In putting this document together I am indebted to Revd. Martin Stephenson who collaborated on this. I say from the outset that neither of us are in favour of the Covenant but we tried to look for what was potentially positive about it as well. These are our thoughts. For any factual errors I take responsibility.
What is the Covenant and why do we have it?
In order to talk about the Anglican covenant we first need to understand the reasons behind why some people think we need it, and that requires a little history.
Western culture has undergone huge changes over the last fifty years, and the sexual revolution in the 1960's, combined with the loss of influence of the church, has meant that we have had to grapple with a massive cultural shift across Europe and the US. In the midst of that we have had to do some pretty serious thinking about our religious approaches to sex.
This has required a close reading of the scriptural texts and some deep theological thought. We still haven’t reached any kind of consensus, and it would be fair to say that the breadth of Christian belief in these matters is probably wider now than it has ever been in history.
On the one hand we have those who believe in a face-value reading of English translations of the limited number of verses about human sexuality in scripture which have led them to a raft of prohibitions.
On the other hand there are those who seem to think that scripture has nothing of value to say on these matters and who seem to have almost reached a point of universal permissiveness. The result has been a polarisation of opinion between those with the loudest voices whilst the rest of us inhabit the ground somewhere in the middle, which is probably where God’s truth can be found.
We have to recognise that there will always be such cultural differences between the various churches within the wider Anglican church in terms of theology since we operate in different cultures and face different challenges. However, in the past we have been able to plaster over them, and allow the distances between us to mean that, in real terms the right hand often doesn’t know what the left is doing, whereas modern communications and media have changed that forever.
Now it is very clear what one wing of the Anglican church is doing compared with another, and the differences of opinion in our theology and practice concerning sex have come into a sharp focus.
Probably the defining moment was the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church of the U.S.. Robinson was the first openly gay bishop living in a non-celibate relationship.
Around the same time the Canadian church published an official order of service for the blessing of same sex relationships. These two things, more than anything else, precipitated a crisis in the worldwide Anglican communion because they highlighted massive differences in approach to theology, particularly with respect to sexuality, between the global south and north. The Covenant has been designed to address these differences and how we cope with them.
What are these differences?
In a presentation like this it would take rather a long time to discuss these in detail. It seems to me that we are presented with different cultural approaches to scripture, and it is truly vital that we accept that our theology is not worked out in a social and cultural vacuum. A great deal of our theology is strongly influenced by our country of origin and God’s mission in one place is likely to be worked out differently from another place.
This is not the time to have a debate on the rights or wrongs of the church’s different opinions on human sexuality. Our job this is solely to determine whether we think the proposed covenant is a good way of coping with those differences. But we do first have to recognise that there are differences.
My understanding is that Anglicanism is meant to adhere to three principles;
scripture, reason and tradition. We’ve rather followed the Methodists in more recent years by adding a fourth category, experience.
In order to have a balanced faith we need to work out what we believe by keeping a tension between those different elements.
Naturally, different groups within the church will be drawn towards different elements. The evangelicals tend to begin with scripture, the liberals with reason, the anglo-catholics with tradition and the charismatics with experience. But in order for us to be a well-rounded church we need all of them working together, and each different sub-culture within Anglicanism needs to value the input of the others as having a part of the truth.
I believe that at least a part of our current situation is because of the disagreements between different parts of the Anglican church on which of these three or four principles is most important. It would, I think, be fair to say that our brothers and sisters in the Anglican denominations in Africa tend towards a more ‘scripture first’ model whilst those in the US Episcopal church tend more towards reason.
I suspect that there may be a more hierarchical structure present in some of the dioceses of the Southern cone, alongside an openness to the church disciplining those who fall into a defined category of sin in a way that is rather different from much of the Church of England. It is not to say that either approach is more correct than the other; they are simply different because we are called to be God’s ministers in different cultures and so we respond differently in those cultures.
So immediately we can see a tension between the Southern provinces and the European and North American provinces. I should add that this is a bit of a simplification as there are liberals in the South and conservative evangelicals in Europe and the US, but you get the basic idea.
The proposed Anglican Covenant is a way of trying to resolve those differences. So let’s have a look at what’s in the Covenant.
What is the covenant?
The biggest problem with the Anglican Covenant is that it would take us a week’s work to wade through it and digest everything that it says! But let me see if I can briefly outline it and summarise the different parts.
Essentially the idea of the Covenant is to make the bonds between the thirty eight different churches of the Anglican communion more concrete, formal and explicit in such a way as to set limits on what Anglicans can believe and still be called ‘Anglican’, and to establish a procedure for enforcing discipline on churches which sign the Covenant and then don’t keep to the Anglican consensus.
Anglicanism has traditionally been characterised as an informal bond of love between churches, and so the changes proposed under the Covenant will make a massive change in church governance, some say the biggest change since the reformation. Instead of being a group of affiliated churches there would be a centralised body set up to govern in cases of dispute or where progressive or reactionary theological ideas are being examined.
What’s in the covenant?
Essentially there are four sections plus an introduction. The first two sections describe the beliefs and goals of Anglicanism. It doesn’t make easy reading but there is little there of great concern to us. It is in section three that the difficulties begin since it is about each church within the denomination essentially committing itself not to act unilaterally without the approval of the other churches in the covenant in any matter which could cause offence to said other churches.
