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A tale of two covenants

September 2007 | by David Phillips

A tale of two covenants

By David Phillips


In July the General Synod of the Church of England agreed to engage positively with a proposal to draw up an ‘Anglican Covenant’. This idea had been set out in The Windsor Report – produced in the aftermath of the appointment of an active homosexual as Bishop of New Hampshire (USA) and the agreement of the Diocese of New Westminster (Canada) to ‘bless’ same gender unions.

An Anglican Covenant

The Anglican Communion does not really have a constitution. Therefore, those who wished to distance themselves from the US and Canadian Episcopal churches were left wondering what to do. The Windsor Report proposed a solution, which was to create a Covenant.

Any church wishing to belong to the Communion would need to sign up to the Covenant and if they were not willing to do so they would be outside the fellowship of Anglican Churches.

This solution has proved very attractive to some but the liberals and revisionists within the Communion are perturbed. Anglicanism, according to liberals, is defined by its breadth and tolerance, accommodating Catholics and Evangelicals and all shades in between.

Liberals believe homosexual immorality, amongst other things, to be acceptable. A Covenant threatens this breadth because its purpose is to establish boundaries. They are also afraid that the conservatives in the Communion will draw the boundaries ever tighter.

Weak on Scripture

It has been tempting to embrace the idea of a Covenant simply because it is so disliked by liberals, but this is not a sufficient reason and there are grounds for concern about the whole concept.

Another way of defining Anglicanism is doctrinally (Church Society has always argued for this). The Covenant could set out clearly the confessional basis of Anglicanism. But the first draft of the Covenant does not do this.

It is very weak in what it says about Scripture and also about the 39 Articles of Religion. Instead it uses the expressions found in the Declaration of Assent made by English clergy. This is clearly inadequate because it has not prevented people who deny the truth from being in Church of England ministry.

Alongside this there is a question of who decides whether someone is breaking the Covenant. It is perfectly possible that a province would sign up to the Covenant but then do things which seem to be at odds with it. Who will police this?

Structures

There is a third way of defining Anglicanism – by mapping out its structures. This is where the focus of the proposed Covenant seems to lie. It attempts to define a constitution for the Communion and would require people to accept that some part of the structure (the Archbishop of Canterbury for example, or the meeting of Primates) has authority to do certain things, including policing.

This focus on structures is a perpetual problem and there is a grave danger that it will lead to a more powerful international framework of authority – a weaker form of, but nevertheless akin to, the Pope, Curia and Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

The alternative to all this is for national and provincial churches to take the initiative, after due consultation (of which there has been much). A national church would declare itself in communion with those other churches that hold to the fundamentals of the faith.

Communion in this sense means mutual acceptance, support, fellowship, interchangeability of ministry and so on. The focus needs to be kept away from the international structures and on doctrine and practice.

A second covenant

There is, confusingly, a second covenant – a ‘Covenant for the Church of England’. This has a different origin and purpose but has arisen in part from the same problem – the promotion and toleration of gross immorality. Such error does not just exist in the US and Canada but also here in the Church of England.

We have reached a stage where many individuals and congregations have declared themselves to be in broken fellowship with others, including their Bishops. This creates practical problems since the Bishop has a particular role in such things as authorising ministry, which he is supposed to exercise on behalf of the Church as a whole.

Alongside this there has been a considerable growth in new church-planting initiatives. The Anglican way of doing things has sometimes frustrated these projects, so a change in the law has been agreed to make it easier. But in other instances Bishops have themselves sought to frustrate initiatives.

Likewise, there have been good numbers of young men seeking to go forward into ministry but finding the system against them – because they are perceived as too conservative.

People have been responding to these things in many different ways. There are some regional and national initiatives under different umbrellas, and there are many things happening locally with little co-ordination.

The Covenant for the Church of England was released in December 2006. It was an attempt to explain why these various initiatives are happening and to covenant together to support one another in them.

Striking a chord

Not surprisingly this second Covenant has attracted some hostility. Mostly this has not come from liberals but from ‘open Evangelicals’ and in particular from many associated with the relatively new group Fulcrum. This group has characteristically been very dismissive of conservative Evangelicals, while being moderate in its response to liberalism and Catholicism.

Nevertheless, the Covenant has struck a chord. It has encouraged many who were feeling isolated. It has stirred things up in certain quarters and has helped people work together who do not see eye to eye on everything but are concerned to evangelise and oppose immorality and false teaching.

There are clearly dreadful problems in the Church of England which no amount of talking up can avoid. But there are encouraging things too – thriving churches, new congregations and many new ministers. The Covenant is intended to ensure that these good things are not lost to the Church of England because of the bad.

The author is General Secretary, Church Society.