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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.

Who will pay for the Anglican Covenant?

At no point in all the discussion of the Covenant has any budget been made public.

Of course the actual cost will depend on a whole lot of things that are completely uncertain at this point. But assumptions can be made (and probably have been made somewhere in the Anglican Communion Office) which will generate  an indicative budget.

Central costs will rise simply because the Covenant envisages the Anglican Communion becoming more centralised. Experience suggests this is a one-way ratchet as few matters once brought to the centre are then returned to a lower level and because the world is increasingly interconnected.

Central costs will be spread across every member Church because that is the largest source of funding for Anglicanism's central bodies (c. 66%, 2008).

In addition each member Church will be expected to spend more internally on arrangements to liaise between it and the centre.

At the moment a disproportionate amount of revenue comes from TEC (the Church of the USA) and Trinity Church Wall Street. If the provisions of the Covenant mean TEC is excluded from, or marginalised in, the Communion it is predictable that their funds will will also steadily vanish.

The most recent published accounts for the ACO (2008) show income of £1.86m and expenditure of £1.76m. Around £1.3m goes on staffing, offices and other direct costs. One person was paid in excess of £60,000. Contributions in kind (largely from North America) are noted but not valued. There are other separate charitable funds which support global Anglicanism not included in these accounts. These too receive significant income from North America.

In the end almost all the costs are be borne directly by the lay people whose giving sustains the church. Alongside the silence on costs there is no apparent mechanism for accounting for this expenditure to the donors.

Possible additional costs implied by the Covenant proposals

'Normal' times (annual background costs)


Costs borne by

'mechanisms, agencies or institutions' (§4.2.6)

Perhaps:  one officer, office, support staff (1 person?), travel within the Province, publicity budget - but each Church will decide its own level of provision

Each member Church directly

Equalisation fund (to enable poorer provinces to participate fully)

Richer Churches - building up a reserve?

International travel

Note: email etc. makes much communication virtually free, but it won't be enough

Each member Church plus equalisation fund

International conferences

Each member Church plus equalisation fund


  • Set-up, training / familiarisation and maintaining a panel of approved mediators

Each member Church paying into central fund

Central costs

  • Increased senior and support staff to address increased workload; increased travel

Each member Church paying into central fund

Legal costs

  • Opinions on specific issues; insurance against legal proceedings

Each member Church paying into central fund

Capital funds

  • As responsibilities and costs grow a larger reserve fund will be needed to carry the ACO across the uncertainties of donation income and to ensure the stability of service and to cover liabilities

Each member Church paying into central fund

Additional costs of, say, intervention in a dispute between two members


Costs borne by

Mediation (people, travel, accommodation, meetings)

Central fund

Each participating Church?

(Possibly indirectly to avoid biassing mediation)

Central costs

  • Advisory group
  • Additional travel, meetings, support staff time, reports

Central fund

Legal costs

Central fund and / or participating Churches

Additional costs of a complex major international dispute

Speculation here becomes even less reliable. Complex multi-directional mediation would be a significant cost if thought practicable.

It is likely that those caught up in such a dispute would be reluctant to increase their giving to central funds at a point when central costs will rise; it is possible that contributions would shrink.

It is probable that a large-scale dispute would have novel features which will demand innovative responses that are impossible to cost - except that they will be expensive.

Would the Anglican Covenant have prevented the ordination of women?

If it had been introduced in time, yes.

In the future, although it would probably permit practices - like consecrating women bishops - which some provinces have already adopted, it would hinder further development, and since supporters of women's ministry are well aware that there is still much else to do, it would be foolish to support a Covenant designed to hinder new developments.

It was the debate over gay and lesbian sexuality which led the Windsor Report of 2004 to suggest a Covenant. To express its disapproval of recent developments on that matter, Windsor contrasts them with the consultations leading to the introduction of women priests and bishops, which it treats as a model of good practice.

Such affirmation may encourage supporters of women's ministry to think they have nothing to fear, but this would be a mistake. The first Anglican woman priest, Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained in 1944. As the Windsor Report puts it, 'the story gathered pace' when the Diocese brought the matter to the Lambeth Conference in 1968 - 24 years later! Windsor omits to note that the 1958 Conference had not seen fit to debate the matter at all. In 1968 it considered the theological arguments inconclusive and referred the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council. The ACC passed judgement, in 1970, in favour of permitting the ordination of women. The voting was close: 24 to 22. Windsor draws the moral that 'Hong Kong did not understand itself to be so autonomous that it might proceed without bringing the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council as requested by the Lambeth Conference 1968'. Time is going backwards: permission was granted in 1970, so the ordination of 1944 was permitted!

What happened in 1968, in Alan Stephenson's words (Anglicanism and the Lambeth Conferences, SPCK, 1978, p. 262) was that 'Gilbert Baker, Bishop of Hong Kong since 1966, had asked for advice in view of the fact that his diocesan synod had approved in principle the ordination of women to the priesthood. Hong Kong was the diocese where Bishop Hall, Baker's predecessor, had ordained a woman to the priesthood in 1944'. In other words, not only did the 1958 Conference find it unnecessary to debate the matter at all, but the 1968 Conference would not have discussed it either, if Bishop Baker had not sought clarification of the situation.

From 1974 onwards other women were ordained, at first in the USA and Canada but soon afterwards elsewhere too. The 1978 Lambeth Conference recognised 'the autonomy of each of its member Churches, acknowledging the legal right of each Church to make its own decision about the appropriateness of admitting women to Holy Orders.' The Windsor Report commented that that Conference had 'addressed a situation where Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and New Zealand had all ordained women to the priesthood and eight other provinces had accepted the ordination of women in principle.'

