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 Issues | General Synod | Report July 2007

General Synod

The Anglican Covenant

On Sunday 8 July the General Synod will be asked to endorse the following resolution.

18. ‘That this Synod:
(a) affirm its willingness to engage positively with the unanimous recommendation of the Primates in February 2007 for a process designed to produce a covenant for the Anglican Communion;
(b) note that such a process will only be concluded when any definitive text has been duly considered through the synodical processes of the provinces of the Communion; and
(c) invite the Presidents, having consulted the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council, to agree the terms of a considered response to the draft from the Covenant Design Group for submission to the Anglican Communion Office by the end of the year.’

The last item refers to the draft covenant drawn up by the Covenant Design Group and circulated to members of the General Synod.

There are three main areas of concern with this motion.

  • First, the text of the draft covenant.
  • Second, whether the Presidents (Archbishops) and Bishops are capable of addressing the real issues.
  • Third, whether the concept of the Covenant, which originally surfaced in the Windsor Report, will really solve the problems in the Anglican Communion, or potentially make them worse.

The text of the covenant

The Covenant is weak in its assertions about the confessional basis of Anglicanism, deficient in its response to the presenting issues and open to abuse.

Confessional basis
Regarding Scripture the covenant declares of the Anglican Communion:
that it professes the faith which is uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith, and which is set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation

This, and other parts of the opening section, is based on the Church of England’s Declaration of Assent. But in the present environment it is too open to abuse. This ought to be plain to everyone. All the clergy in the Church of England have made this declaration at some time or other and yet we know from surveys and experience that large numbers of the clergy do not believe in God, nor in the divinity of Christ, whilst many others believe sodomy to be acceptable and others practice such gross immorality themselves.

The problem with these words is that they are too vague. They do not require a full-blown assertion that the Scriptures are the very Word of God, which is stated in the 39 Articles. The assertion allows people to subtract from the Word of God by arguing that only some parts of the Bible reveal the faith, other parts are no longer relevant. It allows people to add to the Word of God by arguing that in order to proclaim afresh the faith in each generation we much change it to suit that generation.

Likewise the statement about the Anglican formularies, also from the Declaration of Assent, is weak. Clergy were previously required to ascribe ex animo (from the heart) to the Articles, because they are a faithful exposition of the teaching of Scripture. But this modern wording merely says, that the Church has borne witness (past tense) to the faith in the formularies.

These words may seem to some to be superficially attractive, but the experience of the Church of England shows that they do not provide a restraint against error.

What is needed in the Church of England, and for the Anglican Communion, is a return to a clear affirmation of the Scriptures and the formularies themselves.

Presenting issues
The Anglican Communion is being torn apart first and foremost by the promotion of sexual immorality, in particular homosexual immorality. This is an issue on which the Scriptures are plain and the Church through history has been equally clear. It is disturbing that so many today are willing to damage the body of Christ in their desire to promote practices which God has declared to be an abomination.

Given this presenting issue it is extraordinary that the drafters of the covenant have failed to make any mention of it. Imagine if the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople had failed to make mention of the divinity of Christ but instead had simply issued vague statements about fellowship and structures!

If the Covenant does not address the issues tearing us apart, and declare sin to be sin, then it will be utterly pointless.

Open to abuse
We have already drawn attention to some of the areas that will be open to abuse as is all too apparent from our experience in the Church of England. But there are others.

Section 3(1) asserts that we will commit to uphold... biblically derived moral values and the vision of humanity received by and developed in the communion of member Churches.
But if the provinces of the US and Canada develop the practice of blessing same-sex unions, does this mean we are all bound to accept it? The fact is that the revisionists have developed a vision of humanity that is more informed by the world than by the Bible.

