An Anglican Covenant?

Now as there is great cause of communion, and consequently of laws for the maintenance of communion, amongst nations; so also amongst nations Christian the like in regard of Christianity hath always been judged needful. And in this kind of correspondence amongst nations the force of general councils doth stand. For as one and the same law divine .. is unto all Christian churches a rule for the chiefest things; by means whereof they all in that respect make one church, as having all “but one Lord, one faith and one baptism:” so the urgent necessity of mutual communion for preservation of our unity in these things, as also for order in some other things convenient to be every where uniformly kept, maketh it requisite that the Church of God here on earth have her laws of spiritual commerce between Christian nations; laws by virtue whereof all churches may enjoy freely the use of those reverend, religious, and sacred consultations, which are termed Councils General …. To speak of this matter as the cause requireth would require very long discourse. All I will presently say is this: whether it be for the finding out of any thing whereunto divine law bindeth us, but yet in such sort that men are not yet thereof on all sides resolved; or for the setting down of some uniform judgement to stand touching such things, as being neither way matters of necessity, are notwithstanding offensive and scandalous when there is open opposition among them; being it for the ending of strifes touching matters of Christian belief, wherein the one part may seem to have probable cause of dissenting from the other; or be it concerning matters of polity, order, and regiment in the church; I nothing doubt but that Christian men should much better frame themselves to those heavenly precepts which our Lord and Saviour with so great instancy gave as concerning peace and unity, if we did all concur in desire to have the use of ancient councils again renewed, rather than these proceedings continued, which either make all contentions endless, or bring them to one only determination, and that of all other the worst, which is by sword.” 1

This is a personal reflection on the present situation, and the task of preparing a first draft of a possible Church of England response which has been assigned to the Theological Group of the House and the Faith & Order Advisory Group [FOAG].

A summary

In this paper I shall be setting out the main reasons which have led me to become a reluctant convert to the need for an Anglican Covenant. I shall concentrate the principle of the Covenant rather than any particular form proposed, although my argument will favour the approach of the Covenant Design Group over that attached (unfortunately I think) to the Windsor Report.

I shall conclude that the Covenant must be strong and detailed enough to help the Anglican Communion understand the implications of “bonds of affection” and minimise the danger of the present crisis (crises) recurring or leading to irreparable schism.

It should not however try to solve or resolve matters of present dispute, because they have revealed rather than caused an underlying problem of Anglicanism, which has been well described as an “ecclesial deficit.”

I shall also argue that no form of covenant will be sufficient to guarantee the future of the Anglican Communion. Further work is also needed on the operation, powers and interaction of the existing “instruments of communion,” and not least on the need for personal ministry at every level. Most important of all there needs to be conversion. We should not forget TS Eliot’s words about humankind (written, tellingly, in 1934):

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.2

Why this paper?

All Anglican Provinces have been asked to comment by the end of 2007 on the proposal for an Anglican Covenant.

Time is not on our side, and the Theological Group has not been able to consider either the final form of Dr Davie’s more substantial text or any version of my own note, while FOAG has had less opportunity for extended discussion than it would normally expect to give to such material.

What the House considered in May and what will be before the General Synod in July is very much “work in progress.” On the other hand, the acuteness of the crisis in the Anglican Communion does not allow us the luxury of extended procrastination. I start from the twin convictions that we must do something and that being rushed into the wrong thing would make an already bad situation worse. I also take for granted that failure to find a satisfactory way forward for the Anglican Communion will lead to intolerable tensions within the Church of England and our own episcopal fellowship.

I am a reluctant convert to the need for a Covenant and am conscious of the dangers both of action and inaction. My hesitations arise from my own experience and convictions. My “conversion” has occurred both as I have learnt more about the reality of Anglicanism and also as, it seems to me, as some unresolved elements in our past are leading to a rapid unravelling.

I resisted for a long time the logic of Stephen Sykes’ criticisms of the “no special doctrines” claim for Anglicanism. I have however come to see that even if we teach nothing other than what may be read in Holy Scripture or may be proved thereby3 , the proportion in which different doctrinal elements are held, the way in which we approach their explication in understanding and Christian living, and the methods we use to evaluate developments all imply a certain doctrinal stance which is distinctive.

Our failure over the years to provide some minimal but sufficient statement of what it means to be Anglican has led to an unexamined defence of “comprehensiveness” as a virtue in itself, meaning by it something very different than was envisaged by the classical Anglican writers who coined it. More recently, it has merged with contemporary concepts of “inclusiveness” and is proclaimed as the heart of the gospel.

