Michael Nazir-Ali: Is the much-debated Covenant fit for purpose?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

This week the Anglican Consultative Council meets in Jamaica. One of the items on its agenda is the latest draft for an Anglican Covenant. This is an opportune moment to ask if the draft is ‘fit for purpose’ and if it will make any difference to the situation, if it is approved by the member churches of the Communion.

This latest draft of an Anglican Covenant, and its accompanying commentary, has taken account of the many responses and submissions made in respect of the earlier drafts. This means that the theological and ecclesiological sections of the proposed Covenant are stronger than they were before. A question remains as to why the Introduction is still not part of the Covenant. This weakens the theological basis of the Covenant, even if the drafters now tell us that it “shall be accorded authority in understanding the purpose of the Covenant” (4:4:1).

The first section opens by telling us that each church in the Covenant affirms its ‘communion’ in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church but it does not say anything about the communion between or among particular churches which is the issue at the moment. What is the basis for such fellowship and how can one church recognise the presence of the Church of Jesus Christ in another? This section claims also that our mission is shared with other churches and traditions beyond the Covenant. Which churches do the drafters have in mind and what is the extent of this sharing? If we are not careful, this could lead to the very carte blanche the Covenant is being designed to avoid.

In section 3 we are told that the churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together “through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” but this reference back to the 1930 Lambeth Conference is not, as we shall see, fully reflected in the decision-making processes proposed by the drafters.

There is again the usual Anglican attempt to having your cake and eating it. This draft moves away unhelpfully from the previous language of autonomy in interdependence to a renewed emphasis on autonomy. The commentary claims that Anglicans wish to keep the autonomy of their churches but no biblical or apostolic evidence is provided for the sort of autonomy which could be acceptable, nor about its limits and dangers. We are told that adoption of the Covenant by a church does not “represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction” (4:1:1) but surely the representative bodies of the Communion should have the power at least to determine what relations there should be among the provinces, depending on whether they subscribe to the Covenant or not. It is strange to regard such representative bodies of the churches themselves as ‘external’.

My main difficulties, however, are with the final section (4:2): because the Nassau Draft was criticised for giving too much power to the Primates’ Meeting in determining compliance with the Covenant and the St Andrew’s Draft for doing the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council, ‘Ridley’ has given the Joint Standing Committee the role of making a declaration of ‘incompatibility with the Covenant’ and of making ‘recommendations’ as to the ‘relational consequences’ of actions incompatible with the Covenant. But the commentary makes it clear that there is no power to ‘direct’ either the province causing offence or the response of any of the other provinces.

So whatever the Joint Standing Committee may say, the provinces can go their own sweet way which is precisely the situation as it is today and which has caused the problem we are all facing! In spite of a ringing endorsement of the 1930 Lambeth Conference on the teaching role of bishops in the earlier part of the draft, the new ‘mechanism’ does not give them any special role, beyond ‘advice’, nor does it provide for authoritative teaching that requires compliance for the sake of unity and truth. In other words, we are exactly where we have been these last six years. It may even be worse: The Windsor Report asked that those who had unilaterally breached the bonds of communion by their teaching and action should not participate in representative Anglican Councils. Such a request has hardly been taken seriously so far but the new draft Covenant envisages the possibility of both covenanted and non-covenanted churches continuing to belong to the Instruments of Communion and the commentary looks only to the far future for a resolution of this anomaly. This means that churches which do not agree to any communion-wide procedures for discipline, however diluted, can still continue to be invited to the Lambeth Conference and to attend the ACC and the Primates’ Meeting. In other words, there is no immediate change anticipated in the membership of these bodies regardless of whether a Covenant is agreed or not.

Neither the draft nor the commentary tell us anything about how much longer it will be before a Covenant is finally ratified.Will it be by the time of the next ACC or beyond that and, if so, how much longer - the next Lambeth Conference? How long can faithful Anglicans in the pew and the pulpit wait for the Anglican Communion to deliver and will it make any difference when it does?

--This article appears in the Church of England Newspaper, May 1, 2009 edition, page 12

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalAnglican CovenantAnglican ProvincesChurch of England (CoE)CoE Bishops

Posted April 30, 2009 at 1:30 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

The Fudge has been tried and found wanting!

April 30, 10:36 pm | [comment link]
2. A Floridian wrote:

Bishop Nazir-Ali’s is right.  A toothless Covenant without means of prompt and certain discipline is worthless in the light of the increasing speed and brazeness of the innovations over the last year in the decadent wayward provinces, the US, Canada, UK, Wales, Scotland with the seepage of their effluent spreading over the globe.  One can only watch with dismay as pride and power are exercised without fear of God or man.

April 30, 10:50 pm | [comment link]
3. Fr. Jack wrote:

The Anglican communion is drowning in a sea of words. The covenant pours more water on from the top. Instead of covenant we need conviction. Conviction to declare the truth of Holy Scripture, and to act on it. It is the actions of the respective members of the Anglican communion which demonstrate what they truly believe in - whether they adhere to the faith once delivered to the saints, or to a faith redesigned to accommodate a pluralistic world.

Bishop Nazir-Ali rightly discerns the inefficacy of a covenant without clear boundaries, which relies on the autonomous interpretation of each individual province. Words taken to mean whatever may be wished, leaving all to act in whatever manner they so chose.

May 1, 1:19 am | [comment link]
4. Graham Kings wrote:

Stephen Noll is also well worth reading on the Ridley Cambridge Draft.  In an article on his web site, he appreciates it and encourages GAFCON churches to ‘move to the front of the queue and sign on to the Covenant’: ‘The Ridley Cambridge Draft: an Appreciation’.

He has also responded to my article ‘Between the Primates’ Meeting and the ACC’ with a comment on the TitusOneNine thread on it here.

May 1, 6:12 am | [comment link]
5. Katherine wrote:

Fr. Jack’s “The Anglican communion is drowning in a sea of words” expresses well the frustration of many.  However, Dr. Noll’s advice that the GAFCON churches should consider signing onto even this flawed Covenant seems good.  After all, since it provides no discipline, they, like the liberals, need not heed it if things go wrong, but their presence may inhibit the liberal Provinces from joining it.  Signing on may be a “do no harm” action which may help, although I hardly think it is a problem-solving vehicle in and of itself.

May 1, 7:38 am | [comment link]
6. Graham Kings wrote:

Stephen Noll has posted a further interesting comment here.

May 1, 12:26 pm | [comment link]
7. First Family Virginian wrote:

<i>...the GAFCON churches should consider signing onto even this flawed Covenant seems good.  After all, since it provides no discipline, they, like the liberals, need not heed it if things go wrong…<i>

Not a very sincere approach ... but it speaks volumes.

May 3, 1:52 pm | [comment link]
8. Katherine wrote:

The whole process has been turned insincere by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion Office.  The bishops and Primates make statements and the head office says they didn’t mean it.  If all of the signatories believe the doctrines of the Church, the lack of discipline won’t matter.  If churches who do not believe sign on, the Covenant won’t mean anything—like the “bonds of affection.”

May 3, 3:33 pm | [comment link]
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