As its tepid reception throughout the Communion continues, notable hand-wringing over the proposed Anglican Covenant persists in Lambeth.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ Advent Letter to the Anglican Primates of November 30th:
How it is discussed, the timescale of discussion and the means by which decisions are reached will vary a lot from Province to Province. We hope to see a full report of progress at next year’s Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting. In spite of many assurances, some Anglicans evidently still think that the Covenant changes the structure of our Communion or that it gives some sort of absolute power of ‘excommunication’ to some undemocratic or unrepresentative body. With all respect to those who have raised these concerns, I must repeat that I do not see the Covenant in this light at all. It sets out an understanding of our common life and common faith and in the light of that proposes making a mutual promise to consult and attend to each other, freely undertaken. It recognizes that not doing this damages our relations profoundly. It outlines a procedure, such as we urgently need, for attempting reconciliation and for indicating the sorts of consequences that might result from a failure to be fully reconciled. It alters no Province’s constitution, as it has no canonical force independent of the life of the Provinces. It does not create some unaccountable and remote new authority but seeks to identify a representative group that might exercise a crucial advisory function. I continue to ask what alternatives there are if we want to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity. In the absence of such alternatives, I must continue to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can to all who are considering its future….
These questions are made all the more sharp by the fact that the repeated requests for moratoria on problematic actions issued by various representative Anglican bodies are increasingly ignored. Strong conscientious convictions are involved here. No-one, I believe, acts out of a desire to deepen disunity; some believe that certain matters are more important than what they think of as a superficial unity. But the effects are often to deepen mutual mistrust, and this must surely be bad for our mission together as Anglicans, and alongside other Christians as well. The question remains: if the moratoria are ignored and the Covenant suspected, what are the means by which we maintain some theological coherence as a Communion and some personal respect and understanding as a fellowship of people seeking to serve Christ? And we should bear in mind that our coherence as a Communion is also a significant concern in relation to other Christian bodies – especially at a moment when the renewed dialogues with Roman Catholics and Orthodox have begun with great enthusiasm and a very constructive spirit.
Jonathan Clatworthy of Modern Church and No Anglican Covenant responds, arguing that in this case, all a policy such as the proposed Covenant would do is distract at best, distance and dissolve at worst.
To take seriously the theological nature of the disagreement is to recognise that no amount of changes to the organisational structure of the Anglican Communion can possibly resolve it. Whatever powers are given to the Instruments of Unity or the Standing Committee, those who believe in full acceptance of same-sex partnerships will continue to believe in them and those who feel unable in conscience to belong to a church containing a gay bishop will continue to object.
There are two possible ways for the Communion to resolve this disagreement. One is to authorise one point of view and suppress alternatives, in effect expelling those who continue to disagree. The Covenant does not propose to do this, but its only available procedures would be a step in this direction: namely, to affirm one point of view as the official Anglican one (via the Standing Committee’s Recommendations) and exclude from representative bodies any churches which dissent from it.
The other way to resolve such theological disagreement is to encourage the different points of view to be explored in public debate and research, as a properly Christian attempt to seek the truth about God and how God wants us to live, until such time as consensus is reached. In the present situation this does not require any change to the powers of the Instruments of Unity or the Standing Committee. What it does require is a committed public defence, by church leaders, of the principle of toleration.