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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 157

The Covenant - Part Two

 

[For archived material please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk]

I have referred to the Covenant on several occasions (e.g. articles numbered 133 and 158) so I have called this article ‘Part Two’, and will number future articles on this subject accordingly. And I make no apology for returning repeatedly to the battle being played out in the Anglican Churches as the result will have world wide repercussions in all the other churches. This is not just of interest to Anglicans!

What is the Covenant? The Windsor Report in 2004 proposed a covenant for the Anglican Communion as a way through the sharp division of ideas that split the Communion from time to time. Archbishop Gomez was made Chairman of the Covenant Group which then came up with a first draft following their meeting at Nassau. This was submitted to the thirty eight Churches in the Anglican Communion and seventeen replied with their views. The Covenant Group have now come up with a second draft - called the St Andrews Draft - and it is this draft that was debated in General Synod earlier this week. I want to offer a few reactions to some of the comments at Synod, as reported over the internet.

Before I turn to specific comments I want to reiterate what I have written before - it seems to me that the key point about the Covenant frequently gets ignored or obscured in discussion about it. The essential point about the Covenant is that it is a mechanism devised for one overriding purpose: to enable the majority to evict from their Communion any member Church that does not conform to the majority vote. It adopts this approach in order to avoid any repeat of the experience of division such as that experienced recently. The Covenant is a mechanism designed to enable the majority to evict any member of the Communion who, they think, departs from the majority view.

It is absolutely useless for people to hope for some kind of acceptable compromise in the wording of the Covenant in view of this essential reason for the existence of the covenant. Some Churches in the Communion believe that the Word of God forbids homosexuality and that anyone who permits homosexuality is turning their back on the bible. They cannot compromise their beliefs in this matter. We might call such churches fundamentalist in their attitude - but the essence of what they believe is that the bible is the Word of God and that it should be followed without compromise. They see any attempt to interpret what is written in the bible as compromise and an evasion of the truth. For them to do that would be to turn one’s back on God himself.

So lets be clear - the covenant is to enable the majority to evict those who don’t toe the line in some way - as decided by the majority. No matter what the benefits or disadvantages there are in the existence of a Covenant, the core reason for introducing such a system is to establish rule by majority. If the eventual Covenant agreed (assuming that eventually it gets off the ground) does not enable the majority to evict, for example, gay-accepting churches, then the fundamentalist churches have intimated they would have to leave the Communion. To join the Covenant each of the thirty eight churches worldwide would have to give up its present autonomy and subject itself to majority rule.

It follows that the remarks in Synod by Archbishop John Sentamu are misleading. He said that the Covenant:

‘is not erecting a great Anglican wall of exclusion. As I see it the purpose is to hoist the sails to empower the boat of Communion to sail again unafraid of storms. It is a clarion call to hear again God’s invitation to us to participate on Christ’s death and resurrection’

The sentiment is great, but the facts are wrong. In a Covenant all thirty eight churches would be walled into a group where they have to abide by the decision of the majority. His remarks obscure the basic fact that eviction from the Communion post-covenant would be by decision of the majority.

It is true that, taken in the right spirit, the Covenant could be a powerful tool of cooperation and sharing. But its purpose is to resolve a problem: how to discipline those who walk separately from the majority on any point that the majority decide is important.

Archbishop Sentamu also said that ‘The whole intention of the covenant is to identify the fundamentals that we have in common and to state the common basis on which our mutual trust can be rebuilt’

The key word here is ‘fundamentals’. Who decides what a fundamental belief is? Because they then have the power to evict those who don’t agree with them! And furthermore the idea here is that if it could all be easily defined and set down then that would avoid any future disputes. But of course our faith cannot be defined like that. The whole essence of life is that new problems come up. What would the churches have decided about slavery three hundred years ago? Which churches would have been evicted?

