The death of the Anglican Covenant
It is perhaps a mark of episcopal ignorance and inadequacy that the Bishops appear to have learned nothing from Anglican history. The parallels with the chaos of 1643 are evident, this being the era of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, the outlawing of the Church of England and the rise of Presbyterianism. The resulting Westminster Confession of Faith was revoked in England at the Restoration in 1660, but its provisions remain in force in Scotland to this day. The lessons are clear: the Anglican Communion is an international partnership of autonomous communities with theological diversity. i.e., not one church; the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a central authority, i.e., not a pope; the Anglican pattern of church governance is synodical, i.e., not papal. And no covenant can make these things so.
The Covenant was designed to hold the Anglican Communion together for better or worse, in sickness and health, ‘til the Second Coming do them part. For, like papal infallibility, only the apocalyptic parousia could render it absolutely null and utterly void. But Anglicanism is wary of the totalitarian and centralised: the See of Canterbury is not as absolute as the See of Rome.
And so we are left wondering how each ecclesial community can grapple with Scripture, tradition, reason and experience when reason and experience diversely challenge Scripture and tradition. If the US branch of the Communion says it’s consistent with the ‘Anglican tradition’ to consecrate an openly gay bishop or the odd lesbian, who is the African branch to be ‘appalled’ at such a development? And if one Province decides that it is most definitely consonant with the ‘Anglican tradition’ to appoint women to the Episcopate, who is to decide the proportionality of the punitive action against them?
What if the Anglican Church of Australia wishes to object to the Queen being Supreme Governor of the Church of England on the basis that the hereditary principle is ‘corrupt and sexist’? Shall ++Cantuar simply say they are ‘entitled to their views’? Who is the guardian of the 'Anglican tradition'? How can there be Roman unity in Anglican diversity? How can one impose discipline without exerting a pseudo-papal authority?
The Covenant was designed to resolve disputes and strengthen unity, yet it is clear that Anglicans do not do ‘punitive action’ (or unity) very well: we do not even do suspension, preferring instead the euphemistic ‘withdraw from public ministry’. So we can forget anathematisation or excommunication.
The bizarre thing is that the Anglican Church actually practises what the Roman Catholic Church purports to: subsidiarity. It is to do with governance at the lowest level, and the Anglican Communion has historically been constructed on devolved localism. It is thoroughly Whiggish. But it hasn’t worked.
It is the old Conservative tension between Tory centralised authority that seeks to preserve tradition and Whiggish local democracy to precipitate radical reform. Is the Covenant a via media between restriction and liberty; between subsidiarity and centralisation; between paternalism and autonomy?
Insofar as it appears to be satisfying no one, perhaps the balance is right. Yet if the Covenant be not unanimously approved by all 38 Provinces in the Communion, it can be authoritatively adopted by none.
And that will just leave us with the XXXIX Articles ‘as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today’. What need another covenant?