Section 6(2) says each Church commits itself to spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and discernment to listen and to study with one another in order to comprehend the will of God.
The revisionist will take this to meant that we discern God’s will by listening to one another, that is what the statement says. But Article 20 of the 39 Articles in contrast declares that the Church cannot establish anything that is contrary to the Word of God. It doesn’t matter what new insights any group may have, nor how long a listening, and talking, process is embarked upon, it will still be contrary to the will of God, if it is contrary to Scripture.

Irrespective of the concept of a covenant the particular draft document is a hostage to fortune. In theory it might be possible to so transform it that it could be useful, but what confidence can we have that this will happen?

Who will respond?

The motion before Synod gives the Presidents (the two Archbishops) the job of responding after consulting with the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council.

The House of Bishops is a house divided. One observer has described it as being the home to two religions. It has manifestly failed to respond to the error in the Church of England and it capitulated when the government introduced Civil Partnerships. Likewise it is hard to see that the Archbishops’ Council will give the necessary advice.

The Covenant, if it is to have any use, must address the presenting issue. But Archbishop Rowan Williams will not do this. There is no evidence that he has changed from his former position that homosexual practice can be a vehicle of grace. How can anyone who holds this view himself be expected to push for a change that will declare it to be wrong?

The Covenant concept

The concept of the covenant was first articulated fully in the Windsor Report. As a concept it has some attraction since it correctly assumes that the Anglican Church is a confessional Church. However, it was always going to run into danger.

First, as has been highlighted, it was always in danger of addressing the wrong issues, in particular structures, rather than doctrine.

Secondly, there is the problem of who would police it. The concept of the covenant requires that someone monitor whether people really abide by it. It is not beyond people to say one thing and do another, so someone would need to decide when the covenant was breached. The Windsor Report envisages that the Archbishop of Canterbury be given this role. There are obvious problems with the present occupant of this office, but even if he were perfectly orthodox would it be desirable to give one person such authority? The problem is that it shifts us in a papal direction. The centralisation of power is a perpetual problem for an Episcopal Church and it must be resisted.

Thirdly, the Covenant concept seems to focus far too much on the creation of an international structure for Anglicanism with the Covenant forming an important place in that. This again is part of the danger of institutional based thinking.

In contrast, what Anglicanism needs is an arrangement whereby member churches themselves provide the basis of fellowship. This is the point of a common confession of faith, that we declare ourselves to be in fellowship with those who share the same faith. Therefore, a member Church would recognise the validity of ministry and want to share in fellowship with those churches that stand solidly on the same ground. The best way to achieve this is for provinces to declare themselves to be in communion with those who share the same foundational basis. A covenant could certainly articulate this, but the present document does not, and it focuses far too much on structures and process.

When issues arise provinces should be perfectly entitled to conclude unilaterally that another group has stepped out of fellowship by not upholding the common faith. A better course of action is for the wider fellowship to take this decision jointly and the Primates meeting, or the ACC would be obvious ways to do this. However, once the wider fellowship takes to itself as a right the power to do this, and the structure to facilitate it, we have gone beyond what is desirable.

Therefore, rather than the present Covenant a much simpler statement is required affirming our shared faith, and also denouncing the present cause of division. The following is suggested as simple statement which could be adopted now by all those who remain faithful Anglicans:

“This province (diocese, congregation)

(i) asserts wholeheartedly that the Scriptures are the Word of God;
(ii) upholds the historic Anglican formularies (the 39 Articles of Religion, 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal), and
(iii) upholds the Biblical teaching that sexual intercourse belongs solely within the lifelong commitment of a man and woman in marriage;

and declares itself to be in communion with those provinces, dioceses and congregations who unequivocally uphold these truths and act in accordance with them.”

We commend this approach to the Communion as a much more Anglican way of engaging with the present problems and one which will avoid the pitfalls in the way of the Covenant.

David Phillips
General Secretary, Church Society
5/7/2007

Click here for Cross†Way article of this page

See Also

Redefining Anglicanism? An Evangelical Critique of the Proposed Anglican Covenant. Churchman article by Andrew Atherstone (2007).

 

Division in the Communion

Text of the draft covenant

 

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