Do you remember the Anglican Covenant? It was an attempt to find a way of the Anglican Communion working together.
Well, strictly speaking, it still is an attempt to find a way of the Anglican Communion working together. It isn’t dead yet, though there are some signs that all is not well for those who advocate the proposal.
Here’s a quick summary of the most obvious problems that people have found with the text of the proposed Covenant:
- It introduces new credal statements over and beyond the historic creeds of the church which everyone is supposed to sign up to, even though we know that not everyone believes them.
- The text is scattered with proof texts from the Bible used completely out of context as though the bible foresaw the Anglican Communion and provides obvious solutions to its ills.
- The Covenant requires us to hold in honour the [anti-Catholic] 39 Articles of the Church of England when plenty of us don’t believe all of them. (“Have you actually read them?!”) This is a particular problem for some of us in Scotland. Many of us would argue that using an obviously sectarian text to try to find modern unity is deeply inappropriate.
- The fourth section is a statement of how the communion will take punitive action to limit the involvement of churches which are naughty. (And Anglicans just are not like that).
- The Covenant is a proposal to try to resolve or contain differences over homosexuality but it does not deal with the issue directly.
- The Covenant goes some way to setting up a magisterium – an official teaching of the whole “Anglican Church” which certain bishops will determine and which everyone will be expected to believe. (And again, we are not really like that).
For those in favour of the proposal, the Covenant is an obvious solution to our troubles. For those opposed, it significantly raises issues of identity and church culture.
Anyway, we’ve been thinking about it in the various Anglican provinces for quite some time and make your mind up time is coming to us all.
Now, the presumption has always been that quite a few people in Scotland would be lukewarm to the proposal and that it might not get through our General Synod as there might not be a majority. Even so, it was presumed that there would be quite a few people in favour. The Church of England, meanwhile was presumed to be generally in favour of it and a lot of people, including me, thought it would just go through on the nod down south.
Well, it is far too soon to be counting chickens, but it would appear at this stage that some of those presumptions were a bit wide of the mark. In Scotland it is quite hard to find anyone arguing in favour of the Covenant. At last year’s General Synod we had pseudo-Indaba groups which reported pretty negatively on the whole business and it was difficult to find anyone from any of the groups who had encountered anyone at all who thought well of the proposal. The message which I’ve consistently heard since then from around the church is people saying that the Anglican Communion is very important to us but that the kind of communion that the Covenant proposes is not the kind of communion that we see as being desirable. Indeed, the strong message seems to be pro the Communion but against the kind of setup that would be a consequence of accepting the Covenant. The presumption that there would be widespread disagreement about the Covenant in Scotland doesn’t really seem at this stage to be holding up. So far as I can see, there isn’t a great deal of disagreement at all about it.
Down in Englandshire, things are just as interesting. Down there, the Covenant is going through a process of being considered diocese by diocese. However, as the results of these diocesan debates indicate, there has been something of a surprise. So far (and again, it is relatively early days) the Covenant has been defeated in twice as many dioceses in England as those who have accepted it.
The significance of this is very great. The Anglican Communion is predicated on everyone being in full communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is consequently very tricky to have a communion divided into two tiers with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own province in the outer layer of somehow impaired or restricted communion.
Some have worried that we might be the first province to declare ourselves out of sorts with the Anglican Covenant. However, that may not be the case. It could be that in England the Covenant will have run into almost insurmountable trouble before we even get to our General Synod in Scotland. What might be the case is that our Synod might be one of the first at which, the Covenant as it stands having largely lost its way, some articulation can be made of more positive ways of the Communion living its common life.
The Scottish Episcopal Church has been responsible in significant ways for the way the Communion is at the moment and it may well be that we need to be thinking at the moment about being a church that can articulate positive ways of living in Communion in the future. I feel very warmly towards this possibility. I’d much rather we were able to articulate positive things from Scotland than simply be shouting at one another about a Covenant which won’t resolve any differences at all.
There is a cynical view of the Covenant, which is that it was really only ever an attempt to keep people talking and that it was never intended actually to be resolved – whilst we are all talking about it, somehow we hold together. This view holds that it was Rowan Williams’s genius to advocate something where the process of debating the Covenant itself was the functioning method of keeping the churches in communion with one another.
My hunch is that if there is any truth in that thesis, its days are numbered. Rowan Williams is widely reported to be considering leaving his post. If he wants to be able to think that the Covenant held things together on his watch, he should perhaps go sooner rather than later.