The Church of England's parliament has overwhelmingly approved the "Covenant" which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, hopes will prevent the worldwide 70m-strong Anglican Communion from falling apart (see my earlier post). The three houses which make up the General Synod -- bishops, clergy and laity -- voted with clear majorities to send the Covenant to the Church of England's 44 dioceses for debate before final approval in 2012.
But as soon as the vote was passed, both liberals and evangelicals among the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces -- which are virtually autonomous Churches -- made clear they would reject it.
In a statement apparently written early in October, but only released yesterday, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) Primates' Council, made up conservative evangelicals mostly in the developing world, said the text of the Covenant was "fatally flawed". They believe that it would be too weak to impose traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality on the north American Episcopalians, who sparked the crisis in the Communion in 2003 when they consecrated an openly gay bishop in defiance of the Anglican Primates worlwide.
Meanwhile, liberals in the No Anglican Covenant described the Covenant as "ill-conceived" for precisely the opposite reason --that it erodes the traditional autonomies which they believe Anglican provinces should have. It criticises the "centralised dispute-resolution mechanisms" in the Covenant and its attempt to impose doctrinal orthodoxy.
Many of the reports of the vote therefore conclude that the Covenant is dead in the water -- even before it is sent to the rest of the Communion.
That is a misreading. Although +Rowan Williams wants as many Anglican provinces as possible to sign up to it, he always knew that introducing a more Catholic ecclesiology -- defining boundaries of doctrinal orthodoxy -- would alienate both the conservative evangelicals and the liberal Anglicans. The loss of GAFCON and the Episcopal Church of North America are foreseen, if not intended, consequences of the Covenant process.
But the gain lies in a stronger, more unified, and more coherent Anglican Church, even if it will be considerably smaller than now. For Catholics that is good news, because Rome can again have a dialogue partner it can do business with.
The good news for Anglicans will be that they can put an end to the endless eviscerating rows over homosexuality. The disagreements won't end, but the hope is that the Covenant will enable them to be contained -- rather than, as now, resulting in provinces declaring themselves out of communion with each other.
The vote today enables the process to begin, a process which over the next few years will see the Anglican Church at the same time both come together and move apart.
In Light of the World, Pope Benedict describes "national Churches" as "anachronisms" in an age of globalisation. A Church does not grow, he says, "by withdrawing into some national shell". The Church, he says, "needs unity, she needs something like a primacy".
Did he have the Anglicans in mind?