The Anglican Covenant: How We Got Here
The Anglican Covenant is a proposed solution to the public conflicts and threats of schism over the last few years. Such a document was first suggested in the 2004 Windsor Report, which responded sympathetically to the complaints of those variously described as conservative, traditionalist, or orthodox, and who were dissatisfied with developments in the churches of the West. The Report also addressed concerns of cross-border interventions by bishops from the so-called Global South into The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.
The Covenant went through a number of drafts and comment periods before a “final” text was codified in December 2009. The 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion are now being asked to adopt this text. In June 2010, the Anglican Church of Mexico became the first church to do so. The Covenant is immediately effective for churches that adopt it. Non-signatory churches that are in the process of adoption may be allowed to participate in certain Covenant-defined activities, though their status is not completely clear.
Churches adopting the Covenant will commit themselves to a new relationship with other Anglican churches. At the center of the new arrangement lies the Standing Committee (formerly the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates Meeting). When conflicts arise, the Standing Committee will look for consensus. If no consensus is to be found, the Committee may ask an “offending” church to delay or stop a controversial action. If that is ineffective, the Committee can recommend “relational consequences.” In practice, enacting “relational consequences” means demoting or excluding a church from participation in certain bodies. Or it could mean asking other provinces effectively to shun the intransigent church, banishing it from the Anglican family. Even if such extreme actions are never taken, the damage will have been done. At the heart of the new covenanted relationship among our churches, there will always be the threat of exclusion.
The presenting issue that ultimately led us to where we are now was the election of the gay partnered priest Gene Robinson to be a bishop in The Episcopal Church (TEC). When his election was approved, dissident bishops, who had long opposed innovations in their church, appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury for an emergency meeting of the Primates to deal with the resulting “crisis.” Archbishop Rowan Williams quickly agreed to call such a meeting in October 2003, at which the Primates called for a report about how the greatest degree of communion could be maintained among member churches. That request was fulfilled by the Windsor Report.
Over the last 30 years or so, certain groups in the Communion have become increasingly concerned about the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Western society and in some provinces of the Anglican Communion. A succession of events in 2003 focused attention on gays in the church and provided an opportunity to develop a major campaign against it. First, Jeffrey John, a gay but celibate priest, was appointed Bishop of Reading in England, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, under pressure from those who viewed homosexuality as a sin, persuaded John to withdraw. Later that year, the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster authorized a liturgy for same-sex blessings. The selection of the openly gay Gene Robinson to become Bishop of New Hampshire seemed, to some, the final straw.
The issue underlying the conflicts in the Anglican Communion is one of authority. Who decides what is acceptable and on what basis do they do so? Concern about homosexuality resulted in a powerful alliance of some Evangelicals and some Anglo-Catholics opposing the “innovations” of more liberal and tolerant Anglicans. The Evangelicals objected to homosexuality on the basis of reputed biblical prohibitions, and Anglo-Catholics objected to the alleged rejection of Church tradition. Classic Anglican theology, of course, stems from the writings of the sixteenth-century theologian Richard Hooker, who argued that, in addition to scripture and tradition, we have reason to guide us. With these three sources of authority, change becomes possible and proper as conditions and understandings change. Allowing a diversity of opinion allows us to explore new possibilities.
The Windsor report recommend three moratoria as issues are explored in the Communion: moratoria on the consecration of partnered gay bishops, on the blessing of same-sex unions, and on the crossing of diocesan boundaries by bishops of one church to “protect” like-minded members of another church. The third moratorium was a concession to Western churches opposed to the unauthorized incursions by bishops of the so-called Global South. Western churches continue to be vilified by the more conservative elements of the Communion, who nonetheless, have continued their incursions.
Those unhappy with modern “innovations” in the Communion often have more far-reaching complaints. The ordination of women and, especially, the consecration of women bishops continue to be controversial in some churches, including the Church of England. Many object to the toleration of birth control, to the acceptance of divorce, and to liturgical changes. The Anglican Communion is hardly of one mind on any of these matters.
