This week the Anglican Consultative Council meets in Jamaica. One of the items on its agenda is the latest draft for an Anglican Covenant. This is an opportune moment to ask if the draft is ”˜fit for purpose’ and if it will make any difference to the situation, if it is approved by the member churches of the Communion.
This latest draft of an Anglican Covenant, and its accompanying commentary, has taken account of the many responses and submissions made in respect of the earlier drafts. This means that the theological and ecclesiological sections of the proposed Covenant are stronger than they were before. A question remains as to why the Introduction is still not part of the Covenant. This weakens the theological basis of the Covenant, even if the drafters now tell us that it “shall be accorded authority in understanding the purpose of the Covenant” (4:4:1).
The first section opens by telling us that each church in the Covenant affirms its ”˜communion’ in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church but it does not say anything about the communion between or among particular churches which is the issue at the moment. What is the basis for such fellowship and how can one church recognise the presence of the Church of Jesus Christ in another? This section claims also that our mission is shared with other churches and traditions beyond the Covenant. Which churches do the drafters have in mind and what is the extent of this sharing? If we are not careful, this could lead to the very carte blanche the Covenant is being designed to avoid.
In section 3 we are told that the churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together “through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” but this reference back to the 1930 Lambeth Conference is not, as we shall see, fully reflected in the decision-making processes proposed by the drafters.
There is again the usual Anglican attempt to having your cake and eating it. This draft moves away unhelpfully from the previous language of autonomy in interdependence to a renewed emphasis on autonomy. The commentary claims that Anglicans wish to keep the autonomy of their churches but no biblical or apostolic evidence is provided for the sort of autonomy which could be acceptable, nor about its limits and dangers. We are told that adoption of the Covenant by a church does not “represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction” (4:1:1) but surely the representative bodies of the Communion should have the power at least to determine what relations there should be among the provinces, depending on whether they subscribe to the Covenant or not. It is strange to regard such representative bodies of the churches themselves as ”˜external’.
My main difficulties, however, are with the final section (4:2): because the Nassau Draft was criticised for giving too much power to the Primates’ Meeting in determining compliance with the Covenant and the St Andrew’s Draft for doing the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council, ”˜Ridley’ has given the Joint Standing Committee the role of making a declaration of ”˜incompatibility with the Covenant’ and of making ”˜recommendations’ as to the ”˜relational consequences’ of actions incompatible with the Covenant. But the commentary makes it clear that there is no power to ”˜direct’ either the province causing offence or the response of any of the other provinces.
So whatever the Joint Standing Committee may say, the provinces can go their own sweet way which is precisely the situation as it is today and which has caused the problem we are all facing! In spite of a ringing endorsement of the 1930 Lambeth Conference on the teaching role of bishops in the earlier part of the draft, the new ”˜mechanism’ does not give them any special role, beyond ”˜advice’, nor does it provide for authoritative teaching that requires compliance for the sake of unity and truth. In other words, we are exactly where we have been these last six years. It may even be worse: The Windsor Report asked that those who had unilaterally breached the bonds of communion by their teaching and action should not participate in representative Anglican Councils. Such a request has hardly been taken seriously so far but the new draft Covenant envisages the possibility of both covenanted and non-covenanted churches continuing to belong to the Instruments of Communion and the commentary looks only to the far future for a resolution of this anomaly. This means that churches which do not agree to any communion-wide procedures for discipline, however diluted, can still continue to be invited to the Lambeth Conference and to attend the ACC and the Primates’ Meeting. In other words, there is no immediate change anticipated in the membership of these bodies regardless of whether a Covenant is agreed or not.
Neither the draft nor the commentary tell us anything about how much longer it will be before a Covenant is finally ratified.Will it be by the time of the next ACC or beyond that and, if so, how much longer – the next Lambeth Conference? How long can faithful Anglicans in the pew and the pulpit wait for the Anglican Communion to deliver and will it make any difference when it does?
–This article appears in the Church of England Newspaper, May 1, 2009 edition, page 12