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Anglican Covenant Flawed. Will Do More Harm than Good, says Theologian

Anglican Covenant Flawed. Will Do More Harm than Good, says Theologian
A covenant with no discipline is of no use
Ancient Councils made binding decisions not "recommendations" on matters essential

Reflections on the inadequacy of the Proposed Anglican Communion Covenant and what might be done to address it

by the Rt. Rev. John H. Rodgers Jr.
Exclusive to Virtueonline
February 6, 2010

This writer believes that the proposed Anglican Covenant is flawed, and too weak to meet the needs of worldwide Anglicanism.

In Scripture we are exhorted to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the Church; this requires effort, clarity and discipline. I will lift up a few of the paragraphs of the proposed Covenant and then make a comment on them in order to illustrate and present my concerns.

If this proposed Covenant were strengthened and simplified, it could become a workable covenant for the Anglican Communion. I will indicate how this might be done. In its' present form it is inadequate and would only do more harm than good.

Introduction to the Covenant Text

"This life is revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us - we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. These things we write so that our joy may be complete." (1 John 1.2-4).

"1. God has called us into communion in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1.9). This communion has been "revealed to us" by the Son as being the very divine life of God the Trinity. What is the life revealed to us? St John makes it clear that the communion of life in the Church participates in the communion which is the divine life itself, the life of the Trinity. This life is not a reality remote from us, but one that has been "seen" and "testified to" by the apostles and their followers: "for in the communion of the Church we share in the divine life"[1].

This life of the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, shapes and displays itself through the very existence and ordering of the Church."

This profound statement has clear implications for the proper nature of the Anglican Communion. Since the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are united in the one substance of the God-head and so interpenetrate one another that there is but one God, there is no autonomy on the part of any of the persons of the Godhead. This inner unity and interdependence is reflected in God's works in creation and redemption.

"All of the works of the Trinity ad extra are indivisible", said St. Augustine. The communion of the church, being rooted in the life of the Triune God, can have no autonomy between its churchly members, and so between the Provinces of the Anglican Communion.

There is differentiation and there is local diversity in things secondary but no autonomy in substance and in things essential on the part of member Churches of the Communion. It is a fatal flaw in this proposed Covenant that it continues to assume and speak of the autonomy of the Provinces.

In so doing, it contradicts the true nature of the communion of the Church as grounded in the Triune life of God.

"5. To covenant together is not intended to change the character of this Anglican expression of Christian faith. Rather, we recognise the importance of renewing in a solemn way our commitment to one another, and to the common understanding of faith and order we have received, so that the bonds of affection which hold us together may be re-affirmed and intensified. We do this in order to reflect, in our relations with one another, God's own faithfulness and promises towards us in Christ (2 Cor 1.20-22)".

This could not be more wrong. Now is precisely the opportunity and the time to change the character of this Anglican expression of the Christian faith in those areas that have proven incapable of maintaining the unity and conformity of the churches of the Anglican Communion in Apostolic Faith, order and practice. Here again we confront in the proposed Covenant an unbiblical emphasis on maintaining provincial autonomy and a reluctance to state clearly the common, binding essentials of the Apostolic Faith as this Church has received them and stated them.

We think of Canon A5 of the Church of England that so clearly, beautifully and simply states: "The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Catholic Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal of 1662." Happily, this was adopted by the Jerusalem Declaration.

"(1.1.2) the catholic and apostolic faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation[2]. The historic formularies of the Church of England[3], forged in the context of the European Reformation and acknowledged and appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion, bear authentic witness to this faith." (underlining mine)

This statement comes close to asserting the normative character of the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God written ("Scriptura Suprema") and the abiding value of the historic formularies (the Book of Common Prayer and ordinal 1662 and the 39 Articles of Religion) that set forth the Anglican understanding of the teaching of the Scripture and the ancient Church on the crucial matters that they cover.

However, there is a certain vagueness and hesitancy to give full expression to their authority in the Anglican Communion. Just what does "uniquely revealed" mean, or "authentic witness" imply? Canon A5 and the Jerusalem Declaration are far clearer and accord the historic formularies a stronger prominence in the Communion.

It is true that the Scriptures and the Creeds get a brief clarifying statement later, but the 39 Articles disappear from view, never to return. One senses a certain relief at their disappearance on the part of the writers of the Proposed Covenant.

"3.1.2) its resolve to live in a Communion of Churches. Each Church, with its bishops in synod, orders and regulates its own affairs and its local responsibility for mission through its own system of government and law and is therefore described as living "in communion with autonomy and accountability"[15]. Trusting in the Holy Spirit, who calls and enables us to dwell in a shared life of common worship and prayer for one another, in mutual affection, commitment and service, we seek to affirm our common life through those Instruments of Communion by which our Churches are enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ. Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together "not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference"[16] and of the other instruments of Communion."/>

And, "3.2.2) to respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the Churches of the Anglican Communion, while upholding our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ[21], and the responsibility of each to the Communion as a whole[22].

