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The Anglican Covenant is coming ready or not

By Bruce Kaye - posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009


The Anglican churches around the world are both numerous and independent. Just like the Anglican Church of Australia they have their own constitutions and individual procedures for decision making. The constitutions differ somewhat but in general they provide for synodical governance with bishops, clergy and laity all involved. Our own General Synod meets every three years and the Standing Committee twice in each year. This is typical of other churches around the world, except the Church of England whose General Synod meets twice each year on average.

These organisational arrangements are not designed for speedy decision making and quick turn around of policy formation. These synods represent scattered dioceses made up of scattered parishes. In our own General Synod important topics are usually debated in at least two successive synods and often more. This organisational shape represents something very important in Anglicanism, namely that decisions and actions usually take place much nearer the ground where the actual work and life of the church is to be found.

At the international level these churches keep in touch with each other in a multitude of ways. One of the most important is through organisations like the Mothers Union and the mission societies. The bishops have held a conference at the initiation of the archbishop of Canterbury every ten years since 1876 and in 1971 these churches (Provinces) set up The Anglican Consultative Council whose basic task was to consult and to keep the provinces in touch with each other. The ACC has lay, clerical and Episcopal representatives from the provinces and generally meets every two years. In recent times the Primates of the provinces have decided to meet for mutual consultation, generally every two years.

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In 2003 a crisis blew up over homosexuality in the public life of the church because a man in an openly gay relationship was consecrated the bishop of New Hampshire and the Anglican Church of Canada agreed with the authorisation of blessings for same sex relationships first conducted in the diocese of New Westminster. Many people objected to these developments and institutional tit for tats began.

The institutional response has been to manage this conflict by containing it through institutional means. The chosen mechanism was to be a covenant that would state what Anglicans believe. The covenant would also provide for some sanctions against those who stepped outside the stated terms, or an interpretation of those terms made by one or other of the new meetings, now called “Instruments of Unity”, - Primates, or the ACC and maybe the archbishop of Canterbury with the Lambeth Conference in the background.

This idea was first suggested in 2004 in the Windsor Report. A Covenant Design Group was established in 2006. They produced a preliminary report with a draft text in 2007, which was widely regarded as not very good. Another draft was published in 2008, which was something of an improvement. In January this year a third draft was published which was a little better. The section of the covenant that described how member churches would be dealt with if they stepped outside the perceived terms of the covenant was at the end of the document. From an organisational point of view this was the business end of the text that in the present draft (called the Ridley text) is section 4.

The Australian General Synod in October 2007 heard a succinct account of the state of play from the Primate and the synod discussed in small groups the question “how far this Province accepts the Joint Standing Committees Report assessment that the House of Bishops have responded positively to the requests of Windsor and the Dar-es-Salaam message of the Primates?” The results of these small group discussions were given to the Primate but there was no resolution of the synod on this matter. Standing Committee set up a working group to look at the questions as they evolved. Their deliberations appear not to have been made public. It is most unlikely that diocesan synods have given this matter very much attention. This is probably typical of provinces around the world.

An undated response to the St Andrew’s draft of the Covenant is posted on the web site of the Anglican Church of Australia which clearly sets out the kinds of constitutional and procedural difficulties of making the kinds of decisions the covenant document envisages.

The idea that a covenant can override the terms of the constitution of the ACC and the responsibility of provinces to be present at meetings of the ACC is simply naïve.

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Now the ACC in May has made some decisions on this draft of the covenant. The first section of the covenant has been approved to be sent to the provinces, but section 4 was the subject of a good deal of argument and confusion about meeting procedures and what was actually being decided. They resolved to “ask the archbishop of Canterbury to form a working group to consider and consult with the Provinces on Section 4 and its possible revision, and to report to the next meeting of the Standing Committee and asks the Standing Committee, at that meeting, to approve a final form of Section 4.” It is suggested that this process might be concluded by the end of this year. At which point the Covenant including the revised section 4 will be sent to the provinces for adoption.

Thus we have moved from a first draft text in 2007 to a final text in 2009 on the most revolutionary development in relations between Anglican provinces in their history. It may not have been an express train, but it has surely been something very like one. Next year the covenant is coming to a synod near you ready or not and it will prove to be a disaster or damp squid. It was a bad idea from the beginning and should be dropped in favour of more appropriate mechanisms for dealing with conflict in the church.

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About the Author

The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye is a Professorial Associate in the School of theology at Charles Sturt and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of History at UNSW. He is formerly the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia (1994-2004) and he is the author of Introduction to World Anglicanism, Cambridge University Press, 2008 and Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith; The Anglican Experiment, 2009. See www.brucekaye.net.

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