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Covenant FAQs

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 8:11 am
At a time when Anglicans are disagreeing, we need to be reminded of what holds us together and what we think is important — including Christian mission.
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From the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich

Available here as a PDF

The Anglican Communion Covenant (A positive view): FAQs

Gregory K Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph, Secretary of the Covenant Design Group, 2006-2009 (Numbers in square brackets refer to sections of the covenant text.)

Where did the idea for a Covenant come from?

The Windsor Report (2004) recommended the idea in order to provide a brief statement of what should hold the Churches of the Communion together during a time of great debate and even division over sexuality questions. It recommended a “Covenant” because it is about relationships as Churches united in Christ rather than about legal or confessional formalities. The Primates unanimously adopted the idea in their meeting in 2005, and asked for a text to be drawn up.

How was the text developed?

The Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a Design Group which met between 2006 and 2009. They decided that nothing new should be expressed in the Covenant — instead, agreed statements (such as the Lambeth Quadrilateral, the four fundamental points of Anglicanism agreed in 1888) and existing institutions should be the basis of the text. They deliberately avoided a long list of beliefs or new structures, but placed the emphasis on the resources that allow all Anglicans to understand their faith. Three versions of the text were developed in turn, and each one was sent out to all the Churches of the Communion for consultation, with much feedback and revision. The final text was adopted by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion at their meeting in December 2009, and sent out to the Churches for consideration.

Why is the covenant controversial?

Three fears have been expressed in particular: 1. That the Covenant defines Anglican faith too tightly. 2. That the Covenant centralises power in the Communion. 3. That the Covenant is designed to punish liberal Churches in the Communion, especially on questions of Sexuality.

Does the Covenant define Anglican Faith?

Section 1 of the Covenant sets out the relatively few fundamental ideas which have been accepted over the years as a description of Anglicanism — these are the historic formularies of 1662 as one authentic expression of faith [1.1.2]; the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist [1.1.5]; the prime authority of Scripture [1.1.3]; the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds [1.1.4], and the historic ordering of bishops (priests and deacons) [1.1.6]. It also sets out our shared inheritance of common prayer [1.1.7] and the method of using reason and tradition to understand the teaching of Scripture [1.2.2] as things which unite. None of these things have been considered controversial among Anglicans, but provide the resources from which we all develop our understanding of Christian faith and the life of the Church. There is no list of things that must be believed to be an Anglican.

Does the Covenant centralise power?

Recent years have seen a lot of squabbling in the Communion, and no agreed methods for discussion. Some bishops (about 20%) boycotted the Lambeth Conference, and there have been arguments about the appropriate powers of the other Instruments of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council [the ACC] and the Primates’ Meeting). Some people argue that these instruments have acted as if they had more power than they do, others as if they have abdicated their responsibility for the Communion. The Covenant sets out a brief understanding [Sections 3 & 4] about how the four Instruments of Communion work and what their powers are. Section 4 gives a special place to the Standing Committee (a committee made up of elected members of the ACC and the Primates) to co-ordinate processes of conflict resolution, but when the chips are down, it can only make recommendations about the way forward [4.2.7]. It is for each Church to make its own decisions on the recommendations. The covenant aims to increase the co-operation between churches, providing ways to consult and come to conclusions, but firmly states that, in Anglican thinking, each member Church is autonomous and can’t be told what to do [4.1.3].

Is the Covenant designed to punish?

Some conservative Churches in the Communion (mainly in the Global South) have said that they feel that The Episcopal Church (based in the USA) should be expelled from the Communion because of their moves to welcome lesbian and gay Christians into the life and ministry of their Church. Significantly, however, some of these voices have recently spoken against the Covenant as not being strong enough to deliver the goal they want. In truth, the Covenant does allow the Communion to voice whether any particular action disrupts the life of the Communion, and how this may have consequences, but (a) only after a long process of consultation [3.2.3], and (b) only by offering recommendations to the Churches. It is reserved to each General Synod (or equivalent) to decide what that Church wants to do [4.2.7]. The specific issue of sexuality is not addressed — instead a process for discussion and mediation is proposed in the Covenant.

Won’t the Covenant just create more conflict?

The conflicts already exist, and sadly, so do some examples of bad behaviour. Some Churches have already broken communion with others, others have tried to set up rival Churches to replace those with whom they disagree. Even the Instruments of Communion have occasionally overstepped the mark, and tried to run other instruments — the Primates interfering in the ACC and so on. We urgently need a statement of what Anglicans should be able to agree on, and on which our discussions can be based, with a commitment to work together. The Covenant provides just such a basis, calling us back to what matters. Sadly, without the Covenant there is not enough trust in the Communion now to keep us talking and working together.

Hasn’t the Covenant already been rejected?

Some of the global south primates said last year that they thought that the current text of the Covenant was inadequate, although in their most recent statement (09.09.11), they state that they are still working with it. Some bishops, two New Zealand dioceses & an English diocese have stated that they are opposed, but no national Synod of an Anglican Church has yet rejected the Covenant.

Why should anyone vote for the Covenant?

At a time when Anglicans are disagreeing, we need to be reminded of what holds us together and what we think is important — including Christian mission [Section 2]. We also need an agreed method to tackle disagreement, so that unilateral and more extreme actions are held in check by a commitment to work together. The covenant is a reasonably short text which seeks to do just this, and to take account of everyone’s concerns — it is the basis for working out how we can agree, and balances life as a Communion with the right of each Church to decide for itself.
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