Threats of schism in the Anglican Communion have been front page news since 2002. The bone of contention is homosexuality.

What happened in 2002 to generate threats of schism over the issue? Odd though it now seems, the big event was the announcement that Rowan Williams was to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. What made him apparently unacceptable to many was his liberal views on gay and lesbian sexuality. The storm of opposition, unexpected by most Anglicans, quickly revealed that a carefully orchestrated campaign had already been prepared. Whatever Dr Williams' strengths or weaknesses, it was as though the only thing that matters about archbishops of Canterbury is their views on this one issue. Repeated, and heavily publicized, demands were made that he should not be permitted to take up his post. By the time of his enthronement in February 2003, it was clear that much work had been done behind the scenes to create a public dispute over the ethics of this issue. (The story was described in detail in the Church of England Newspaper).

From then on, every church event with any connection to gay or lesbian sexuality became a topic of controversy. Three months later Jeffrey John, Chancellor and Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral, was named the new Suffragan Bishop of Reading. Canon John was living with another man in a relationship which, he said, had previously been sexually active, and refused to repent of the practice. Again there was a well-organized high profile campaign to get his appointment overturned. There was endless discussion about what he had and had not done in bed, and which church statements he could assent to. Philip Giddings, a leading evangelical in the diocese, declared in the Church of England Newspaper (13 June 2003) that

I do not think the appointment is sustainable. His views are and his lifestyle has been incompatible with him being made a bishop. If the appointment goes forward it will have consequences and those consequences will be that a number of clergy and parishes in this episcopal area will not accept the bishop. A number will seek alternative episcopal oversight  and a number will not pay their parish share.

Similarly, Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria, threatened  to precipitate a schism if the appointment went ahead. At the beginning of July, after pressure had been put on him by Archbishop Williams, Jeffrey John formally asked  for his nomination to be withdrawn.

While this controversy was taking place the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster authorised a liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships and Gene Robinson, who openly admitted to being in a gay relationship, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA. Once Jeffrey John's nomination had been withdrawn these became the focus of the campaign. Opponents demanded that the North American provinces should be expelled from the Anglican Communion unless they revoked their actions. However, they were within their rights as they had provincial autonomy. It would have been blatantly unjust to create new legislation forbidding these actions and then apply it retrospectively.

In October a Primates' Meeting was held to discuss the situation. It published a statement which blamed the churches of Canada and the USA for threatening the Anglican Communion's unity. At its request the Eames Commission was set up and asked to make recommendations. Why did they support the campaigners?

The Commission was given a year to produce its report. In the meantime the campaigners saw no reason to hold fire. Their submissions to the Commission - and there were a great many of them - were full of ire. A statement by 14 primates declared that the New Westminster blessing service 'displays a flagrant disregard for the remainder of the Anglican Communion'. The Church of England Evangelical Council complained of  'provocation by a liberal and revisionist elite on an orthodox and unsuspecting Church'  and added the warning that 'heaven and hell are both alternative destinies'.  Anglican Mainstream proposed that the bishops who attended Gene Robinson's consecration  should no longer have their ministries recognised - just because they attended the service! There was much talk of 'disciplining' the North American provinces and demands for 'alternative episcopal oversight' segued into 'adequate episcopal oversight'.

Meanwhile plans for the schism proceeded apace. Most of the action was in the USA, where splits and the foundation of new churches have always been common. Anti-gay Anglicans with pro-gay bishops were encouraged to persuade their parishes to make formal statements declaring that they could not in all conscience accept their bishop's authority - simply because of the bishop's pro-gay views - and demand oversight by a different bishop.

In January 2004 a secret letter was leaked to the press. Written by Geoff Chapman on behalf of the American Anglican Council it explained that while, in public, they were asking for 'adequate episcopal oversight', the real aim, being secretly planned on both sides of the Atlantic, was a major realignment of Anglicanism, a 'replacement jurisdiction' to exclude the liberals. There followed four pages of detailed plans, leading up to the point at which they would be able to go public and take over the leadership of the Anglican Communion.

The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (SCAC) is a new creation. The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) is a charity in English law and the Standing Committee are its trustees. As trustees they have plenary responsibility for the whole charity, not least its money. Over the last few years the charity has agreed to become a company as well.

In the first draft of the Covenant, power of interpretation was vested in the Primates' Meeting.  This attracted considerable criticism and in the final version the SCAC is responsible for administering the Covenant processes, for determining whether an action is 'incompatible with the Covenant' and for making recommendations to member Churches or (not 'and') the Instruments of Communion as to the 'relational consequences' that might follow (§4.2).

