Catholicity Outweighs Autonomy – Paul Avis

The Anglican Communion Covenant

by Paul Avis

 originally published in The Living Church on April 1, 2011, republished with permission.

The future of the Anglican Communion is in jeopardy. The Windsor Report proposed an Anglican Covenant, centering on mutual commitment, to secure a unified future for the Communion. The Anglican Covenant is the only credible proposal that I am aware of to help hold this family of churches together. The alternative to the Covenant is to allow the present sharp tensions to be worked out in the formal separation of some churches of the Communion from others — and that means schism, and the fracture and possible dissolution of the Anglican Communion.

The Covenant is not perfect and it is not completely clear to me how the “consequences” aspect of it will be worked out, if it comes to that. But I don’t think that is the most important thing about the Covenant. The key, for me, is that by subscribing to the Covenant, Anglican churches will signal in a serious way their intention to remain together. They will signal this to themselves, to all the other Anglican churches throughout the world, and to other Christian world communions, who are watching anxiously and do not want to see the Anglican Communion finally fail as a worldwide fellowship of churches. Such a failure would indicate a serious weakening of Christianity and its witness on the world stage. It would also bring grief and heartbreak to millions of Anglican Christians around the globe.

But is the Anglican Covenant asking too much of member churches? Does it fatally compromise the hard-won autonomy of the “provinces”? I think not. “Autonomy” cannot be the first thing that we have to say about ourselves as Anglican churches. I think the attributes of the Church of Christ in the Creed come much higher up: unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.

The very first thing we want to say about our church is that it belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. But if we belong, with others, to something much bigger than ourselves, then we belong together and not in autonomous isolation. So interdependence must be a key denominator of Anglican ecclesiology and polity. The Covenant seeks to flesh out in practical terms what interdependence might mean.

For churches that exist in a relationship of interdependence, it seems not too much to ask of us that we consider the common good of the Church as a whole and of the Anglican Communion as a part of that whole. This takes us to the heart of what is meant by catholicity. “Catholic” is from the Greek kat’ holon, “according to the whole.” To be catholic is to be deeply conscious of being part of a wider whole and to act accordingly. The virtues of forbearance, patience, restraint, willingness to consult and to accept a degree of accountability to others come into play here. “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Is the Anglican Communion that important? Is it worth saving? Is the Communion worth fighting for? My answer to that question is an unequivocal Yes, and there is a profound theological reason for saying that. Communion (koinonia in the Greek New Testament) is not something that is man-made. It is not a human artifact and is not at our disposal.

Communion — whether between individual Christians in the Body of Christ, or between particular churches within the universal Church — is something given in the realm of grace. It is intimately connected to the sacraments. In baptism we are brought into communion with the Triune God and one another; in the Eucharist — Holy Communion — we are sustained and strengthened in that communion. Communion is God’s greatest gift to us in this life and it will be completed and fulfilled in the next.

Any expression of communion is to be treated with great respect and care. It is an imperative of Christian love to seek communion with our fellow Christians. We are called to seek, maintain and extend communion. To do that we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is sometimes conceived as the bond of communion between the Father and the Son. Ultimately, then, the future of the Anglican Communion is not a political matter, but a spiritual issue. I believe we should consider the Covenant in that light. 

(The Rev. Dr. Paul Avis is the general secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and canon theologian of Exeter Cathedral)


“The alternative to the Covenant is to allow the present sharp tensions to be worked out in the formal separation of some churches of the Communion from others — and that means schism, and the fracture and possible dissolution of the Anglican Communion.” – Dr.Paul Avis –

This statement, posited on the need of a Covenant, by Dr.Paul Avis, is already redundant – if only for the fact that schism has already occurred – formally in North America, and informally, by the Provinces of the GAFCON, which have distanced themselves from the rest of us in the Communion by their continuing boycotting of the official Instruments of Communion – notably, the Lambeth Conference and the recent Meetings of the Primates Council.

Whatever the current version of the covenant document may do – it will never bring together these factions of the Church with the rest of the Communion. How can I be so sure of that fact? Well, the North American schismatics of ACNA are already out of the equation, while the dissident Provinces of the GAFCON sodality have already rejected the Covenant, because of what they have discerned as its ‘lack of teeth’ with which to discipline TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada because of the inclusion of the LGBT community in their Churches.

Furthermore, Dr. Avis’ preference for ‘Catholic Unity’ over Independence on the part of the Provinces of the Communion, has something of a hollow ring – in the light of the plurality of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as it already exists in the world of today. The only single Church Body which claims to be  uniquely ‘Catholic’ is that of the Church of Rome, which is ruled by Papal Fiat, and is, in any event, not willing to extend to any of the Anglican Church Provinces the privilege of sharing in its claim of supremacy. The recent fiasco of the R.C. Ordinariates bears testimony to that fact.

The Anglican Communion is a family of individual Churches which share in the Anglican Tradition of its Reformed, Catholic and Apostolic heritage; something that cannot really be resiled from – except by formal withdrawal from subscription to the Catholic Creeds, which are still part and parcel of their inheritance.

To further formalise the relationship between the independent Provinces of the Communion, by imposing a culture of inhibition against new initiatives of Gospel freedom, is to court the same sort of disaster as has already occurred in North America – schismatic dissidence.

While most Provinces might welcome a strengthening of the Bonds of Affection, on which our Communion was founded, I, personally, would not welcome the strong-arm tactics of enforced uniformity in missionary praxis that would result from Section 4 of the present Covenant Document.

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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