The Anglican Covenant: a tool for the strong to oppress the weak

So many points have been made against the proposed Anglican Covenant, which will be voted on this week by the Church of England’s General Synod, that one risks redundancy in expressing one’s own reservations. Mine have to do primarily with how the covenant would operate if approved. It is a dangerous document which takes John Adams’ famous formulation—“a government of laws and not of men”—and stands it on its head. The covenant is a document that sets forth a system for adjudicating disputes based on criteria that are almost entirely subjective and ad hoc.


In this peculiar system, one can do nothing that offends another province in the Communion, and anything that does not. Offense is judged not by analyzing the act, but in analyzing the response to the act. This is governance by hurt feelings, a system in which power flows to those who complain the loudest and the most frequently. The covenant lacks any of the safeguards, contained in most civil codes, to protect the accused from frivolous accusations. Hence there is no cost and much potential benefit in lodging complaints simply to keep one’s theological adversaries on the defensive. There is great incentive for them to behave in similar fashion.

One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to notice that the covenant contains no standards of evidence, and provides for nothing resembling due process, The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion can investigate complaints in whatever manner it sees fit. Perhaps this is unsurprising. If the only fact at issue is whether a party has given offense, the only evidence necessary is the offended party’s assertion that they are, indeed offended. Having conducted an investigation under standards of its own devising, the Standing Committee can then respond in whatever manner it chooses including the imposition of “relational consequences.” (I have been re-watching an American television classic recently, which may be why “relational consequences” sounds to me like the phrase that Tony Soprano might use to describe a venereal disease.)

The covenant’s potential to set province against province has been noted by other writers. But it may be more likely to sow dissension within provinces that without. The case of The Episcopal Church in the United States gives evidence of how this would happen. A minority faction within a province disagrees with a decision taken by the majority. This faction petitions other provinces in the Communion to come to its aid. These provinces file a complaint under the covenant, the Standing Committee begins a review, and the question of who are the true representatives of the Communion in a given jurisdiction is suddenly up for grabs. Rowan Williams and the Primates of the communion have already demonstrated that they are not above seizing such a moment of unrest to insert themselves aggressively into the affairs of a member province, even attempting to carve out a church within a church—and set it , for all practical purposes, under foreign leadership. (The rebuttal to covenant proponents who say the current version of that document respects provincial autonomy is simple and overwhelming: Dar es Salaam. For those who don’t remember what happened when the Primates met in Tanzania in 2007, click read more to learn about the “Pastoral Scheme.”)

Perhaps the greatest failing of the covenant, however, is not technical but spiritual. The covenant is blind to evil within the church, and the extent to which the church participates in the evils of the world. Put aside for the moment the fact that at a time when poverty and disease are rampant, the earth is warming at a potentially cataclysmic pace, and war ravages much of the planet, the leaders of our Communion are unwilling to move on until the Americans are brought to heel on the issue of homosexuality. Focus instead on the simple fact that much of the evil in our world exists because it serves the self interest of powerful people and powerful institutions. These are people who can always arrange for a fuss to be made on their behalf—who can always claim that any attempt to rectify the balance of power in this world “tears at the fabric” of whatever community has summoned the fortitude to challenge their dominance. The covenant is a handy tool for maintaining the status quo—for making certain that the meek never come into the inheritance that Jesus promised them. The issue may be homosexuality today, but what is at stake is the ability of churches in the Anglican Communion to challenge injustice when it is in the interest of other churches in the Communion to support it.

From the Primates Meeting in Dar es Salaam, February 2007

A Pastoral Scheme

We recognise that there are individuals, congregations and clergy, who in the current situation, feel unable to accept the direct ministry of their bishop or of the Presiding Bishop, and some of whom have sought the oversight of other jurisdictions.

We have received representations from a number of bishops of The Episcopal Church who have expressed a commitment to a number of principles set out in two recent letters. We recognise that these bishops are taking those actions which they believe necessary to sustain full communion with the Anglican Communion.

