If it had been introduced in time, yes.
In the future, although it would probably permit practices - like consecrating women bishops - which some provinces have already adopted, it would hinder further development, and since supporters of women's ministry are well aware that there is still much else to do, it would be foolish to support a Covenant designed to hinder new developments.
It was the debate over gay and lesbian sexuality which led the Windsor Report of 2004 to suggest a Covenant. To express its disapproval of recent developments on that matter, Windsor contrasts them with the consultations leading to the introduction of women priests and bishops, which it treats as a model of good practice.
Such affirmation may encourage supporters of women's ministry to think they have nothing to fear, but this would be a mistake. The first Anglican woman priest, Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained in 1944. As the Windsor Report puts it, 'the story gathered pace' when the Diocese brought the matter to the Lambeth Conference in 1968 - 24 years later! Windsor omits to note that the 1958 Conference had not seen fit to debate the matter at all. In 1968 it considered the theological arguments inconclusive and referred the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council. The ACC passed judgement, in 1970, in favour of permitting the ordination of women. The voting was close: 24 to 22. Windsor draws the moral that 'Hong Kong did not understand itself to be so autonomous that it might proceed without bringing the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council as requested by the Lambeth Conference 1968'. Time is going backwards: permission was granted in 1970, so the ordination of 1944 was permitted!
What happened in 1968, in Alan Stephenson's words (Anglicanism and the Lambeth Conferences, SPCK, 1978, p. 262) was that 'Gilbert Baker, Bishop of Hong Kong since 1966, had asked for advice in view of the fact that his diocesan synod had approved in principle the ordination of women to the priesthood. Hong Kong was the diocese where Bishop Hall, Baker's predecessor, had ordained a woman to the priesthood in 1944'. In other words, not only did the 1958 Conference find it unnecessary to debate the matter at all, but the 1968 Conference would not have discussed it either, if Bishop Baker had not sought clarification of the situation.
From 1974 onwards other women were ordained, at first in the USA and Canada but soon afterwards elsewhere too. The 1978 Lambeth Conference recognised 'the autonomy of each of its member Churches, acknowledging the legal right of each Church to make its own decision about the appropriateness of admitting women to Holy Orders.' The Windsor Report commented that that Conference had 'addressed a situation where Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and New Zealand had all ordained women to the priesthood and eight other provinces had accepted the ordination of women in principle.'
Clearly, the Windsor Report's attempt to present the issue as a model of patient international consultation wildly misinterprets even its own data. In reality, provinces did what they believed right and international bodies later accepted the situation.
The story also shows how a development which attracts little controversy at the time can become controversial long afterwards, for reasons to do with the concerns of a later age. We do not know what would have happened in the 1970s if Bishop Baker had not brought the matter up in 1968, thus obliging Lambeth and the ACC to establish a position on it. Would the subsequent ordinations of women have been less controversial? We do not know. What we do know, though, is that the first ordination took place in Hong Kong in 1944 but the height of the controversy was much later and elsewhere.
This often happens: for example Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859 but the main debates about religion and evolution did not take place until the 1920s. What the delay shows is that the controversy is generated by something else, over and above the original event. The authors of the Windsor Report and the proposed Covenant would have been well advised to ask themselves who turns an innovation into a controversy, for what reasons and with what justification. If we ask why women priests and gay bishops justify threats of schism while the remarriage of divorcees and changes to ordination oaths do not, we are more likely to find sociological than theological explanations.
Given this background, how would the Anglican Covenant relate to the development of women's ministry? To distinguish the issues the question is divided into three.
1) How will it affect future development?
Lambeth Conferences and the Anglican Consultative Council have already given the green light to women priests and bishops. The Covenant, like the Windsor Report, acknowledges the authority of these international bodies; indeed, in its determination to centralise Anglicanism it exaggerates the authority they already have. As things stand, therefore, the Covenant's proponents expect the Standing Committee to adhere to Lambeth Conference resolutions, including the one permitting women bishops. Nevertheless the Covenant does not require it to do so, and since Lambeth Conferences can repeal their own earlier resolutions (in 1939 they overturned their earlier ban on contraception) it may well happen that, as the Standing Committee establishes itself as the supreme Anglican authority, it considers itself competent to dissent from Lambeth, or at least enforce its own interpretations of resolutions passed at Lambeth.
2) What difference would it have made to the Church of England if the Covenant had been in place in 1992?
Not only would the ordination of women have needed a two-thirds vote in all three houses of General Synod, but if one or more provinces had objected (which is almost certain) the proposal would then have been referred to the Standing Committee. Since the vote was in any case very close, it would not have been passed if only one or two supporters had decided to vote against in order to avoid a long drawn out conflict with the Standing Committee. This illustrates two features of the way the Covenant would work: it would give great power to small provinces to block innovations elsewhere, and discourage developments in advance through the threat of long bureaucratic struggles.
