Watch a statement on YouTube here

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has hailed the publication of a set of guidelines for the Anglican Communion that could see it acquire new members.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has hailed the publication of a set of guidelines for the Anglican Communion that could see it acquire new members.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury Photo: GETTY

Dr Williams also admitted that parts of the long-awaited Anglican Covenant which deal with sanctions against churches that break traditions or established boundaries are “controversial”.

But he insisted it would not be used to punish either conservatives or liberals in the bitter dispute over sexuality within the 80 million-strong worldwide church.

If the provinces sign up to the document, whose final draft has been published online, they agree not to carry out any contentious actions such as putting their clergy in another country without its agreement, electing openly homosexual priests or blessing same-sex unions in church.

The Covenant allows a body called the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion to resolve disputes and to suspend the membership of provinces that break the rules from gatherings of worldwide leaders such as the Lambeth Conference.

Outside groups are also allowed to sign up to the Covenant, and although their membership of the Communion is not automatic the move could lead to official recognition of new orthodox groups that have been formed in opposition to the liberal Episcopal Church of the USA, such as the Anglican Church of North America.

Dr Williams, the spiritual head of the world’s third-largest Christian denomination, said in a video message: “After several years of work, the proposed covenant for the Anglican Communion has now reached its final form and is being distributed to the provinces for discussion, and I hope it will be adopted by as many provinces as possible.

“It’s quite important in this process to remember what the Covenant is and what it isn’t, what it’s meant to achieve, and what it’s not going to achieve. It’s not going to solve all our problems, it’s not going to be a constitution, and it’s certainly not going to be a penal code for punishing people who don’t comply.

“But what it does represent is this: in recent years in the Anglican family, we’ve discovered that our relations with each other as local churches have often been strained, that we haven’t learned to trust one another as perhaps we should, that we really need to build relationships, and we need to have a sense that we are responsible to one another and responsible for each other. In other words, what we need is something that will help us know where we stand together, and help us also intensify our fellowship and our trust.

“The last bit of the Covenant text is the one that’s perhaps been the most controversial, because that’s where we spell out what happens if relationships fail or break down. It doesn’t set out, as I’ve already said, a procedure for punishments and sanctions. It does try and sort out how we will discern the nature of our disagreement, how important is it? How divisive does it have to be? Is it a Communion breaking issue that’s in question – or is it something we can learn to live with? And so in these sections of the covenant what we’re trying to do is simply to give a practical, sensible and Christian way of dealing with our conflicts, recognising that they’re always going to be there.”

Each member church now has until a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in 2012 to decide whether to sign up.

Dr Williams said it was “hard to say” what might happen beyond that but added: “The Covenant text itself does make it clear that at some point it’ll be open to other bodies, other Ecclesial bodies as they’re called, other Churches and communities to adopt this Covenant, and be considered for incorporation into the Anglican Communion.”

Many liberals in America’s national church, which elected the first openly homosexual Anglican bishop in 2003 and looks set to ordain its first lesbian prelate, object to the strictness of the Covenant and it is not clear whether it will sign up or what will happen if it does not.

Jim Naughton, an influential voice in the Episcopal Church who works for the diocese of Washington, wrote on his blog: “Who needs it? The bureaucratisation of the bonds of affection is an oxymoronic exercise.

“On the other hand, if getting disinvited from meetings is the stiffest penalty a church would face for following its conscience, I can live with that.”

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