Everyone agrees the Anglican Communion is in a mess, but increasing the power of a central committee won’t fix it
Everyone agrees that the Anglican Communion is in a bit of a mess. Having a covenant will not reduce the mess one jot. And the IC/MC campaign has lucidly explained exactly why it will probably make it worse.
Historical context is crucial to understanding opponents’ fears: this covenant was a key recommendation of the 2004 Windsor report, whose premise was that Gene Robinson should never have been elected as bishop of New Hampshire. From the start, the objective was to oblige local churches to defer to “worldwide Anglican consensus” rather than responding to local circumstances in accordance with local needs.
Although a far cry from the text originally envisaged, section 4.2 still contains traces of earlier explicit attempts to make it a vehicle for discipline, now weakly expressed as imposing “relational consequences” on a province that declines to defer “a controversial action”. Some now defending the covenant were among those previously leading the campaign for strong disciplinary measures; few doubt that the covenant will be used this way.
In 2008, during the Lambeth conference, Paul Bagshaw found attending bishops saying two contradictory things. First, there will have to be a covenant. This is partly because archbishop Rowan Williams has invested so heavily in it, and many of his supporters will support him even if privately they think otherwise. Others claim it’s the only way to hold the Communion together. Second, not all Anglicans will sign up to the covenant. Some will refuse. There is much speculation about who the refusers will be and what they will do.
But we now know that it’s mostly conservatives who won’t be signing up. Here’s what the GAFCON/FCA Primates Council said in April: “We … believe that the current structures have lost integrity and relevance. We believe that it is only by a theologically grounded, biblically shaped reformation such as the one called for by the Jerusalem Declaration that God’s kingdom will advance. The Anglican Communion will only be able to fulfil its gospel mandate if it under-stands itself to be a community gathered around a confession of faith.”
In other words, conservatives reject the covenant because it isn’t punitive enough. “Gospel mandate” and “confession of faith” means “If you don’t agree with us, we won’t consider you a true Christian”.
Asked if he thought the covenant would become a reality, the former bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, recently said: “I think so, because I don’t think really there’s any alternative.” Without it, he argued, “the loudest voices tend to win, or at least drown out the other ones, and I have seen that happen and it’s not a pretty sight”.
But responding to the loudest voices was exactly what the Windsor report did – capitulating to Nigeria, Uganda, Sydney and the others – to propose a covenant that establishes a formal procedure to block other Anglicans doing what they judge necessary for the Gospel.
Already, without any covenant, the Anglican Consultative Council’s secretary-general has excluded participants from the USA and Chile from membership in international theological dialogues. The latter was sanctioned for breaking the other Windsor-recommended moratorium: on conservative bishops invading North America, though so far Nigeria and Uganda have escaped.
It’s clear to opponents that many English bishops and other synod members dislike the covenant, but still support it solely because they don’t want to be seen to oppose Williams. Some have whispered that opposition may harm their promotion chances (and now synod voting is electronic, rollcalls are published for all to see). I don’t recall previous archbishops generating this kind of blind followership.
Another Anglican “instrument of unity” is now in disarray. A report last week said that, unless the American Presiding Bishop voluntarily absents herself, the next Primates meeting in January will probably collapse. The Anglican Communion office denial was unconvincing. Signing the covenant won’t fix this either.
Indisputably, the covenant increases centralisation in the Communion, giving more power to a central committee that it possesses today. This is exactly the wrong direction of motion.
Yes, there are problems in the Anglican Communion. No, the covenant is not the solution. The only way forward is to establish the principle that these are issues on which it is OK for Anglicans to disagree with each other. And carry on talking.
Simon Sarmiento is one of the hosts on Thinking Anglican UK, a Blog-site concerned with the liberality of Anglican Communion Churches around the world. The site attracts both pro and anti comments of mutual interest to all Anglicans who are concerned about the current climate of dissention in the Communion about the prophetic actions of TEC and the controversy about their innovative programme of the ordination of a homosexual bishop (the Rt. Revd. Gene Robinson), and the subsequent ordination of as partnered lesbian bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles. The Anglican Church of Canada is also being criticised by conservatives in the Communion, for their affirmative action of the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions in their Church.
Provinces like Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and South Cone of South America have made their protest by absenting themselves from the Lambeth Conference, and setting up a rival ‘Anglican Communion’ – together with other conservative Provinces, in the formation of what they call The Global South Anglicans. In various meetings, this group have issued a communique of sodality proclaiming their absolute adherence to the Scriptures – as they have understood them – and their abhorrence of the action of TEC and the A.C.of Canada.
The Anglican Covenant – a product of the Windsor report – is a direct attempt by the anglican Communion Office to bring the two groups of Provinces together, a process which may be difficult as is reported.
Fr. Ron Smith