The main argument in favour of the Covenant is that it would prevent future controversies being so bitter by establishing an international authority with power to decree Anglican teaching. We believe that, on the contrary, it would encourage schism, because it would treat those who dissent from any such judgment as un-Anglican. Instead we believe unity is best ensured by maintaining the classic Anglican position that diversity of opinion is a sign of a healthy community committed to seeking—but not necessarily always possessing—truth.
Finally, it should be noted that not all opposition to the Anglican Covenant is from moderates and liberals. Our objection, of course, is that the Covenant is restrictive and authoritarian. Some of the strongest criticisms of the Covenant, however, have come from the Global South, where the Covenant is viewed as not nearly restrictive or draconian enough. Whether or not the Anglican Covenant is widely adopted, a formal split of the Communion as currently constituted remains a possibility.
A Concise Timeline
The timeline below is not intended to show all the events relevant to the question of whether the Anglican Covenant should be adopted. Rather, it clarifies and expands on the information presented in the essay above to help the reader understand the background of the Covenant.
|Early 16th century ||The Church of England separates from Rome. Emphasis on supreme authority of the Bible leads to two conflicting principles: (1) Nobody has the authority to dictate how to interpret it, so it’s up to each individual, but (2) because all Christians submit to the Bible there should be no disagreement. The current debate revives this conflict. |
|Late 16th century ||Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity written. Gradually, Hooker’s treatment becomes normative for Anglican theology with its balance of scripture, reason, and tradition as sources of authority. |
|1660 ||Restoration of monarchy after Puritan rule. Prayer Book of 1662 largely aims to incorporate a wide range of opinion within one church. |
|1867 ||First Lambeth Conference, called in response to row over Bishop Colenso’s claims that some of the Old Testament is historically inaccurate. Some want the Conference to forbid his ideas, but others object to centralization of power. Assurances are given that the Conference will not be a decision-making body. In principle, this has applied to all subsequent Lambeth conferences. Today it is accepted that Colenso was largely right. |
|1997 ||Kuala Lumpur Conference of Global South Anglicans expresses concern that “the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures.” |
|1998 ||Lambeth Conference sees stormy session and passes Resolution I.10 that describes “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.” |
|2000 ||Anglican Mission in America (now Anglican Mission in the Americas) established in the U.S. by the Church of the Province of Rwanda. This was the first large-scale border crossing by a conservative church to protect American conservatives from the “liberal” Episcopal Church. Many more incursions were to follow. |
|2002 ||Announcement that Rowan Williams is to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury touches off media campaign opposing his appointment because of his liberal views. Repeated and heavily publicized threats of schism begin, focusing on disapproval of same-sex partnerships. |
|May 2003 ||Jeffrey John, a partnered, celibate gay man, appointed Bishop of Reading. The Archbishop of Nigeria threatens schism if the consecration goes ahead. Archbishop Williams eventually persuades Canon John to withdraw. |
|May 2003 ||Canadian Diocese of New Westminster authorizes a liturgy for same-sex blessings. |
|June 2003 ||Openly gay and partnered Gene Robinson is elected Bishop of New Hampshire in the U.S.A. The threats intensify. Much public talk of “disciplining” or “expelling” Canadian and American churches from the Communion, with demands for “repentance.” |
|October 2003 ||Primates’ Meeting blames the Canadian and American churches for threatening the Communion’s unity and requests what will ultimately become the Windsor Report. |
|January 2004 ||Secret so-called Chapman letter leaked to the press. It explains that while, in public, Episcopal Church dissidents are asking for “adequate episcopal oversight,” the real aim, being secretly planned on both sides of the Atlantic, is a major realignment of Anglicanism, a “replacement jurisdiction” to exclude the liberals. |
|October 2004 ||The Eames Commission publishes the Windsor Report, which blames the American and Canadian churches for Communion disruptions and proposes a covenant to resolve future disputes. |
|2005–2009 ||Covenant Design Group works on successive drafts of a covenant. Persistent tension between those determined to give it teeth and those concerned with protecting provincial autonomy. |
|2008 ||Lambeth Conference, structured for discussion rather than for legislation. Many Global South bishops attended the alternative GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) held in Jerusalem in addition to or instead of attending Lambeth. Archbishop Rowan Williams pointedly did not invite Bishop Gene Robinson to Lambeth. GAFCON establishes the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and promulgates the Jerusalem Declaration, seen by some as an alternative faith statement to that contained in the Anglican Covenant. |
|December 2009 ||Final Covenant draft approved for consideration by churches. |
Status of Covenant Adoption
In the table below, we track the status of the Anglican Covenant in the various churches of the Anglican Communion. To help readers understand the state of Covenant adoption without having to do a lot of reading, we have added icons to the listing for each church about which we have any information. Doing this is more difficult than you might imagine.
