In 1867 the Archbishop of York turned down the invitation to the first Lambeth Conference because it wasn’t a manifestation of Anglicanism that he recognised. In London today the General Synod of the Church of England debated whether or not the proposed Anglican Covenant is recognizably Anglican and an appropriate development for our times.
At the end of a three-hour debate it voted overwhelmingly, by a majority greater than two thirds in all three houses (bishops, clergy and laity), to move to the next stage in the adoption of the Covenant.
Even if the vote was decisive, questions remain regarding the degree of consensus that the Covenant will sit comfortably within the Church of England. In the weeks leading up to this Synod the blogosphere has been the scene of a massive debate.
It began with two influential liberal networks, Inclusive Church and Modern Church (formerly the Modern Churchpeople’s Union), buying advertising space in the Church Times to warn that the Covenant is punitive, against the spirit of Anglicanism and a threat to the autonomy of the Church of England. Later came a declaration from the Anglican Mainstream network that the Covenant was not strong enough to provide the assurances needed by conservative evangelicals. Neither prevailed today.
A day ahead of the debate the Archbishop of Canterbury used his presidential address to make what was undoubtedly the decisive intervention in the Covenant debate. He cited a famous sermon by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, on “The Catholic Spirit,” which “is neither a climate of imposed universal agreement nor a free for all.”
He continued: “Wesley wants us to be settled in the basics of the faith, ‘fixed as the sun’ in our allegiance to the creed and the doctrine of a free and God-given atonement for sin.” This however is “consistent with readiness to hear arguments against what we believe without panic... [and] consistent with the knowledge that opinions vary even when doctrines are shared.”
Coming directly to the proposed Covenant he said: “It is an illusion to think that without some changes the Communion can carry on as usual, and a great illusion to think that the Church of England can somehow derail the entire process. The uncomfortable fact is that certain decisions in any province affect all.”
The Covenant, he said, “offers us the possibility of a voluntary promise to consult. And it also recognizes that even after consultation there may still be disagreement.... To say yes to the Covenant is not to tie our hands. But it is to recognize that we have the option of tying our hands if we judge, after consultation, that the divisive effects of some step are too costly.”
Opening the Covenant debate the Bishop of Bristol, Mike Hill, said it was an invitation for “member churches to commit themselves to greater mutual accountability, consultation and the pursuit of consensus on issues which are new or controversial and may have serious relational consequences for the Communion.”
Speaking in support the Rev. Simon Cawdell of Hereford said the Covenant offers “the best definition of Anglicanism that there is.”
Dr. Paul Fiddes, a Baptist observer, said the Independent tradition in the British Isles had lots of experience with covenant making but as yet has not sought to apply this in the international sphere. “I would like to thank the Anglican Communion for taking the Covenant further than we have done.”
The Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt. Rev. Peter Price, insisted that the Covenant process was underway well before the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. He referred to an Anglican Consultative Council document, Belonging Together (1992), which had a direct influence on The Virginia Report, much of which formed the basis of Covenant drafts.
Traditional Catholics, in the persons of the Bishop of Blackburn and the Rev. Simon Killwick (leader of the Catholic Group), signalled support for the Covenant as a means to provide greater coherence and integrity in Anglicanism.
A succession of speakers aired doubts. Would the Covenant undermine the autonomy of the Church of England or its prophetic spirit? Some thought that Covenant language like “relational consequences” spells a legalistic threat. Foremost among the doubters was the soon-to-retire Bishop of Lincoln, John Saxbee, who thought a Covenant is unnecessary since “Anglicanism is a covenant.”
Canon Elizabeth Paver, a member of the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee, introduced a note of realism: in practice the Covenant will advise, never dictate; and it is vital that the Church of England “give some leadership” on the matter.
Now the Covenant will be considered by diocesan synods. Under the Constitution of the Church of England they cannot amend it, only attach following motions. The last word on the subject has therefore not been said. The position of the Church of England should be clear by the time the ACC meets in 2012.
Read it all here. Meanwhile, a group of GAFCON primates has shot the Anglican Covenant down, releasing their statement on the same day that the Covenant was endorsed by the CoE Synod. To say that BB smashed a few glasses and plates in the cafe kitchen after reading the GAFCON primates press release is an understatement.