All three houses in the General Synod, its parliamentary body, voted overwhelmingly today to send the draft Anglican Communion Covenant out to diocesan synods for further consideration.
The Covenant was first proposed in the Windsor Report of 2004 following the consecration of the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson in the US. It seeks to formalise the process by which disputes within the Communion may be settled and Provinces that act contrary to Anglican tradition may be dealt with.
The chamber at Church House in London was full for the lengthy debate, which saw a number of Synod members express their reservations about the Covenant.
In his last speech to Synod, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Rev John Saxbee, said the Covenant represented “factory farmed religion rather than free range faith”.
“I entirely support the process – so long as it doesn’t end,” he quipped.
He said a Covenant would only lead to a two-tier Communion and second-class Anglicans.
His comments reflect the concerns of opponents and even supporters of the Covenant who fear it would stymy diversity and centralise the Communion in such a way as to make it too authoritarian and overly focused on discipline.
Although the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Rev Michael Perham, said he would vote in support of the Covenant, he admitted that he did so with some reluctance because of his concern that the Covenant could be used to take “punitive action” against some Anglicans who hold a different position.
Speaking in support of the Covenant was the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Rev Michael Hill, who proposed the motion asking Synod to send it out to diocesan synods for consideration.
He denied that the Covenant was “un-Anglican”, as some opponents have suggested, and told Synod that it offered a framework for ongoing conversations “so that hopefully we can engage with each other as adults”.
The bishop warned that delaying the Covenant process any further would be a “serious blow to the whole process and to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s efforts to keep dialogue going across the fault lines within the Communion”.
The strongest support for the Covenant came from Dr Rowan Williams in his presidential address yesterday when he warned that the “piece-by-piece dissolution of the Communion” would be a real danger unless the Covenant received the full support of the Church of England.
"The Covenant offers the possibility of a voluntary promise to consult. And it also recognises that even after consultation there may still be disagreement, that such disagreement may result in rupture of some aspects of communion, and that this needs to be managed in a careful and orderly way," he said.
"Now the risk and reality of such rupture is already there, make no mistake. The question is whether we are able to make an intelligent decision about how we deal with it.
"To say yes to the Covenant is not to tie our hands. But it is to recognise that we have the option of tying our hands if we judge, after consultation, that the divisive effects of some step are too costly."
The draft Covenant needs to receive the consent of the majority of diocesan synods in order to return to General Synod for final approval. If this happens, the Covenant is likely to be adopted some time in 2012.