We acknowledge and welcome the initiative of the Presiding Bishop to consent to appoint a Primatial Vicar.

On this basis, the Primates recommend that structures for pastoral care be established in conjunction with the Pastoral Council, to enable such individuals, congregations and clergy to exercise their ministries and congregational life within The Episcopal Church, and that

the Pastoral Council and the Presiding Bishop invite the bishops expressing a commitment to “the Camp Allen principles”, or as otherwise determined by the Pastoral Council, to participate in the pastoral scheme ;

in consultation with the Council and with the consent of the Presiding Bishop, those bishops who are part of the scheme will nominate a Primatial Vicar, who shall be responsible to the Council;

the Presiding Bishop in consultation with the Pastoral Council will delegate specific powers and duties to the Primatial Vicar.

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16 Comments
  1. tobias haller

    “Government by hurt feelings” — a superb summation.

  2. Thank you, Jim, for this insightful essay. Some of us have been so busy with our exegesis of the fine print that we have missed to global faults of the Covenant.

  3. This is not an an endorsement of the Covenant (I think that anything with enforcement language should more clearly be called a contract), but just an observation. It seems like all of this conflict and travail coincided with the developing nations finding their voice at Lambeth 1998 after centuries of white Englishmen and Americans having their way and often talking about the developing world rather than with them. I’m not saying the result was positive, but it seems a little disingenuous for those of us who still have much of the power and resources of the world to complain about the possibility of oppression, with us on the side of the oppressed and the developing world as the oppressors. I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight for justice, just that it seems highly ironic!

  4. Jim, thank you. Your words in first paragraph seem so obvious that they should not need saying, but just as obviously they do. That the covenant will be a recipe for enabling the tattlers, complainers, and busybodies to stir up trouble is and has been plain to me from the beginning.

    The rest of your essay is sobering, indeed.

    June Butler

  5. Jim,

    Thank you for widening my reasons for not wanting the Covenant. My main concern is that the Standing Committee will wield inordinate power while not having to be accountable to the Communion. The process to elect the Standing Committee will have to be made more accessabel to the member churches if it were at all to be fair.

  6. Roger Mortimer

    Ironic, maybe, Tom, but I don’t see anything disingenuous about it.

  7. I agree, Tom, that the situation is more than ironic – and not unlike the irony of far right Christians claiming to be “oppressed” if people say “Seasons Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

    But then we consider who has been financing the current “crisis,” and the extent to which far right organizations in the West – and in particular in the United States – have been funneling money to certain elements in the two-thirds world, thereby exporting American culture wars.

    There is also the issue of neo-colonialism – the tendency in some former colonies to retain colinial power structures to th benefit of those who are able to insert themselves into the positions of power vacated by the former colonial administration. On cursory examination, it appears that many of the so-called Global South leadership closely hew to the neo-colonial construct.

  8. Michael Russell

    The irony is that the Global South has not found its own voice at all, it merely echoes the voices the the evangelicals who collaborated with the colonial powers in oppressing them in the first place.

    It was the center left in this country who raised the flag of liberation. It was the center left who raised the issues of right-corporate exploitation of resources and people in the Global South.

    So the best that can be said of the leadership of the grumpy Global South is that it has adopted the theology of its oppressors in order to help those oppressors undercut the very people who supported their independence.

    The IRD, the “C” street family, Dobson and a myriad of other right wing groups have zero interest in any true economic or political rise of the Global South. Their only interest is in distracting and defeating those who resist their predatory practices at home and abroad.

  9. Jim, I’m late in joining the chorus, but in a month in which much has been written about the Anglican Covenant, your essay is outstanding. “It is a dangerous document which takes John Adams’ famous formulation—“a government of laws and not of men”—and stands it on its head. The covenant is a document that sets forth a system for adjudicating disputes based on criteria that are almost entirely subjective and ad hoc. ” That really nails it!

