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Anglican Covenant: reply to Andrew Goddard

by Jonathan Clatworthy, 21 November 2010

Andrew Goddard has now provided a lengthy defence of the Anglican Covenant against the arguments in our advertisement of 29 October.

At over 15,000 words it bears witness to Dr Goddard's commitment. It is not light bedtime reading, and a point by point reply would not be either. In any case our views are already available. Although he does not refer to it, at the bottom of the advertisement we printed a website address for further details, where we had already provided much of the further information he asks for. Since then a huge amount of additional material has been placed on websites.There is a list in the resources section at, of which is particularly worthy of note.

Nevertheless it may be helpful to respond to the substance of his points.

The text and its potential

Dr Goddard writes that 'The IC/MCU statement... pays little or no attention to the text of the covenant itself'. We have in fact paid close attention; but rather than treating it as a good idea which just fell out of the sky, we judge it in the light of its potential. What matters is not how it describes itself, but how it could be used once it was in place. Furthermore we already have, in the controversies of the last decade or so, clear indications of how some groups intend to use it.

This point applies to much of Goddard's case. Regarding his arguments about the Covenant's effects on women priests, parishes, ecumenism, mission and the power given to objectors it will suffice to reply that in each case he focuses on what the Covenant says, while we focus on how it could be used.

Discipline, subordination and punishment

The most obvious disagreement is whether provinces will be subordinated to the international authorities and threatened with punishment if they do not obey. We wrote that the Covenant

was first proposed by the Windsor Report in 2004 to put pressure on the North American churches, after a diocese in the USA had elected an openly gay bishop and a diocese in Canada had approved a same-sex blessing service. Opponents had no legal way to expel the North Americans, so the Covenant is designed to achieve the same result by redefining the Anglican Communion to exclude them.

Goddard considers this a 'highly implausible spin'. He does not explain why,  but he does reply:

In fact, the Windsor Report's stated aim was that a covenant 'would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion' (para 118).

Our point exactly! How one can force people to be loyal and affectionate has been one of the great puzzles of the project; clearly any talk of force is obviously meaningless without some kind of punishment.

Later, repeating the denial of any subordination or punishment, Goddard describes how the current text was established:

There was substantial resistance to the idea that there should be any development of a body which could be seen to be exercising universal jurisdiction in Anglican polity. Anglicans wished to keep the autonomy of their Churches. Secondly, it became clear that the processes of adoption of the Covenant would be immensely complicated if the Covenant were seen to interfere with or to necessitate a change to the Constitution and Canons of any Province... Section Four of the RCD is therefore constructed on the fundamental principle of the constitutional autonomy of each Church.

This too accords with our argument: the reason why the Covenant restricts its punitive proposals to the relationships between provinces is that legally it cannot do more.

What counts about the Covenant text is not whether it claims to be punitive, or even whether its framers intend it to be, but whether it can be used  in a punitive manner, and the answer is clearly yes. Although the text states that provinces continue to be self-governing, when one of them refuses to accept the 'recommendations' of the Standing Committee there will be 'relational consequences': withdrawal from some, many or all of the international structures of Anglicanism. If a province rejects 'recommendations',  it can be excluded from the Covenant's 'enhanced' relationship with other provinces and international committees. Given that this 'enhanced' relationship turns out to look very much like the relationship most provinces thought they already had with each other, the effect would be a demotion.

Is this a punishment? For some it is not punishment enough; others including Goddard claim that it not a punishment at all. Such a claim is hardly convincing. It is like telling a child 'You are free to eat your broccoli or leave it, just as you like, but if you do not eat it you will not have any chocolate'. Whether this is called a 'punishment' or a 'relational consequence' is irrelevant: the child feels only too acutely the limitations on freedom caused by an unequal power structure. In the same way provinces would have their autonomy limited by the threat of exclusion from international structures: they will in effect be told 'Unless you toe the line we shall no longer count you as one of us'.

The Covenant's potential for punitive use is enough to make it a hostage to fortune; but if we go one step further and ask whether we have any reason to foresee it being used punitively, there is no doubt at all about the answer. Punitive intent was central to the Windsor Report's response to the North American actions in the proposal, cited above, to 'make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection'.

Since then there has been much talk of 'disciplining' the North Americans and demanding their 'repentance'. To ignore a ten-year controversy characterised by countless threats of schism and demands for some provinces to obey instructions given by others is to present it as though it had nothing to do with its context. For all that it is less punitive than earlier drafts, it is the product of this punitive agenda. If it had not been, Section 4 would have been unnecessary. Our suspicions would have been allayed if the Covenant's proponents had publicly declared that they had abandoned the Windsor process and were proposing something completely different. This they have not done.

One of the common temptations facing those in positions of power is to underrate the oppression they are imposing on others. One suspects that Dr Goddard, and perhaps other defenders of the Covenant, have not appreciated its oppressive potential because they think of themselves as defenders of Anglicanism-as-they-know-it and have not considered how they would feel if their deeply held Anglican convictions led to the 'relational consequences' they are proposing for others.