Here we find "autonomy" again. This time it is linked to "accountability" But if accountability is taken seriously then "autonomy" (a law unto oneself) is denied or its use is so odd as to need very specific clarification and limitation. One can't help but sense that there is, in this proposed Covenant, an allergic reaction to any serious form of a magisterium, no matter how modest, that could discipline the wayward provinces who have departed from the plain teaching of Scripture as Anglicans officially understand Scripture's teaching, as stated in the historic Anglican Formularies. (The Catholic Creeds, the Book of Common Prayer 1662 and the 39 Articles of Religion.)

In the behavior of the Episcopal Church, USA and the Church of Canada, we have all seen what "upholding our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the body of Christ and responsibility to the Communion as a whole" can mean when it is attached to this exercise of "autonomy".

Obviously something stronger that a general appeal to a good heart is needed in the Church that lives in the tension of the "already and the not yet". Indwelling sin is still with us. Down through the ages the Church has held councils and disciplined those who have embraced false teaching and immoral practice. When they proved unrepentant the Church cast them out. Anglicans can do no less. A proposed Covenant that does not enable such discipline is far too weak to be of use and will only serve to hide ongoing sin under the cover of fine words. Better to have no Covenant than a deceptive one.

3.2.4) to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion's councils, about matters of common concern, in a way consistent with the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches. Each Church will undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion.

What are the common standards of faith? Clarity is crucial here. What if the canons of the several Churches contradict one another? And, what is to be done if Provinces fail to do what this fine sentiment calls for? We have seen that the present Instruments of Unity of the Communion are incapable of requiring the Provinces to live up to this commitment or of disciplining them when they do not. What follows is the initial discipline section of the proposed Covenant. It has been replaced by a weaker form. I do not have a copy of that. However, since this proves too weak then the replacement will be even less serviceable.

"4.1.3) Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion."

We are back to autonomy again. Where do we find it in the Scripture? Do we find it in the historic Church that lived by Councils? We have become provincial Congregationalists. This love of autonomy is peculiar to Anglicanism's historical development and is an albatross around our neck. It is not to be boasted of, as some Anglicans do. It stems from the initial reluctance of the Bishops of the Church of England to even have an Anglican Communion or to host the first Lambeth Conference. Subsequently it has been embraced by Western individualism and colonialism. If Jesus is Lord then the Church is submissive to Him and is not autonomous in matters essential.

"4.2.3) When questions arise relating to the meaning of the Covenant, or about the compatibility of an action by a covenanting Church with the Covenant, it is the duty of each covenanting Church to seek to live out the commitments of Section 3.2. Such questions may be raised by a Church itself, another covenanting Church or the Instruments of Communion."

We are back to calling for a good heart again. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it is utterly right, but in and of itself in a fallen world and in an imperfectly sanctified Church, it is insufficient. We are often the most sinful when we believe we are right.

"4.2.7) On the basis of the advice received, the Standing Committee shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations."

One wonders how the rather newly minted Standing Committee became the arbiter of this inadequate form of a magisterium that makes only recommendations. Historically the Church was overseen by Councils that made binding decisions not recommendations on matters essential.


We must not waste the present crisis and opportunity. Now is the time to move to organize the Anglican Communion as a Church governed by a Council with clear standards to which all in the Communion are bound. The standards need not be extensive. We would do well to follow the example of the Jerusalem Declaration. Canon A5 would be restored to its historic Anglican position. "Anglican doctrine is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.

In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Catholic Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal of 1662." And, let the Primates, chaired, not dominated, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, serve in the place of the "Standing Committee".

Under the oversight of the Primates, new questions requiring discernment and discipline would be given a judicious discussion in the Provinces and be given final consideration at Lambeth Conferences or better the Lambeth Council.

The proposed Covenant as it stands is really a call to proceed as we have been functioning, with an appeal to a good heart. To expect it to produce a different result than we presently experience is naïve. If we do not wish to greatly strengthen the proposed Covenant while dropping "autonomy" in matters essential, then we could adopt the Jerusalem Declaration and make any additions needed to it.

Let us pray that the meeting of the Global South meeting this April in Singapore will consider this matter and offer clear leadership to the Communion as a whole.

----The Rt. Rev. John H. Rodgers Jr. is a bishop with the Anglican Mission in the Americas (TheAM). He is a former Episcopal Seminary Dean and priest. This story may be posted on Blogs and websites with full credit to Virtueonline: www.virtueonline.org

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