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The Anglican Covenant would make churches inward-looking

At present each Anglican province is self-governing. In its decision-making it has to confront issues of many different types. Some are local, some more general.

At one extreme nobody expects arrangements for clergy pensions to be the same across the whole Communion; at the other we do not expect provinces to make their own decisions about which books are to be contained in the Bible. On some issues it is more important to take account of local practice, on others it is more important to adhere to Christian tradition.

How do we decide, in each case, where the balance lies between doing what seems best from the local perspective and keeping in step with international Anglicanism? In practice there is no universal principle to settle the matter. Each province is free to consult interested parties like its own dioceses and parishes, relevant specialists and representatives of its host society. The Church of England for example often consults the British Government and civil servants about its proposals. This is as it should be.

The Covenant would not forbid these consultations, but it would tip the balance by subordinating them to international Anglicanism. In 'matters of common concern', it states, 'Each Church will undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion'. The top priority would always be to 'uphold the highest degree of communion possible' with other Anglican provinces (§3.2.4, §3.2.7). Thus the needs and concerns of the local context would be subordinated to international Anglicanism.

In this way the Covenant would push Anglicanism in the direction of a particular view of the Church. Richard Niebuhr's classic book  Christ and Culture distinguishes five accounts of the relationship between Christianity and its host society: Christ Against Culture, the Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture. How Christians expect their church to relate to their society varies. At one extreme those who think their society is a very Christian one usually expect their church to engage constructively with it and give priority to its needs. It will learn from society, and expect to teach society in turn. It will order its affairs in the light of society's needs, and expect society to order its affairs in the light of the church's needs. At the other extreme those who think their society is evil will expect their church to protect itself against it, and perhaps relate to it as little as possible except to denounce it. It will be suspicious of any truth-claims coming from society, and therefore cling to its own beliefs as superior.

Anglican churches today vary in the way they perceive themselves. The Covenant does not discuss these differences, but in the way it emphasises the priority of 'the highest degree of communion possible' with international Anglicanism, it in effect recommends a direction of travel towards an inward-looking church, more concerned with international Anglicanism and less with its contribution to its host society in its own nation.

This is deliberate. The Covenant is worded with the intention of finding the North American churches guilty of responding positively to the changing attitudes towards same-sex partnerships within their own provinces. According to the Covenant's authors the top priority should have been to reflect the majority view of the Anglican Communion, regardless of what was going on locally.

The Anglican Covenant would make churches backward-looking

Ever since the Middle Ages there has been disagreement between Christians who expect changes and those who expect the Church to stay the same.

Today we usually think of history in linear terms: there was a beginning a long time ago, human societies have changed over time and will continue to change in the future. We do not expect our great-grandchildren to have the same lifestyles as we have. We have inherited this linear conception of history largely from the Old Testament prophets.

In ancient and medieval times history was often conceived differently. Either it went round in circles, or it alternated between a golden age and a dark age, or there was a succession of ages. Most medieval Christians thought in terms of ages: from the Creation to the Fall, from the Fall to the time of Christ, and the current age from the time of Christ to the Second Coming.

Although Christians today are familiar with this concept, we rarely apply its logic because we also accept the linear view (despite the contradictions between the two). Most medievals believed that within each age life carried on pretty well exactly the same. They therefore believed that their own lifestyles were virtually identical to the lifestyles of the early Christians.

This was the context of the Reformation debates, where Catholics and Protestants alike accused each other of innovating, while claiming that their own church was exactly the same as the New Testament Church. The logic of these positions was that the Church ought not to change at all. Both the Council of Trent and the foundational documents of sixteenth century Protestant churches were heavily influenced by this conception.

Some of the Renaissance humananists had already raised awareness of gradual historical development, and this was revived towards the end of the seventeenth century with the Enlightenment. Anglicans, following the sixteenth century Richard Hooker, affirmed his claim that there is a proper place for development: the church 'has authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another it may abolish, and in both do well'.

Attitudes to development are closely related to beliefs about revelation. If we think there is a single supreme authority like the Bible which lays down for all time the truths and moral rules of Christianity, it is harder to justify new developments. If, on the other hand, we have a variety of authorities, including new insights and experiences, and see it as our task to balance them against each other, new developments over time are not only defensible but to be expected. Thus Hooker's account of 'scripture, reason and tradition' makes it easier to justify development. Some add 'experience'. Scripture and tradition root us in the past while reason and experience help us seek God's will as we respond to new situations.

Nobody today expects an unchanging world the way our sixteenth century ancestors did; we are only too aware of the vast range of new technologies. However, many religious conservatives have inherited the idea in a weakened form, so that regardless of what happens in the secular world,  the Church should not change. This idea is currently being expressed in the debates about same-sex partnerships and women priests and bishops, though at every stage of church history there have always been changes, and controversies about changes.

The Anglican Covenant, while not rejecting all changes, presents them as potential problems and emphatically gives the benefit of the doubt to opponents. Instead of affirming the traditional Anglican authorities of scripture, reason and tradition, let alone experience, it expects each church 'to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion's councils, about matters of common concern, in a way consistent with the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches' (3.2.4). Thus every decision would have to refer back to the Bible and canon law, leaving no room for new insights.