Nevertheless the Standing Committee could have determined that, as women priests had been introduced in other provinces, they should be permitted in England too. The fact that some provinces already had them would have been their strongest case in favour of granting permission. We should note that other provinces already had them because there was no Anglican Covenant.
3) What difference would it have made if it had been in place in 1944?
Of course it would have been extremely difficult for international bodies to operate during the Second World War, and this was the situation in which the first woman was ordained. However, if the Covenant had been in place then, and if it had operated as currently planned, it is difficult to see how the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi could possibly have been approved. At that time no province had women priests, and it would only have taken one province to lodge an objection with the Standing Committee. In theory the Standing Committee could have ruled in favour of the ordination; but it would have been flying in the face of the objections and approving the very thing it is designed to forbid, namely new developments which other provinces find objectionable. Realistically, the Standing Committee could only have approved the first ordination of a woman if the objections had no strength of feeling behind them - in other words, by virtue of Anglicanism being in a more tolerant mood then than it is now. It was; but this only draws attention to the real character of the Covenant, which is to give power to the intolerant.
Once formally forbidden by the Standing Committee, the ordination of women would have remained unavailable until such time as the folly of the Anglican Covenant was publicly acknowledged.
The Church of England is the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and traditionally has had a distinctive leadership role even though it does not have the legal right to tell other provinces what to do.
In principle the Covenant's provisions treat the Church of England the same as other churches, except that the Archbishop of Canterbury has a distinctive role.
In practice, how the Church of England votes on the Covenant will have a big impact on its chances of success. If England votes against, there will be precious little credibility in the claim that those who do sign it are the true voice of Anglicanism.
If England votes in favour, it will be a lot easier to demote the provinces which do not sign to 'second track' status.
According to the Covenant's proponents, one of its advantages will be that it will ease ecumenical relations.
This is no doubt true at a worldwide level, though it carries a heavy price. It is true because representative committees often find themselves at a disadvantage in discussions with other denominations. Representatives of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are able to state clearly where their denominations stand on particular issues. Anglicans in these dialogues would be able to speak with comparable confidence if Anglicanism had clearly stated positions on the relevant issues.
The price is that clearly stated positions will nearly always misrepresent what Anglicans actually believe because we do not all hold the same views. A set of tidy statements declaring what Anglicans believe would only be a true representation of Anglicanism if it were to become a confessional church.
At a local level the Covenant would not help ecumenism at all; on the contrary it would probably often hinder it because it would give other provinces the means to lodge formal objections to ecumenical initiatives.
It often happens that another denomination's relationship with Anglicans is good in one part of the world but bad in another. For an Anglican church to work more closely with another denomination may be a constructive initiative in one place while elsewhere, in another part of the world where circumstances are very different, the prospect of cooperating with that denomination seems utterly abhorrent. If the Covenant comes into force, it will be easily available to block ecumenical moves in this way, and it would be surprising if it was never used.
It is one thing to decide not to have joint activities with the local Roman Catholics or Unitarians, quite another to be told not to by an archbishop in another part of the world.
The Anglican Covenant is primarily concerned with international relations between provinces rather than what happens in parishes. However there is a clear direction of travel, which would have a profound effect on parish groups and their ethos.
Churchgoers know the difference between sermons which tell you exactly what to believe and do, and sermons which inform and inspire you and help with your own decision-making. Similarly those who attend bible study and discussion groups know the difference between a group where everybody is expected to look for 'the biblical answer' and accept it as 'what all Christians should believe', and a group where people are permitted to think for themselves, express diverse views, listen to the views of others and change their minds. More on the historical background to these very different traditions.
The Covenant would increase the tendency for church leaders to declare that a particular belief is the Anglican position. The reason is that it is committed to the view that same-sex partnerships are contrary to the Anglican 'consensus' and proposes to establish a system in which other beliefs, generated by whatever future controversies there may be, can also be declared contrary to the Anglican position.
We can see how the process is envisaged by observing how it has already been applied in the case of same-sex partnerships. Quite clearly there is no consensus about them; some Anglicans think they are permissible, some that they are not. Nevertheless, despite this blatant divergence of belief, the proponents of the Covenant - from the Windsor Report onwards - have insisted that there is an 'Anglican consensus' on the matter. If we ask how they justify this claim, the answers refer us to the Resolution passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. In other words, from the perspective of the Covenant's proponents, it does not matter what ordinary Anglicans in their parishes think: Anglican teaching is to consist of what the bishops decree.