The old constitution gave its Standing Committee full powers except any specifically reserved to the full ACC.  It briefly became a Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and the Primates' Meeting but what powers were granted to the Joint Committee by the Primates' Meeting is not currently public knowledge.  It seems improbable that the new constitution will have lessened its power.

The effect of the Covenant, therefore, is first and foremost to add new powers to the SCAC and powers which have not been granted to it by the ACC or the Primates' Meeting it will have in its own right. These are:

  • a duty 'to monitor the functioning of the Covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion  on behalf of the Instruments' (§4.2.2).
  • a duty to receive a referral of a matter which bilateral talks, mediation or other steps  have not led to a 'shared mind' and, on receiving the referral,
  • a duty to take steps to 'facilitate agreement' between the parties involved (§4.2.4).  Should that fail
  • the SCAC shall, 'where appropriate' seek the advice of the ACC and Primates' Meeting (§4.2.4).
  • The SCAC may request a Church defer an action and, if it declines, it may 'recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in,  or suspension from, that Instrument' (§4.2.5), and
  • it may 'make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be "incompatible with the Covenant"'  on the basis of advice from the ACC and Primates' Meeting (§4.2.6), and on that basis also  the SCAC shall make recommendations as to the 'relational consequences' that will follow:
  • These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations. (§4.2.7)

Together these are formidable powers of governance not least because a considerable range of lesser powers will flow from the fact that the SCAC holds these greater powers in reserve. Clearly there is a potential for tension between the Primates' Meeting, ACC and the SCAC in these structures but membership is strongly overlapping and the conventions of confidentiality strong so any differences are likely to be minimised and kept private.

[Further reading on the Standing Committee]

The full text of the Anglican Covenant contains a brief preamble and four sections:

Section 1 affirms basic Anglican beliefs and commitments and Section 2 commits churches to shared mission and service. Section 3 establishes the authority of the four Instruments of Communion. These are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conferences of bishops, The Anglican Consultative Council (made up of representatives of the provinces) and the Primates' Meetings. It then focuses on how to keep the Communion united. Churches must 'have regard for the common good of the Communion in the exercise of its autonomy', 'respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the Churches', 'spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection', 'seek a shared mind with other Churches', 'participate in mediated conversations', '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', 'uphold the highest degree of communion possible' and 'uphold the highest degree of communion possible' at times of conflict.

It is Section 4, the process for conflict resolution, which is the controversial part. When a 'shared mind' is not attained the matter is referred to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. This is an international body consisting partly of primates and partly of members of the Anglican Consultative Council. About the Standing Committee.

The Standing Committee is to attempt to negotiate agreement and if this fails, request a church to defer the relevant action. If this too fails it is to recommend 'relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant'. A 'relational consequence' would characteristically be to exclude a province from an international function (as has already been done in anticipation of the Covenant). A province's bishops might be excluded from Lambeth Conferences. A list of possible actions was published in the 2008 Lambeth Commentary (see page 25).

In effect this would establish a two-tier Communion, with inferior status assigned to churches which either do not sign the Covenant, or do sign it but then reject a Standing Committee 'recommendation'. Such a two-tier Communion would reflect the original motive for having a Covenant. Others, however, are concerned that their own church might one day suffer the same treatment, perhaps due to a controversy which has not yet arisen.

There has been much less controversy about Sections 1-3. As a description of Anglicanism, some have found them satisfactory but others have not. We should note that even if Sections 1-3 are acceptable as a good description of Anglicanism,  the Covenant would turn them into a criterion of Anglicanism; the Covenant would commit future generations to agreeing with them.

Historically the Anglican Communion has comprised a group of Provinces and other Churches which have always worked together, prized their autonomy, and struggled to hold these two notions together.

Most provinces do not want to give up their autonomy, yet unless they do the Covenant will have no power to impose its wishes on them.

How does the Covenant resolve the dilemma? By signing it, member Churches would agree to give the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (SCAC) the right to be forceful against an offending member.

This creates a new basis of relationship between member Churches. The Covenant sets out (in sections 1-3) a statement of Anglican faith and order to which every signatory must consent. By whatever route Anglican Churches arrived at this point, from here onwards:

In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections 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. (§4.1.2)

How can all this centralisation be reconciled with provincial autonomy? By presenting the Covenant as a voluntary arrangement. To be a member of the Anglican Communion is to sign the Covenant voluntarily. Thereafter each province of the Anglican Communion may continue to act in whatever way it pleases - so long as no other province suspects or believes its actions to be outwith the provisions of the Covenant. The punishment for transgressing the Covenant is 'relational consequences': withdrawal from some, many or all of the international structures of Anglicanism (§§4.2.4 - 4.2.7).