For all that he denies subordination and punishment, Goddard defends the need for discipline at length.  The Covenant is 'undoubtedly a way of discipline but it is first and foremost a path of self-discipline and mutual discipline and accountability which churches are being asked to embrace'. Here he reads as though he wants it both ways, as though 'we are telling you to exercise self-discipline in the way we tell you, or else' - which of course would not be self-discipline at all.

In response to our claim that the Covenant would impose sanctions, he accepts that 'the covenant clearly has a potentially disciplinary or at least a quasi-disciplinary function in relation to the relationship between Anglican churches.' Precisely - except that we would have left out the 'quasi'.

Redefining Anglicanism

The advertisement claimed that the Covenant 'would redefine Anglicanism'. We cited two statements of the Covenant text to this effect. The first is 4.1.2:

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.

Goddard argues that what is foundational is 'not the covenant per se' but the elements of 'faith, mission and interdependence of life' - in other words not Sections 1-3 of the Covenant but their contents. It may seem an obscure point, but even if we accept it, Anglicanism is still being redefined.

At the most favourable interpretation of his position, we might imagine that every Anglican in the world, on reading Sections 1-3, would agree that it is a fair statement of Anglicanism. It might then appear that persuading the provinces to commit themselves to it would not change Anglicanism at all. However it would. Firstly, the contents of Sections 1-3 would initially be accepted  as a description of Anglicanism, but as soon as the Covenant was in force they would turn into a criterion of Anglicanism.  Even if the authors of the text are right to think it accurately expresses what Anglicans actually believe, once the provinces have signed up to it it will then become possible to tell people that if they want to count as Anglicans they will have to believe it.

Secondly, even in the most favourable circumstances, however well the text is written the time will come when our successors wish we had written it differently.

Thirdly, to be more realistic, as soon as the ink is dry on the signatures there will be disputes about the meaning of some sentences in it.

The other text we cited on this matter is 4.2.1, where signatories would agree that that 'recognition of, and fidelity to, the text of this Covenant, enables mutual recognition and communion'. The advertisement argued:

This means that non-signatories would no longer count as part of the Communion. Since 'mutual recognition and communion' have until now applied across all Anglican provinces, the effect is to withdraw recognition and communion from non-signatories. Thus the Anglican Communion would cease to consist of the 38 provinces and instead consist of the new international structure, to which the provinces will only belong if they sign the Covenant.

Goddard replies:

The fact that X (covenant faithfulness) enables Y (mutual recognition and communion) does not mean that Y does not exist without X. It simply means that, without X, Y does not exist at as full or as deep a level.

I disagree with his definition of 'enables'. Normal dictionary definitions are along the lines of 'to provide somebody with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something', 'to make something possible or feasible', or 'to confer legal authority on somebody or something'. In other words, to enable something is to make something possible which would not otherwise have been possible. Goddard is here suggesting that the Covenant will make it possible for 'mutual recognition and communion' to exist at a fuller or deeper level; but what the text says is simply that it will enable them; and unless he proposes to change the meanings of words, this does indeed imply that mutual recognition and communion will not apply to non-signatories.

I have argued here that 'enables' does mean what I take it to mean; but for this text to become a manifesto for schismatics, all it requires is that it can mean what I take it to mean.

Goddard tells us that

The question of the implications of being a non-signatory is quite simply not addressed in the covenant and has not been determined or even widely discussed. In one sense the question of the implications of being a non-signatory cannot be answered at this stage.

As Goddard knows only too well, this is far from being the case. Here, for example, are two much-discussed statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first is from Challenge and Hope (June 2006):

We could arrive at a situation where there were 'constituent' Churches in covenant in the Anglican Communion and other 'churches in association', which were still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures. The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example. The 'associated' Churches would have no direct part in the decision making of the 'constituent' Churches, though they might well be observers.

The second is from Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future (July 2009):

There is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a 'covenanted' Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the Church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with 'covenanted' provinces.

He goes on to describe this as

a 'two-track' model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. If those who elect this model do not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the 'covenanted' body participates, this is simply because within these processes there has to be clarity about who has the authority to speak for whom.

Here Williams, with his customary gentleness, avoids suggesting that 'track 2' churches will not be fully Anglican, but nevertheless proposes to exclude them from functions they currently perform. Other proponents have expressed the same desire for a separation, but in more forthright language treating the Anglican status of non-signatories as inferior at best. Two central figures in the process are Drexel Gomez and Tom Wright. Drexel's To Mend the Net (a summary can be found at Not The Same Stream) threatens schism, proposing instead a very authoritarian approach to controversy  in which churches would be demoted for disobeying a central hierarchy.  It was published in 2001, which is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it shows  that the determination to suppress diversity of opinion had developed before the controversies over gay bishops. Secondly, when the Archbishop of Canterbury asked him to chair the Covenant Design Group, he knew what kind of man he was asking.

Tom Wright also seeks a sharp separation between the two parts of Anglicanism: in his Rowan's Reflections: Unpacking the Archbishop's Statement (July 2009) he proposes to disengage all the Instruments of Communion from Track 2 and treats the matter as urgent.

These are all well known statements by senior figures in the Covenant project. Contrary to Goddard's claim the status of non-signatories has been much discussed and these authors all anticipate inferior status for non-signatories.

Would the Covenant make the Church more inward-looking?

