might reveal overlap, convergence and possible co-existence between initially opposing positions.

Matters of truth and error

But for others, the doctrinal and theological matters in current dispute are matters of right and wrong, truth and error, not of personal conviction over which better communication, listening and discussing will produce harmony. The Covenant process as now presented, they say, can only deal with the latter disagreements.

Matters of indifference on which Scripture allows disagreement are not a valid reason for breaking fellowship/ communion. Critics of the current draft argue that removing a process of discipline risks moving some fundamentals into the indifference category.

Some in leadership assert that truth is not the exclusive preserve of any one group. However, the Bible never affirms that the Church has proprietary rights to all truth. It does call the Church to witness faithfully to fundamental and non-negotiable truths. The identity and the mission of the Church depend on this. Leaders of the Church are called to unambiguous commitment to such truths – exemplified in the oaths they are required to take.

Permanent state of dialogue

The current Covenant process further delays judgement and offers little hope of discipline and consistency. We are left in a permanent state of dialogue. Endless appeal could be made to conviction, openness, listening and time while actions continue which go against the Church’s teaching.

The CEN of 3 December reports that Bishop Michael Nazir Ali indicated that the new Section IV of the Covenant was ‘quite different’ from that prepared by the Covenant design team, and ‘produces a new kind of ecclesial animal’ in the Standing Committee. ‘We have had a spate of resignations’ from the Standing Committee ‘that calls into question its on-going credibility,’ he noted. Yet that Committee will ‘make recommendations’ about discipline. The Ridley draft of the Covenant ‘was much better and stronger’. It provided ‘due safeguards and allowed the Primates to make the final decision.’

The location of authority

The much-neglected constitution of the Anglican Communion, drawn up by the committee on the Anglican Communion at the 1930

Lambeth Conference, and endorsed in its resolution 48, locates the real authority within the Communion in the individual provinces – in ‘the principle of the autonomy of particular churches based upon a common faith and order’. Here it points out that:

‘The Provinces and Patriarchates of the first four centuries were bound together by no administrative bond: the real nexus was a common life resting upon a common faith, common Sacraments, and a common allegiance to an Unseen Head. This common life found from time to time an organ of expression in the General Councils. The Anglican Communion is constituted upon this principle. It is a fellowship of Churches historically associated with the British Isles. While these Churches preserve apostolic doctrine and order they are independent in their self-government… Every Church in our Communion is free to build up its life and development upon the provisions of its own constitution… This freedom naturally and necessarily carries with it the risk of divergence to the point even of disruption. In case any such risk should actually arise, it is clear that the Lambeth Conference as such could not take any disciplinary action. Formal action would belong to the several Churches of the Anglican Communion individually; [This indicates that the constitution gives the responsibility of discipline to member churches who act through their own leadership and primates as the GAFCON primates have done. My emphasis] but the advice of the Lambeth Conference, sought before action is taken by the constituent Churches, would carry very great moral weight…’

In November the General Synod did not vote to adopt the Covenant but rather to send it for discussion in the Dioceses. As discernment continues, let us hope that its direction makes the document one of truth and accountability rather than prevarication in the form of dialogue and listening which has no outcome.