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The Anglican Covenant would restrict options in parishes

The Anglican Covenant is primarily concerned with international relations between provinces rather than what happens in parishes. However there is a clear direction of travel, which would have a profound effect on parish groups and their ethos.

Churchgoers know the difference between sermons which tell you exactly what to believe and do, and sermons which inform and inspire you and help with your own decision-making. Similarly those who attend bible study and discussion groups know the difference between a group where everybody is expected to look for 'the biblical answer' and accept it as 'what all Christians should believe', and a group where people are permitted to think for themselves, express diverse views, listen to the views of others and change their minds. More on the historical background to these very different traditions.

The Covenant would increase the tendency for church leaders to declare that a particular belief is the Anglican position.  The reason is that it is committed to the view that same-sex partnerships are contrary to the Anglican 'consensus' and proposes to establish a system in which other beliefs, generated by whatever future controversies there may be, can also be declared  contrary to the Anglican position.

We can see how the process is envisaged by observing how it has already been applied in the case of same-sex partnerships. Quite clearly there is no consensus about them; some Anglicans think they are permissible, some that they are not. Nevertheless, despite this blatant divergence of belief, the proponents of the Covenant - from the Windsor Report onwards - have insisted  that there is an 'Anglican consensus' on the matter. If we ask how they justify this claim, the answers refer us to the Resolution passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. In other words, from the perspective of the Covenant's proponents, it does not matter what ordinary Anglicans in their parishes think: Anglican teaching is to consist of what the bishops decree.

If the Covenant works as intended, therefore, we can anticipate an increasing number of doctrines and norms decreed as 'what Anglicanism teaches'. In a parish setting the main effect will probably be on clergy, but this in turn will influence their congregations. Clergy who agree with the official line will be encouraged to generate public objections about clergy who disagree with it. (Again, we have already seen this in operation over same-sex partnerships). Other clergy, who disagree with the official line or simply prefer a more open-minded approach, will be under greater pressure to avoid telling their congregations what they really think, for fear of reprisals. This in turn will increase the pressure to adapt their teaching ministry in accordance with the official line.

In Roman Catholicism the best known example of this situation is the teaching on contraception. Each parish priest must make up his mind whether to agree with the official condemnation, disagree and say nothing, or disagree openly. Parishioners, likewise, learn how much they can say to each priest. In such a context, what is effectively ruled out is any open and honest discussion of the morality of contraception.

The Anglican Covenant would not intentionally produce similar situations in parishes, but it would have the effect of pushing them in this direction. How quickly parishes are pushed will depend on the energy and determination of those who want to see it happen.

The Anglican Covenant would centralise church authority

The Covenant text repeatedly denies any subordination of provincial autonomy to a central authority:

'Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction' (§4.1.3).

Nevertheless critics argue that it does indeed centralise authority and power.

Section 4 and relational consequences

Because the text denies any centralisation of power it does not propose  to intervene in the internal affairs of provinces. The 'relational consequences'  the Standing Committee would recommend would only consist of excluding provinces from some or all of the Communion's international structures.

This may seem unimportant. However the fundamental aim of the Covenant, according to its supporters, is that it will provide a means to resolve conflict. When we ask how it will achieve this aim, it turns out that, apart from making one last attempt to negotiate a settlement, its only method is this threat to exclude.

Exclusion would create a two-tier Communion. Provinces which sign the Covenant and accept Standing Committee recommendations will be eligible for membership of international structures. Provinces which sign but dissent from a recommendation may not be eligible. The situation regarding provinces which decline to sign is not discussed in the text. Currently most Covenant supporters say they are still hoping all provinces will sign, though Fulcrum comments that 'Although not signing does not mean automatic exclusion there may develop some institutional expression of two levels of commitment to life in communion.' This seems most likely; in effect non-signatories would be treated much the same as dissenting signatories. (Otherwise the central authorities would have to include non-signatories while at the same time excluding signatories who dissent from a recommendation.)

This creation of a two-tier Communion is a feature recognised by the Covenant's supporters, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as its opponents. Some supporters welcome it  as a way to draw a clear line between the North American provinces and others. Others believe there is a strong chance that all provinces will sign the Covenant and accept Standing Committee recommendations, in which case there would be no 'second tier' churches. Nevertheless, even if this were the outcome, it is clear that power would have shifted; the provinces would retain control over their internal affairs, but a central authority would have new powers to promote obedient provinces and demote dissenting ones.

Sections 1-3 and the nature of Anglicanism

Although the Covenant text denies any subordination of provincial autonomy, it contains texts which suggest otherwise. §4.1.2 states that

In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections [Sections 1-3] a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches.

Thus Sections 1-3 would become 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion.' The Communion has never before had any such foundational document. By assenting to this statement, churches would in effect be affirming that Anglicanism is what the Covenant says it is.

This is not how most current proponents of the Covenant intend it to be interpreted. However, if the Covenant comes into force their intentions will no longer be relevant. What will count will be how the text is interpreted by those who make use of its provisions, and if conflicting interpretations lead to litigation (as seems almost certain), the authoritative interpretations will be established by courts, not by the Covenant's current proponents.

Precedents abound. Especially in the USA, campaigners have been encouraging parishes to declare that they cannot in all conscience accept the ministry of their bishop, simply because of the bishops's tolerant views on same-sex partnerships. There is little reason to suppose that such campaigns would fail to use the new powers the Covenant would give them. Furthermore  §3.2.5 would give them the benefit of the doubt by putting the onus on churches 'to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion'. This clause puts the onus on churches to avoid doing anything to which the litigious might object. Even the fear of Standing Committee recommendations, let alone their imposition, would curtail freedom of action.

Although the Covenant's main concern is with churches at a provincial level, it would inevitably affect churches at a more local level too. Once the Standing Committee has decreed that a particular action is 'incompatible with the Covenant' it will not be sufficient for a province to abstain from it. If a diocese or parish performs the forbidden act the leadership of the province will inevitably get sucked into the debate.

Provinces will therefore find themselves obliged to monitor the activities of its dioceses and parishes more closely, and warn against potentially controversial actions. Inevitably decision-making will accrue to the centre.

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.