Approaching our decision on the Anglican Covenant in the Church of Ireland

by Bishop Michael Burrows, C of I clerical representative at ACC in Dundee (1999), Hong Kong (2002), and Nottingham (2005) and chair of select committee advising on Church of Ireland procedure regarding the Anglican Covenant.

BEING BACK in Trinity today with its various memories leads me to ask, is it the case that the irritating voice on the edge often becomes the prophetic consensus of the centre? H’mm. That is always the challenge that faces the churches, and Anglicanism among them.

Anyway I stand here as the successor in Ossory of Henry McAdoo, and I can’t know just what he would have said now, but one of his famous ARCIC phrases comes to mind. He was always keen to stress that in matters of this kind there had to be “a hierarchy of truths”, and I hope that both in the articulation of the Covenant and in due course in its application if it is passed we remain true to the principle that there is a hierarchy of truths. Lambeth 1.10 is not the Nicene Creed.

Now my role here today is not to be a proponent or opponent of the Covenant. My part in all this is to look at where the Church of Ireland is now synodically and procedurally in relation to it. First of all it’s probably true that Irish people are generally positive rather than suspicious people. We don’t discern any nefarious plot in the Anglican Covenant, I think, and we’re inclined to take the view that where people are working hard to sustain conversation and to hold things together and to protect the centre, we should be supportive. This is partly because of our history; and our uniquely Irish contribution to Anglicanism and to the world is that we do hold together in ourselves people of remarkably different theological and moral perspectives and varying positions. We have a history of trying to affirm holding mechanisms. I myself read into the record of the ACC at Nottingham the statement of the Irish bishops of some years ago saying that with good conscience and authenticity we could hold together in our common life at least four different perspectives on the sexuality issue. So there is in us that positivity.

Having acknowledged that, the question facing us was whether, if the General Synod were to consider the Covenant, it should be done in one of three ways: to put down a resolution, to have a bill, which then becomes a statute, or if it’s a matter affecting the doctrine or the formularies of the church you can have a special bill, which has to be taken over two years requiring a two-thirds majority in each of the houses of laity and clergy. Originally it was assumed that the Covenant would of necessity require a special bill, but in the event we decided to go for a simple motion, as was done with the Porvoo agreement, not incorporating the Covenant into the formularies of the Church, but simply “subscribing the Covenant”. First is had to be agreed and determined that “the Covenant was consonant with the doctrines and formularies of the Church of Ireland”. This is a simple utterance of the House of Bishops, made after consulting legal opinion, affirming that we are as we are and this does not change us. We could get into a debate as to the weight of this utterance, but the fact is that it exists, and that it permits the Synod to handle this by way of a simple resolution. It’s a corporate opinion of the whole House of Bishops, not simply an opinion of the Primate, as we have seen happen in other places! The one thing that the Bishops recommended to the Standing Committee was that it would be better to use the word “subscribe” rather than “adopt” in relation to any motion that would be laid before the General Synod in relation to the Covenant. The word “subscribe” has honourable traditions in the Church of Ireland; people subscribe the 39 Articles, they impute a great number of motives and consequences to that particular subscription. We feel it’s an honourable word and a word with precedent; the trouble with the word “adopt” is that in adopting one makes the thing adopted part of oneself, you take it within you own being. To subscribe is a slightly different thing.

So what was recommended – and it’s timely that we should be talking about this today – at the meeting of the Standing Committee last Tuesday, was that the following motion will be laid before the Synod: “Seeing that the Anglican Covenant is consonant with the doctrines and formularies of the Church of Ireland, the General Synod hereby subscribes the Covenant.” No more, no less. And it’s up to the General Synod to debate the matter to hear the arguments and to reach its conclusion as to that motion. The Standing Committee has also endorsed the circulation of an elucidation of this particular method and wording which will be hitting the members of the General Synod very shortly if it hasn’t done so electronically already; it is available as a public document. It makes a number of things clear: first of all there is no intention to make the Covenant part of our very being, part of our formularies, part of the documents which have that sort of status. We are and we will remain what we are; we freely buy into it as a way of regulating our external relationships. We can walk away – I know the previous speaker spoke of the consequences of walking away and that will be something the Synod will have to debate and decide on – but it is a freely entered into regulation of our external relationships.