We said the Covenant would make the Church of England more 'inward-looking' and explained:

At present when General Synod makes new proposals it consults interested parties like the dioceses and parishes, relevant specialists and the Government. The Covenant would subordinate this to international Anglicanism: the top priority would always be to 'to seek a shared mind with other Churches' at the expense of national and local context.

Goddard replies that 'part of the covenant's aim is precisely to uphold the Communion's catholicity - by giving expression to its commitment to "universal Christianity"'. He adds:

It also explains why it has a particular concern with the need '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 and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission' (3.2.5)

On this point it seems we agree about what the Covenant would do. The disagreement is about whether it is a good thing. We think confident decision-making at a local level is a strength: Goddard wants to shift authority so that local agents are more constrained by the demands of international Anglicanism. Obviously this cannot be achieved without a top-down management structure giving more power to the leaders of international Anglicanism. This may seem sensible to those who believe the Holy Spirit's guidance is exclusively revealed through church leaders. We do not.

New dogmas

We wrote:

Every time the Standing Committee upholds an objection it will thereby establish a new ruling, another doctrine Anglicans are expected to believe. Over time Anglicanism will become less inclusive and more dogmatic.

Goddard asks 'Why does "a new ruling" entail becoming "less inclusive and more dogmatic"?'

We already have an example. The 1998 Lambeth Conference declared homosexuality 'incompatible with Scripture' and the Windsor Report, bounced by the threats of schism, took this to mean that there is an Anglican 'consensus' on the matter. This 'consensus' was the basis on which it declared that the North American churches were out of order in consecrating a gay bishop and producing a same-sex blessing service. In other words, despite the fact that Lambeth conference resolutions have never had legislating powers, Windsor treated Resolution 1.10 as binding on Anglicanism - in effect, another constituent of Anglican belief to add to the Bible, the Creeds and the Thirty-Nine Articles. It thereby restricts Anglicanism to those willing to accept that homosexuality is immoral. In exactly the same way the Covenant would pave the way for further restrictions every time the Standing Committee upholds an objection.

Goddard tries to reverse the argument:

Each time the Standing Committee dismisses an objection it will also have an impact and this may well make Anglicanism what IC & MCU would see as less dogmatic and more inclusive... how would they describe the situation if the Standing Committee were to judge that, despite the protests of certain provinces, a church's development of a same-sex blessing liturgy was not incompatible with the covenant...?

Such a move would certainly not make Anglicanism more inclusive. It would mean a massive reduction of freedom: instead of being free to decide either way, provinces would depend on being given permission.

What alternative do we suggest?

Goddard's other main argument is that we 'fail to address how differences between churches may be better addressed'. He complains that we have not presented an alternative to the Covenant.

This is an odd complaint. Those who oppose a change do not normally feel obliged to propose a different change. Nevertheless we did explain our view that 'Classic Anglicanism offers a better method':

Anglicans traditionally value the role of reason and thus expect to learn from other people. We have therefore been better at staying united because we have debated our disagreements openly within the Church,  without threatening schism, until such time as consensus is reached.
The way to keep united is to insist, as the Church of England has normally done, that differences of opinion may be freely and openly debated within the Church, in the interests of seeking truth, without invoking power games or threats of schism.

Once again Goddard replies on the level of what the Covenant says about itself, ignoring how it could be used: 'the covenant puts no stop to free and open debate - in fact it encourages it based on the recognition that this is essential precisely for seeking truth'. He knows full well that the proposed mechanism for 'recommendations' by the Standing Committee is designed to close down debate at times of controversy.

There is no shortage of scholarly literature on the nature of Anglicanism: one thinks for example of the works of Stephen Sykes, Paul Avis and above all Henry McAdoo. An excellent recent work is Kenneth Locke's The Church in Anglican Theology (2009).  Although Avis has recently written in support of the Covenant, their works for the most part defend an open theological tradition in which diversity of opinion is accepted as normal. My own Liberal Faith in a Divided Church discusses the matter in detail;  extracts are available at We are not proposing a new Anglicanism.


Goddard's defence of the Covenant against our arguments shows little understanding of our position. He focuses solely on the advertisement text, showing no awareness of our supporting documentation or the large body of literature opposing the Covenant. He is driven to accusing us of not paying attention to what the Covenant says.

In three respects his position reads as na�ve. Firstly, he takes for granted that the North American events of 2003 were the real cause of the recent controversy. In fact there had already been a growing movement seeking to close down Anglican diversity in the interests of increased authoritarianism. This was expressed in the Kuala Lumpur Conference, Gomez' To Mend the Net and the 2002 campaign against the appointment of Rowan Williams to Canterbury. He does not acknowledge the threat this movement posed to Anglican tolerance, perhaps because he shares many of its values.

Secondly he takes for granted that the events of 2003 justify the need for the Covenant. The Windsor Report thought they did, but those of us more committed to a tolerant Anglicanism believe otherwise. If there is to be any room in Anglicanism for new Spirit-led insights, we should expect them to appear in one or two places in the first instance, and take time to spread more widely. The necessary time would be prevented if there were a central bureaucracy with power to suppress the innovations of one province when others object. From our perspective, if anybody needed to be told that they were behaving in an un-Anglican manner, it was those who insisted that their view of same-sex partnerships should be the only one permitted to Anglicans. Such company, it appears, would include Dr Goddard himself.

