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What will the Anglican Covenant do to the Church?

This is the text of the leaflet  sent to every member of the Church of England's General Synod  in preparation for their debate on the Anglican Covenant on 24 November 2010.

As a General Synod member you will soon be asked to cast your vote on the Anglican Covenant. This leaflet explains why you should vote against it.

The Covenant is designed on the presupposition that the proper way for Anglicans to resolve disagreements is for a small committee to decree the Anglican position and for the rest of us to believe what we are told.

Read more ...

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.

What happens to provinces which do not sign the Anglican Covenant?

The Covenant is presented as a voluntary arrangement which will not affect the autonomy and governance of provinces, whether or not they sign it.

In reality, however, the intention is to treat non-signatories as less Anglican, or as some documents put it, 'second track'. In 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the relationship between the two sets of provinces would be 'not unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church', which seems to imply that those not signing would not be considered Anglicans at all!

This is confirmed by the Covenant text. The Introduction (§5) states that 'To covenant together is not intended to change the character of this Anglican expression of Christian faith', but whatever the intentions, the small print does. By signing, provinces will affirm that 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion' (§4.2.1). Until now, in the absence of any signed covenant, 'mutual recognition and communion' have applied to all Anglican provinces; it is only in the last few years that the campaigners against the North American provinces have undermined it. To sign the Covenant is therefore to side with the schismatics and affirm the  innovation that 'mutual recognition and communion'  depends on 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant'. Until now it has not depended on any such thing.

Similarly signatories will commit themselves to the view that the Covenant is 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion' (§4.1.2). To call it 'foundational' is a strong word, making quite clear that it is essential for membership of the Communion: in other words, that the signatories will no longer consider the non-signatories part of the Communion.

In any case there remains any doubt about the matter the power to exclude has already been pre-empted: in June 2010 the USA was excluded from an ecumenical committee on this basis,  even though the Covenant is a long way from coming into force.

Of course provinces which refuse to sign will consider themselves just as Anglican as they are now. The Covenant will therefore institutionalise not only schism - by producing two distinct blocs of provinces, the signatories and the non-signatories - but in addition a built-in conflict between them as both will claim to be Anglican but the signatories will deny that the non-signatories are.