Yet there is no difference in reality between being expelled and everyone else turning their backs on you. So a province may still act in whatever way it pleases, just as before, except that now it does so conscious that the other members of the Communion may act against it, forcefully, if it offends. Autonomy becomes a legal fiction.

For all its talk of being 'reliant on the Holy Spirit' (§1.2) and seeking 'to discern the fullness of truth into which the Spirit leads us, that peoples from all nations may be set free to receive new and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ' (§1.2.8), the Covenant is in reality an example of power politics. A significant minority of Anglicanism's senior leaders wish to punish or even expel The Episcopal Church (USA) and The Anglican Church of Canada because of their acceptance of gay people as full members of the church (and because of the cultural assumptions behind this acceptance). The Covenant gives them the right to do so and the SCAC gives them the means.

In this way a new foundation stone is to be inserted beneath the existing historical arrangements. Dispersed authority will be centralised as a conciliar and consensual church becomes a confessional church grounded on a new fundamental document.

The consequences will take years to emerge - yet it is being driven through with very little debate.

There have been 4½ proposed Covenants:

The main problem facing the Covenant Design Group was constitutional. Firstly, how could a new central competence be created which would have effective power over the bodies which created it? Secondly, who would be the new central body? Thirdly, what powers would this central body have? The starting and persistent difficulty has always been that each member Province highly prizes its autonomy and would resent anything which appeared to be interfering with its sovereign competence to govern its own affairs.

A second rumbling difficulty has been the place that some provinces have within the legal structures of the countries they are based in. Hong Kong, the Churches of North and South India, and England at least, would all find it legally impossible to become a subordinate part of a larger, international body.

Every draft has attempted to square this circle: how to give the Covenant real powers to instruct provinces and threaten punishment to the disobedient, while at the same time making it attractive enough for provinces to sign it. The story of the various attempts is told here.

The Nassau Draft

In the Nassau draft there was but one use of the word 'autonomy' (§6.1) in which Provinces promised to exercise their autonomy with 'regard to the common good of the Communion'. This was too vague. It might mean subordination (if, for example, the Primates had already decided what the common good was in specific circumstances) or it could imply a token consideration within independent decision making.

Signatories would have agreed to 'spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and discernment to listen and to study with one another in order to comprehend the will of God' (§6.2), 'to seek ... a common mind about matters of essential concern' (§6.3), 'to heed the counsel of our Instruments of Communion in matters which threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness of our mission' (§6.3), and 'to seek the guidance of the Instruments of Communion, where there are matters in serious dispute among churches' (§6.4). The Primates would be empowered to issue 'guidance and direction'  as to the substance of the 'common mind' of the Communion (§6.5).

In summary: the covenanting churches and the international organs of the Communion would discuss and debate an issue for as long as necessary to come to a common mind. The Primates would then decide just what that common mind was: their decision would thus end debate on something so serious and divisive that there was no common mind across the Communion.

Furthermore, and this is the fiction designed to hold autonomy and central control together:

We acknowledge that in the most extreme circumstances, where member churches choose not to fulfil the substance of the covenant as understood by the Councils of the Instruments of Communion, we will consider that such churches will have relinquished for themselves the force and meaning of the covenant's purpose, and a process of restoration and renewal will be required  to re-establish their covenant relationship with other member churches (§6.6).

No autonomy would be breached if the Province removed itself from the Communion. Each member could still make its own sovereign decisions about any matter within its jurisdiction. There were no sanctions. However each Province would act in the awareness of what later became called  the 'relational consequences' of its actions. No Province would be told what to do  but all the rest of the Provinces retained the right to turn their backs on the offender.  In effect this would suggest that, behind the legal face of respect for autonomy, the central bodies would govern by threat and blackmail: 'if you do that we're not going to talk to you again'.

The St Andrew's Draft

The St Andrews' Draft was a significant improvement on its predecessor in its structure and wording. Its three sections (Our Inheritance of Faith, The Life We Share with Others: Our Anglican Vocation, Our Unity and Common Life) were set out in a pattern of affirmations and consequent commitments.

The affirmations in Section 3 Our Unity and Common Life built on the first three paragraphs of the Nassau Draft. It stated:

Each Church, episcopally led and synodically governed, orders and regulates its own affairs and its local responsibility for mission through its own system of government and law and is therefore described as autonomous-in-communion. Churches of the Anglican Communion are not bound together  by a central legislative, executive or judicial authority (§3.1.2).

