Eirenic Alternative to the Anglican Covenant

Instead of the Anglican Covenant

Jonathan ClatworthyJonathan Clatworthy

by Jonathan Clatworthy

Proponents of the Anglican Covenant sometimes challenge opponents to suggest alternatives. Thus the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his 2011 Advent Letter to the Primates, wrote:

I continue to ask what alternatives there are if we want to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity. In the absence of such alternatives, I must continue to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can to all who are considering its future.[1]

This article seeks to respond to the challenge. It can only be a partial response because unlike the Covenant’s proponents, who are supported by the resources of the Anglican Communion Office, opponents work on a voluntary basis and none has the right to speak on behalf of all. The matter is complicated by the marked reluctance of proponents (with honourable exceptions like the Bishop of St Asaph) to communicate directly with opponents at all. This means that nobody in particular has been asked to offer an alternative. This one expresses the views ofModern Church and the No Anglican Covenant Coalition.

Normally, opponents of a suggested change are under no obligation to present an alternative change. In this instance we understand the challenge to stem from a sense of crisis and a concern to do something to resolve it. The question, as we understand it, is: if the Anglican Covenant will not be the solution to our current problems, what will?

The cause of the dispute

Any satisfactory response to the dispute must understand its cause. The Windsor Report, the framers of the Covenant text and many Covenant supporters have described the cause as the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the provision of a same-sex blessing service by the Diocese of New Westminster, both in 2003.

These events were not, however, the cause. The rhetoric of crisis, and the threats of schism, had begun well before 2003. Neither were they in any sense schismatic acts. In both cases a diocese was responding to local circumstances using its normal procedures. The responsible parties knew that others would disapprove of their actions, but controversial actions are normal. Religious beliefs and practices do change over time, and every change occasions discussions between different points of view.

The present sense of crisis has been created by threats of schism, and there have been actual schismatic acts such as border-crossings. The threats, and border-crossings, have not come from the Dioceses of New Hampshire or New Westminster; they have come from their opponents. These opponents have made no secret of the reasons for proposing schism; they are freely available in a number of publications and websites. In order to respond constructively to the crisis we need to understand why they felt it necessary to issue these threats.

The nature of the dispute

The presenting issue is the ethics of same-sex partnerships. In some parts of the Communion a traditional Christian disapproval has been replaced by acceptance; in others the disapproval continues. Of those who continue to disapprove, some consider the diversity of opinion legitimate while others do not.

It is those who consider the diversity of opinion illegitimate who believe that it would be wrong to remain in communion with a partnered gay bishop, and who therefore prefer schism to diversity. The arguments are well known. Since the Reformation some Protestants have believed that questions of doctrine and ethics should be answered by, and only by, finding guidance in the Bible. Over the centuries they have built up a particular tradition of biblical interpretation which provides answers, and claims that those answers must be accepted by all true Christians. As attitudes to same-sex partnerships have become more tolerant, opponents of toleration have argued that to accept them is to abandon the supreme authority of scripture.

The fundamental nature of the crisis is therefore a theological disagreement, specifically about the authority of the Bible in matters of doctrine and ethics. Same-sex partnerships happen to have been the focus of debate, but the same disagreement could have developed over other issues like women priests. The central question, therefore, is: how should Christians interpret the authority of the Bible? On one side are those who claim that biblical commands take priority over all other sources of judgement; on the other are those who also appeal to human experience and conscience, and research findings in matters like the causes of different sexual orientations.

The options for resolution

To take seriously the theological nature of the disagreement is to recognise that no amount of changes to the organisational structure of the Anglican Communion can possibly resolve it. Whatever powers are given to the Instruments of Unity or the Standing Committee, those who believe in full acceptance of same-sex partnerships will continue to believe in them and those who feel unable in conscience to belong to a church containing a gay bishop will continue to object.

There are two possible ways for the Communion to resolve this disagreement. One is to authorise one point of view and suppress alternatives, in effect expelling those who continue to disagree. The Covenant does not propose to do this, but its only available procedures would be a step in this direction: namely, to affirm one point of view as the official Anglican one (via the Standing Committee’s Recommendations) and exclude from representative bodies any churches which dissent from it.

The other way to resolve such theological disagreement is to encourage the different points of view to be explored in public debate and research, as a properly Christian attempt to seek the truth about God and how God wants us to live, until such time as consensus is reached. In the present situation this does not require any change to the powers of the Instruments of Unity or the Standing Committee. What it does require is a committed public defence, by church leaders, of the principle of toleration.