Thirdly he treats the Covenant as though it could only be used to do what it describes itself as doing. On the contrary texts like this, once in force, develop a life of their own through the way they are interpreted.

The bitter controversies of the last decade have indeed been most unfortunate. The presenting issues have been ethical and theological disagreement. They should be resolved by patient, informed ethical and theological dialogue, not by ecclesiastical power politics and threats of exclusion.

Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is editor of Modern Believing and a former Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.

Reply to defenders of the proposed Anglican Covenant

by Jonathan Clatworthy, 10 November 2010

On 29 October 2010 the church press carried an advertisement by Modern Church and Inclusive Church arguing against the proposed Anglican Covenant. Since then widespread concern about the proposal has been expressed; the Church Times poll, for example, produced over 80% opposition. In defence of the Covenant a Briefing Paper for England's General Synod has been published and two defenders have replied to the advertisement, Andrew Goddard and Gregory Cameron.

This article offers a brief response to the main arguments in these three documents.

The background

The idea of an Anglican Covenant historically stems from a disagreement about authority. Since the reign of Elizabeth I the Church of England has accepted diversity of opinion as normal, but other Protestants (including some Anglican provinces) expect uniformity of belief because they hold that proper Christian submission to the Bible should produce agreement on all matters of faith.

The controversy reached its height with a series of events in 2002-3: the appointments of Rowan Williams to Canterbury and Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson to other bishopricks, and the Canadian same-sex blessing services. Even before then, however, pressure for a more authoritarian Communion had been building up, with rival bishops being appointed to dioceses.

In 2004 the Windsor Report appealed to a 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution to argue that the immorality of homosexuality had already been established as the Anglican 'consensus'. It proposed a Covenant as a way of committing provinces to consult across the whole Communion before rejecting any such consensus. In this way it sided with the uniformitarians.

Current attitudes vary but can be classified into three types. Some reject uniformity of belief and defend traditional Church of England inclusiveness. They think the ethics of same-sex partnerships is a proper topic for open debate, which should continue until consensus is reached. From this perspective the Windsor Report was at fault in attempting to close down debate, and any Covenant with the same agenda should be opposed. This is the position from which this article has been written.

Others support the Covenant primarily or only because they are strongly opposed to same-sex partnerships. They would like to reassure church members and enquirers that the whole Anglican denomination disapproves of them. This means that any province with practising gay bishops should not belong to the Anglican Communion, so the USA should be excluded until such time as it changes its position.

Others again are more generally concerned to establish a uniformitarian system with power to close down debate on future controversies, whatever they may be. From this perspective even if the Covenant comes into force too late to 'discipline' provinces with gay bishops, it will still be valued for its potential impact on future controversies.

Will the Covenant centralise power?

The Briefing Paper answers that 'the Covenant will function within the existing Anglican structures; it does not envisage new structures, although it will probably bring about some formalisation of what were originally more flexible arrangements.' This is a defensible claim, though when the Standing Committee of the ACC gave itself new powers and a new name - it is now the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion - it is at least arguable that it created something new. In addition the powers of the four Instruments of Communion have been considerably strengthened since 2003 in preparation for the Covenant.

The Briefing Paper in effect admits as much. It speaks of 'committing' the Communion's churches 'to mutual accountability, consultation and the achievement of consensus' and of seeking 'structures that will express the need for mutual recognisability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making'. The Covenant 'intends to offer a means by which the commitment of a member church of the Anglican Communion to the Anglican Communion as a whole can be reflected in the decision-making processes of that church.' None of this would be possible without a central process, and a commitment by the provinces to honour its decisions.

Will provinces submit to an outside body?

The Covenant text repeatedly denies that there is any submission (3.1.2, 3.2.2, 4.1.3), and all three documents agree. However two questions remain. Firstly, is the rest of the Covenant text consistent with this denial? Secondly, what would be the effect in practice?

The Covenant offers an account of Anglicanism in Sections 1-3. It asks signatories to accept this account as 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches' (4.1.2), and states that 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion' (4.2.1). Until now mutual recognition and communion have applied across all Anglican provinces. Even if the Covenant Design Group did not take these words to mean that non-signatories will no longer be part of the Communion, others will.

The question of how to reconcile this centralisation with provincial autonomy has been a major dilemma. On the one hand the Covenant cannot come into effect until the provinces have freely signed it; on the other, the intention is to persuade provinces to accept direction. The text seeks to resolve the dilemma by presenting the Covenant as a voluntary arrangement. To belong to the Anglican Communion is to sign the Covenant voluntarily. Thereafter each province may continue to act in whatever way it pleases, as long as no other province objects that its actions are incompatible with the Covenant. When there is an objection, though, there must be sanctions of some sort. The dilemma remains: if the province's freedom remains unchanged the sanctions are ineffective, but if the sanctions have an effect the province's freedom has been curtailed.

Would it make the Church more inward-looking?

The advertisement argued that the Covenant would subordinate each local church to international Anglicanism: 'the top priority would always be to "to seek a shared mind with other Churches" at the expense of national and local context'. Goddard replies that the Covenant 'seeks to be truly catholic and uphold "universal Christianity". It does so by facilitating global discernment together that will help distinguish potentially Spirit-led developments from idiosyncratic actions of misguided minorities'.