Some churches have clearly adopted the Covenant (green icon), and at least one (we think) has rejected it (red icon). Many churches are in the process of making a decision about the Covenant (yellow icon). Because the Covenant does not specify the exact form that adoption must take, however, some churches have acted positively on the Covenant but have seemingly restricted or extended its significance. We have tagged the entries for these churches with an orange icon, since such “adoptions” may or may not be the functional equivalent of unambiguous ones.
If you know of updates that should be incorporated into our table, please let us know. (Go to Contact page.)
|Church ||Status |
| Australia, The Anglican Church of ||
Agreed to a nationwide debate on Covenant. All dioceses are to comment on the Covenant by December 2012. Report to be prepared for 16th session of General Synod. in time for the next meeting of the church’s national parliament in 2013. Resolution amended to say the church “received,” not “welcomed” the Covenant.
Source The Diocese of Newcastle passed a resolution against adoption. Source The Diocese of Sydney has also rejected the Covenant. Source |
| Bangladesh, The Church of || |
| Bermuda (Extra-Provincial to Canterbury) || |
| Brasil, Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do || |
| Burma: The Church of the Province of Myanmar ||
It was noted in passing in an Anglican Communion New Service story of January 30, 2011, that this province has accepted the Covenant. Source |
| Burundi, The Anglican Church of || |
| Canada, The Anglican Church of ||
Passed Resolution A137 in June 2010. Sent Covenant to dioceses and parishes for study. General Synod to consider in 2013. Source
It now appears that a decision by the Canadian church will be delayed until
| Central Africa, The Church of the Province of || |
| Central America Iglesia Anglicana de la Region Central de America || |
| Ceylon, The Church of (Extra-Provincial to Canterbury) || |
| Congo, Province de L'Eglise Anglicane Du || |
| Cuba, Iglesia Episcopal de || |
| England, The Church of ||
General Synod voted 24 November 2010 to send the Covenant to diocesan synods. If a majority of synods vote in favour of adopting the Covenant, the question will be brought back to General Synod for a final vote. Source More information about the referral to the dioceses can be found here. To date, the dioceses of
Bristol, Canterbury, Winchester, and Sheffield have voted in favor of adopting the Covenant. The dioceses of Truro, Birmingham, Wakefield, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Derby, Gloucester, and Sodor & Man have voted against adoption. Portsmouth, Rochester, Salisbury, and Leicester have also voted against the Covenant. Source The dioceses of Chelmsford and Hereford have voted against the Covenant, but Bradford has voted for it. Source Ripon & Leeds, Southwark, Worcester, and Bath & Wells have voted against; Coventry and Carlisle have voted for. Source In the next round of voting, St. Albans, Liverpool, and Ely voted against the Covenant; Chester and Norwich voted for it. Source The dioceses of Oxford and Lincoln voted against the Covenant, and the dioceses of Exeter, Blackburn, Peterborough, and Guildford voted for it. Source After these votes, Covenant adoption in England was defeated. After its defeat, five additional dioceses voted: Manchester voted against (source), as did Newcastle (source). Voting for were Chichester and Southwell & Nottingham (source), as well as York (source). The final tally of dioceses, then, is 26 against the Covenant and 18 for. Modern Church offers a table showing vote totals in all Church of England Dioceses. |
| Falkland Islands (Extra-Provincial to Canterbury) || |
| Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui || |
| India: The Church of North India || |
| India: The Church of South India (United) || |
| Indian Ocean, The Church of the Province of the || |
| Ireland, The Church of ||
The Ireland church “subscribed” to the Covenant on 13 May 2011. The General Synod intended to make it clear that the Covenant did not supplant existing governing documents of the Church of Ireland. Source |
| Japan: The Nippon Sei Ko Kai ||
In May 2010, the General Synod determined to move forward with consideration of the Covenant, overruling a recommendation from the theological committee of the House of Bishops. Source |
