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Is the Anglican Covenant Catholic?
In November General Synod will be asked to approve a draft Act of Synod adopting the Anglican Communion Covenant. This is being presented primarily as a way of dealing with disputes and living together as a family of churches. But it is also an ecclesiological statement; it expresses a particular understanding of what it is to be the church, of what “church” and “communion” mean. As the Covenant text makes clear, accepting the Covenant entails accepting this understanding of the church. But is it an understanding that Anglican Catholics can recognise and accept?
As John Riches has pointed out, the Covenant, like the Windsor Report before it, draws on different and sometimes conflicting ecclesiologies. So its vision of what the Church is, and consequently what communion is, is incoherent. Above all, it is the lack of a clear Eucharistic ecclesiology, and the prevalence of other views which owe much to the Reformation, which is a serious obstacle for anyone approaching the Covenant from a Catholic perspective.
This is apparent from the beginning. The Introduction to the Covenant Text, which is said to have “authority in understanding the purpose of the Covenant” (Covenant 4.1.1) sets out its theological frame of reference. So paragraph 1 describes our calling into communion as a gift of God, a participation in the Life of the Trinity, and cites The Church of the Triune God (CTG) in support. So far so good. But then the Introduction makes no mention at all of the Eucharist – in a document setting out what communion means and how it is effected! One might ask what happened to CTG’s central thesis that it is the Eucharist which “reveals and realises the gift of trinitarian communion given to the Church by the Holy Spirit”. Likewise ARCIC’s Church as Communion occasionally appears in the Covenant, but with the complete omission of its emphasis that it is the Eucharist which is constitutive of the Church. These are important documents, agreed by Anglicans, about the nature of the Church’s communion; and yet the Covenant, whilst borrowing from them in passing (and not always with a citation), ignores their central message completely. (There also incidentally seems to be an odd bit of process theology in the statement that the life of the Holy Trinity “shapes and displays itself” through the church.)
So if the Eucharist does not make the Church, does not establish communion, what does? The Introduction lays heavy emphasis on the covenants of the Old and New Testaments. Significantly, this includes the first mention of baptism, and it is the new covenant of Christ into which we are said to be baptised, rather than His body. True, paragraph 3 of the Introduction does state that the universal Church is Christ’s Body, but in the context of common life and mutual responsibility, of the working out of covenant.
John Riches argues there is a strong thread of Reformation ecclesiology running through the Anglican Covenant. In classic Reformed theology the true Church is invisible; it is the believer’s personal relationship with Christ which is foundational to belonging to this Church; the local, visible, institutions which serve this Church are human constructs whose members may or may not be among the saved, and so need clear membership criteria to ensure as far as possible that only true believers get in. And the language of covenant – a covenant constructed by human beings – is not far away from such a view. This has to be the theology of the Anglican Covenant of course, because it is at heart a document about how to tell when people don’t belong to the visible institution, and only a Reformation ecclesiology can do this with sufficient clarity.
So, in the Introduction, the covenants established by God in Scripture segue seamlessly into the covenant which we are now to make together to maintain our communion. No qualification or explanation is supplied to let us know if we should understand the word “covenant” differently in this case. What is proposed is a functional structure that one has to opt into, if, that is, the existing members approve the applicant’s doctrinal and moral worthiness. It is church imagined as something that human beings construct in the service of the Gospel.
This is, indeed, what evangelicals have been campaigning for. Oliver O’Donovan, for example, in 2006 envisaged a “communion” where “Christians are not admitted as Christians by other Christians, only recognized as Christians on the basis of the Holy Spirit’s work in them” and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role is “to give voice and effect to judgements the churches have reached about the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst, to speak and act on behalf of their common mutual recognition”. There’s no room there for the catholic principle of recognising people as Christians (even if not very good ones) on the basis of their common baptism.
The Covenant is also marked by a continual confusion between the local and universal meanings of “church”. The Anglican Communion is, we are told in the Preamble (citing Revelation 7:9), “people of God drawn from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’”. That seems rather universal, even eschatological. Likewise, 3.2.3 tells us that new and controversial matters “need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church”; and that’s “Church” in the proper case, without qualification, even though what is being talked about is Anglican, that is local, churches. But as Anglicans we can claim to be no more than the historic local churches of the British Isles and their more recent descendants elsewhere in the world. As such we do indeed share a common life in which we belong to each other. But that common life must not be confused with that of the universal Church of which we are but part.
Vatican II’s understanding of local churches is, “legitimate local congregations of the faithful united with their pastors” sharing the Apostolic ministry and celebrating the one Eucharist (Lumen Gentium) . The universal Church is present in all local churches but is more than the sum of its parts; it is, foundationally, a Divine reality which the local churches receive and participate in, not something constructed from below. In the Covenant this ought to follow on from the Trinitarian basis of communion mentioned in the Introduction, but the connection fails to be made.
When it comes to the structures of discernment and discipline proposed by the Covenant the local seems to be imitating the universal with the new centralised mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. Are we here looking at other “communions” with envy? If so, we are making a basic mistake about Anglican ecclesiology. The Roman Curia has a universal competence precisely because Roman ecclesiology is universal: the Catholic Church subsists in the Roman. Likewise the Orthodox can have firm structures of discernment and discipline because they claim to be the universal Church and so, collectively, know the mind of the Church. Anglicans can make no such claim. So are we trying to imitate something we are not with this incipient quasi-Papalism? Or is it rather a local Protestant understanding of the church, a human club with membership rules, mapped globally?
As John Riches says, the Covenant and its predecessor the Windsor Report, “drink from diverse wells and the result is a mingling of ecclesiologies which sit quite uneasily alongside each other. The call for the strengthening of the so-called ‘Instruments’ [of Communion]… receives very uncertain support from the ecclesiological reflections which are offered here. In the end, most support comes from those traditions endebted (sic) to the Continental Reformation and there to its more radical wing.”
The Covenant is a confused document. It incoherently references different ecclesiologies, but its overwhelming tenor and direction is Protestant. The statement in 2.1.2 that Anglican churches have been “reshaped” by the Reformation is a worrying clue to this. In May 2008 Cardinal Kasper called on the Anglican Communion to decide whether it belonged to the church of the first millennium or to the Protestant Reformation. The repercussions of the possible answers to that are of course very much still with us. But the Covenant, insofar as it is clear at all, points to an answer which Catholics will find very difficult to accept.
November 5 2010
 J Riches, “Talking Points from Books”, The Expository Times, 2008; 119; 417. See also NT Wright’s reply in 119; 469 and Riches’ reply to Wright in 119; 521.
 The Church of the Triune God - The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the International Commission for Anglican - Orthodox Theological Dialogue, Anglican Consultative Council 2006, para 12.
 O O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin – the Churches and the Gay Controversy, SCM Press 2009, p 23
 See also Cardinal Ratzinger’s lucid exposition of the Ecclesiology of Vatican II,
 J Riches, Op. Cit., 420