This is deliberate. The Covenant is designed to forbid developments like the recent North American ones. If they had included reason and experience in the list of permitted authorities, they would not have been able to condemn them as contrary to Anglican teaching.

The long-term effect on each church would therefore be to put new obstacles in the way of development. It would become harder to make necessary changes, easier to keep things as they were. It would thus become more backward-looking.

Why the Anglican Covenant won't work

The Covenant will 'work' in all sorts of ways, of course, some intended and some predictable if unintended. It may well enable the North American churches to be excluded from the Anglican Communion wholly or in part.

What it won't do, and can't do, is what it says on the tin. It cannot 'prevent and manage' disputes:

This Commission believes that the case for adoption of an Anglican Covenant is overwhelming:
The Anglican Communion cannot again afford, in every sense, the crippling prospect of repeated worldwide inter-Anglican conflict such as that engendered by the current crisis. Given the imperfections of our communion and human nature, doubtless there will be more disagreements. It is our shared responsibility to have in place an agreed mechanism to enable and maintain life in communion, and to prevent and manage communion disputes. (Windsor Report §119)

The reason it cannot 'prevent and manage' disputes is simple. If the Covenant mechanisms can be applied retrospectively (which is effectively what is being attempted) then these mechanisms are applied as it were from the outside of the dispute. They step in like courts and police to adjudicate and enforce an outcome - in this case the expulsion (in whole or part) of the offending members of the Communion.

But once the Covenant is in place it can never act as if from the outside of the dispute. The next disputes, large and small, will be conducted by people who will be acutely conscious of the Covenant and its conflict resolution provisions. The Covenant will be inside the next dispute and party to it.

The Windsor Report sought to address a situation in which the storm blew across the whole Communion and no-one could catch it or control it. Logically, therefore, they proposed a mechanism which would catch and control the next one.

But, in creating the Covenant, they changed the weather-pattern of next dispute. The next storm will be funnelled very quickly into the narrower and narrower space of: mediation - Primates' Meeting and Anglican Consultative Council - Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. There will be no point in disputants doing anything else. If the Standing Committee is the point where things are determined then there is every incentive to get the Standing Committee to decide the issue as soon as possible.

The very presence of the Standing Committee will be an invitation to belligerents not to accept local resolution but to magnify their case, to internationalise it, and to deliberately engage the Standing Committee as a means of self-promotion, win or lose. The very existence of a single, international, focal point will attract small storms and will encourage them to expand.

If the Standing Committee is successful in resolving a few minor ecclesiastical skirmishes its mechanisms will be hailed as proven and greater expectations will be laid on its shoulders. Small successes will set up bigger failures.

Disputes of the scale of the current dispute over sexuality are thankfully infrequent. But they are analogous to civil war, not to cases of marital disharmony. In a civil war, by definition, the mechanisms of law and order break down and 'ordinary' conflict resolution is replaced by force of arms.

The predictable result will be that, sooner or later, a storm will destroy the Covenant arrangements. When the storm is still at its most destructive it will be concentrated into a committee of 15 people, many of whom will be partisan and none of whom will be neutral. Sooner or later the depth and intractability of such disputes will destroy the SCAC and the Anglican Communion will have to start again looking for a new structure.

Instead of doing what it says on the tin the Covenant will have achieved its opposite.

Pre-empting the Anglican Covenant

Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, issued a statement on 7th June 2010 stating that he had already written to the Church of the USA telling them they were no longer members of a representative committee, the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order.

We wrote to him to ask:

Could you please explain
1) the formal basis on which action is being taken at this stage. We are aware of the consecration of Mary Glasspool and the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost Letter, but the Anglican Communion is not run by his personal fiat and there must have been some process by which his proposals were approved for further action.
2) the ecclesiological justification for taking action at this stage. We quite understand that the Anglican Covenant may, if established, achieve the Archbishop's aim of splitting the Communion into 'first track' and 'second track' provinces, but until that stage is reached - and we hope it never will be - it is not clear on what basis the action is being taken now.
3) the choice of provinces affected. Why, for example, the USA but not Nigeria?
4) your statement 'However, the recent Episcopal election in Los Angeles has created a situation where the Archbishop has been forced to act before the Covenant has been considered by most provinces.' Who forced him? Did he have no way to resist the force?

We still await his reply.

This story illustrates one of the many fault lines in the new system. Provinces which refuse to sign the Covenant will not consider themselves any less Anglican than the ones which do, and there is no reason why they should.

In this way the Covenant, by deliberately creating a means for the signatories to ignore the views of the others, is preparing the ground for further disputes in the future.

Are liberals trying to impose a revisionist agenda on the Church?

It's a common accusation, but no. On the contrary, it is usually made by people who are trying to impose their agendas.

For people brought up to think that everybody in their church ought to believe the same thing, it is easy to mistake an appeal for tolerance as a demand for new teaching. In the current debate, liberals are not all trying to impose the view that there is nothing wrong with gay and lesbian sexuality. Some liberals believe it is wrong, others do not. What liberals have in common is that we accept the difference of opinion and think both sides should be heard in open discussion and debate, without either side being expelled or demoted or treated as 'second track'.

What we find unsatisfactory about the present situation is that supporters of the Covenant are using positions of power to suppress the debate and treat their view as the only legitimate one. This is indeed a case of imposing their agenda on the whole Anglican Communion.