The Covenant: gift or shackle? – Church Times

 A FALSE distinction is sometimes made between faith and religion. Faith is supposedly free, the preserve of the unbridled spirit; religion is a codified set of doctrines and rules. In reality, as St Paul thought he had explained to everyone’s satisfaction nearly 2000 years ago, a sound doctrine is what sets people free, sweeping away ignorance to enable them to hear the Holy Spirit clearly. This, in turn, leads to right behaviour, based on love of neighbour.   

The remarkable thing about the Anglican Communion up to the present is that this balance between freedoms and re -sponsibilities has been tipped so decidedly towards the former.

Whereas national Churches operate within a legal framework that regulates ministry, liturgy, property, and governance, the relationship between the different provinces internationally is held together by “bonds of affection” and little else. This has been a point of pride among many Anglicans when they com -pare it with the centralised power structures of other denom -inations. The argument runs, however, that this degree of affection lasts only while the Anglican provinces have little to do with each other and are allowed to go their own way without check. This is not how the modern world works, however. The Western liberal finds it hard to tolerate the unjust treatment of minorities in the South on the grounds of tradition. Southern conservatives feel compromised by Western liberalism, which they associate with decadence. Both camps know instantly and fully what the other is doing. The bliss of ignorance, distance, and time can no longer be relied upon to hold the Communion together.

And so we arrive at the Covenant. It might be thought odd that we devote so much space to a text that is readily available on the web and has been in its final form for more than a year. But it is necessary to counter the view that this is somebody else’s concern, of interest only to international bureaucrats and theologians. Over the next few months, every diocesan synod must debate this text and come to a view on whether to recommend its adoption. The Covenant is a key issue for anyone concerned about how the Church functions around the world. In this category, we hope, each of our readers fits.

Of course, there was no immaculate conception. The Covenant was born out of conflict, as Marilyn McCord Adams points out — a response to the fragmentation triggered by the consecration of a gay bishop in the United States. One thing that synods will have to decide is whether the text has overcome its dubious origins, or whether these have left it flawed. The debate about it has certainly been unbalanced, concentrating mostly on Section Four, which tackles the question what should happen to a province that fails to comply with the Covenant requirement for constraint. Dr Williams spoke early on of two methods of handling diversity: council and covenant. Thanks to the various debates, we know plenty about what to do with a province or diocese that innovates without agreement, but too little about how to nurture that agreement.

The paradox is that the portion of the Communion which was most enthusiastic about the Covenant, the conservative South, has now virtually disowned it. Bishop Akao argues on these pages that, watered down through successive drafts, the Cove nant now offers no threat to recalcitrant provinces and is con- sequently no longer fit for its purpose. For others, the weak – ening of that element of threat is a recommendation, although it raises the question what, now, the Covenant is actually for.

Ultimately, its effect on the Communion cannot be known in advance. To vote in its favour, therefore, is to step into the dark. Such is the present state of the Communion, however, that to vote against it might well lead Anglicans into similar obscurity.


This overview of responses to the Covenant around the Anglican Communion, in the Church Times article, gives us a fairly broad view of what opposing interests really think about its value for them. For instance, here is a Global South approach:

“Bishop Akao argues on these pages that, watered down through successive drafts, the Covenant now offers no threat to recalcitrant provinces and is consequently no longer fit for its purpose. “

This is a typical view of those who oppose the actions of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada in opening up the ministry of the Church to the LGBT community – which has been a movement based on human rights and justice issues. However this is seen as questionable, and too difficult by the conservatives to be allowed into any ongoing Communion debate about gender and sexuality.

And so, we have this dichotomy about the Covenant. Some say that the disciplinary powers of the Covenant are not robust enough; while others of us believe that Section 4 is totally discriminatory against any Gospel outreach to the minority of LGBT persons who are already part of the Churches of the Communion.

However, there is much more than just sexuality and gender being the cause of division  – between one section of the Covenant Opposition and the other: Biblical fundamentalism is one of the root causes of conflict between the adversaries who maintain  different approaches in their opposition to the Covenant.  And until more education in the area of human development – in the light of modern scientific discovery – is undertaken by all provinces, there would seem to be no way of drawing together the various strands of the Communion.

There is no common desire to accommodate, and live with, the idea of differing cultural and spiritual expectations. Unity in diversity used to be one of the marks of the Anglican Communion. Sadly, that paradigm seems to be no longer seen as a benefit by some of the Members.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch  

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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