The Covenant: What Is It All About?

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Tuesday, May 24th, 2011


After several iterations and a good bit of political chicanery the proposed Anglican Covenant has been sent to the provinces for their consideration, adoption or rejection. Prediction is always a chancy matter. Nevertheless, despite the welcome accession of the Province of South East Asia and the Affirmation of the Church of Ireland, if one observes the virtual disappearance of the Archbishop of Canterbury from the process, and if one looks at the comments that fly around on the blogs it appears that the chances for adoption are in decline. The moral authority vested in the Archbishop is not being exercised. Emboldened by silence from the center, with growing vigor progressive voices object to the fourth section of the proposal because they see in it a form of centralized authority that would limit the autonomy of the provinces. Similarly emboldened, traditionalists object that the covenant lacks sufficient doctrinal specificity and effective means of discipline. They want shared belief and practice to play a dominant role in the definition of Anglicanism. As clearly illustrated by the recent statement by the GAFCON Primates Council, many with conservative convictions want to give the covenant a more confessional form and they want it to contain effective means of enforcement.

This dispute both reflects and creates a good bit of heat. It does not, however, create much light. Indeed, in its present form the dispute serves to obscure what the covenant is actually proposing. Both parties miss the meaning and implications of the two terms upon which the logic of the covenant depends. Both miss the covenant’s central proposal, and direct attention to matters that do not and cannot serve as the basis of communion.

I will return to the inadequacies of both the progressive and traditionalist objections, but these inadequacies will be more easily grasped if what I will call the logic of the present proposal is put on display. At the base of this logic stand two terms–”mutual accountability” and “recognition” (4.2.1). Both progressives and traditionalists have missed the significance of these terms and in consequence neither party understands the covenant proposal adequately. Even a cursory reading of the proposed covenant should reveal this failure. To be specific, attention to the affirmations and commitments contained in the covenant shows that if those of a progressive persuasion miss the significance of “mutual accountability” those of a traditional cast of mind miss the significance of “recognition.” How is this so?

The First Three Sections of the Covenant along with its Introduction

The proposed covenant has an “Introduction” and “Preamble” that are followed by four sections, each containing a series of affirmations and commitments. I will consider first the “Introduction” along with sections one through three. What do they affirm and to what do they ask commitment? The “Introduction” states the theological foundation of the covenant. That foundation is “communion.” All churches are called through Christ into communion with the Triune God. In communion with Christ and one another Christians share in the very life of God. The mission of the Anglican Communion is to share with all other churches in calling the peoples of the earth into this life, and to show it forth in the relations of its various provinces one with another.

Calling people into communion with the Triune God requires shared responsibility and interdependence among the provinces. According to Section One, communion and shared mission involve shared beliefs as well as shared resources. Thus each province adopting the covenant affirms a “common inheritance of faith.” This common inheritance has as its center communion in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that worships one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This church holds the Catholic and Apostolic Faith “uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture and the catholic creeds.” The historic formularies of the Church of England (as appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion) “bear authentic witness” to this faith.

According to the covenant proposal, affirmation of the faith that Anglicans share requires certain commitments. These all stem from a faithful and communal reading of Holy Scripture that is attentive to the councils of the Communion, the Communion’s ecumenical agreements, the teaching of Bishops and synods, the work of scholars and the voice of prophetic and faithful leadership.

Having established the importance of a shared inheritance of faith, the proposed covenant moves on in Section Two to describe in greater detail “Our Anglican Vocation.” Anglicans understand their vocation from within God’s providential ordering of his world. The place God has provided Anglicans within that ordering offers special opportunities that are set forth in five commitments taken largely from the Baptismal Covenant found in the Book of Common Prayer now in use within The Episcopal Church.

I suspect that the description of “Our Anglican Vocation” (though perhaps it should) will not cause much controversy. However, Section Three most certainly will. It concerns “Our Unity and Common Life.” This section asks Anglicans to affirm that by incorporation into the body of Christ they are called “to pursue all things that make for peace and build up our common life.” This affirmation carries with it a resolve “to live in a Communion of Churches” in which each “orders and regulates its own affairs…through its own system of government and law.” In doing so, however, each church of the Communion understands itself to be living “in communion with autonomy and accountability.” This accountability is not mediated through a “central legislative and executive authority” but by “mutual loyalty sustained through common counsel of the bishops in conference and the other instruments of Communion.”

