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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.

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.

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.