This is quite a broad brush. Clearly the current matters causing offence are the different approaches to human sexuality, but who is to say what else might be of offence in the past or in the future. New Zealand has had women Diocesan Bishops since 1989 whilst we’re still working our way towards that position. In contrast the Diocese of Sydney will ordain women only as deacons, and not even to the priesthood.
These are matters which could all be taken as causing offence in other areas of the Anglican Communion. Everyone can quote scripture to support their position. I am offended at the unilateral decision by Sydney to bar women from the priesthood, just as I am sure they are offended by their near neighbours who recognise the episcopal ministry of women and have done for more than twenty years. You can see there is a problem.
The following section in the Covenant, section four, is about the mechanism of enforcement. Commentators seem to suggest that this is not terribly clear, but the suggestion is that those who sign the Covenant and then act contrary to it will have to face consequences in terms of their relations to the other signatory churches .
What’s good about the covenant?
When Martin Stephenson and I were looking closely at this we came up with five good things about the Covenant.
1) It commits the worldwide Anglican communion to cultivating virtues of prayer, study and debate.
2) It commits us to debating until we get to an answer. Some parts of the church, notably parts of the Southern Cone, do not appreciate this as a positive, thinking that all we do is talk without ever making a decision.
3) The Covenant expresses the need for mutual recognition and consultation. We are one communion, and all are equally valued.
4) By signing the Covenant, churches are making a freely chosen commitment to share discernment.
5) The church is meant to be universal, and so by committing to the Covenant we would be expressing a commitment to act in ways that are not merely local. We are not congregationalist.
What’s bad about it?
1) It looks like it’s creating a disciplinary body with power in the hands of the Primates.
2) It could be easily used as a tool of exclusion and tyranny rather than love and inclusion.
3) It is too Bishop centred. Bishops should be a focus of unity, not a focus of judgement.
4) It is self-indulgent in that it is seemingly about maintaining our unity rather than about God’s mission
5) It will inhibit new thinking. Progressive theology could be restricted.
6) If it had been in place, would we have been able to move towards women priests and bishops - a controversial issue without broad agreement across the communion.
7) It hands the right of veto to the Lambeth Conference, the Primates meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Standing Committee (an elected body from the ACC and the Primates)
8) Cultural interpretations of scripture could be over-ruled in favour of the Anglican council’s interpretation. In all humility we need to recognise that Scripture is always interpreted culturally. Remember how recently we had slavery in this country, apparently with scriptural backing. As I said at the beginning, each church faces different cultural challenges and must prayerfully respond in ways which may be different.
Three important questions
We should feel at liberty to ask questions of the Covenant. Here are three but I’m sure there are many more.
1) What recognition is there of scripture, reason and tradition (and experience)? These are the foundations of Anglicanism, yet most of these arguments have broken out because some areas of Anglicanism have put too much emphasis on one foundation.
2) What might have happened to the debate about women priests and bishops if the Covenant had already been in place?
3) At a time when our western culture is rejecting anything remotely hierarchical, is this yet one more impediment to God’s mission by making the Anglican church even more hierarchical than it already is?
What happens if we reject it?
Some would argue that the Anglican church will split if the Covenant is not signed, but one can equally make the argument that the Covenant will precipitate the very split that it seeks to avoid. It’s worth noting that many churches look like they are going to reject it or have already done so.
Some of the conservative provinces are already going their own way (such as GAFCON) and many have already said that they won’t sign up to it.
What is the current global position?
The Episcopal church in the US has rejected the Covenant on the grounds that it is not sufficiently welcoming of diversity.
In contrast the Sydney Synod has also rejected the covenant, only this time on the grounds of its theology.
Those who have accepted the Covenant are the Church of Ireland, the West Indies and the Province of South East Asia.
Those who have rejected it in addition to the US and Sydney include the Philippines and the Maori Central North Island Diocese of New Zealand. Two other areas in New Zealand have also rejected the Covenant. It’s interesting to note that the Maori diocese gave as a part of its reason for rejection that the Covenant is un-Anglican.
Making a decision
It seems ironic that a document that was created to bring about and enforce unity has become divisive and a focus of disunity. This observation itself raises questions about whether it is even possible to legislate unity in the face of such a variety of different opinions.
The Church of England has historically been associated with owning and maintaining a variety of opinions, but the Anglican Covenant seems to challenge the presumption that this is a valid position. It seems to me that the question the Covenant asks is us in this country is, is it possible to be traditionally Church of England and Anglican at the same time under the Covenant?
The Covenant also challenges us as to whether each culture can be given the freedom to interpret scripture from their own cultural contextual perspective, in the humility that comes with recognising that they might or might not be correct. One could argue that the Covenant actually precipitates arrogance in terms of one interpretation being correct over another, with the Bishops having the final say.
Anglicanism, and Christianity as a whole, should treat disagreements by coming together in humility to explore under God what the Spirit is saying to us, and agreeing to disagree in love. Where there is genuine love there cannot be an imposition of power, and likewise, imposing power drives out love. If God is love, what do our human power structures have to say when they dominate the church?
Let me finish with a section of Mark’s Gospel:
Mark 9: 33-35
Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But the disciples were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.
The Covenant seems to be about imposing power and authority from a centralising body, despite the cultural differences across the world. If we think that is in line with the Gospel, then we should support the Covenant. Otherwise we should reject it.