From this affirmation flow a variety of commitments. Chief among these is a commitment “to respect the constitutional autonomy of all the churches of the Anglican Communion while upholding our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ, and the responsibility of each to the Communion as a whole.” Concretely this commitment means that each of the churches of the Communion, before taking a controversial action, will seek a shared mind though the Communion’s councils. Further it means that when an action “by its intensity, substance and extent” threatens the unity of the communion or the credibility of its mission, a province will act only (if it does so at all) with “diligence, care and caution.”

I do not believe it is possible to read the affirmations and commitments of Sections One and Three without concluding that the covenant requires that the exercise of provincial autonomy be carried out from within a more fundamental commitment to “Our Inheritance of Faith” and “Our Unity and Common Life.” Shared responsibility and interdependence within the Communion involve more than sharing resources. They necessarily involve sharing in forms of common belief and life as well.

A Misplaced Debate

The call for shared responsibility and interdependence goes all the way back to the first and only Anglican Congress in 1963. There the matter was phrased as “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ” (MRI). The innovations in sexual ethics recently made by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have forced into the open profound disagreements about the meaning of mutual responsibility and interdependence. The much disputed Section Four of the covenant sets out a procedure and lays down a framework in which this sort of dispute can be resolved. Sadly, the parties to this dispute have to date (sometimes deliberately) failed to understand the exact nature of the covenant proposal, and have failed (sometimes deliberately) to address adequately either its understanding of the nature of communion or the way in which communion is to be maintained within a communion of self-governing churches. As a result the debate between them (if indeed it can accurately be called a debate) has to date been misplaced.

If one looks carefully at what the contestants in this dispute say and do, and then compares what one sees to the actual specifications of Section Four, the truth of this statement becomes obvious. How so? What is the progressive and what is the traditional argument, and how do these arguments correspond to the proposals contained in the covenant? Listen first, for example, to the progressive voices within The Episcopal Church. To exempt its innovations from the claims of interdependence, The Episcopal Church insists that it has a prophetic warrant for what it has done. Further, it has insisted upon the primacy of autonomy when it comes to disputes over doctrinal and ethical matters. Interdependence has, accordingly, been effectively limited to mutual aid in mission (understood as a struggle for social justice). The plea of The Episcopal Church is for a communion that allows for doctrinal pluralism on the one hand but on the other calls for interdependence when it comes to social mission. Interdependence takes place almost exclusively at the level of praxis rather than shared belief.

Many with more traditional convictions have strong objections to this view. In reaction to what they see both as false prophecy and a false claim to autonomy in matters of faith and morals, they have called for limitation of autonomy by more doctrinal specificity within the covenant itself. Typically the Jerusalem Declaration is cited as the sort of specific doctrinal commitment called for. Not surprisingly, the view of these more tradition minded people of Section Four is exactly opposite to that of those with more progressive convictions. If many with progressive views fear that adoption of Section Four will lead to an Anglican Vatican, many of those with more traditional views look at Section Four and see no point at which “discipline” can be imposed on a province or diocese that departs from the common inheritance of faith or that disrupts the unity and common life of the communion. One group looks at Section Four and sees too much centralization. The other looks at it and fails to see enough.

Section Four: Common Commitments, Mutual Accountability and Mutual Recognition

What does Section Four actually say? Its specific proposals flow from a definition of the Anglican Communion that summarizes the contents of sections one through three. “The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of national or regional Churches, in which each recognizes (emphasis added) in the others the bonds of common loyalty to Christ expressed through a common faith and order, a shared inheritance in worship, life and mission, and a readiness to live in an interdependent life” (4:1.1). The covenant exists “to express the common commitments and mutual accountability in the relationship of communion one with another” (4.2.1). Most important, “recognition of, and fidelity to” the covenant enable “mutual recognition (emphasis added) and communion.”

In contradistinction to the claims of The Episcopal Church, the covenant holds that communion necessarily involves common faith. Also, in contradistinction to the claims of The Episcopal Church, the covenant holds that its adoption does not require “submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction” (4.1.3). To put the matter another way, autonomy does not give free reign in matters of faith and morals, but, at the same time, the autonomy of each province is not compromised by a jurisdiction superior to its own governing bodies.

Common commitments and mutual accountability within the Communion encompass matters of faith and morals. The covenant does rule out what appears to be the present position of The Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, contrary to many conservative voices, matters of faith and morals are not within the proposed covenant to be determined by subscription to a common confession like that envisioned in the Jerusalem Declaration. Rather, these matters are to be determined by “mutual recognition.” Mutual recognition is arrived at by a common reading of scripture that accords with the catholic creeds and the witness of “the historic formularies of the Church of England” (1:1.2).