| Jerusalem & The Middle East, The Episcopal Church in || |
| Kenya, The Anglican Church of || |
| Korea, The Anglican Church of || |
| Lusitanian Church, The (Extra-Provincial to Canterbury) || |
| Melanesia, The Church of the Province of || |
| Mexico, La Iglesia Anglicana de ||
Adopted Covenant June 2010. Source |
| Nigeria, The Church of (Anglican Communion) || |
| New Zealand: The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand & Polynesia ||
In May 2010, the General Synod/Te Hinota Whanui approved the first three sections of the Covenant in principle. The Covenant will be studied and brought back to the Synod in 2012 for final acceptance or rejection. Legal opinion will be sought regarding Section 4. Source Two Maori dioceses have rejected the Covenant. Source Source The Diocese of Auckland has rejected the Covenant. Source So has the Diocese of Waiapu. Source The Diocese of Dunedin voted against adoption, but the Diocese of Wellington voted for it. Source The Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki voted, in principle, for the Covenant. Source Although the final vote on the Covenant has not been taken, a vote by the Tikanga Maori appears to assure that the church will reject the Covenant. Source The Diocese of Christchurch voted down a pro-Covenant motion April 21, 2012. Source The General Synod/te Hinota Whanui voted 9 July 2012 that the church is unable to adopt the Covenent. Source |
| Pakistan, The Church of (United) || |
Philippines, The Episcopal Church in the ||
The bishops rejected the Covenant in May 2011. Source
| Papua New Guinea, The Anglican Church of ||
The Provincial Council of the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea approved the Covenant in December 2011. Source |
| Rwanda, L'Eglise Episcopal au || |
| Scotland: The Scottish Episcopal Church ||
The Faith and Order Board will advise General Synod 2011 on what process or processes might be appropriate to be followed by the Synod to enable due consideration of the final version of the Covenant. Source The General Synod voted decisively against Covenant adoption on 8 June 2012. Source |
| South East Asia, Church of the Province of ||
The church “acceded” to the Covenant in May 2011 and published an explanation of its understanding of the action, which seems to go beyond the Covenant text itself. |
| Southern Africa, Anglican Church of ||
Provincial Synod approved Covenant October 2010. The decision will have to be ratified in 2013. Source |
| Southern Cone: Iglesia Anglicana del Cono Sur de America ||
The Southern Cone approved the Covenant in November 2011. Source |
| Spain, The Reformed Episcopal Church of (Extra-Provincial to Canterbury) || |
| Sudan, The Episcopal Church of the || |
| Tanzania: The Anglican Church of || |
| Uganda, The Church of the Province of || |
| United States: The Episcopal Church ||
At its 2009 General Convention, the church approved a resolution commending the draft Covenant and successive versions of the document to dioceses for study. The Covenant will be taken up at the 2012 General Convention. Source Various dioceses have passed resolutions both for and against the Covenant. Most notable, because of its detail is a resolution against adoption from the Diocese of California. Source As of April 19, 2012, three resolutions regarding the Covenant have been announced. They call for everything from rejection to adoption. The No Anglican Covenant Coalition has proposed a resolution for the July 2012 General Convention as well. Source On 10 July, the General Convention passed a resolution indicating that the church was not ready to make a decision about the Covenant, which means that it cannot be dealt with before 2015. Source |
| Wales: The Church in ||
The Governing Body passed a motion on April 18, 2012, indicating its willingness to consider the Covenant but asking the Anglican Consultative Council to clarify the status of the Covenant in light of its rejection by the Church of England. Source |
| West Africa, The Church of the Province of || |
| West Indies, The Church in the Province of the ||
The Provincial Synod voted to accept the Covenant in December 2009, and the Standing Committee did so in November 2010. Source |