The question at issue is how a local church weighs its commitment to universal Anglicanism against its own assessments of local situations. The Covenant proposes to shift the emphasis towards universal Anglicanism. This would make each church more hierarchical and ecclesiastical: more authority would accrue to the spokespeople for international Anglicanism, at the expense of those who represent local circumstances.

Would the Covenant hinder change?

The Briefing Paper notes that

Any process of discernment runs the danger of stifling the work of the Spirit; however, any call (whether to change or to stay the same) requires a process of discernment in order to determine whether it is of the Spirit... Properly used, the processes outlined in the Covenant should assist this process of discerning the work of the Spirit within the Anglican Communion.

Of course the Covenant's processes will only be used when the 'discernment' does not produce consensus. Whenever Province A objects to Province B, it will be because Province B is innovating, not because Province B is remaining unchanged. Inevitably the Covenant will constitute one more obstacle in the way of change.

Would Anglicanism become more confessional?

The Briefing Paper responds to the complaint that the Covenant is not sufficiently confessional and biblical, noting that signatories affirm 'the catholic and apostolic faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds,' and that 'the historic formularies of the Church of England bear authentic witness to this faith' (1.1.2). The Church of England has traditionally been careful not to add to the beliefs expected of its members, over and above an essential minimum. Other churches however have distinguished themselves by their own doctrines, and many hope to move Anglicanism in this direction.

Although the Covenant does not propose to make Anglicanism more confessional, in practice it would. The Windsor Report set a precedent by arguing that in the light of Lambeth 1998 homosexuality is, for Anglicans, 'incompatible with scripture', so the matter has been decided and is no longer open to debate. The Covenant's mechanism for conflict resolution would work in a similar way: each disagreement would be submitted to the Standing Committee, and if after due process a doctrine or action is judged 'incompatible with the Covenant', its contrary will in effect become official Anglican teaching.

Is the Covenant punitive?

Earlier drafts of the Covenant contained punitive language. The final text speaks only of 'relational consequences'. Some interpret this change as a genuine decision to do no punishing. In this case it would have been helpful if the Covenant Design Group had made a formal statement to the effect that they had abandoned the Windsor Report's aims and were seeking a very different solution. Because they have not, others suspect a sleight of hand in which a still punitive document is put into gentler language in order to persuade the provinces to sign it.

The long term effect will depend not on what the Covenant Design Group intended, but on whether the text can be interpreted  in a punitive manner. We already know that an influential constitutency intends to use it, as the Windsor Report envisaged, to forbid gay bishops, and if this is possible it will be possible for future issues too.

The text states that in cases of controversy, when a church declines a request by the Standing Committee to defer a particular action, the Standing Committee consults two of the Instruments of Communion (the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting) and may then declare an action 'incompatible with the Covenant'. It would then make recommendations which would '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.' On this basis 'the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument' (4.2.5-4.2.7).

Defenders of the Covenant deny that this is punitive. According to Cameron,

the most extreme power at the Standing Committee's disposal under the Covenant is... 'to make recommendations' (4.2.7)... There is no element of coercion anywhere in the text, but there is an acknowledgement that neither can everything that one Church does be foisted on the whole Communion without the recognition that relations can be damaged.

At present no church can foist anything onto another province; the Covenant would enable such foisting for the first time, through objections to the Standing Committee. Nor are 'recommendations' necessarily powerless. They are also made by judges and generals, and whether they are punitive depends on intentions and the power to enforce them. The key question is whether the 'relational consequences' available to the central authorities can have the effect of punishments.

Those who have worked hard to produce the final text must be only too aware how much less obligation there is than some want. This is no doubt partly because of opposition to a punitive text, but it is primarily because every province is self-governing and few if any would freely give up their autonomy. This means the only sanctions which can be imposed on a province are those which affect its relationship to the rest of the Communion.

Thus the response to transgressing the Covenant would be 'relational consequences': withdrawal from some, many or all of the international structures of Anglicanism. Is this a punishment? For some it is not punishment enough; others including Cameron and Goddard claim that it not a punishment at all. Such a claim is hardly convincing. Once the Standing Committee has made one or more recommendations, the provinces would in effect be told: 'You are free to do whatever you like, but if you do not do what we tell you we may just turn our backs on you and no longer count you as one of us'. This is, in reality, a punishment.


Over the last eight years the internal divisions of Anglicanism have repeatedly made front page news. A succession of parishes, dioceses, and newly formed societies have trumpeted their dissatisfaction with Anglicanism, performed some schismatic act, and been told by the Communion's leaders that they should have waited for the Covenant. Rival bishops have been appointed to dioceses, and have been condemned for jumping the gun because the Covenant is on the way. Are we really to believe that after eight years of such agonising labour, the elephant is about to give birth - to a mouse?

The main weakness of the whole process is that it misinterprets the tensions within Anglicanism. The significant change in 2003 was not that some provinces abandoned their disapproval of same-sex partnerships - changing views on ethical issues are normal - but that an authoritarian pressure group convincingly threatened schism. The Communion's leaders should have insisted that Anglicanism welcomes diversity of opinion and seeks truth through open debate and mutual respect. Instead they tried to appease it with a punitive Covenant designed to expel the North American provinces.