  10. NJT

    Good piece Jim. I particularly felt the last paragraph on ‘the greatest failing’, just how much the organisation is of this world. We do not have the the omniscience to participate in covenant.

    [Editor’s note: Thanks very much. We need you to leave your name next time you comment, though.]

  11. tgflux

    It seems like all of this conflict and travail coincided with the developing nations finding their voice at Lambeth 1998 after centuries of white Englishmen and Americans having their way and often talking about the developing world rather than with them.

    But WHO are the “developing nations”, Tom?

    The masses of Africans and Asians and other indigenous peoples who don’t care a FLYING FIG about the soon-retiring Bishop of New Hampshire, or the comparatively-tiny number of men-in-purple there (thoroughly formed and empowered and FUNDED by “centuries of white Englishmen and Americans”, aka ACNA, or whatever acronym they currently use), who OBSESS over him?

    JC Fisher

  12. frharry

    Forty years ago Harvard ethicist Lawrence Kohlberg articulated a system of moral reasoning which he observed to play out in sequential stages of dominant thinking about moral questions. Stage Three was marked by the need for affirmation of authority figures and others within one’s affiliate group, “What must I do to be seen as a good boy or nice girl?” Stage Four was marked by laws and unquestioning obedience to social conventions, “What must I do to remain within the law?” Both of those stages presumed conventional wisdom to be the final word on moral issues. And most human beings come to rest at those stages.

    But a handful of human beings develop a further level of moral inquiry: “What is just?” They raise questions about human dignity and rights which transcend mere affirmations of one’s tribe or conventions and laws of one’s society. Given the prophetic quality of those inquiries, they are rarely understood by conventional moral reasoners and often perceived as threats.

    The Episcopal Church has taken a principled, post-conventional stance on the issue of the human rights of LBGT persons. It should hardly be surprising that many within our own church and the vast majority outside it would not comprehend how it could do so. At a very basic level, arguments of justice and human dignity and competing arguments based in Biblicism and social conventions simply talk right past each other. A commitment to justice is by definition a commitment to limited company and unlimited opposition. Indeed, many post-conventional prophetic figures have often wound up martyrs. Among them is one Jesus of Nazareth.

    (Editor’s note: Thanks Fr. Henry. We need your name next time. )

  13. C. Wingate

    I suppose I am insufficiently impressed by the IRD bogeyman to be that worried about far-right influences, but permit me to come at this from a completely different angle. Suppose the C of E does ratify the covenant, and suppose most of the African and Asian churches do likewise. It’s a very safe bet that neither we nor Canada will sign on, so where does that leave us in particular? What exactly would we lose if this were to happen?

    My sense is that the main loss would be that of our participation as an Anglican franchisee (not that this inhibits the continuing churches from claiming the name). Other than that, we do as we please now, and we would continue to do as we pleased, so what would change?

  14. C Wingate, I think that you are right about the IRD. It is a bladder the American right pumps air into when it needs to hit certain notes. It isn’t much to worry about on its own. But I think the right’s ability to prop up such organizations when it needs them is. The current state of the Communion–whatever one makes of it–is unimaginable without major infusions of right wing cash.

  15. C. Wingate

    Well, that is because otherwise the Africans and Asians would lack the resources to resist the power of the American churches. I do not think it is those tarnished right wing dollars that produce third world church opposition; but it is likely true that those dollars have made that opposition far more effective than it was in the days when the Americans and the British dictated everything to the rest of the communion.

    Be that as it may, however, I’m really interested in the answers to those questions which you did not address. I really do want to know what people think will happen if the communion sufficiently adopts the covenant and we do not.

  16. tgflux

    otherwise the Africans and Asians would lack the resources to resist the power of the American churches.

    You mean the “power” of TEC to fund HIV clinics, C Wingate? Or the POWER-OVER of ConEvs to whip up (buy) anti-gay hysteria into legal LYNCH MOBS in Uganda?

    There’s the Light of the Gospel, and the “Light” of Lucifer. Specify!

    JC Fisher

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