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Article No. 133

Examining the covenant idea (1)

(Archived material may be found at


Following the Synod of the Church of England last weekend in York, when it was agreed that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York should respond to the draft covenant by the end of the year, it may be useful to examine the idea of the covenant in a little more detail. The question is not whether or not we should have a covenant. There is no alternative to the covenant idea, simply because there is no other game in town. There has been no alternative suggested and therefore the covenant process must inevitably go forward. But there is a lot of confusion about the purpose of the covenant and the way it would work.

The fundamental concept behind the covenant idea is to produce a method whereby the Anglican Communion (comprising 38 national churches) can decide contentious issues between themselves - issues that are so controversial that they could threaten to break their fellowship if not resolved to mutual satisfaction. The principle behind this is that by discussion and prayer together most disagreements can be solved. Given an open mind by all parties, it is hoped a way forward will eventually be agreed by all parties.

The Windsor Report was concerned to find a method which, when adopted by all the parties, would bind them together in such a way that the disunity caused by the present dispute over homosexuality would not be repeated. Basically their answer is to have a two tier system where the core members decide policy, belief and practice. In addition there would be an associate group comprised of those churches that differed from the main group in some important way. The associate group would not be involved in decision making. They would be powerless to speak for the Anglican Communion. But they would be identified as being part of the wider Anglican Communion. The discipline of having an agreed covenant would mean that all 38 parties - held in two groups - kept broadly together.

Note, however, that future disagreements and the present disagreements are two entirely different matters. In the present case of homosexuality there is irreconcilable difference of opinion. In future cases it is presumed that the inner group of Anglican Churches will be of one mind on essentials, but this may not be the case. New subjects and ethical problems are cropping up all the time. If they do reach irreconcilable disagreement, however, then there is the mechanism whereby some of the churches can move from the inner group to the outer group. Presumably the majority would again evict the minority.

But one speaker in the York Synod challenged this idea. He suggested that a covenant would neither settle the present homosexuality issue nor future issues on other subjects. What is the reason for that? One inadequacy of the Covenant system arises because, when Christians disagree on fundamental matters, the mere existence of a covenant cannot heal the division. They disagree fundamentally and that is that. All a covenant will do is allow for a vote to be taken and then the majority (however that majority is calculated) will ‘win’ the vote. That will mean that those that ‘lost’ will either have to buckle down and accept what they fundamentally disagree with, or they will leave or move into the outer group and have associate status.

Indeed, the very idea of the ‘discipline’ of having a covenant simply means that the mind of the majority will prevail in all circumstances. Lengthy discussion to resolve the issues may be as futile as in the present impasse. The covenant is a mechanism that allows the majority to kick out the minority with which it disagrees. It cannot be otherwise. If the covenant were to be written in any other way then the majority would refuse to join it because it would offend against what they fundamentally believe.

Some of the Southern Cone churches are threatening to leave before a covenant is agreed! Assuming that they stay, it is obvious that they are going to insist that the covenant contains the means to expel any who digress from the ‘authorised’ line. However you wrap the parcel up it remains the simple matter of, ultimately, a majority vote. The majority will enforce uniformity on all members, whose alternative is to be demoted or to leave.

Let us now examine the idea of a majority. There are 38 churches in the Anglican Communion. You could imagine it being agreed that there will be a simple voting system of one country one vote, with the Archbishop of Canterbury with a casting vote if necessary. But such a system would be grossly unfair. It would mean that some quite small churches which have under one million members would have the same voting rights as those with twenty million members. That cannot be right!

So an alternative system of voting might be to weight the voting rights of countries according to the number of members in the church in that country. At present Nigeria would come high on the list with twenty million church members and the others would have correspondingly fewer voting rights, depending on the number of their members. That does seem more fair.

But, of course, what we are now doing is importing the basic idea of democracy - the principle of one member one vote! Decisions will be decided on a head count! Is that how the Church of God should operate? And are we to equate Christian church members as being of equal value across the world in these matters? What about cultural differences?

If the system adopted takes account of the number of church members then we shall see some grave distortions! My article number 81 dated November 2004 refers - please see Archives.

So far we have looked at the voting aspect of the covenant system and the proposal for a two tier system of members of the (new) Anglican Communion. What we now need to do is examine a little more closely some of the implications of what is proposed.

If a worldwide covenant system is introduced for the Anglican Communion, what will the result be on the churches themselves?

