The proposed Anglican covenant: some questions

Published January 1, 2007

One of the more significant items on the agenda of the General Synod in June (and likely on the agenda of the meeting of all Anglican primates next month in Tanzania) will be responding to the Windsor Report, and specifically to that report’s proposal for a covenant between the member churches of the Anglican Communion.

If an Anglican covenant is to be adopted, a number of questions need to be answered first. Most important is the question of whether a covenant of any sort is desirable. Some provinces have weighed in on this question already, but it is a question that must be carefully considered by our General Synod before giving a definitive answer on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada.

The second question, which will in fact help answer the first, is what we hope to achieve with a covenant. The Windsor Report proposes a covenant as a mechanism for helping us to resolve the current conflict in the Anglican Communion. But how would this be achieved?

Some Anglicans apparently see in a covenant a mechanism to stop any developments with which they disagree, and to punish “offending” provinces. Rev. Paul Bagshaw, in an essay in the journal Theology, correctly suggests that this would simply be the provision of legal processes that would be used as weapons to settle our disputes. Far from resolving the current conflict, Mr. Bagshaw suggests that this would “further entrench and polarize conflict.” And even if a covenant could be constructed in such a way as to avoid such entrenchment of conflict, is it realistic to expect a document to achieve reconciliation? Far from achieving reconciliation, any covenant would likely reflect the measure of reconciliation achieved, or otherwise. Given the current level of conflict and open hostility in the Anglican Communion, there is a very real danger that a covenant would reflect that conflict rather than any degree of reconciliation.

This gives rise to the third question: what ought to be included in a covenant, if one is to be developed? There may be a temptation to turn a covenant into a sort of confessional document, which would be quite foreign to Anglicanism. For the many Anglicans who believe that its non-confessional character is an essential part of the genius of Anglicanism, such a development would be most unwelcome. The draft covenant in the Windsor Report also includes what amounts to a dispute-settling mechanism (what Mr. Bagshaw refers to as weapons). But the inclusion of such a mechanism raises questions of who has the authority to settle disputes, and how such settlements can be enforced, let alone whether it is possible to set up and fund a body with sufficient independence to serve those functions.

The fourth question is how much ought to be included in an Anglican covenant. The Waterloo Declaration of full communion between Canadian Anglicans and Lutherans is a remarkably brief document. It says only enough to remove any barriers to co-operation between our two churches. There is a danger that a covenant could be crafted to say much more in an attempt to provide a detailed definition of the nature of the inter-provincial relationships that make up our Anglican Communion. Such a definition could easily become so detailed and restrictive that it would become quite impossible for some provinces to sign on. Thus an effort to produce a document of unity could instead result in further disunity, this time institutionalized.

The fifth question has to do with the timeline. Assuming for the moment that all Anglican provinces decide that a covenant is desirable, do we have a realistic understanding of how long it will take to achieve? The authors of Towards an Anglican Covenant, a consultation paper published last March, have suggested a timeline of five to eight years. This seems rather optimistic, given that it would allow for only one consultation with the Lambeth Conference of bishops, and that only early in the process. It also may not allow enough time for the internal processes of the member churches. Given the three-year cycle of the Canadian church’s General Synod, the movement from approval in principle to final implementation of a covenant would be a lengthy process. Consider the time it has taken to move from approval of the Waterloo Declaration in principle in 1998 to the upcoming second reading of legislation for that agreement’s implementation. Approving and implementing a detailed, multi-lateral covenant is likely to be more complex and will very probably require even more time.

There seems to be a sense of urgency among some Anglicans to develop and approve a covenant. Already the episcopal synod of the Church of the Province of Nigeria has agreed to sign the draft covenant in the Windsor Report, even though the report itself warns that the draft is only an example, and not a concrete proposal. The urgency to get on with a covenant appears to be motivated by the hope that such a document will help resolve the current power struggle in the Communion. But if a covenant is to be the primary mechanism for the resolution of the conflict, then we can expect the conflict to continue for several years. Perhaps there are faster and more effective ways to resolve our conflict.

Even if an Anglican covenant is desirable, there is a very real danger that the current climate of conflict and the sense of urgency to resolve it would so shape the finished product that we would lose an opportunity to produce a visionary statement of hope for the Anglican Communion in favour of the development of processes with which to conduct our present and future conflicts. In other words, even if a covenant is a good idea, it may be an inopportune time to draft one.

Which brings us back to my first question: is an Anglican covenant really desirable?

Alan T. Perry is a priest of the diocese of Montreal currently pursuing a master’s degree in canon law at Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales.


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