Truth or Conviction: questions over the Anglican Communion Covenant

Source: Church of England Newspaper

November 19, 2010
By Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden

Many primates have indicated that they cannot support the Covenant in its present form. The African Primates said in Entebbe in August : “We realise the need for further improvement of the Covenant in order to be an effective tool for unity and mutual accountability.”

In April the Global South meeting said: “We are currently reviewing the proposed Covenant to find ways to strengthen it in order for it to fulfill its purpose. For example, we believe that all those who adopt the Covenant must be in compliance with Lambeth 1.10. Meanwhile we recognize that the Primates Meeting, being responsible for Faith and Order, should be the body to oversee the Covenant in its implementation, not the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.”

Why the reticence?

What is the basis for their reticence and what are the implications of the Covenant for the Church of England?

The Anglican Communion Covenant was devised by Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies at the request of the Global South meeting as part of the response to the consecration of Gene Robinson by ECUSA/TEC. It was embraced and supported by the Primates Meeting in Dromantine.

There was every hope that the version of the Covenant that was brought to the 2009 ACC meeting in Jamaica would unite the Communion.

Archbishop Gomez was explicit there in personal conversation that the Covenant would be such that TEC could not sign up to it. Therefore, rather than anyone “expelling” TEC, TEC (and similarly ACOC) would exclude themselves until wiser counsels among them might prevail.

With each succeeding draft the Covenant has “weakened” – to such an extent that now it is said that TEC can sign up to it. A critical point in this weakening was reached at the ACC meeting in Jamaica. An important intervention by the Archbishop of Canterbury interpreted the mind of the meeting in such a way that eventually a motion was passed which led to the revision of section 4 so that all mention of discipline was removed.

Why was this done? For some, the issues were about theology and truth. For others the issue was to provide a mechanism to achieve consensus and stay together.

How different would the Communion be if the Covenant in its current form were to apply? Contradictory positions could still be lived with because what appears to be mutually incompatible is only apparent, but not finally so because they are all personal convictions even though espoused by groups. More intense listening might reveal areas of overlap, convergence and possible co-existence between initially opposing positions.

The Covenant sets some of the credal statements of the Christian faith in a specific framework. The premise of this framework is that the doctrinal and theological disagreements which have surfaced within the Communion are not about fundamentals but have arisen through problems in communication and understanding, as people have differing convictions.

Are the doctrinal and theological matters in current dispute matters of right and wrong, truth and error, or matters of personal conviction over which better communication will produce unity and harmony? The Covenant process is only capable of dealing with disagreements of the latter kind. Better communication in such a framework requires an attitude of openness, a process of listening and adequate time. So the Covenant puts in place such a decision-making process in the Communion.

Some people in leadership continue to assert that truth resides in different groups and is not the exclusive preserve of any one group. However the Bible never affirms that the church has proprietary rights to all truth. It does call the church to witness faithfully to truths that are fundamental and non-negotiable. Both the identity and the mission of the church depend on this. The leaders of the church are called to unambiguous and full commitment to such truths – exemplified in the oaths they are required to take.

There are of course other matters on which there are ‘disagreements’, but these are matters of indifference on which Scripture allows disagreement.  They are not a cause for breaking fellowship/communion. The absence of discipline risks moving some of the fundamentals into the indifference category.

The Covenant puts a number of fully acceptable credal statements in the framework of communication and listening which renders them as convictions open to change. It does this by the position it gives to the Standing Committee of the Communion. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, the director for Unity, Faith and Order in the Anglican Communion Office writes in the CEN for November 12:

“The point of the processes outlined in the Covenant is precisely to encourage one part of the Communion, when seeking to respond responsibly in its own context in mission, to consider how that will affect other parts of the Communion – not so that they can exercise a veto, but so that in communion discernment can take place collaboratively [on] how…Churches in communion distinguish between that which may further the Gospel and that which may impede it.”

We should remember how phraseology referring to those whose manner of life may be disruptive of communion in an earlier debate was interpreted. Though initially drafted to refer to those who transgressed Communion teaching on sexuality, it was also interpreted to refer to those whose insistence on a position of “truth” was disruptive of communion harmony and thus directed towards orthodox Anglicans in North America.