For too long Anglicans have appeared willing to evade responsible theological reflection and dialogue by acquiescing automatically and immediately in the coexistence of incompatible views, opinions and policies.”4

A Covenant might be a partial remedy. It should indicate those areas of faith (including morals) and order where unanimity of heart and mind belong to the nature of the faith itself and are essential for Eucharistic communion. It should indicate those areas in which freedom of interpretation enriches unity. It needs to show that the Anglican way of being a Christian unites us to the Church throughout the world and throughout the ages. It must not propose as a basis for Anglican identity anything less than the unity of the Catholic Church. It must not propose more either. Rather it needs to demonstrate how our particular emphases and the proportion between them serve both Anglican unity and the goal of the full visible communion of all Christ’s people.

Thus while I still fear a neo-confessional move, I argue for an Anglican Covenant but not for any Anglican Covenant.

What is the question to which the Covenant is the answer?

As soon as the question is asked, people take sides. Depressing though it is to admit, support for and opposition to the idea of a covenant usually tends to reveal immediately where people stand on some of the more substantive theological and moral questions involved in our present crisis.

Some see the question as about the departure of some Provinces from the faith of the Church throughout the ages as received by the churches of the Anglican Communion. Others see it is as a threat by obscurantist forces against the insights of freedom, justice and democracy. Both groups claim theological justification for their positions.

More fundamentally, it seems to me that the current crisis has revealed rather than caused the breakdown of trust and communion between Anglicans. It has exposed unresolved differences about such matters as the place of morals and order within the faith of the Church, about the sacramental nature of the Church and authority in the Church. This crisis has therefore a more far-reaching capacity to divide Anglicans than the rather obvious presenting issue of same sex relationships.

In other words, we have to ask basic questions about what we believe the essential features of the Church to be, what we understand the ecclesial status of different aspects of the Anglican Communion to be. Entailed in such questions is what kind of church we are, to what authorities do we appeal, and are there any agreed criteria for interpretation? We certainly need to find a common way of relating being a Communion to being in Communion and how all this relates to Eucharistic sharing. We can no longer limp along between the two opinions. Is the communion of the Church a seamless whole in which common faith, worship, life and witness are all entailed? Or is holy communion a rather detached activity in which people should either be forced to participate despite a lack of common faith or from which they might rather lightly stand back without ecclesial consequences?

It is perhaps timely that, as part of a continuing attempt to discern what the churches may eventually be able to say together, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches has recently published a text on The Nature and Mission of the Church.

Among the areas where convergence is still difficult to establish is the sacramental nature of the Church.

Although all churches agree that the church is a sign and instrument, some churches express their understanding of the reality of the church in Sacramental terms; some speak of the church as Sacrament; others do not normally use this language, or reject it outright.

The churches who use the expression “Church as Sacrament” do so because they understand the Church as an effective sign of what God wishes for the world: namely, the communion of all together and with the Triune God, the joy for which God created the world (notwithstanding the sinfulness of Christians).

The churches who do not use the concept of Sacrament for the Church do not do so for at least two reasons, namely (1) the need for a clear distinction between the Church and Sacraments: the Sacraments are the means of salvation through which Christ sustains the Church, and not actions by which the Church realises or actualises itself; and (2) the use of the word “Sacrament” for the Church obscures the fact that, for them, the Church is a sign and instrument of God’s intention and plan - but it is so as a communion which, while being holy, is still subject to sin.

Behind this lack of agreement lie varying views about the instrumentality of the Church with regard to salvation. Yet those who have become accustomed to call the Church “Sacrament” would still distinguish between the ways in which baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the one hand, and the Church on the other, are signs and instruments of God’s plan. And those who do not use the phrase “Church as Sacrament” would still uphold that the Church is God’s holy instrument for his divine purpose”5

A covenant might help Anglicans give their own answer to this question and in doing so also begin to respond to the increasing frequency with which ecumenical dialogue partners ask who they are addressing when they talk to Anglicans. If, as we have officially stated on many occasions, we seek the full, visible unity of the Church, what is our answer? We could admit, once and for all, that we simply do not have the will to find a basis on which to stand together or from which to speak to other churches. But that is not, I think, what most people believe to be right.