Clearly, the Windsor Report's attempt to present the issue as a model of patient international consultation wildly misinterprets even its own data. In reality, provinces did what they believed right and international bodies later accepted the situation.

The story also shows how a development which attracts little controversy at the time can become controversial long afterwards, for reasons to do with the concerns of a later age. We do not know what would have happened in the 1970s if Bishop Baker had not brought the matter up in 1968, thus obliging Lambeth and the ACC to establish a position on it. Would the subsequent ordinations of women have been less controversial? We do not know. What we do know, though, is that the first ordination took place in Hong Kong in 1944 but the height of the controversy was much later and elsewhere.

This often happens: for example Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859 but the main debates about religion and evolution did not take place until the 1920s. What the delay shows is that the controversy is generated by something else, over and above the original event. The authors of the Windsor Report and the proposed Covenant would have been well advised to ask themselves who turns an innovation into a controversy, for what reasons and with what justification. If we ask why women priests and gay bishops justify threats of schism while the remarriage of divorcees and changes to ordination oaths do not, we are more likely to find sociological than theological explanations.

Given this background, how would the Anglican Covenant relate to the development of women's ministry? To distinguish the issues the question is divided into three.

1) How will it affect future development?

Lambeth Conferences and the Anglican Consultative Council have already given the green light to women priests and bishops. The Covenant, like the Windsor Report, acknowledges the authority of these international bodies; indeed, in its determination to centralise Anglicanism it exaggerates the authority they already have. As things stand, therefore, the Covenant's proponents expect the Standing Committee to adhere to Lambeth Conference resolutions, including the one permitting women bishops. Nevertheless the Covenant does not require it to do so, and since Lambeth Conferences can repeal their own earlier resolutions (in 1939 they overturned their earlier ban on contraception) it may well happen that, as the Standing Committee establishes itself as the supreme Anglican authority, it considers itself competent to dissent from Lambeth, or at least enforce its own interpretations of resolutions passed at Lambeth.

2) What difference would it have made to the Church of England if the Covenant had been in place in 1992?

Not only would the ordination of women have needed a two-thirds vote in all three houses of General Synod, but if one or more provinces had objected (which is almost certain) the proposal would then have been referred to the Standing Committee. Since the vote was in any case very close, it would not have been passed if only one or two supporters had decided to vote against in order to avoid a long drawn out conflict with the Standing Committee. This illustrates two features of the way the Covenant would work: it would give great power to small provinces to block innovations elsewhere, and discourage developments in advance through the threat of long bureaucratic struggles.

Nevertheless the Standing Committee could have determined that, as women priests had been introduced in other provinces, they should be permitted in England too. The fact that some provinces already had them would have been their strongest case in favour of granting permission. We should note that other provinces already had them because there was no Anglican Covenant.

3) What difference would it have made if it had been in place in 1944?

Of course it would have been extremely difficult for international bodies to operate during the Second World War, and this was the situation in which the first woman was ordained. However, if the Covenant had been in place then, and if it had operated as currently planned, it is difficult to see how the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi could possibly have been approved. At that time no province had women priests, and it would only have taken one province to lodge an objection with the Standing Committee. In theory the Standing Committee could have ruled in favour of the ordination; but it would have been flying in the face of the objections and approving the very thing it is designed to forbid, namely new developments which other provinces find objectionable. Realistically, the Standing Committee could only have approved the first ordination of a woman if the objections had no strength of feeling behind them - in other words, by virtue of Anglicanism being in a more tolerant mood then than it is now. It was; but this only draws attention to the real character of the Covenant, which is to give power to the intolerant.

Once formally forbidden by the Standing Committee, the ordination of women would have remained unavailable until such time as the folly of the Anglican Covenant was publicly acknowledged.

Would the Anglican Covenant treat the Church of England differently from other provinces?

The Church of England is the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and traditionally has had a distinctive leadership role even though it does not have the legal right to tell other provinces what to do.

In principle the Covenant's provisions treat the Church of England the same as other churches, except that the Archbishop of Canterbury has a distinctive role.

In practice, how the Church of England votes on the Covenant will have a big impact on its chances of success. If England votes against, there will be precious little credibility in the claim that those who do sign it are the true voice of Anglicanism.

If England votes in favour, it will be a lot easier to demote the provinces which do not sign  to 'second track' status.

The Anglican Covenant would hinder ecumenical relations

According to the Covenant's proponents, one of its advantages will be that it will ease ecumenical relations.

This is no doubt true at a worldwide level, though it carries a heavy price. It is true because representative committees often find themselves at a disadvantage in discussions with other denominations. Representatives of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are able to state clearly where their denominations stand on particular issues. Anglicans in these dialogues would be able to speak with comparable confidence if Anglicanism had clearly stated positions on the relevant issues.

The price is that clearly stated positions will nearly always misrepresent what Anglicans actually believe because we do not all hold the same views. A set of tidy statements declaring what Anglicans believe would only be a true representation of Anglicanism if it were to become a confessional church.

At a local level the Covenant would not help ecumenism at all; on the contrary it would probably often hinder it because it would give other provinces the means to lodge formal objections to ecumenical initiatives.

It often happens that another denomination's relationship with Anglicans is good in one part of the world but bad in another. For an Anglican church to work more closely with another denomination may be a constructive initiative in one place while elsewhere, in another part of the world where circumstances are very different, the prospect of cooperating with that denomination seems utterly abhorrent. If the Covenant comes into force, it will be easily available to block ecumenical moves in this way, and it would be surprising if it was never used.

It is one thing to decide not to have joint activities with the local Roman Catholics or Unitarians, quite another to be told not to by an archbishop in another part of the world.