Well, clearly, all contentious maters are going to be referred to the governing body - which will be a curia of Archbishops (or similar status). This curia of 38 people will be the supreme governing body of the Anglican Communion. If they are not, then the whole arrangement is useless. For there to be enforceable discipline there has to be a top supervisory body - in this case a curia of 38 people - one from each national church.

Is that what Anglicans want? It means that there will be no reference to the Christians in the individual countries - there cannot be, by the nature of the operation, either the time or the money to have lengthy referrals to the people in the pews. The top person in the national church must represent his country and what he or she says will have to be taken as final. There is no space for an appeals procedure. Is this what we want?

Is it not obvious that such an authoritarian arrangement will be stifling on thought and practice? Yes, it will preserve the old and keep people in line, but Christianity is not and never has been about preserving the old or enforcing a rigid orthodoxy. We need to be out there on the frontier facing the new challenges. So that is the first major criticism.

Secondly, any thirty eight headed monster is slow and ponderous. It is like a dinosaur that has grown too large for its own good. It moves slowly. It thinks slowly. It lumbers around and is quickly out-thought and out-classed by its opponents. That is what may well happen to the Anglican Communion. By the time 38 churches have been sounded out about something or other, the whole subject will be passed and gone into history.

Thirdly, the supposed benefit may anyway turn out to be an illusion. When Christians disagree on ‘fundamental’ matters they tend to be very obstinate, They don’t adjust their ideas easily or quickly. Think of homosexuality! So it would be in any future debate and homosexuality is only one example of the sort of new issue that can arise. There are others - for example about birth (for example, in vitro fertilisation) - or death (for example, about euthanasia), or the ethics of the pre-emptive strike. Deep divisions are bound to show up sooner or later and the result could well be a stand-off similar to that in the homosexuality debate.

There are other disadvantages to a covenant - and these we can go into in another article - but there is no other game in town at present. And all that we are saying does of course have nothing to do with the present dispute. That has to be settled one way or the other in the meantime and probably long before any covenant finally agreed by all 38 churches. So what is the proposal here, for this present and thorny issue? Are the parties going to tolerate each other and agree their fellowship is more important than their doctrine and dogma?

Well, actually, no! They are not going to shake hands and agree to tolerate each other in the same world-wide fellowship. Instead the anti-gay churches are refusing to stay in the same Communion as the others. So that means either schism now or some form of penalization on the gay-affirming churches.

So what we have is a pressing forward to bring in the covenant idea, which will probably then operate to demote several national churches to the position of associate status. In other words they will be excluded from the group of core churches and they will have no part in any decisions for the Anglican Communion.

Does that seem right and fair? To me it seems a disaster. It is the antithesis of all that I believe in as a Christian. It seems to me to be completely the wrong road to go down. And for what? For a false unity, achieved by blackmail (‘If you are gay friendly we are going’) - and for a system that will result in the Communion becoming more narrow and standardised.

How could we have got into this position? How could we be so hooked on unity that we compromise what we know to be the essence of the gospel?

There will be those who want to tell me that I should not be so worried and that it will all work out all right. That careful clauses will be built in and the Southern Cone will not be allowed to control the destiny of churches that have gone ahead welcoming gay people. That it will take years and years to get the Covenant through all the 38 churches and that nobody yet knows what it will look like eventually. Well, you may be right and I may be wrong. But I think you are running a very risky race. And I doubt whether what you are trying to preserve - ‘unity’ - is worth it in the long run, because the methods and outlook of those churches in the Southern Cone seem to me to be contrary to what I understand to be Christ’s teachings and past Anglican practice. The Nigerian Archbishop recently claimed that their church was the true church, but I see such a cultural gulf fixed between them and us that I think we perhaps need to defer unity for several decades, if not a century or two.

There is one other aspect I must touch on. It is that all our Western churches have within them groups of Christians who are anti-gay. To that extent the whole homosexual problem runs through every church, whether in the West or elsewhere. Such a situation cannot be resolved by leaders who sit on the fence - however necessary and important that is in relation to the world wide communion. In other words we now need inspired leadership at home, that will open out a way forward in our own national church.

As regards the future of the Church of England, if the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot - or will not - do it because of his essentially neutral position on the world stage, then someone else has to step in. Who is that person? And will his or her leadership be unifying or divisive? If he declares either side to be either right or wrong, then it will be divisive. What is needed is a bigger vision - a wider understanding of the Church of God and where the Spirit is leading. He must lift us above our natural viewpoints - however right they may seem to us - to see the bigger picture, the cost of the Cross and the unity we can have in the Spirit, even when we disagree.

Tony Cross

July 2007

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