Many people distrust the Covenant as a “self-denying ordinance”, limiting our freedom to develop our church life according to our own culture and conscience. For instance had there been a Covenant in place when we decided to approve the ordination of women as priests and bishops in 1990, would we not have been sent to some sort of “Coventry”? But we already have an experience of an apparently self-denying ordinance which in its outworking was not as constraining as one might have feared. In 1870 we solemnly committed ourselves to maintaining communion with our sister Church of England; it’s enshrined in our formularies. But has it been a self denying ordinance in fact? No one jumped up in the General Synod in 1990 to say “You can’t do that, because England hasn’t done it yet!” In other words an apparently self-denying ordinance in a relationship characterised by graciousness and trust did not turn out to hamper us in making our decision in principle to admit women to the episcopate. Now two bishoprics in our church are vacant and we can elect women to them if we wish; the Covenant is not going to stop us any more than the principles agreed at disestablishment did. Consequences? Well, who knows, and in a way who cares? Plenty of other Anglican churches have women bishops at this point. I believe we can cope with this sort of disagreement in a mode of graciousness so long as the disagreement is about gender and not about sex!

The Covenant is capable of being changed. It’s up to the General Synod if it subscribes the Covenant to monitor its unfolding, to hope that no unwelcome changes are foisted upon us, bearing in mind our constant capacity to walk away and to walk alone, though one would hope not.

The other thing is that a lot of voices in the C of I have been singing the praises of the ecumenical value of the early sections of the Covenant, not least in this country where ecumenical dialogue with so many other churches has been beneficial.

In conclusion, the fact that in the view of some people the Covenant is inadequate or a lost cause shouldn’t put us off our essential attitude of positivity. It’s likely that this debate will run and run. It may be many years before it is concluded one way or another. Who knows what the picture of Anglicanism will be by then? Who knows how our decision, whichever way it goes, will affect the wider picture. But, to come back for a moment to our history: when we were disestablished we argued for years and years about our self identity and the nature of Anglicanism and our relationships within the wider church before we settled down. It was an extended seminar that went on and on. But the having of that extended seminar, the maintenance of the dialogue, somehow preserved the way forward in the midst of many controversies. If all the Covenant can be is a continuing extended seminar like that on the nature of Anglicanism, perhaps that will be no harm, provided it is open-ended and gracious.

I hope that however the experience of the Covenant unfolds there will always be the concept of the “cherishing of loyal opposition”, as there is in secular politics, because it’s in that context that truth is best discerned. The elucidation of the Standing Committee to members of the General Synod, has quoted yet again the famous words from the Preface to the post-disestablishment Irish Prayer Book: “Men’s judgements of perfection are very various, but let them consider . . . that what is imperfect with peace, is better than what is otherwise more excellent without it.” Imperfection with peace may seem the ultimate cop-out, but the strange thing is, it has served the C of I well, and we remain an Anglican Church – I say it with a measure of vanity – with a supreme ability to hold together people who sometimes can profoundly disagree with each other.


The one thing that the Bishops recommended to the Standing Committee was that it would be better to use the word “subscribe” rather than “adopt” in relation to any motion that would be laid before the General Synod in relation to the Covenant. – Bishop M. Burrows –

It would seem that the Irish House of Bishops would rather ‘subscribe’ to the idea of the proposed Covenant, than to adopt it. This would allow a certain distance to be maintained from agreeing to any proscriptive discipline that might result from the infamous Section 4.

Bishop Michael also indicates a willingness to live with differences on questions which do not compromise doctrinal integrity. However, he obviously does not consider Lambeth 1:10 to be binding upon members of the Communion in the same way as affirmation of the Nicene Creed might be considered binding. In other words, the gender-sexuality issue is not necessarily a matter to be considered as doctrinal.

He also quotes a rather interesting comment from the post-disestablishment Irish Prayer Book: “Men’s judgements of perfection are very various, but let them consider . . . that what is imperfect with peace, is better than what is otherwise more excellent without it.” This would seem to indicate that the present areas of disagreement with the Communion – on gender and sexuality – might not be worth the stress of continuing battles for supremacy within the Communion.

From this article it would seem that the Irish Church will not elect to just sign up to the Covenant – without further and deeper discussions. That can only be good for the rest of us who fear the side-lining of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada in the culture of Section 4.

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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