It is not possible to write down the fundamentals so that no further disputes will ever occur. The whole purpose of the covenant is to provide a mechanism - a system - so that the inevitable problem of disagreement will never cause the same sort of disruption again. What they are seeking is a way to settle disputes without all the pain that the present dispute has caused.

The way they have devised - now embodied in the St Andrews Draft Covenant - is that the majority should give to the erring Church a chance to change its ways and repent - but if it does not come into line with the rest then the majority will vote them off the Communion. They will be evicted.

So no matter how beneficial a covenant might be in various ways, its basic purpose is to be able to get rid of churches that don’t toe the line.

This was pointed out by Rev Brian Lewis of Chelmsford who disagreed with the idea of a covenant because it ‘introduced a formalized mechanism of exclusion into the life of the Communion’ Quite right! It certainly would and that surely is not what we want?

If the argument is made that an evicting Covenant is the only way to settle future disagreements then I can only say that I see it as an adoption of the world’s way of doing things (the majority is always right) instead of the Christian approach which works out a way forward through patient discussion and prayer - and forbearance of each other.

Rev Canon Simon Killwick of Manchester apparently spoke in favour of the Covenant, saying that anything that promotes greater unity within the Anglican Communion is very much to be welcomed. I think this misses the point! Greater unity is hardly enhanced by using the threat of eviction! Would the Communion now agree to let the Episcopal Church in America continue to appoint gay men and to marry gay couples? So they would have to evict America from the Anglican Communion. Those left after the eviction of others might draw closer together - but at what a price!

Other speakers at the Synod wanted to avoid burdening the Archbishop of Canterbury with further responsibility for sorting out disagreements. Some talked of profound logical and theological problems with the idea of covenant. One person said that it was like putting a ‘pre-nup’ in the middle of marriage vows!

Kevon Carey talked of the covenant as ‘an attempt to try to shut down freedom of speech in favour of uniformity or conformity’ and he added that ‘Those who refuse to come to Lambeth should not be part of any process in this covenant that has the potential to exclude people’ . Well, he has a point!

Then came a classic response! Bishop Hind apparently said ‘..it is unfortunate when people focus too much on the mechanisms. The covenant is precisely an opportunity to set the framework ..Anything in terms of canons and regulations should be subordinate and secondary’.

If the Bishop is suggesting that we should concentrate on the positive aspects and leave aside the nasty mechanics of how churches are to be evicted, then he is voicing a classic defence! However much good the positive aspects might provide, if the covenant provides for the eviction of the non-cooperative by the majority then I think such a policy is not only unanglican, it is also sub christian!

And what would they do about the Episcopal Church in America when this Covenant is ratified? Evict it because it refuses to step off the path they believe the Holy Spirit has led them onto? A covenant is a dictatorship of the majority - and that is not the Christian way to solve disagreements!

Apparently Rosalie Ballentine of the Virgin Islands, chair of the group that drafted the Council’s response to the first draft of the Covenant told the committee that after comparing the first draft (the Nassau Draft) with the second draft (the St Andrews Draft) she thought it substantially different and ‘much, much improved’ especially in ways that make the proposed covenant ‘less punitive’ !

I fail to follow her reasoning - it seems to me that the vital offending idea is still in there: a non-cooperating church can be evicted from the Anglican Communion by a decision taken by a majority. The number of meetings before eviction is irrelevant - and with eviction you are out.

As it stands the Covenant would radically change Anglicanism. It would import a very dangerous idea that in future whatever group of churches comprised the majority could enforce their will on the minority. Surely people can see the dangers of that principle? That danger is obscured sometimes in the far ranging discussions.

I was not present at Synod. I have written the above based on the posting on the net, so I suggest that if you are interested you go to the Anglican site to get a more detailed report.

We now enter a waiting period while the second Draft (The St Andrews Draft Covenant) is passed to the various Churches.

Meantime you might like to look again at the response by the Episcopal Church in America to the First Draft Covenant. They posted this on the internet last October and it is well worth reading on their website.

Tony Cross

February 2008


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