A Critique of the Covenant through Michael Ramsey’s Theology

By Jared C. Cramer

The following is an excerpt from Fr. Cramer’s book, Safeguarded by Glory: Michael Ramsey’s Ecclesiology and the Struggles of Contemporary Anglicanism, published by Lexington Books and available from Amazon.com.

Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, served from 1961—1974, and is now widely respected by both liberals and conservatives within the Anglican Communion. I believe careful attention to his approach to theology yields significant insight for the life of the contemporary church. Indeed, there are several ways in which Ramsey’s approach to theology and the doctrine of the church interact with the Anglican Communion today. Some of that is surely due to the simple fact that humans have not changed: they are still prone to sects and idols. However, in some other ways his words speak profound criticism to recent trends within the Communion. While it would be impossible to trace each and every way that Ramsey’s theology speaks to the contemporary church, there are a few areas where it seems his words are especially needed. One of the most significant is the proposed Anglican Covenant.

The first point of critique, of course, is the very existence of the Covenant itself. When the revision of canon law came up while Ramsey was Archbishop of Canterbury, he did not engage it fully because of his belief that law could not usually solve the problems of the church. Ramsey consistently praised the “non-confessional” approach of Anglican Christianity, glad that the truth of God expressed in the creeds is a sufficient standard for Christian belief. Furthermore, the easy confidence that seems to have arisen in our Communion with giving great authority to high level drafted statements is problematic. When Ramsey was in ecumenical meetings, he had deep doubts about the possibilities of engaging the profoundest matters of theology through “high pressure drafting,” asking, “Why should such procedures be the medium through which the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church?” [1]

Within the final draft of the Covenant there are also several specific points for critique. First, the way in which the “historic formularies of the Church of England” supposedly provide an interpretive framework for Scripture is problematic. This is especially so for the inclusion of the Thirty-Nine Articles. While Ramsey acknowledged the place of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Christian and Anglican tradition, he would certainly never have given them the high place to which the Covenant seems to put them. It must be remembered that he presided over the 1968 Lambeth Conference that had a resolution devoted entirely to the question of the Thirty-Nine Articles. That resolution (resolution 43) said three things: each church should consider whether it is necessary for them to be bound in the prayer book, assenting to the Thirty-Nine Articles should no longer be required of ordinands, and that if subscription is to be required, it should be “only in the context of a statement which gives the full range of our inheritance of faith and sets the Articles in their historical context.” Furthermore, Ramsey himself insisted that what was important to a proper understanding of Anglican faith was not the articles, for they are profoundly historically limited: every group in the Reformation had its articles. Rather, when asked what Anglicans stand for, he suggests the proper answer is, “Yes, here are our articles, but here is our Prayer Book as well—come and pray with us, come and worship with us, and that is how you will understand what we stand for.” [2] That is, what Anglicans stand for is found in an experience of common worship, not a historically limited document.

On the problem of “living out this inheritance of faith in varying contexts” (Sec 1.2), the Covenant speaks primarily of the importance of Scripture and tradition. Where reason does occur (1.2.2), it is answerable to Holy Scripture and catholic tradition. This is a profoundly problematic, not to mention simplistic, approach to theological decision-making—especially adjudicating proper theological decision-making in different cultural contexts. Ramsey would have steadfastly rejected this approach, insisting it did not give enough room for reason and that it gave no room for the revelation of God through avenues outside the church.

Even all the Covenant insistence upon the importance of the creeds seems to miss part of the point of the creeds. As Ramsey argued, the creeds exist to protect the church from the insistence of various parties that their views be seen as the most important. Thus the creeds should not be used to divide, but to turn back the rising tide of schismatic pride. The creeds properly functioning in the Anglican Communion not only provide an interpretive key to Holy Scripture, they also clarify the heart of Christian faith to those on both sides. To those on the right, the creeds remind them that ethical disputes are not at the center of the Christian faith. Ramsey himself insisted the church should never use ethical criteria to determine the pure. To those on the left, the creeds clarify that as important as social justice is, it is only a Christian concern when it is united to the Gospel message of God’s self-giving love in Christ. To say the church should act in a certain way because it is “a justice issue” fails to properly articulate the Gospel. It would be much better to say the church should act in a certain way because it more fully reveals the Gospel of God in Christ.

Particularly troubling in the final Anglican Covenant is the section the ACC also found difficult in the Ridley Cambridge Draft: section 4. Even given the revisions in the final text, it seems that “the teeth” of the Covenant have been placed squarely in the jaws of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion (SCAC). Though the Covenant acknowledges that “each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations,” section 4.3 also makes clear that not participating in this Covenant raises important questions “relating to the meaning of the Covenant and of compatibility with the principles incorporated within it.” Furthermore, not participating may “trigger” the provisions set out in 4.2 for the limitation or suspension of engagement with the Instruments of Communion. Thus, in the Anglican Covenant, the organ of unity ceases to be the traditionally Anglican broad approach, where we find unity in our shared worship and historic relationships. In the Covenant, not participating in it, or not ceding to the requests made through the processes of the Covenant raises questions as to just how Anglican one really is.

Certainly, the Episcopal Church needs to practice a greater understanding of its place within the Communion than it did in 2003. It has admitted such since then. It is true that too often members of the Episcopal Church are not truly listening to the beliefs and concerns of their brothers and sisters in other provinces—content instead to offer only support and aid. However, this Covenant responds by undermining the traditional understandings of the Communion whose bonds of affection the Episcopal Church only strained. Ironically, the Covenant seeks clarity and a definite process of how exactly to break relationships in order to adjudicate relationship. Most problematically, the Anglican covenant provides mechanisms to cement and effect division. As many raised their concerns with the development of centralized authority in global polity, the ironic result has been a covenant that now explicitly allows any province to say “I have no need of you.”

What if, instead, the Covenant insisted that member churches must remain in relationship? What if it called them to take seriously the historic documents of Anglican ecclesiology like the Quadrilateral, insisting these are the actual standard of Communion relationship? One can clearly see the mechanism for separation in the Anglican Covenant, but it is much harder to see the mechanism for deep and abiding relationship. An approach to unity based upon forced policies and lists of doctrine and church principles results in precisely the same problem that created the sin of schism: the idea that one’s own perception of Christian faith is the one that is normative. At the end of the day, however, neither the Primates’ Meeting, nor the (Anglican Consultative Council, nor the SCAC, nor any other group will succeed in telling one bishop or group of bishops with whom they should consider themselves in Communion or in strained relationship. The unity which the Covenant purports to seek will remain out of reach.


[1] James B. Simpson, The Hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 134.

[2] Michael Ramsey, The Anglican Spirit (Seabury Classics; ed. by Dale D. Coleman; New York: Church Publishing, 2004), 7.

The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer is the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan. He blogs on his parish website at http://www.stjohnsepiscopal.com/

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