Anglicans throughout the Communion would be wise to pause and think on these matters. The Anglican Communion is not simply a federation of churches joined (voluntarily) in a common task. It is a communion of belief and worship as well as mission. Conversely, the Anglican Communion is not a confessional body that can be identified by common subscription to a series of assertions. It is a body bound in the communion of Christ by mutual “recognition”–recognition by each in the other of fidelity to the witness of Holy Scripture as mediated through the traditions of the church. Recognition arises out of honest exchange between partners committed to sustaining communion and arriving at a common mind. It involves not only determination of truth but also forms of relationship and the presence of graces through which truth can be discerned. According to this view communion involves both mutual adherence to the truth of God in Christ and mutual subjection in love.

“Recognition” is a different matter than “subscription.” Subscription requires ratification of a common statement of belief and practice. Recognition requires seeing in the different statements and practices of others a rendition of Christian belief and practice that is faithful to the biblical witness from which one’s own statements and practices are derived. If many people with progressive convictions miss the fact that communion cannot be communion apart from common belief, many with more traditional convictions miss the fact that common belief cannot be adequately determined and sustained by an agreed upon confession. Even if one had pledged loyalty to a confession, common belief arises out of and is sustained by forms of relationship responsible to the same sources of knowledge, in this case Holy Scripture.

Section Four seeks to provide these forms of relationship in a way that subscription to a common confession cannot. Take for example the only confession operative in the history of Anglicanism–The Thirty-nine Articles. From the outset, disputes arose over their meaning and in time subscription was no longer required. Presbyterians and Lutherans have encountered the same issues in the course of their stormy history. Articles and Confessions have to be interpreted, and once interpretation becomes an issue, one is faced, like it our not, with the question of recognition. Does one “recognize” in another’s interpretation of the articles of common subscription the same faith that one believes they express? Finally, how can mutual recognition come about apart from the demands of love that provide space and time for these matters to be determined?

In matters of faith and morals the proposed covenant wisely opts for “recognition” over “subscription,” and, again wisely, it opts for common faith, worship and order as a limit to autonomy. What it seeks to provide is a set of procedures that will allow both for “recognition” and for “consequences” if a province should refuse to recognize the faith and way of life the other provinces recognize in one another.

Procedural Adequacy?

The question is whether the procedures contained in Section Four lead, as progressive critics charge, to an Un-Anglican centralization of authority or, as traditional voices charge, to a communion in which “discipline” cannot be imposed upon a province whose innovations run contrary to the witness of Holy Scripture. Do the proposals in aid of recognition lead in the end either to an unacceptable change in Anglican polity or to a de facto inability to sustain common belief?

It seems to me that the second of these questions is more serious than the first, but both deserve a serious reply. Do the proposals for arriving at mutual recognition indeed destroy the autonomy of the provinces? Article 4.1.3 explicitly denies such to be the case. However, can it be said, as many progressive voices have, that the role assigned to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, despite claims to the contrary, sets up a centralized form of jurisdiction that compromises provincial autonomy?

This claim is false. What are the responsibilities of the Standing Committee? As an agent of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, the Standing Committee “monitors” (rather than administers) the functioning of the covenant (4.2.2). When a dispute arises that is not resolved, the Standing Committee is to make every effort to procure an agreement, and in this effort may refer the matter directly to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting for advice. The Standing Committee may also seek advice about “the nature of the matter in question” and the “relational consequences which may result” (4.2.4). Considering these deliberations, the Standing Committee may request that a church “defer a controversial action,” and it may recommend to any of the Instruments of Communion as a “relational consequence” that a province’s participation in that Instrument be “provisionally” (emphasis added) suspended until a further process is completed (4.2.5). That process requires advice to be given by the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting both about the nature of the matter in dispute and its appropriate consequences. With this advice in mind, the Standing Committee “may,” (emphasis added) declare that an action or decision would be “incompatible with the Covenant” (4.2.6). If a declaration of incompatibility is made, then it is the duty of the Standing Committee to recommend “relational consequences” either to the churches of the Communion or to the Instruments of Communion. The recommendations are to address “the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment (4.2.7).

It is a matter of great importance to note that the Standing Committee makes recommendations only. It does not make juridical decisions. Further, it is important note that each Church and each Instrument may either accept or reject the recommendations it has received (4.2.7). There are several matters of great significance here. First, there is no centralized jurisdictional body. There is no one body that can say province X is no longer a part of the Anglican Communion. There is, however, a process by means of which the Instruments and churches of the Communion, in an orderly fashion, can determine whether a disputed action is recognizable as being in accord with Holy Scripture, and there is a mechanism for reaching a common mind about appropriate consequences. In short, the covenant puts in place a process that will allow the Communion to respond to a threat to its common belief and life as a communion of churches rather than as individual provinces in a federation. The covenant provides a way in which provinces can be spared acting on their own, and so perhaps inadvertently compounding division.

