The Anglican Covenant

I don't usually comment here on interchurch church relationships. But I've been doing some (very) brief reading around the Anglican Covenant, which is being debated in General Synod today and it seems that this is a good day for any of us with close Anglican friends to pray for them.

The covenant is drawn up, in the words of Rowan Williams, to "intensify fellowship and trust" in an age when relationships between constituent parts of the worldwide Anglican communion are in jeopardy.

Among the many, many commentators online, there seems to be a general feeling that the whole debate is a counsel of desperation. In the words of one, the main interest seems to be more about ensuring the continued existence of the communion (which many will consider a very laudable aim) than about whether or not its constituent congregations have common goals (Or, I might add, theology. Which they clearly don't).

In other words it highlights the basic question: what is the basis for unity? Is it historic organisational unity or unity on certain matters of shared doctrine? If the latter, which are primary unity-forming or unity-breaking matters?

All my experience of such documents in other contexts suggests that when things have got as far as needing some signed covenant agreement, relationships are already so far strained and core doctrinal matters are so disagreed over, that having a Covenant is unlikely to work anyway. Covenants do a couple of different types of things:

  • They can, as the Archbishop hopes, intensify fellowship and trust. This is the case when covenanting with someone in marriage. However, this function of covenant only works when the covenant is a symbol of, and natural outflow of, a relationship of love and trust that already exists. Covenants affirm and strengthen love, they don't create it. The covenant in itself doesn't produce that trust any more than a forced marriage automatically creates love between the partners
  • They can create an environment for limited mutual agreements and a framework for discussing differences. But this only works where all parties wish to do so. Covenants are constructive when they are created between those who are willing. They don't work when they are imposed on those who think that signing up is, de facto, agreeing to unity discussions with those with whom unity is, at the present time, doctrinally impossible. 

I once had to help a university Christian Union think through the implications of a Covenant that the university authorities and chaplains drew up (with the best of motives) to try to impose a set of relationships on all Christians on the campus.  At the end of the day the CU simply couldn't sign because the document maintained that signatories affirmed both the CU's doctrinal position and the Catholic Catechism, which contained mutually contradictory statements on core, primary matters of truth. Sadly they were presented as schismatics for (graciously) declining.

Looking from the perspective of an outside friend and colleague (and ex-Anglican), I find it hard to conclude that today's discussion, and the Covenant as a whole, is simply about how to maintain and develop organisational unity. It is an attempt to encourage people who believe fundamentally mutually exclusive things about core matters of truth to stay together and work it out, despite the obvious fact that they don't want to.

Archbishop Williams seems to frequently adopt a methodology (that wouldn't have seemed strange to Jacques Derrida) of trying to infinitely defer decision in favour of perpetual, ongoing discussion. Presumably hoping that deep and kind ongoing listening to each other will demonstrate that parties are actually closer than they think, and will eventually reveal compromise solutions and middle ways forward that are welcomed by, and acceptable to, all.

Nobody, least of all me, thinks that he is anything other than extremely kind in this impulse. A rare and valuable thing in the world of disintegrating church relationships. But surely almost no evangelical thinks that is anything like enough? Surely most think that ongoing listening has simply made matters of dispute on primary matters larger and clearer, not smaller (not least when some of the constituent communions have felt perfectly free to make decisions with huge ramifications for the whole with no regard to the listening process).  

The only way to make such a Covenant work is if it is exclusively about organisational matters. If it is about doctrinal ones, the elastic that kept disagreeing parties together has either already finally snapped, or is about to because they don't have a common basis for determining what they think is true or false. In the words of another commentator:

I don't know how other people organise their lives, but I've never had to sign up to a document to remain part of my family... If parts of the Anglican communion want to consider each other, they don't need a covenant. If they don't, proposing the covenant will just make the divisions even clearer and make reconciliation harder in the long run.

Lord have mercy.

Watch the Archbishop's introduction to the Anglican Communion Covenant.