Similarly, the Covenant process is also seen as means by which sanctions could be taken against those of the Communion who insist that truth and error are not matters of poor communication, lack of openness and failure to listen but are matters of the law of non-contradiction.

The current Covenant process interminably delays judgement and leaves little hope of discipline and thus of consistency. We are left in a permanent state of dialogue and conversation. This has practical implications at parish level when churches have to decide how to relate to same-sex couples requesting blessing and bringing surrogate children for baptism. If the covenant process in the Communion becomes the state of affairs in the Church of England, its practices could be so contradictory that chaos would result. Endless appeal could be made to conviction, openness, listening and time while practices and actions continue which go against the teaching of the church whether in a parish or whole diocese.

The above argument could therefore suggest abstention in the vote in General Synod next week for the following reasons:

The Communion needs recognition of orthodox teaching and for proper and appropriate boundaries. The Covenant does not achieve that purpose but substitutes conviction for truth. Some wish to travel further in the direction in which the Covenant is supposed to point, but do not wish to support the very weak approach of the current Covenant. Where the current Anglican Communion process is going today could be used to allow for English Dioceses to move in TEC’s direction tomorrow on the grounds that this is accepted Anglican practice.

Women Bishops – the next stage

The next stage for the legislation on women bishops is for the legislation to be considered by dioceses. In our diocese (Oxford) the bishop has asked that deaneries consider it prior to the diocesan synod.

The Church of England Evangelical Council has prepared a “following motion”. While dioceses are only being asked to vote yes or no to the proposed legislation, and not to amend it in any way, it is possible for the diocesan synod to attach a following motion by way of a comment.

The following motion below is being proposed:

“This synod
1. Desires that all faithful Anglicans remain and thrive together in the Church of England and therefore
2. Calls upon the House of Bishops to bring forward amendments to the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure to ensure that those unable on theological grounds to accept the ministry of women bishops are able to receive Episcopal oversight from a bishop with authority (i.e. ordinary jurisdiction) conferred by the Measure rather than by delegation from a Diocesan Bishop.”

The CEEC notes the following:

1. The purpose of the motion is so that those who cannot in good conscience accept the consecration of women to the episcopate might be kept within the Church of England.

2. The very narrow margin of defeat of the amendment by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to provide for adequate legal provision indicated a high level of support for adequate provision which will not be forthcoming without the draft legislation being amended.

3. The implications of the current proposed legislation are that many of those who hold one of the two integrities (on the matter of women’s ordination and consecration) in the Church of England will have difficulties in selection for ministry, ordination and deployment. For maintaining a position recognised for its integrity, many will come to be excluded.

The proposed legislation promotes monepiscopacy (which has no scriptural foundation) at the expense of the existing unity between those of differing integrities (which does) and will cause the former to destroy the latter. In other words, focusing on a non-biblical tradition (monepiscopacy) will exclude from the church a position which has clear scriptural warrant (the reservation of certain roles in church order to men).

The proposed legislation would have implications for the Oath of Canonical Obedience which is made to a Diocesan Bishop and his successors. As no provision is proposed for those who, following the introduction of the legislation, could not make such an oath, those who hold to a traditional integrity will immediately become compromised. They would no longer be able to hold to the oath they had sworn.

Whilst a code of practice is proposed, no one is clear as to what its content will be. Further it will be at the discretion of the Diocesan Bishop, could be changed and the experience of many in other contexts is that it is likely to be inadequate.

The proposed legislation makes no provision for lay people who have reservations about women bishops (for confirmation etc.)

4. The proposed following motion (above) indicates that provision for those who hold to a traditional integrity should be conferred by legislation rather than by the Diocesan Bishop in order to maintain theological and relational objectivity and consistency across the Church of England.

5. Ordinary jurisdiction (which equates with the authority of a Diocesan Bishop) need not be geographical. Church history indicates that episcopacy has not always been viewed in this way.

6. The motion, if accepted will not be discriminatory. For those who oppose the consecration of women to the episcopate, it calls for provision to be made in all dioceses, whether the present Diocesan is male or not.


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