Though it does seek to provide an orderly process for sustaining communion, it is simply impossible to find in this proposal a centralized authority that stands over the various provinces of the Communion. Though individual churches can make decisions about their relation with a province they believe to be in error, and though individual Instruments may make decisions about the participation of an erring province in their activities, no one body can make such decisions for the entire Communion. What the covenant provides is a way for the Communion to act as a Communion as it wrestles with such questions.

The charge that the covenant sets up a form of centralized authority contrary to Anglican tradition is false. What about the charge that the covenant prevents the exercise of “discipline” within the Communion? Though there is more to worry about in this case, the charge, as it stands, (if not false) is at a minimum misleading. It is misleading in that it misses the significance of the Covenant’s use of the words “recognition” and “consequences” rather than “discipline.” If the proposal had contained a process for discipline, it would have given license to a body that imposes such discipline. In this case, the covenant would have licensed a body with overarching juridical authority and so would have confirmed the worries of many progressive Anglicans about the “Vaticanizasion” of the Communion. By using the words “recognition” and “consequences” rather than “discipline” the architects of the covenant proposal have sought to address communion-threatening situations by means of a communal process rather than a juridical procedure. This second alternative would indeed have changed the nature of Anglican polity in a way the covenant seeks prevent and all decry (4.1.3).

There is, however, substance behind the cry for discipline. There is a legitimate worry that the procedures set forth in the covenant proposal cannot place effective checks on actions like those taken by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. These worries have been brought into focus by the political maneuvering that took place at the recent meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Jamaica, by the changes recently made in the composition of the Standing Committee and by the silence of Canterbury. All these suggest that it is possible to “stack” the membership of the group charged with monitoring the covenant. All suggest that the very provinces whose actions threaten that communion can control both the procedures and the responsible bodies through which the communion of Anglicans is to be sustained.

It is of course the case that a central disciplinary body might fall victim to the same problems. Indeed, such charges have already been publically raised, from within conservative memberships, against decision-making groups within GAFCON, ACNA, CANA and AMiA. Political processes can subvert the best form of governance and the most transparent procedures. It is beyond doubt that the process set forth in Section Four is open to subversion. However, any process is so vulnerable, and, sadly, advocates of a strong disciplinary body fail to realize this fact. Establishment of a disciplinary body charged with determining whether or not a given province is “up to snuff” with their interpretation of the confession is as subject to political manipulation as is any other arrangement.

More important is the fact that this way of dealing with disputed issues avoids the hard work of being in communion. It by-passes the responsibility of churches in communion to sort out their disputes by seeking within the bond of love a common understanding of the witness of scripture and to shape their life together by the graces that lead to common understanding and interdependence. If the progressive understanding of communion expunges common belief, the confessional one by-passes the struggles and virtues that make communion a work of love and recognition as opposed to one that is juridical in nature.

The process presented in Section Four calls the Communion to move forward in a different way. It is a way that offers the possibility of sustaining both common belief within the Communion and self-government by each of its provinces. It suggests that any weakness within the common life of the Communion is to be found less in the procedures through which it operates and more in the spiritual strength of its membership. It suggests that if things fall apart, the fault will lie in ourselves rather than in our procedures.


It seems to me that the understanding of communion that has shaped the proposed covenant is vastly superior to the theologically vacuous one favored by many with progressive views and to the impractical confessional one favored by many with more traditional convictions. It provides a way to sustain a thick form of communion within the changes and chances of history and within the conflicts occasioned by differences in culture. It provides a way through history that does not reduce communion (as in the progressive case) to the chance overlap of moral commitments or (as in the traditionalist case) to a fixed point in the history of the church that can serve as a theological north star. The ship that is the church is best guided by common immersion in Holy Scripture and mutual recognition born of a grace filled struggle in the light of scripture’s witness to arrive at truth. That is what the covenant is all about.

It saddens me that the chances for general ratification are in decline. I am still hopeful that most of the provinces will ratify the proposal. The recent actions of South East Asia and Ireland strengthen that hope. Nevertheless, hope in this case might disappoint. It is possible that the covenant will fail. If it does fail, the present disputants, because of the positions they hold, will miss the full scope of what has been lost. The great problem in the history of the church is how fidelity to the apostolic witness is to be maintained within the changes and chances of history. Anglicans have an answer to this question that the disputants in this fight have missed. It is a powerful answer, but it may indeed be lost without the disputants knowing what has actually happened.