Since then opposition has ensured that the final text avoids punitive language; but it still contains sanctions, and without those sanctions it would serve no purpose at all. It remains the offspring of a centralising, authoritarian project. Those who value diversity of opinion and open debate should oppose it.

Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is editor of Modern Believing and a former Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.

Adiaphora and Bishop Wright's Presidential Address

Response by Jonathan Clatworthy

Bishop Tom Wright's call for 'proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices' in his Presidential Address is most welcome.

However the way he uses Paul's remarks about adiaphora (issues on which we can agree to differ) in favour of delaying the introduction of women bishops, opposing gay and lesbian sexuality and supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant goes far beyond anything Paul could have expected.

Paul was seeking practical proposals for specific situations when there was no international Christian authority to settle the arguments in his favour. When Wright argues that deciding which issues count as adiaphora is not itself adiaphora and therefore cannot be 'decided locally', he is presupposing an international authority with the power to lay down which is which. At the same time he is busy trying to establish such an authority for the first time within Anglicanism, by means of the Anglican Covenant.

We need to avoid that Puritan mindset which expects everyone in the Church to agree on everything important. Wright gives the impression that the Church consists of bishops and their committees: in the case of sexual ethics, for example, he declares that 'the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, not least the Lambeth Conference, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed' what he calls 'the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament', even though in fact he knows all too well that the Church is deeply divided on the matter.

Similarly on women bishops he calls for 'proper theological argument, which we have not yet had'. Since the disastrous 1993 Act of Synod debate has indeed often degenerated into exchanges of prejudices, but there has also been much serious theological discussion over an extended period: the Modern Churchpeople's Union has been proposing theological arguments for women priests and bishops since the 1920s!

There is bound to be conflict between tidy institutions and the search for truth. Clergy who run dioceses and provinces like them to run smoothly with everyone in agreement. Independent seekers after truth object to being told what to think. Scientists face the same issue, but are a century ahead of clergy: they recognise that we make no progress unless we make full use of tradition, but also that every corner of tradition must be in principle open to challenge - not only to help us discover our past mistakes, but also to better understand what it means for our truths to be true.

This means freedom of thought, and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us where we never expected to go. It means admitting our uncertainties, however uncomfortable it makes the tidy-minded.

If Anglicanism is to have a future it must be open to new insights. Otherwise it will die of old age, and no doubt God will raise up a new and more responsive religious movement, led perhaps by a new Paul.

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

The Windsor Report - a liberal response

from The Windsor Report: A Liberal Response, ed. Jonathan Clatworthy and David Taylor (O Books, Winchester & New York, 2005)
by Jonathan Clatworthy [other Modern Church responses]


The Windsor Report has announced its recommendations and explained its reasons. At the time of writing it is up to the various parts of the Anglican Communion to decide what to make of it.

From a liberal point of view it is inviting the church to move in the wrong direction. This book has described the reasons: it seeks to make Anglicanism more centralized and authoritarian, less tolerant and diverse. It takes for granted that homosexuality is morally wrong and that the actions of New Westminster and New Hampshire were out of order.

It begins by emphasizing the importance of unity. What it means by unity, we gradually discover, is a uniformity out of character with the past history of the church. In practice, though, unity is best maintained when diversity of belief and practice is permitted; when it is not, those who disagree have no option but to separate. The only satisfactory solution to the present disagreement, we believe, is for those who oppose homosexuality to accept that other Christians, equally committed to their faith and equally theologically informed, have a different view and have just as much right to be Anglicans. Those who refuse to accept this diversity of views must face the fact that their views on diversity and inclusiveness are are at odds with Anglicanism; if they are determined to impose their views on others, they should do so outside the Anglican Communion.

In the interests of centralization the Report proposes an increase in the powers of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the introduction of a 'communion law' and a 'common Anglican covenant' as communion-wide authorities. The purpose of these changes is to reduce the freedoms of provinces and bishops in order to prevent a repetition of the innovations which took place at New Westminster and New Hampshire. Liberals believe it would be better to retain or even increase them. The history of most institutions, including the church, shows that the best methods for developing successful innovations are bottom-up, not top-down.

An additional problem is that the proposals are so restrictive that it would be very difficult for any innovations to be introduced at all; in effect the Anglican Communion would become static, stuck in a time-warp. This can be seen from its discussion of adiaphora , matters which are not essential to the Communion as a whole and can therefore be decided by the provinces for themselves. Questions concerning the whole Communion, it decrees, need to involve the whole Communion in their decision-making. This sounds fine: but it has nothing to do with the present debate as Gene Robinson is Bishop only of New Hampshire and the same-sex blessing rite is available only in New Westminster.