This is a stronger statement of provincial autonomy even if the hyphenation 'autonomous-in-communion' seems to qualify autonomy more than a phrase like 'autonomous and in communion' might imply.

§3.2 set out the commitments that were expected to follow  from being autonomous-in-communion. These largely repeated those  of the Nassau Draft not least in its emphasis on the 'common mind' as the goal of discussion and the end of debate. There was a welcome recognition that 'Some issues, which are perceived as controversial or new when they arise, may well evoke a deeper understanding of the implications of God's revelation to us', alongside issues potentially destructive of faith.

The proposed mechanisms by which disputed matters could be addressed formally by the international structures of Anglicanism were set out in some detail in an Appendix: Framework Procedures for the resolution of Covenant disagreements published with the St Andrew's Draft. This shed  significant light on a central opacity of the previous Draft but was  a political hostage to fortune as the process and its juridical character were attacked,  notwithstanding that it had been described as a 'tentative draft'.  (The authors of the final version of the Covenant have reverted to opacity.)

The procedures envisaged had several advantages over the Nassau Draft proposal to constitute the Primates as the final court of arbitration. More of the international structures of Anglicanism were engaged.  The possibility of arbitration was introduced. This may have been of pragmatic value though it is conceptually difficult to reconcile arbitration with ideas of truth or a common mind. Clear timetables were also given. The language  was also moderated to take into account sensitivities around autonomy: instead of the Primates being able to issue 'guidance and direction' the covenanters pledged themselves in advance to 'receive from the Instruments of Communion a request to adopt a particular course of action in respect of the matter under dispute' (§3.2.5.d).

However the apparent inflexibility and juridical character of the process (with echoes of the procedure of the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved which, though a dead letter, still sits on the statute book of the Church of England as the final court of appeal in doctrinal disputes) were not improvements. Nor was there any clarity as to who was to be responsible for running the process.  And a request backed by the threat of sanctions is still an instruction.

Once again the same fiction was offered to square the circle of autonomy and central decision making:

commitment to this covenant entails an acknowledgement that in the most extreme circumstances, where a Church chooses not to adopt the request of the Instruments of Communion, that decision may be understood by the Church itself, or by the resolution of the Instruments of Communion, as a relinquishment by that Church of the force and meaning of the covenant's purpose, until they re-establish their covenant relationship with other member Churches. (§3.2.5.e)

A new central competence with effective power has to begin at the most extreme possibility, in this case the possibility of expulsion from the community. All lesser powers ('relational consequences') of any new structure  are derived from its ultimate power. Therefore the future Communion envisaged in the Covenant is one grounded on the presupposition that it may expel its members; it will remain a fragile Communion until its authority is actually demonstrated by the expulsion of a member.

The Ridley-Cambridge Draft

The Ridley-Cambridge Draft was less prescriptive, proposing that each member Church set up 'mechanisms, agencies or institutions' (§4.2.6) consistent with its own structures. The agent in each Province  will co-ordinate its response to international process begun under the Covenant.  At best this should function as a conflict prevention mechanism, forewarning of potential difficulties and addressing them before they become irresolvable. At worst they will enable the central bodies to peer further and further into the internal workings of a province.

The Ridley-Cambridge Draft again struggled with questions of enforcement of the Covenant and the autonomy of its members. Again it stepped closer to asserting the autonomy of signatories in the face  of its own desire to control them. In its text each member Church declares

its resolve to live in a Communion of Churches. Each Church, with its bishops in synod, orders and regulates its own affairs and its local responsibility for mission through its own system of government and law and is therefore described as living "in communion with autonomy and accountability". Trusting in the Holy Spirit, who calls and enables us to dwell in a shared life of common worship and prayer for one another, in mutual affection, commitment and service, we seek to affirm our common life through those Instruments of Communion  by which our Churches are enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ.  Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together "not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference" and of the other instruments of Communion (§3.1.2).

It recognised, for the first time, that

The life of communion includes an ongoing engagement with the diverse expressions of apostolic authority, from synods and episcopal councils to local witness, in a way which continually interprets and articulates the common faith of the Church's members (consensus fidelium) (§3.1.4).

This is the first acknowledgement of the complexity of faithful religious life in the Covenant which holds the possibility that differing, even conflicting, 'expressions of apostolic authority' may be valid. The sentence continues to presume a single, unitary 'common faith' in defiance of, for example, the disagreements which brought the Anglican Communion to its present crisis. Furthermore, in apparently equating 'the common faith of the Church's members'  with the consensus fidelium it ignores the significance  of the reception of faith in the life of the church.