This is not to suggest that the “recognition” of churches is a simple matter or that we should allow Anglican polity to be driven by the perception of others. The problem highlighted by the present sense of crisis is primarily an internal matter of the integrity of Anglicanism.

Not a new question

A report to ACC-7 (Singapore 1987) observed that, “While the existing instruments of unity have been adequate in developing and sustaining Anglican cohesiveness, there is emerging an awareness of the need to evaluate and reform them. A fundamental reason for this is that increasing diversity within the Communion could threaten its unity.” 6 The issue is far older than that of course, and may arguably be traced back even to various post-Reformation attempts to articulate a reformed Catholicism.

The issue of diversity is not itself problematic, of course, and is positively rather than negatively entailed in the very idea of Catholicism itself. The wrong kind of unity is no less a threat to the Church than the wrong kind of diversity. It is important that protagonists for and against the covenant should both understand this.

The issues facing us today were directly addressed in a discussion paper prepared for the 1988 Lambeth Conference.

The working group which carried out the preparatory work for the 'Unity in Diversity' document recommended that the member Churches of the Anglican Communion should adopt a common Declaration which would be used at major events in the life of the Church such as the ordination or installation of bishops. This would be a sign of the Church's adherence to apostolic faith and order and would also be a sign of communion between the Churches. Such a declaration might well become another instrument of communion. It is necessary, however, to ensure that such a document, while remaining faithful to apostolic faith and order, is as comprehensive as possible and takes full account of the different traditions within Anglicanism. Also, it is undesirable that a declaration based on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral should be merely about denominational identity. It should be framed in such a way that the involvement of the Provinces in ecumenical activity is not jeopardised. With these factors in mind, the initial draft submitted by the working group was revised. The following is a revised text of the declaration :-

i. The Church (of the Province) of .................declares itself to be united under one divine head in the fellowship of the one , Holy , Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

ii. It professes the Faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic Creeds, to which faith the formularies of this Church bear witness and which the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

iii. It celebrates the divinely instituted sacraments, particularly those of Baptism and Holy Communion, as ordinances of the universal Church.

iv. It expresses its continuity with the apostolic tradition of faith and witness, worship, fellowship and ministry by means of the historic episcopal order. It is in communion with each of those Churches which preserve the historic threefold order of the ordained ministry and are in communion with the See of Canterbury.

v. It looks forward to the unity of all Christians based on a common recognition of the place of the Holy Scriptures, the Catholic Creeds, the dominical sacraments and historic order in the Church of God.7

This was one of a number of preparatory documents for the 1988 Lambeth Conference which look remarkably prescient. Another was the 1986 report of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission For the Sake of the Kingdom.

The virtual ignoring of this report by the 1988 Lambeth Conference and of the Virginia Report, which addressed the same need, by the Conference of 1998 suggests that there is a major gap to be filled if the Anglican Communion, and indeed its member churches, are to have any ecclesial credibility.

Talk about a Covenant does not seem to me to be different in substance from talk about a common “statement” or “declaration.” Nevertheless we are now in a critical situation in which “Covenant or nothing” seems to be the question before us. “Nothing” will lead to irreparable damage to the Anglican Communion, and consequently to the Church of England; the wrong kind of covenant likewise.

A covenant need not compromise a legitimate autonomy; the paper Instruments of Communion, to which I have already referred, commented that

Provinces of the Anglican Communion are certainly autonomous in the legal sense, but exactly how far does that autonomy extend in the theological and morals sense? It is clear that if communion between provinces is to be maintained and nurtured then there must be some limits to autonomy in areas of theological and moral significance. It is true that questions will arise as to which issues are of merely local or provincial significance and which have wider implications.”8

This rather brings us back to Hooker with whom I began!

John Hind
Chichester 30th April 2007 (revised 11 June 2007)


1 Hooker. Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I.X.14

2 Choruses from The Rock VI

3 cf. Article VI

4 For the Sake of the Kingdom Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission ACC 1986 p 60

5 The Nature and Mission of the Church FO Paper 198 WCC 2005 II.A.48

6 “Unity in Diversity within the Anglican Communion: A Way Forward” in Many Gifts, One Spirit ACC1987 (the Report of ACC-7 Singapore) Part 3

7 “Instruments of Communion and Decision-Making: the Development of the Consultative Process in the Anglican Communion” in The Truth Shall Make You Free ACC 1988 (Report of the 1988 Lambeth Conference) Appendix 5, para 20

8 paras 23,24