The Report gets round this problem by excluding from the category of adiaphora any matters which 'a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous and offensive, either in the sense that they will be led into acting against their own consciences or that they will be forced, for conscience's sake, to break fellowship with those who go ahead'. This criterion has not previously been part of Anglican ecclesiology. To liberals it looks as though it has been framed precisely in order to justify rejecting the same-sex blessings and Robinson's consecration. As a working principle it is clearly unsatisfactory. Christians vary widely in their judgements of what would count as scandalous or offensive. Many bishops - probably most - engage in at least one activity which is considered scandalous or offensive by some people somewhere in the world-wide Anglican Communion, whether it be drinking alcohol, supporting the armed forces, supporting or opposing abortion, or engaging in usury by holding an account in a building society. If this criterion is formally incorporated into Anglican decision-making, liberals will have little or no use for it as they prefer the church to be inclusive. Its primary - probably its only - use will be by intolerant minorities determined to impose their views on the church as a whole.

The 'sufficient number' would need to be precisely defined. Once defined, it would set a target for the petition-signing of campaigning organizations. Any organization which achieved the figure would then be in a position to veto any change, or the appointment of any bishop, provided only that they claimed it offended their consciences. Gentle souls may, perhaps, feel that no self-respecting Christian organization would stoop so low as to be so unscrupulous. Liberals reply that this is precisely what is happening now.

To discuss the ethics of homosexuality was outside the Report's remit, but it worked on the basis that the Anglican Communion considers homosexuality immoral. The main reasons given are the biblical condemnations and the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution.

Liberals question both these reasons. People who oppose homosexuality on the basis of Scripture are invariably selective in their use of it. There are over six hundred commands in the Bible, the majority of which are ignored by Christians today. Lambeth Conference resolutions are not binding. The 1998 resolution in particular is hedged with question marks, as an unusually large number of African bishops attended that conference and there have been suspicions - not denied, let alone refuted - that some of them were paid to attend, with the specific purpose of voting in favour of it. If it had been an Act of Parliament, at the very least it would have been challenged in the courts.

It is on these dubious bases that the Report judges the dioceses of New Westminster and New Hampshire to have been at fault. It does not ask them to repent, but it does ask them to regret their actions. In fact, those responsible for the innovations did nothing wrong, either morally or constitutionally. In effect the Report is proposing to change the rules of the Anglican Communion and apply the new rules retrospectively to these actions. Retrospectively applied legislation would certainly contravene accepted constitutional procedures. If the Communion does decide to make the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution binding on all Anglicans, and expect those who supported Robinson's consecration to withdraw from their representative functions, the matter will not rest there. Inevitably the question will arise about the seventy bishops who voted against it. It will seem only proper that they, too, should be invited to regret their action and withdraw from representative functions.

The Report shows great sympathy for the pain which the actions in New Westminster and New Hampshire caused to those who oppose homosexuality - and not a word concerning the pain caused to homosexuals themselves. This is an astonishing reversal of any credible moral position. If, for example, it showed sympathy for the pain caused to white supremacists, who believed that blacks should be slaves but who were forced by law to treat blacks as equals, it would be clear to all that the pain caused to the white supremacists does not have the same moral right to sympathy as the pain caused to black slaves. Similarly, the pain caused to homosexuals by the current discrimination affects their whole lives and is inescapable; the pain caused to the opponents of homosexuality when a homosexual becomes a bishop is a self-inflicted pain based on a choice to hold, and feel strongly about, a particular opinion. As Gill Cooke says, it is a basic rule in first aid that, when dealing with more than one casualty, one should focus on the silent ones first as they are usually suffering more than the ones making most noise. So it is in this case. The ones making most noise do not suffer discrimination in education and jobs. They do not get beaten up on the street just for being what they are.

The Report presents opposition to homosexuality as the view of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans. Liberals doubt this. Much depends on how we count. What we have witnessed is a highly organized campaign, run by a small number of people and claiming the support of large numbers. Of those large numbers, most simply attend a church, or belong to a diocese, which has an official policy of opposing homosexuality. The individuals being counted may not have a view on the issue, or may even be homosexuals themselves. Indeed, although most of the poorer countries have public ethical norms which oppose homosexuality, they also have homosexuals, and many priests among them.

The nature of that campaign is itself worthy of comment. Clergy and parishes have threatened to refuse to recognize their diocesan bishop, simply on the ground that the bishop supports Gene Robinson's consecration. Parishes have threatened to withdraw their giving if they do not get their way. Threats have been issued to Robinson's life. While declining to comment on these threats, Windsor does note that some bishops have intervened in other provinces to offer 'alternative episcopal oversight'. It asks them to express regret and cease intervening, while sympathising with the fact that they felt a conscientious duty to do so. However there is no suggestion that they should not be invited to future communion-wide events. Nor is there a similar sympathy for ECUSA's sense of conscientious duty. That failure to notice that the innovators conscientiously believe they did the right thing, is a major weakness. It runs through the whole Report, vitiating its attempts to be even-handed.

To summarize, the issues might be described under three headings. Firstly, the Report proposes to give the Anglican Communion a more centralized and hierarchical power structure. We favour decentralization. Usually the best decisions are made at the most local level practicable. African bishops face issues of polygamy which do not trouble their British and North American counterparts; rather than impose our views and practices on them, we leave it to them to judge how best to handle them. In the same way we expect them to leave it to us to handle our issues of homosexuality. This may, of course, lead to relativism, but it does not need to; it can simply be a response to the fact that nobody knows all the answers. Since Christians recognize that truth and divine guidance can come from any source at all, Church leaders should recognize that they cannot control it, and ought not to try, even if - as happened in New Westminster and New Hampshire - it is not what they wanted to hear.