This tentative opening to complexity is ascribed to structural levels below that of the Province, raising the question of the relationship between Covenant and Province when it comes to activities in part of a province or not approved by provincial authority. It is not clear whether the plea that a provincial body cannot be held responsible for all the activities of its constituent parts will shield it from the mechanisms of the Covenant.  Some provinces have a high degree of control over dioceses and other bodies; other provinces have very little. The logic of the Covenant mechanisms (both conflict resolution and conflict prevention) is that, over time and against all protestations of provincial autonomy, they will reach ever further into the internal organs of a province, into their constitutional arrangements, and into more subjects of possible contention at ever-earlier stages.

In the implementation of the Covenant it repeats the earlier emphasis on the need for consultation and loyal, mutual regard in the search for a shared mind (no longer a common mind) in the discernment of developments in the life of the church. But, as with each of the previous drafts,  the Ridley-Cambridge Draft hits the rocks when it comes to questions of powers.

The Ridley-Cambridge Draft makes clear what was implicit from the start. Signing the Covenant will, in future, constitute the Anglican Communion and will replace whatever formal ties bound Provinces together in the past:

Participation in the covenant expresses a loyalty grounded in mutuality that one Church freely offers to other Churches, in whom it recognises the bonds of a common faith and order, a common inheritance in worship, life and mission, and a readiness to live in an interdependent life, but does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction (§4.1.1).

This is a unity of mutual recognition but its constituent members do not accept that any other member or international entity has power over them (§4.1.3). The basis of mutual recognition is that all members have formally assented to the propositions in parts 1-3 of the Covenant 'as fundamental to the life of the Anglican Communion and to the relationships among the covenanting Churches.' (§4.1.2). The voluntary acceptance of this confessional statement has no jurisdictional consequence except that each signatory should maintain fidelity to this Anglican Confession (§4.1.3).

There is a presupposition of continued consultation and debate in the search for a 'shared mind' and the discernment of a deeper understanding of God's calling to the Church. Each member agrees 'to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy ...' (3.2.5) and, if conflict should break out, to accept mediation (3.2.6).

But any derogation from the Anglican Confession will have consequences. The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (SCAC) 'shall have the duty of overseeing the functioning of the Covenant' (§4.2.1). Where a question is raised as to possible action which may or may not be in accord with the terms of the Covenant the church concerned may first be asked to delay until further soundings have been made (§4.2.3). (There seems to be some ambiguity as to the relationship between mediate and delay.)

If the Church refuses to delay (§4.2.3), or if the ACC or Primates' Meeting advises that the proposed action is 'incompatible with the Covenant' (§4.2.4), the SCAC 'may make recommendations as to relational consequences' (§4.2.5). Relational consequences are punishments by another name - requests to withdraw from some, many or all of the various networks, ministries and instruments of the Anglican Communion co-ordinated with requests to other members to consider withdrawal of co-operation with the offending Church. Ultimately (§4.3.1)  a Church may withdraw itself from the Covenant.

Thus is the circle squared once again. To be a member of the Anglican Communion is to voluntarily sign the Covenant. Thereafter each member of the Anglican Communion  may do its own thing so long as no other member suspects or believes its actions  to be outwith the Confessional sections of the Covenant. If a dispute does blow up the mechanism are in place to marginalise and exclude.

The final text

The Ridley-Cambridge Draft was put to the ACC 14 (Jamaica, May 2009) which accepted the proposal except for its final section. The stated reason was that this section had had insufficient consultation despite the fact that it and its precursors had been the primary focus of attention since the idea of a Covenant was first mooted. They received a further 18 responses, and 3 after the deadline, out of 39 possible contributors. The effect of their amendments appear to be fairly minor. (See the Commentary)

The opening paragraph of this section (§4.1.1) has been rewritten in a more dynamic tone, speaking of churches growing 'more fully into the ecclesial communion' and describing the Anglican Communion as a 'fellowship' whose members recognise in one another 'a common loyalty to Christ.' rather that the implicit common loyalty to the Covenant of the earlier draft.

§4.2.3 of the final draft is new. It makes clear that matters should be referred to the SCAC only after the earlier requirements for debate and, if necessary, mediation have been exhausted and no 'shared mind' has been attained. It does not specify who should be responsible for this earlier stage, or pay for it, but presumably the member provinces themselves will have to make their own arrangements.  When the SCAC becomes involved its first task is to repeat the search for agreement, taking advice from elsewhere including, where appropriate, both the ACC and the Primates' Meeting (§4.2.4).

Should this fail the more serious actions, 'relational consequences' envisaged by the Ridley-Cambridge Draft come into play. The former draft gave the SCAC discretion as to whether to make such recommendations while the final version requires the SCAC to make them.