The Synod Vote on the Covenant


Wednesday saw the first Synod vote before it goes off to the dioceses for discussion. I was not expecting the “No Anglican Covenant” (NAC) position to have been as annihilated as it was.

Bishops Clergy Laity
In favour 39 145 147
Against 0 32 25
Abstentions 1 11 8
% in Favour 97.5% 77.1% 81.7%

By anybody’s standards that was an overwhelming victory for the Covenant and sends a clear signal to the rest of the Communion that the Church of England is serious about backing it in its current form. Granted it was not the final vote, but the numbers voting in favour were surprisingly large. Even when the draft Act returns from the Diocesan synods it is hard to imagine it falling at the final hurdle.

All of which makes the GAFCON statement this week puzzling.

For the sake of Christ and of His Gospel we can no longer maintain the illusion of normalcy and so we join with other Primates from the Global South in declaring that we will not be present at the next Primates’ meeting to be held in Ireland. And while we acknowledge that the efforts to heal our brokenness through the introduction of an Anglican Covenant were well intentioned we have come to the conclusion the current text is fatally flawed and so support for this initiative is no longer appropriate.

If this is followed through, it means that the Covenant is dead in the water (or at least those initially in the “inside track” would not include the GAFCON provinces). I find this hard to understand, because the very fact that the liberals are fighting furiously to defeat the Act of Synod adopting the Covenant indicates that they are genuinely worried this will mean the end of the game for ECUSA, Canada and others if it is implemented. As Graham Kings and Andrew Goddard have pointed out, the Covenant is not just the only game in town, but it’s a game well worth playing.

The right in contrast are concerned that the covenant does not have enough essential truths explicitly stated and requiring adherence. They appear to believe that the distinction between these is always self-evident and are concerned that anyone who suggests otherwise is seeking to diminish the core of essentials and make some of them – clearly sexual ethics is at the front of their minds – into matters of indifference. One guesses that the essentials are most clearly expressed today in the Jerusalem Declaration.

This approach does not do justice to the substantive and well-founded statement of common faith in section 1 of the covenant. It also fails to recognise that in a communion of churches we need to have some way to discern together which category any action or proposed action falls into and how to respond to any departure from an essential or relational difficulties arising from divergence in matters indifferent. Finally, it does not address the reality that no matter how specific we are able to get in the articulation of core belief and practice this must be interpreted, applied and sometimes revised, and that cannot be done by simple reference to the agreed confession. Their alternative – which appears to involve bringing together a self-selected sub-set of ‘like-minded’ people within the current Communion to set and police boundaries and to trust that it is sufficient to state ‘we acknowledge freedom in secondary matters. We pledge to work together to seek the mind of Christ on issues that divide us’ (Jerusalem Declaration 12) – must address these concerns if it is to be credible and gain wider support.

In contrast, the covenant offers a clear statement of Anglican faith and order as we have received it in the Communion. It then articulates the disciplined patterns of life and structures of communication and mutual accountability through which we can discern which differences that arise among us are differences that matter and which are indeed matters indifferent. This cannot be something left to everyone to decide on their own (the left’s vision) but neither can it be imposed on everyone by one small sub-group (the danger in the right’s vision). It has to be a genuinely corporate seeking the mind of Christ together through reasoned discussion rooted in Scripture and tradition by those committed to a wider vision – articulated in the covenant – of our shared faith, mission and life together.

It could be that the GAFCON/FCA movement is right in principle that the Communion is doomed so it’s better just to accept that fact and move on. They’d be joined in that view by many on the left as well.

It sounds like they are packing their bags and moving out. ++Rowan has been desperate to keen the two sides together, but sometimes this is impossible, and it doesn’t represent a failure on his part, the difference between the worldviews of the two sides is massive and growing … So let us work towards an amicable separation, let us bless each other and ask for God’s joy and peace for each other, and let us try to put the pain of the past behind us as we look forwards to a new future.

