Friday, 29 October 2010

How Anglican is the Anglican Covenant?

Inclusive Church and the Modern Church Union have both spoken out against the proposed Anglican Covenant. General Synod is to be asked in November to approve this document. The Anglican Covenant represents the most formal response yet to the problems and divisions in global Anglicanism, adopting it could have far reaching implications and yet very few people know much about it at all.

The Anglican Church is currently facing a crisis that some have likened to the Reformation, one that might well split the Church irrevocably. I have to say that I do not agree that we are facing division on this scale, our current squabbles are likely to be a blip in a graph compared to the profound and seismic shift that was the Protestant Reformation. However, I think we will see huge changes, for good or ill, in the way the Anglican Church looks and works over the next decade. The Covenant is a document spawned from fear, anger and expediency, in that something official needs to be seen to be done.I do not think the Covenant will be effective in resolving problems and I think it will have a detrimental effect upon the Church - two good reasons to oppose it.

There are ironies in the comparison of the current situation to the Reformation. The Church of England has from its inception been a church of compromise and breadth. Elizabeth 1, above all a realist, saw that, although sedition could not be tolerated, at the same the bitter divisions between Catholicism and the new religion could not be allowed to tear apart the nation. As a result the Church of England allowed a certain lattitude of quietly held theological belief, and it may explain why there is such a diversity within Anglicanism.

The irony is that the very strength of Anglicanism - its capacity for breadth, tolerance, flexibility and compromise, and sometimes even to fudge matters in the interests of a quiet life, is seen by some as a weakness. The issues of sexuality and women's ordination have brought into sharp relief the other differences that exist, different approaches to scripture and tradition, the question of orthodoxy. There have been calls in some quarters for a confessional unity, there have been cries of "heresy", we have even returned in some places to the language of the Reformation, with TEC described as "gangrenous", shades of Moore and Luther's exchanges about the "shit house of all shit." Added to this, we now have individuals who play a key role yet who come from cultures whose understanding of the key issues is so diametrically opposed that they do not share the same paradigms, they are coming from completely different premises.

The threat to Anglicanism comes not from the issue of sexuality or gender in themselves, the greatest threat comes from those who wish to impose a very narrow understanding upon the Church, to force a confessional unity and remake it in their own image. It is ironic that it is those who crow over the troubles of TEC and claim that it faces a slow but inevitable death and decline, are those most intent upon disciplining it. If TEC were dying, the question must be asked as to why the church seems intent on tearing itself to pieces over its actions and beliefs?

I think that the answer is that the big threat is not TEC, nor indeed the Church of Canada, which some see as waiting in the wings. The big threat comes from outside, from a world which is rapidly changing, where human rights are coming to the forefront. Even in Uganda and Nigeria those battles are coming. Religious belief itself is also under attack from rationalism, science and the new atheism, although religious fundamentalism is on the increase, so is opposition to it, and in secular societies religion itself is often seen as a baddie, narrow, oppressive, inimical to human rights and freedoms. TEC and its action are a symptom, they are not a cause, and the real fears of those who oppose it run deep.

I do not think the Anglican Covenant is particularly - Anglican - nor do I think it is particularly Christian. I have said before that I especially dislike the term covenant, a word which speaks of a gracious compact of love and mercy, being used to describe a document which aims to discipline, or at least to give the impression of that intent.

Inclusive Church is running this advert in the Church Times tomorrow. I must admit that, despite being the IC representative in my area - a role in which I actually do very little - I had not read this until I saw it on Thinking Anglicans, but it is well worth reading as it outlines some of the ways the Covenant could affect the Church of England. For anyone who does value human rights, tolerance, freedom of thought and belief and who passionately believes that religious belief can encompass tolerance and humanity, old style Anglicanism is well worth speaking up for and the not -very -Anglican covenant is well worth speaking out against.


  1. I hesitate to make a comment because I am not an Anglican, but am going to go ahead. It all makes me very sad - (I did read the associated text) - it seems that churches are losing the ability to sustain love for one another amongst their adherents, basically over the issues of women and homosexuality. And the heated nature of the debate is giving such a sterile view of Christianity to the outside world. The worst thing would be that foreign churches and cultures would have a veto on change in the more progressive, and dare I say, humane west. Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful post. Every Blessing

  2. A very good and important post for which many thanks.

  3. Many thanks for your post. I have been trying, as a very junior bishop with no say in the matter, to find out what the arguments are *for* this covenant. The process of asking, driven by a simple desire that a thing this allegedly important should go through intelligently, not just on the nod, has shown it's almost impossible to find anyone who actually believes in it! There is an argument that it can go through and then we can all treat it the way the Portuguese do EU directives, but that hardly seems to me a reason to buy it. The fact is the Church of England has historically started with the activity of the Holy Spirit in people's lives (like in the Acts), and gotten by on a minimum of ideology to sustain its life. It's been an inductive way of doing theology with a lot of Gamaliel wisdom involved. This document reverses the direction, and starts tryng to leverage an ideal Church (according to who?) by prejudging issues and then using them as mechanisms for exclusion — a very different way of doing theology from the NT or the Anglican Church. I'm still open to arguments in favour of it, if I can find any, but things are not looking very hopeful for this...

  4. Hi Alan,
    I did read your post asking for anyone who can speak up for the Covenant to do so. I would also like to hear a rational , measured voice explaining the advantages it might have for all of us. I know Peter Carrell (below) is in favour.

    I haven't been able to find anyone in favour of the Covenant that is not coming from quite a vehemently anti-gay, anti-TEC stance. That said, many of them see the Covenant as "too little, too late" and as a cosmetic exercise. It is also remarkable how little the majority of people who are not actively involved in or following the conservative/ liberal struggles actually seem to know much about the Covenant.

    As I say, I too would like to hear a rational voice, that is not anti-gay, nor anti-TEC, but simply in favour of creating unity instead of discord, stick up for the Covenant. Anyone out there?