Anglicanism and authority

Until recently this has been well understood as a characteristic feature of Anglicanism. The 1948 Lambeth Conference stated that authority

is distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of Word and Sacraments, the witness of the saints, and the consensus fidelium, which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through his faithful people in the Church. It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralised authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check each other; these elements together contribute by a process of mutual support, mutual checking, and redressing of errors or exaggerations to the many-sided fullness of the authority which Christ has committed to His Church. Where the authority of Christ is to be found mediated not in one mode but in several we recognise in this multiplicity God’s loving provision against temptations of tyranny and the dangers of unchecked power.

This position was reaffirmed in the 1988 Lambeth Conference:

Tradition and reason, then, are two distinct contexts in which the Scriptures speak and out of which they are interpreted. It is in the interplay and the conflict between them – between the common mind of the Church and the common mind of a culture – that the meaning of the Gospel for a particular time and place is to be discerned. Indeed it could be argued that tradition – what we have called the ‘mind’ of the Church – is the repository of just such discernments stimulated by the tradition and the language of a particular culture. To be involved in this dialogical situation is always uncomfortable. It becomes dangerous, perhaps, only when what is properly a dialogue becomes a monologue delivered at length by only one of its parties. Tradition and reason need each other if God’s Word is to be shared.[2]

Archbishops of Canterbury have often defended Anglicanism in these terms. According to Archbishop Michael Ramsey,

The Anglican will not suppose that he has a system or a Confession that can be defined and commended side by side with those of others; indeed, the use of the word ‘Anglicanism’ can be very misleading. Rather will he claim that his tasks look beyond ‘isms’ to the Gospel of God.[3]

A major work on this theme by Henry McAdoo, later to become Archbishop of Dublin, introduced it with the observation that ‘there is a distinctively Anglican theological ethos, and the distinctiveness lies in method rather than in content, for Anglicanism, as Chillingworth put it, has declined to call any man master in theology’.[4] More recently there has been no shortage of theologians willing to support him.[5]

In other words, given that the dispute is a theological one, Anglicanism is already blessed with an ideal method for resolving it. What is now required is for the present day successors of those archbishops and theologians to defend the inheritance into which they have entered, albeit in difficult circumstances, by publicly insisting that diversity of opinion in matters of doctrine and ethics is, and will continue to be, fully accepted within the Anglican Communion.

Ecclesiastical implications

Of course this means that those who cannot in all conscience accept Anglican diversity may feel obliged to leave the Communion. This is an inevitable result of the schismatic tendency, and will happen to those who cannot tolerate diversity of opinion whether or not there is an Anglican Covenant. If X and Y disagree, and X is willing to compromise but Y is not, the only way they can possibly reach agreement is for X to capitulate to Y. Conversely, if Anglican diversity and toleration are to be retained, they need to be protected against those who seek to replace it with uniformity of belief.

This means that the survival of the Anglican Communion depends not on developing procedures for one province to object to another’s actions, but on precisely the opposite: ensuring that provinces recognise each other’s ministry and remain in communion with each other despite any mutual disagreements. Our inherited system is a geographical one with provinces, dioceses and parishes. Priests are authorised to minister in dioceses where the bishop permits them, and bishops are authorised to minister in dioceses where the provincial canons permit them. The existence of a partnered gay bishop does not itself undermine the structure of Anglicanism; a validly consecrated bishop functioning as such in a province without its consent does.

The language of schism and crisis

From the perspective of those who expect uniformity of belief a substantial disagreement may constitute a crisis, and the history of Protestantism has resolved many such crises with schism. From the perspective of those who accept differences of opinion as normal, disagreement does not in itself constitute a crisis. Threats to dismember a church by means of schism may generate a sense of crisis; however, it is always possible to question whether a schism has taken place, or whether all that has happened is that some people have left.

By accepting the rhetoric of crisis and schism at face value, therefore, the promoters of the Anglican Covenant have been unduly influenced by a uniformitarian vision for the Communion. For those who wish to retain an inclusive and tolerant Anglicanism, it is much less clear that the present situation demands drastic action. Given that disagreements are always taking place, and that there have always been some Anglicans who expect uniformity of opinion, the distinctive features of the recent dispute should not be exaggerated. What has happened is that those seeking uniformity have organised themselves into an effective partisan lobby proposing to make a permanent change to the Anglican Communion, using the alleged prospect of schism as a negotiating tool. An adequate alternative to the Covenant, therefore, is for the Communion’s leaders simply to resist the uniformitarian agenda and encourage respectful discussion to continue.

The listening process

The recent disputes have highlighted the need for provinces (Anglican churches) to listen carefully to each other’s views and to resist passing judgement on them. Every province needs to balance its responsiveness to the worldwide Communion with its mission opportunities in its local context. Provinces can learn from the experience of other provinces, and contribute in turn from their own experiences. Recent proposals for more cooperation in mission have been the Covenant for Communion in Missionfrom IASCOME and the Continuing Indaba and Mutual Listening Process.