If the GAFCON/FCA Primates are wanting to split the Communion rather than save it, they’re going about it in the right way. However, when that happens there will be plenty of us conservatives remaining in the Church of England who think the Covenant is a great way to apply the discipline that’s so desperately needed in the Communion. Sadly, the lack of the GAFCON provinces might mean that that discipline never gets exercised when, as a consequence of their absence, the make up of the Standing Committee changes.

10 Comments on “The Synod Vote on the Covenant

  1. So what do you make of the comment, reported by Church Mouse, that the bishops effectively said, "This is rubbish, let's vote for it?" How much of the "annihilation" was down to personal support for ++Rowan, as opposed to a positive support for the measure? GAFCON's kick in the teeth to the Covenant, I suspect, will be the document's death knell, as it becomes clear it cannot achieve its intended purpose. Will it now survive its passage through the diocesan synods before return to GS?

    • It was Justin Brett who made that comment, not Mouse. I'm not surprised that Justin made that comment, but I don't think it accurately reflects what the Bishops said during the debate.

      On the other hand, you are absolutely right about GAFCON. The GAFCON Primates now have an enormous opportunity to accept the Covenant and help the "interpretation" of exactly how Section 4 pans out in practice. The fact that they will rather withdraw from the process means they may just shoot themselves in the foot.

  2. Actually, to be strictly accurate it was a friend of mine's analysis which I thought was worth sharing. Slight hyperbole, perhaps, but I think it gives you a good idea what the debate was actually like. Nobody in a purple shirt could manage any sort of enthusiasm for it – it was presented as something we simply had to do. The vote was so high as much as anything else because it was turned into a vote of support for ++Rowan, and it's a brave new synod member who goes against that. I don't think there will be many surprises on the voting lists when they are published – it will only be the old hands with strong views and no wish for preferment who voted against. What concerned me most was not how ++Rowan played it, but ++Sentamu's interventions. He could have jollied us along – he's more than capable of it, and it would have done a great deal of good in the rather tense atmosphere – but instead he behaved like a bully, both in that debate and elsewhere in the sessions. It worked in the short term, but as people get more confident it may well come back to bite him.

    I suspect it will go through the majority of the dioceses and come back to Synod, but its passage will be a lot rougher next time round. If we have provinces who have definitely opted out by that time – and as far as I know we have only had declarations of intent so far – it's going to be a much tougher job to sell it to what will by then be a much more confident Synod.

    • Thanks Justin,

      I think you're right that when it returns to Synod it will be a harder fight, though I think given the size of the majority this time the NAC lobby will have an uphill task.

      For the record, how did you vote?

  3. I am new synod member, and I voted against it. I concur with Justin about the level of support and the nature of it. The Bishop of Lincoln got the largest round of applause when he said that 'we should carry on talking about the covenant, but never sign up to it'. The bishop of Gloucester hinted at much better ways of doing things.

  4. As I say – we were given good reasons to vote against it by at least two of the bishops who spoke in the debate – one of whom presented a much better way of doing things, in the same way that Bishop Alan Wilson has presented a much better way of doing things in his blog. There is only one Christ and only one foot of the cross – it's there that we find our unity, not in religious structures. We need much less religion and much more faith. It was interesting to hear Graham kings' take on it this morning on the Sunday programme – and not least to hear him confirm what we all know: that the Gafcon people are already a break away church and have put themselves outside the Anglican Communion already.

    • Strange. The Gafcon primates all seem to think their provinces are members of the Anglican Communion. Dr Kings want them to attend the primates meeting and also to sign the covenant so he must think they are members of the anglican Communion too.

      • Andrew just wants to be Anglican when it suits him, not be Anglican when it doesn't suit him and reject others as being Anglican when they don't suit him.

        As opposed to the Covenant which wants to let as many people as possible be Anglicans, as long as they are actually Anglicans and can agree on the core essentials.

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