If the Covenant works as intended, therefore, we can anticipate an increasing number of doctrines and norms decreed as 'what Anglicanism teaches'. In a parish setting the main effect will probably be on clergy, but this in turn will influence their congregations. Clergy who agree with the official line will be encouraged to generate public objections about clergy who disagree with it. (Again, we have already seen this in operation over same-sex partnerships). Other clergy, who disagree with the official line or simply prefer a more open-minded approach, will be under greater pressure to avoid telling their congregations what they really think, for fear of reprisals. This in turn will increase the pressure to adapt their teaching ministry in accordance with the official line.
In Roman Catholicism the best known example of this situation is the teaching on contraception. Each parish priest must make up his mind whether to agree with the official condemnation, disagree and say nothing, or disagree openly. Parishioners, likewise, learn how much they can say to each priest. In such a context, what is effectively ruled out is any open and honest discussion of the morality of contraception.
The Anglican Covenant would not intentionally produce similar situations in parishes, but it would have the effect of pushing them in this direction. How quickly parishes are pushed will depend on the energy and determination of those who want to see it happen.
The Covenant text repeatedly denies any subordination of provincial autonomy to a central authority:
'Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction' (§4.1.3).
Nevertheless critics argue that it does indeed centralise authority and power.
Section 4 and relational consequences
Because the text denies any centralisation of power it does not propose to intervene in the internal affairs of provinces. The 'relational consequences' the Standing Committee would recommend would only consist of excluding provinces from some or all of the Communion's international structures.
This may seem unimportant. However the fundamental aim of the Covenant, according to its supporters, is that it will provide a means to resolve conflict. When we ask how it will achieve this aim, it turns out that, apart from making one last attempt to negotiate a settlement, its only method is this threat to exclude.
Exclusion would create a two-tier Communion. Provinces which sign the Covenant and accept Standing Committee recommendations will be eligible for membership of international structures. Provinces which sign but dissent from a recommendation may not be eligible. The situation regarding provinces which decline to sign is not discussed in the text. Currently most Covenant supporters say they are still hoping all provinces will sign, though Fulcrum comments that 'Although not signing does not mean automatic exclusion there may develop some institutional expression of two levels of commitment to life in communion.' This seems most likely; in effect non-signatories would be treated much the same as dissenting signatories. (Otherwise the central authorities would have to include non-signatories while at the same time excluding signatories who dissent from a recommendation.)
This creation of a two-tier Communion is a feature recognised by the Covenant's supporters, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as its opponents. Some supporters welcome it as a way to draw a clear line between the North American provinces and others. Others believe there is a strong chance that all provinces will sign the Covenant and accept Standing Committee recommendations, in which case there would be no 'second tier' churches. Nevertheless, even if this were the outcome, it is clear that power would have shifted; the provinces would retain control over their internal affairs, but a central authority would have new powers to promote obedient provinces and demote dissenting ones.
Sections 1-3 and the nature of Anglicanism
Although the Covenant text denies any subordination of provincial autonomy, it contains texts which suggest otherwise. §4.1.2 states that
In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections [Sections 1-3] a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches.
Thus Sections 1-3 would become 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion.' The Communion has never before had any such foundational document. By assenting to this statement, churches would in effect be affirming that Anglicanism is what the Covenant says it is.
This is not how most current proponents of the Covenant intend it to be interpreted. However, if the Covenant comes into force their intentions will no longer be relevant. What will count will be how the text is interpreted by those who make use of its provisions, and if conflicting interpretations lead to litigation (as seems almost certain), the authoritative interpretations will be established by courts, not by the Covenant's current proponents.
Precedents abound. Especially in the USA, campaigners have been encouraging parishes to declare that they cannot in all conscience accept the ministry of their bishop, simply because of the bishops's tolerant views on same-sex partnerships. There is little reason to suppose that such campaigns would fail to use the new powers the Covenant would give them. Furthermore §3.2.5 would give them the benefit of the doubt by putting the onus on churches 'to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion'. This clause puts the onus on churches to avoid doing anything to which the litigious might object. Even the fear of Standing Committee recommendations, let alone their imposition, would curtail freedom of action.
Although the Covenant's main concern is with churches at a provincial level, it would inevitably affect churches at a more local level too. Once the Standing Committee has decreed that a particular action is 'incompatible with the Covenant' it will not be sufficient for a province to abstain from it. If a diocese or parish performs the forbidden act the leadership of the province will inevitably get sucked into the debate.
Provinces will therefore find themselves obliged to monitor the activities of its dioceses and parishes more closely, and warn against potentially controversial actions. Inevitably decision-making will accrue to the centre.
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