The Church of England has issued its response to the Anglican Covenant first mooted by the Windsor Group and then put out by the Covenant Design Group. The General Synod unwisely gave the Archbishops authority to respond on their behalf and the fears of some in doing so have been realised. In effect the response completely re-writes the original CDG version.
What is the point of a Covenant? The aim is to provide a self-defining agreement which national or provincial churches adopt as a means of indicating that they are in the Communion. It also seeks to provide a mechanism by which disputes can be resolved when one constituent member of the Communion says that another has broken the agreement.
In the present environment there are three issues which should be looked for in the text of the Covenant.
- What does it say about the underlying issue of Scripture?
- What does it say about the presenting issue of sexual immorality?
- What does it attempt to do with the nature of the Communion?
The original Covenant was weak on this point since it failed to articulate the clarity found, for example, in the 39 Articles of Religion.
It stated for example that:
Each member Church, and the Communion as a whole, affirms that it professes the faith which is uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.... (This is taken from CofE Declaration of Assent).
The revised version apparently sees a problem with churches making declarations about themselves and therefore replaces this with
We recognise in one another : Profession of the faith that is uniquely revealed in Holy Scriptures (which contains all things necessary for salvation and are the rule and ultimate standard of faith)...
The covenanting churches would instead commit themselves to:
(1) uphold and act in continuity and consistency with the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition;
(2) uphold and proclaim a pattern of Christian moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in, and answerable to, the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Catholic tradition....
(4) ensure that biblical texts are handled faithfully...
This all serves to weaken the role and authority of Scripture and puts the focus firmly on how Scripture is interpreted and received.
The presenting issue dividing the Communion is the acceptance and promotion of homosexual practice by some sections of the churches in the Communion. This is usually focussed on the consecration of an actively homosexual Bishop and the blessing of same sex unions.
The original Covenant makes no reference to this issue which is extraordinary.
What the Draft Covenant did have was the following clause:
3(1) uphold and act in continuity and consistency with the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, biblically derived moral values and the vision of humanity received and developed in the communion of member Churches;
The Archbishops however take issue with the idea of biblically derived moral values, stating that this “assumes a deductive approach to the relationship between Christian ethics and the Bible to which many Anglicans would not subscribe”. This is precisely the point and where the division comes, some believe what the Articles of Religion claim that the Bible is the Word of God and that morality should be derived from what God has said, others do not believe this and so do not derive their moral values primarily from Scripture.
There is not attempt then to address the primary source of division in the Communion. However the Archbishops have no such compunction when it comes to crossing provincial boundaries. The Covenant would require churches to stop doing this unless it was “specifically authorised by the relevant Instruments of Communion” 6(6). So the provinces of Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Southern Cone would all be breaking the covenant by helping those in the US, Brazil and Canada who are seeking to be faithful to the Anglican inheritance of faith.
The Instruments of Communion
At present there is no real authority or power within the Anglican Communion. The English Reformation ensured that the Church of England severed the intervention of foreign powers (the See of Rome) in its affairs, thus undoing centuries of abuse and injustice. This autonomy has been jealously guarded since and is a feature of the national and provincial churches which have arisen from Anglican migration and missionary endeavour. Communion can only work if national and provincial churches adhere to the same fundamental convictions. The danger with the Covenant approach was always that it would give to some individual or body a considerable degree of power which has not previously existed.
Consider the presenting issue of homosexual practice. In either the original or the proposed revised form nothing is clearly spelt out. Therefore someone will have to decide what is consistent with the principles of the Covenant and what is not. The experience of the last few years shows what a farce this process has become with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion Office apparently deliberately manipulating affairs to ensure the best possible interpretation of the failure of the US Episcopal Church to do what was asked of it.
Neither the Draft Covenant nor the proposed revision attempt to do what the original Windsor Report seemed to envisage which was give real teeth to the Instruments (the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular) but therefore they do not really change anything. In fact when this long process is over it is hard to see how the Covenant is going to make the slightest difference except that it will allow those who have abandoned Biblical teaching and morality to claim that they are genuine Anglicans and very little will be done to say otherwise.
David Phillips, General Secretary, Church Society
4 January 2008