The Case Against The Anglican Covenant

The case against the Anglican Covenant

by Revd Jonathan Clatworthy, General Secretary of Modern Church.

Centralising power

Firstly the centralisation of power. The Covenant’s proponents have repeatedly denied any such intention. What matters, though, is not their intentions but how others with their own agendas would be able to use it. The Standing Committee would respond to objections by making a recommendation. Thereafter no individual church would be able to re-open that question without running the risk of relational consequences. The recommendation would become the Anglican Communion’s official position on the matter. Teaching authority on that issue would have shifted from individual churches to the Standing Committee. That’s centralisation.

Given the threat of relational consequences, churches would see the need to consult the Standing Committee before making an innovation. Thus, even without a dispute, churches would inevitably grant authority to the Standing Committee on any question which had potential for controversy.

Differences of opinion would of course continue, and so would lobby groups. Lobby groups target whoever has decision-making power. From their point of view it would be pointless to lobby an individual province because the Standing Committee would have the last word. They would therefore have every incentive to escalate local disagreements, and make them international.

Limiting provincial autonomy

The Covenant denies that it limits the autonomy of provinces. The point is made often, and emphatically in §4.1.3: “Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction.”

There is good reason. Earlier in the process many campaigners wanted the Covenant precisely in order to threaten the North American provinces with expulsion from the Anglican Communion. However, the Covenant Design Group faced the tricky question of how to persuade autonomous provinces to give up their autonomy. The Covenant now proposes to let them keep their autonomy, abandons the idea of expelling them, and looks for other ways to distinguish between signatories and non-signatories.

What would happen in practice? A province disagreeing with a recommendation would be faced with a choice: either it accepted the recommendations or “relational consequences” would be applied. Because the provinces are autonomous there would be no attempt to interfere with the province’s internal affairs. The only sanctions would be to exclude it from some or all of the Communion’s international structures.

This is not a minor detail. The whole point of the Covenant is to provide a way to resolve conflict. When we ask what methods it has to do the job, it turns out that, apart from making one last attempt to negotiate a settlement, its only method is this threat to exclude.

Is this subordination, or isn’t it? Critics point out that it is like a school playground. You are free to do whatever you like, but if you don’t do what we tell you we’ll all walk away and we’ll have nothing more to do with you. At the very least it’s a power game.


Do these relational consequences add up to punishments? Covenant defenders say they do not: the purpose of the exclusion is to ensure that the international structures are only staffed by those who themselves agree with Anglican teaching. But now look at it from the other side. If the Church of Ireland was excluded from all representative international committees, that might not make a big difference to you personally; but how would you feel if the reason for the exclusion was that the Irish Church insisted on upholding a belief which you yourself passionately agreed with? It would be clear to you that you are being punished for the crime of believing something that other Anglicans, outside Ireland, have suddenly decreed to be contrary to Anglican teaching. In case you think Anglicans would never do such a thing, this punishment has already been imposed on the USA, even in advance of the Covenant coming into effect. One of the common temptations facing the powerful is to underrate the oppression they are imposing on others.


In this extract of a report covered by a Church of Ireland Journal, The Revd Jonanthan Clatworthy, of Modern Church, gives his opinion of certain drawbacks about the Covenant process, which would militate against the continuing self-government of Provinces within the Communion – thus rendering them to a centralised control system, which could easily be used to prevent any faith initiatives which did not meet the demands of the Standing Committee of the ACC.

These negative aspects of the Covenant Process should give us food for thought in the forthcoming debates that will be held in our own dioceses of the ACANZP.

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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