Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why I am a Covenant Skeptic

There is a lot being written at the moment about the proposed Anglican Covenant, not least because it is going to be discussed by the General Synod of the Church of England next week.

Whilst not being totally against the idea of a Covenant - I am persuadable that something like it could be helpful - I am skeptical about this Covenant at the present moment. Some reasons:

1. It does not address the real questions. All of the fuss that the Covenant is supposed to help us deal with centers around issues of sexuality. Yet the Covenant does not address this at all. It is an ecclesiological tool to deal with a theological and ethical problem. That has to be some sort of category mistake. The theological and ethical questions will remain, regardless of the ecclesiology. They just won't be addressed. Rather than adding a new layer to the organisation of the Anglican Communion, shouldn't we all start doing some theology? This is not a quick fix, but a slow and painful process. But it would be meaningful.

2. It seems designed to enable provinces to be excluded. This is bad ecclesiology (schism being worse than heresy in the opinion of the Church Fathers) and worse as an example of Christian love and charity.

3. It fundamentally changes the nature of Anglicanism. We are currently a Communion of churches (plural). We do not consider ourselves to be the only instantiation of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, but a collection of churches that are true instantiations of the greater church. The Covenant would shift us decisively from being a Communion of (many) churches to being an Anglican Church. I'm not sure that there are good grounds for being an Anglican Church. I am sure that there has been no real reflection on the significance of the change that this would make.

4. Along similar lines, Anglicanism has always taken the view that many things are best decided at a local level - "dispersed authority" is the name for this. This must be the best way to enable mission and ministry to engage with the real world. The Covenant introduces a right of appeal (on the basis of "subsidiarity" - a term taken from the Roman Catholic tradition) which means that local decisions can be taken to a 'higher' level and changed.

5. The Covenant is being presented as what David Jenkins called the goddess TINA (There is NO Alternative). There is always an alternative. To say otherwise is a failure of imagination and of faith. Argue that it is the right way forward, by all means, but not that it is the only way.

6. Where is the role for lay people. This has been one of the important strands of Anglican ecclesiology for me. It is difficult to have lay people represented at all levels of the Anglican Communion, and notably only one of the four 'Instruments of Communion' has lay people on it. That's fine (all the others are just for bishops). But does the Covenant enhance the role of lay people? Or further marginalise them? My reading suggests the latter.

7. It's not really a Covenant. It's a set of membership criteria and a charter for a new international body. Does a Covenant really need a Standing Committee?

As I say, I'm a Covenant skeptic. The really positive thing about the Covenant is that it has been good for us as a Communion to reflect on what it means to be a Communion. The space that discussion has afforded us has enabled us to walk on together for a bit more. But the resulting document seems designed to end that walk. Basically, sections 1-3 provide the space. Section 4 provides for an end to that space. I am yet to see a good argument for the Covenant. At present this Covenant Skeptic would vote against.

1 comment:

Paul Davison said...


I think marginalization of the laity and non-Bishops is a major effect, if not a goal, of those pushing the Covenant. Here in the US, we thought that Archbishop Rowan consistantly misunderstood the diffused structures we use that prevent our bishops from taking too many decisions on our own. He finally explained that he did understand it and he strongly disapproved.