The proposed Anglican Covenant is an attempt by some leaders of the
to subordinate national churches to a centralised international
authority, with power to forbid developments when another province objects.
We have opposed the Covenant since its inception.
Here we explain why.
What is the Covenant for?
In the first instance it would establish a clear
separation between the Anglican provinces which accept same-sex partnerships
and the provinces which forbid them.
In the long term it would create a centralised,
authoritarian system with power to forbid any
contentious new developments. In effect this is a power struggle, using
opposition to same-sex partnerships as a rallying-cry to gather support. The
underlying aim is to change the nature of Anglicanism and turn it from an
consensual church, where people are generally free to work out their own
beliefs and standards, to a confessional church
where members are expected to accept the teachings of church leaders.
Who wants it?
Those who have been campaigning against same-sex partnerships. It was first proposed in the
Windsor Report of 2004,
after the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the USA
and the approval of a same-sex blessing service in Canada. Some church leaders were
threatening to split the Anglican Communion
unless these actions were revoked, and the Primates' Meeting and the Archbishop of Canterbury were
persuaded to support them.
Since then plans for a Covenant
have been developed,
there has been a succession of draft texts
and the final text was published at the end of 2009.
More on the development of the idea
Supporters and opponents
Is it just about gay bishops?
Not any more. This is indeed the presenting issue, and the
current basis for condemning the North American churches.
(More on the relevance of sexual issues).
However the wording of the Covenant does not mention the issue. Instead it proposes giving
powers to a new international body of just 15 people, the
'Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion', to judge any development in
one province whenever another province disapproves.
This makes it a major, wide-ranging change to the Anglican Communion, in some ways the
biggest since the Reformation.
We cannot foresee what changes will be needed in the
next ten years, let alone the long term future, but we can be sure that new
issues will indeed arise and require new responses, and that someone somewhere
will disapprove. Would it really be wise to hand, in effect, a right of veto to
opponents of any innovation?
Is it about the Bible?
The debate about same-sex partnerships is one of many disagreements which stem from contrasting
views about the authority of the Bible. More...
How would the Covenant work?
Some church leaders wanted to expel the North American churches
from the Anglican Communion, but as this is impossible the Covenant is
designed to demote them.
Each province is free to sign it or not. Those signing would commit themselves not to undertake
any new development whenever another signatory objects, unless granted prior permission
from the new Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, which would have
power to pass judgement
on their decisions and threaten sanctions for disobeying them. It is designed to ensure
that the North American provinces cannot sign it unless they abandon their support
for same-sex partnerships.
Why would any province want to sign it? Some archbishops
are keen to do so, in order to distance themselves from the North American
provinces. Others need more persuading. The sub-text is that provinces which
refuse to sign it will no longer be treated as fully Anglican. This is
implied in the Covenant text;
but as though to dispel any uncertainty, the immediate practical implication
is that they will be excluded from international structures - and this feature has
already been applied to the USA,
thus pre-empting the Covenant.
More about how it would work.
How important is it?
Proponents of the Covenant speak with two voices.
Opponents of the North American churches have been reassured, since the
publication of the Windsor Report in 2004, that it will be a major new
discipline, the forceful structure they have been waiting for to ensure that
innovations like gay bishops cannot recur. To the governing bodies of
individual provinces wondering whether they really want to give up their
autonomy, the message is that this is a small matter, merely asking them to
consult with each other from time to time. These claims cannot both be true.
This reveals their main dilemma: how to produce a text
which on the one hand is forceful enough impose its demands on the provinces,
but on the other will persuade them to sign it. Their solution is to present
the Covenant as an entirely voluntary agreement which does not affect a
province's governance or autonomy. Provinces signing it would, as before, act
as they wished - so long as no other province objected. Once the Standing
Committee upheld an objection, it would impose 'relational consequences', which
would generally mean treating them like non-signatories.
Thus the Covenant resolves its dilemma with a message
familiar from the school playground: 'You are free to do as you like, but if
you do not do as we tell you, we shall all turn our backs on you and you will
not be one of us'. Legally, provinces cannot be expelled; but the Covenant
comes so close that autonomy would, in effect, become a legal fiction.
Over the centuries there have been many changes. It is one
thing to disapprove of some of them; it would be quite another to give
archbishops in other parts of the world the right to veto them.
(More on what the Covenant is likely to achieve in practice
and what difference it would have made
if we already had it,
for example to the introduction of
Differences of opinion are normal, and should be openly acknowledged. This has been the
traditional Anglican approach. It does not mean 'anything goes';
it means caring about truth enough to listen to different viewpoints, accepting that nobody is
infallible, and standing up against those who want to suppress debate.
What is wrong with it?
Criticisms of the Covenant reflect different theological positions.
About the theological disagreements.
Most of the debate focuses on the Standing Committee's powers to exclude. Many
of the Covenant's initial supporters hoped it would expel the North American churches from the Anglican
Communion and consider the final text too weak. Others believe the Standing
Committee's powers would still be too great. The power to exclude provinces
from various functions would be, in all but name, a punishment for disagreeing
with the Standing Committee's judgements. From this perspective the main
criticisms are that the Covenant would
How would it affect my church?
How much will it cost?
And who will pay? No budget has ever been made public, but it might look
something like this.
What's the alternative?
The obvious alternative is not to have a Covenant. Covenant supporters claim that we need
some way to ensure that churches do not in future make controversial
innovations without consulting the rest of the Anglican Communion. However this
is to presuppose that the opposition to the North American churches was a
widespread spontaneous reaction. In fact it was a carefully prepared campaign.
More on the alternative
There is a summary on this website of how it would work.
There are many summaries on other websites:
provides a supportive one and the
No Anglican Covenant Coalition
argues against. Among published books there is an interesting collection of essays representing different points of view
in Chapman, Mark, Ed, The Anglican Covenant: Unity and Diversity in the Anglican Communion,
London: Mowbray, 2008.
How you can help
The English dioceses are now being asked to decide whether to support the Covenant. The results
will inform General Synod when it takes its decisive vote, planned for July 2012. What happens in England
will be particularly important as it is likely to influence other provinces. If your diocese has not yet voted,
it would be helpful if you could lobby them. Many of your Diocesan Synod
representatives may be unaware of the strength of the case against it.
For further comments and questions contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively you can write to
Covenant Debate, 9 Westward View, Liverpool L17 7EE.
The Covenant pages - read them all