The Covenant is good news for Anglicanism

The Church of England's parliament, the General Synod, overwhelmingly voted to proceed to the next stage in approving the Anglican Covenant.

With the vote at well over two-thirds in favour and near unanimous support by the Bishops (all voted for with one abstention) the odds of the Covenant faltering now seem remote.

The next step in the legislative chain is a vote by the 44 Diocesan Synods where a simple majority will suffice. Then it’s back to the General Synod for final approval probably in 2012.

That the Synod so overwhelmingly backed the Covenant would normally be regarded as sending out a positive signal encouraging the other 37 Anglican Provinces to do likewise.

But in an adroit piece of media management, as soon as the Synod vote was complete, the media headlines were grabbed by a statement from several African Archbishops that said the Covenant was “fatally flawed” and they would not be attending the next Primates (senior Archbishops) meeting scheduled for Ireland early next year.

In fact this statement was not new. It dates back to early October when the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) Primates' Council met in Oxford. The signatories said the Covenant does not have enough teeth to impose traditional Christian teaching about sexuality on Anglicans or bring into line The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) which has two openly gay bishops in its ranks.

Ahead of the Synod vote two English liberal groups bought newspaper advertising space to campaign against the Covenant for the opposite reason. They claimed it would curtail the autonomy of individual Provinces. It was worried at the prospect of “centralised dispute-resolution mechanisms” that would impose unwanted uniformity on the Church.

In consequence some commentators pronounced the Covenant “dead in the water”. But that is a misreading. GAFCON does not represent the entire set of African and Asian Provinces in the Anglican Communion. There are signs that take-up of the Covenant is proceeding among them and elsewhere.

So what has Anglicanism to gain by adopting a Covenant? Anglicanism, unlike the Catholic Church, has no central supreme court. Its current “instruments of communion” are consultative. Representatives meet together and it is up to each individual Province to take the final decision, even on issues that affect all Anglicans.

A Covenant will yield a stronger, more coherent and unified Anglicanism. It may mean that some Provinces such as TEC and some of the GAFCON Provinces will opt out both from the Covenant and attendance at inter-Anglican meetings.

That does not mean a complete break-up of Anglicanism - participation in the “instruments of communion” is important but not the only expression of being Anglican. The liturgies of Anglican Provinces bear a strong family resemblance. The mission societies, the Mother’s Unions, diocesan links, fraternal links among cathedrals and schools will not cease to operate.

Meanwhile as the Archbishop of Canterbury has made clear, work will be done on reforming the “instruments” because it is largely their failure to be effective that has triggered the crisis in Anglicanism.

Anglicanism has much to gain by the success of the Covenant. It will be more unified and coherent. Gone will be the idea you can be Anglican and believe whatever you like.

There will be benefits for other denominations too. Some denominations have made no secret of the fact that they are watching how Anglicanism deals with the crisis over sexuality and will consider following its path in due course.

For the Catholic Church it will be good news. It has a great affection for Anglicanism and hopes to find in it a partner in ecumenical dialogue with which it can do business.

For Anglicans it will close down endless rows about sexuality and endless media pronouncements that its end is nigh.

John Martin is a journalist and broadcaster and General Secretary of Fulcrum, an evangelical group in the Church of England

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