For the same reason church structures should be as democratic as is practicable. It should be made possible for everybody's voice to be heard but nobody's to dominate. A church where everybody feels obliged to believe the same thing is a poor church, where members have little to offer each other. A healthy church is one where divergent voices can be heard and respected. If this means church membership has fuzzy edges, there is no problem in that.

Secondly, the church should accept diversity of belief and practice. The greater uniformity being sought by the Report will, contrary to its intentions, foster greater disunity as people discover that their own views are no longer considered acceptable.

One of the greatest assets of Anglicanism is its inclusiveness, its 'broad church' character. This has been largely because of the Church of England's perception of itself as the church of the whole nation. Of course it has never fully achieved this status; but it has, at least for much of its time, aimed towards it, and has therefore incorporated many different lifestyles and beliefs. Far from trying to suppress its diversity, we should celebrate and encourage it.

This inclusiveness has in the past enabled Anglicanism to cope with major controversies without splitting, a significant practical advantage compared with more sectarian Protestant groups. What the current controversy has shown, however, is that if the Communion is to remain as it is, we can no longer take its inclusiveness for granted. Now that it is under threat it needs to be protected.

There is an analogy with the moral teaching of Jesus. Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, and did not condemn for their immorality either the woman caught in the act of adultery or dishonest tax collectors or prostitutes. He did, however, condemn the Pharisees, the leading upholders of traditional moral standards. Christians have often reflected on the wisdom of this stance. Moral standards can be used to do more harm than good, when they are used to provide a favoured few with an easy sense of superiority while making others feel second rate. Similarly, Christian churchgoing today can all too easily offer a false sense of superiority by making people feel part of an elect club. The commonest way to justify a sense of superiority is to focus on a single ethical issue to condemn. For Jews at the time of Christ it was the food regulations; for western Christians today it is homosexuality.

Anglicanism, with its traditional willingness to include almost everyone, should help us to resist that danger. When people threaten to split the church or undermine its institutions unless their views are imposed on the church as a whole, the threats constitute an act of aggression against the well-being of the Communion. We suggest that whenever this happens, this is the point at which the leaders of the entire Communion - the instruments of unity - should act decisively and in concert. It is difficult to imagine circumstances where it would be necessary to go so far as to expel the imposers; normally, as in the present situation, it should suffice to make it clear to all that they are exceeding their rights. It may also be necessary to offer protection to those in the affected provinces who may suffer discrimination for resisting the aggressors. Our inclusiveness is a great asset, something which has served Anglicanism well for many centuries. We should not let it be taken away.

Thirdly, the Report suggests that the Anglican Communion has reached a consensus that homosexuality is immoral. If this had been the case, there would have been no remaining controversy, and the Archbishop would not have asked the Commission to produce this Report.

It is true that the 1998 Lambeth conference, and various reports, condemned homosexuality; but these are not the Anglican Communion. The Communion as a whole is quite clearly divided on the matter, and divided we shall remain for the foreseeable future. There is nothing unusual about this; indeed, throughout the history of Christianity there has always been a good supply of controversial issues to keep debate going. It is in the nature of human communities that they never run out of issues needing to be explored.

There are those who feel uncomfortable with this, and want to tie up all the ends once and for all. The Report has been too influenced by them. The church will be far healthier if it willingly accepts the differences of opinion, and the debates, and engages with them, taking them seriously as one of the most common methods by which truths are revealed and God guides us. For those of us who admit that we do not know the whole truth it is an obvious procedure. The church's leadership should willingly accept diversity of opinion. It should encourage open and honest debates, and refrain from trying to control them.

As it engages in these debates, the church should be outward-looking. It should not be too wrapped up in its own internal affairs; it should also engage with its host society, looking for ways the Christian faith can inform, and be informed by, the issues and discoveries of the day. To be concerned about, and engaged with, what concerns the people around us is one of the best forms of evangelism.

It should also be forward-looking. It should not feel trapped in doctrines and official statements inherited from the past. Unfortunately this often happens, and results in a backward-looking ecclesiastical culture so anxious not to contravene a mountain of inherited norms that it never does anything new or exciting. Instead, the church should have the confidence to judge that what was right for the church of the early, or medieval, or Reformation periods is not necessarily right for us today. Divine revelation and guidance are not an eternally valid and unchanging set of doctrines and regulations fixed in the distant past and applicable to all times and places. We draw on our tradition and treat it as authoritative, but we do not need to be imprisoned by it.

Divine revelation and guidance come, in different forms, to each generation. The church should expect new insights in the future; it should look forward to them with excitement; and should be willing to adapt to them, without stacking the odds in favour of the past. This requires a greater willingness to let go of inherited norms and regulations when they no longer express what Christians believe. It may be that today's new revelation is that God does not disapprove, after all, of homosexuality. If so, it will not, as some claim, be the end of the church as we know it. It will just be one more in a long line of discoveries which have overturned the church's previous teaching.

Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is editor of Modern Believing and a former Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.


Instead of the Anglican Covenant

by Jonathan Clatworthy, from Modern Believing Vol 53:2 Apr 2012

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 of Modern 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 Mission from 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.


  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 was Modern Church General Secretary until 2013. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.