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The case against the Anglican Covenant

by Jonathan Clatworthy, February 2011
See also: Diocesan Synod resources

The development of the idea

The call for an Anglican Covenant has its roots in a growing polarisation over the last few decades. The terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' indicate the main difference: some seek to protect inherited traditions of Anglican belief and practice while others believe Christianity should be more open to new ideas and insights.

Read more ...

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.

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.