However it is one thing to develop processes for churches to support and learn from each other; it is another to oblige them to accept the judgements of other provinces, as the proposed Anglican Covenant would in effect do through the Standing Committee’s Recommendations and the threat of ‘relational consequences’. Such a change, far from enhancing mission, would hinder it by reducing the local church’s versatility.

The desire to resolve the recent disputes is therefore no justification for increasing centralisation of authority and power within the Communion. One church may benefit by learning from another, but we should resist the temptation to imagine that each church’s duty to relate closely to the rest of the Communion always overrides its duty to relate closely to its local ecumenical neighbours and its host society. We can, after all, learn about God and God’s will for us not only through the Anglican tradition but through all God’s creation.


Instead of the proposed Anglican Covenant, a more constructive response to the recent disputes in the Communion would contain the following elements:

  1. Mutual recognition of, and respect for, conscientiously held differences of opinion in matters of doctrine and ethics. As indicated in the above quotations from Lambeth Conferences, Anglicanism does not accept a single supreme authority, whether the Bible or the Church. Instead it recognises a range of different authorities which need to be balanced against each other, through public discussion and the sharing of different perspectives.
  2. Public reaffirmation, by the Communion’s leaders, of Anglicanism’s traditional toleration of diversity of belief, and consequent commitment to resist pressure for an imposed uniformity.
  3. Positive encouragement for further exploration of theological controversies, with the aim of providing, within Anglican churches, opportunities to share and debate beliefs in open and mutually supportive environments, and in the absence of any threats to demote or exclude.

Jonathan Clatworthy
December 2011


[1] End of para. 7. The letter is also on the ACNS website.

[2] The Truth Shall Make You Free, Lambeth Conference Report, 1988, p. 103.

[3] Ramsey, A M, ‘What is Anglican Theology’, Theology 48, 1945, p. 6. His predecessor Geoffrey Fisher similarly stated that ‘We have no doctrine of our own’, Church Times, 2 Feb 1951, p. 1.

[4] McAdoo, H R, The Spirit of Anglicanism: A Survey of Anglican Theological Method in the Seventeenth Century, London: A & C Black, 1965, p. 1.

[5] Thus John Macquarrie, ‘What still separates us from the Catholic Church? An Anglican reply’, Concilium, 4/6, April 1970, p. 45: ‘It is often claimed that Anglicanism has no special doctrines of its own and simply folows the universal teaching of the Church. When one considers the nature of the English Reformation, one sees that there is strong support for the claim.’ More recently Kenneth Locke, The Church in Anglican Theology: A Historical, Theological and Ecumenical Exploration, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, p. 115: ‘Anglicans exercise a method of authority that does not strive to achieve a uniform consensus or to enforce particular doctrinal positions. Rather, it functions under the belief that truth is best perceived by safeguarding constant debate within the Church. Anglicans, therefore, lack the predisposition to put an end to disagreement through authoritative pronouncements. All decisions are provisional and open to further criticism and debate.’

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.


As Jonathan Clatworthy, of ‘Modern Church’, says here; the Archbishop of Canterbury and others are saying that opponents of the Covenant are neither able nor disposed to provide details of any alternative to the process. However, when one studies the actual reasons given for the ‘need’ of a Covenant, one realises that the Communion Provinces seem to be divided roughly between those who operate under their  Sola Scriptura’ theological stance, while the rest of us accept the fact that, in Anglican life, we have generally been content to accept the fact that the Bible does not give us the full breadth and depth of theological praxis that is needed to take cognisance of the needs of the modern world in which we live today.

Under sola Scriptura, for instance, there may never have been women clergy (and some of the conservatives in the communion are still reluctant to give in on that one), while there is no logical reason why women should be excluded from the ministry of the church – except that it has not, hitherto, been part of the tradition.

This willingness to move, on the part of the majority of Anglican Provinces, towards  the ordination women clergy (although the Church of England still has to make up its mind about the ordination of women bishops) helps us to understand how the process of enlightenment, though gradual, is still at work in the Church.

On the issue of the ordination of Gays, and Same-sex Blessings, the Sola Scriptura Churches are still adamant that such goings-on are specifically foreign to what has been revealed so far in the scriptures. However, other, more liberal Churches, have felt that Same-Sex relationships might well be part of God’s plan for human beings – based on the human sexual response of the LGBT community as their given way of expressing human love for those whose sexuality is different from the predominant male to female relationship.

What the writer is suggesting is that the respect for the authority of the Bible – as previously understood – ought never to preclude the possibility of the Holy Spirit’s further revelation about the human condition  through the medium of scientific and social discovery. In past times, issues like slavery, usury, racial difference, patriarchy and female subservience, were seen as acceptable to the biblical ethic. However, the modern age of enlightenment has found ways of ‘getting around’ the difficulties of reconciling the biblical attitudes with the progressively modern understanding of human needs.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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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