Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Andrew Goddard

Much about the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant has caused controversy, but one fact does seem incontrovertible: It is Section 4, “Our Covenanted Life Together,” that for many is most troublesome. It was the section which changed the most through the various drafts and the section which continues to be most objectionable to critics of the Covenant. For some it is too controlling and centralizing; for others it is weak and likely to be ineffective in enacting necessary discipline. So what does it say, and is it really as flawed as some claim?

Some would appear to wish there was no such section in any form, but any covenant needs at least some elements of process incorporated within it: how it can be adopted (4.1), how a signatory may withdraw (4.3), how the text may be amended (4.4). Could we get by with just that? What about maintaining the Covenant if there are disagreements about it or if breaches of it need to be resolved?


The history of the Church, including the Anglican Communion in recent years, shows that such questions are real and in one sense the act of covenanting makes them even more serious. If we covenant together by making joint affirmations and commitments to one another then someone is clearly wronged if another party to the covenant denies those affirmations or breaks commitments. We need to consider how to respond. What should be done if Anglicans do in fact act contrary to their covenanted word? If we accept the first three sections then we need Section 4 or something very like it.

As we know from events over the last decade and more, the problem is that something will be done when conflict arises among Anglicans and churches are understood to act against commitments and conventions. Part of the aim of the Covenant has always been to discern if we can agree together what is to be done in such circumstances rather than having to make up processes in the context of addressing the conflict. This aim is not something strange and unusual but a common feature of living together in community.

That is why, for example, workplaces develop grievance and disciplinary policies. The hope is that they will prove unnecessary but that when they are necessary they will enable issues to be addressed well despite tensions. The challenge, of course, is whether processes can be found that conform with our shared vision of Anglican life, especially those expressed in the Covenant’s affirmations and commitment. In adopting Section 4 of the Covenant, churches are making another set of affirmations and commitments, just as they do in the preceding sections. They affirm the “principles and procedures” in the section and, “reliant on the Holy Spirit,” commit to their implementation.

What exactly, then, are those principles and procedures for maintaining the Covenant? There is an acknowledgment (4.2.1) that the Covenant “operates to express … common commitments and mutual accountability” and that these “hold each Church in the relationship of communion one with another.” Mutual recognition and communion can obviously exist without the Covenant, but they are strengthened where there is recognition of and fidelity to the Covenant. But where there is infidelity, or even suspected infidelity, mutual recognition and communion will be undermined and so it is important that the Covenant is monitored in some way. Much of the concern focuses on how this is to be done, but much of that concern misrepresents the Covenant’s proposal.

In a clause often ignored, and which perhaps should have appeared earlier in Section 4.2, it is clear that the initial and primary responsibility lies with each autonomous province which “undertakes to put into place such mechanisms, agencies or institutions, consistent with its own Constitution and Canons, as can undertake to oversee the maintenance of the affirmations and commitments of the Covenant in the life of that Church, and to relate to the Instruments of Communion on matters pertinent to the Covenant” (4.2.9). But that self-regulation may not be enough. One province may think it has acted to maintain the Covenant and other provinces disagree. What should be done then? Who can monitor on behalf of all signatories?

Here there were at least four options:

  • One or more of the signatories could be given that responsibility, but that would be unfair to those not so authorized.
  • A new body could be created for the purpose, but that would have been even more controversial and open to charges of centralization (although the Communion has spawned numerous new bodies in the last 40 years).
  • The first Nassau draft proposed the Primates’ Meeting and the second draft suggested the Anglican Consultative Council, but both ideas drew opposition.
  • In the third and then final draft, the task was assigned to the standing committee that unites the standing committees of both the primates and the ACC. This is both a manageable size and combines three of the four Instruments of Communion, although (in part because of deeper problems with those instruments) serious questions persist about the standing committee’s ability to represent the Communion or monitor Covenant issues.

Some speak of the Covenant establishing a new “curia” or “star chamber.” It is therefore important to note how the Covenant both embeds the standing committee within the wider structures of the Communion but also severely constrains its powers — too severely in the minds of some. In overseeing the Covenant, the standing committee is “responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting” and its monitoring is to be done “on behalf of the Instruments.” It can also be “supported by such other committees or commissions as may be mandated to assist in carrying out this function and to advise it on questions relating to the Covenant” (4.2.2).

Furthermore, only committee members whose churches “have adopted the Covenant or who are still in the process of adoption” (4.2.8) are to be involved in Covenant oversight. The standing committee’s powers are limited to seeking to “facilitate agreement” (4.2.4), requesting that a Church “defer a controversial action” (4.2.5) and recommending “to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences” for a church which declines such a request. Potentially more seriously, it is authorized to “make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be ‘incompatible with the Covenant’” (4.2.6) and recommend “relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant” (4.2.7). However, it cannot do these on its own initiative but only “on the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting” (4.2.6) and its recommendations, whether to churches or instruments, are not binding — “each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations” (4.2.7).

The process is, then, marked by what the primates and Section 3.1.2 describe as a relationship of being “in communion with autonomy and accountability.” By granting the coordinating body powers of oversight that are limited to requests and recommendations, Section 4, like the Covenant as a whole, upholds the twin features of respect for provincial autonomy and the need for structures to enable common counsel and mutual accountability that have been the hallmark of Anglicanism and consistently shaped the evolution of the Communion, its instruments and various commissions and other structures. The claim that it is in some sense a fundamental break with that evolution or with the Anglican way arises from either a misrepresentation of the Covenant or a misunderstanding of the Communion’s self-understanding since at least the calling of the first Lambeth Conference and certainly since the birth of the ACC.

The weakness of the Covenant lies not in the text and its alleged centralization but in the fact that many of the Covenant’s drafters and supporters now doubt that the standing committee and the instruments are sufficiently “fit for purpose.” Numerous resignations from the standing committee, concerns about the ACC’s new constitution, and the principled refusal of many to attend both Lambeth 2008 and the Primates’ Meeting in Dublin indicate that major reforms of the instruments are now urgent, not just for their own sake but for the sake of the Covenant.

The Inter-Anglican Standing Commission for Unity, Faith and Order is considering such reforms. Unless these reforms come soon there is the real danger that Section 4 will simply plant this new promising seed of the Covenant in shallow soil or among thorns. If that proves to be the case then those who are committed to the Covenant and its vision of communion will need to prepare some new good soil so that the Anglican Covenant can yield a good crop in Anglican churches and mission across the world.

The Rev. Dr. Andrew Goddard, a member of the leadership team of Fulcrum, has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.

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