There have been a limited number of answers given to this question. One is conciliar. This was the position of the early church, and is still the view of the Orthodox churches. However, the sort of council the Orthodox require calls for an ecumenical council. After the division of the Eastern and Western churches the chances of such a council meeting again prior to our Lord’s return are slight indeed. As a result Orthodoxy has a very difficult time addressing the changes brought by time and circumstance. They cannot get beyond the last ecumenical council, and that took place some time ago. Another response to the issue of fidelity within history has been a universal jurisdiction with claims to infallibility coupled with a theory of the “development of doctrine.” Anglicans have since the time of the Reformation rejected a universal jurisdiction. They have as well questioned the developments in doctrine that the Papacy has infallibly announced. The Roman position does address the movement of history, but it does so with a false claim that there is a failsafe point within history for adjudicating matters in dispute. Anglicans have also been leery of the sort of confessionalism characteristic of Lutheranism and Calvinism. The problems with this strategy are numerous, but chief among them is one already mentioned. It is hard to fix a point in history (other than one established by God) as definitive of all other points. In time the arguments that generated the confessions have been laid to rest and other challenges have arisen. A confession from the 16th Century is simply unable to resolve issues it was never intended to address. Finally, of course, there is the proposal of some with a progressive mindset. One charts a way through history by prophetic insight that seeks to discern new beginnings by noting their coherence with contemporary trends. As I have said elsewhere, this is like navigation by taking sightings off the bow of one’s own ship.

I believe that Anglicans have addressed this question, though unwittingly, in a different and more adequate way—largely through a Book of Common Prayer. To be sure, during the latter part of the past century differing versions of the Book of Common Prayer came into existence. Still, the churches have to date recognized in these variations the same faith and practice as their own. Anglicans have traditionally allowed for significant theological variations both within and between provinces but they have been loath to change forms of worship and moral practice until extensive (though not total) agreements have been reached. I cite the issue of divorce and the ordination of women as prime examples. As a counter example I cite also the blessing of gay unions and the ordination of people involved in such unions. Here, as was not the case with divorce and the ordination of women, changes have been made without sufficient recognition. The result has been division and confusion for which the Communion was unprepared. In taking action apart from significant consensus, The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada acted in a way that is “Un-Anglican. They jumped the gun and ran out ahead of communion consensus. Because precipitous action is for Anglicans “novel” the Communion did not have adequate means to address this departure from custom.

The proposed covenant is a way to address this issue. It relies neither upon an ecumenical council, nor upon a universal jurisdiction, nor a common confession, nor novel prophetic insight. It does, however, seek to remain faithful to the Apostolic witness in the midst of the chances and changes of history. It does so by asking forbearance when disputed issues arise. It asks for mutual accountability in love until such time as the issue of recognition can be resolved. It asks restraint when one’s action are not recognized. In the midst of dispute, it calls the churches of the Communion to patience, to restraint, and openness to instruction. It makes room for an ordered set of consequences. Finally, it provides a set of procedures within which the Communion, as a communion, can wrestle with potentially divisive issues until a common mind is found. In short, it makes room for the Communion to recognize or not recognize novelty.

If the covenant fails, Anglicans may well miss their chance to contribute what they have learned and what they have to offer to the churches. To revert to Section Two of the proposed covenant, the one that discusses “Our Anglican Vocation,” the view of communion to which the covenant gives expression is, to my mind, the great gift Anglicans have to offer the churches. Neither progressive nor traditionalist views as now expressed by the covenant’s critics can make this offering. Indeed, neither understands it. One offers only theological vacuity and the other a position that is both theologically inadequate and demonstrably impractical.
The covenant may indeed fail, but its failure, though a terrible loss, need not mean the end of Anglicanism as a catholic and evangelical expression of Christian belief and practice. Though it may take time, there are other ways to achieve this end. However, even if the covenant does fail it nonetheless charts the way Anglicans must take if the gift they have to offer is to be preserved. For Anglicanism to remain Anglicanism, some way must be found for mutual accountability and recognition to govern relations between self-governing provinces. The architects of the proposed covenant are right about that. If, as the proposed covenant implies, a way to communion based upon mutual accountability and common recognition is not found, Anglicanism will indeed have become something it has never been. Should such an eventuality occur, Anglicans would never offer the gift it is theirs to give.

May 24 2011 12:23 pm | Articles