Of fish bones and following winds: on the proposed Anglican covenant

By Frederick Quinn

“A plate of fish bones” is how the Archbishop of Canterbury described the fourth section of the draft Anglican Covenant currently being circulated throughout the Anglican Communion, but the bones heap over to the whole document as well. A year ago at Lambeth the Archbishop declared he felt “a following wind” in support of the Covenant, a zephyr unrecorded elsewhere.

Some observations on the overall document in its entirety:

1.) There never has been and is not now much widespread support for a Covenant. How the draft was declared accepted by church membership across the wider Anglican Communion remains as mysterious as an Egyptian election. There was no general referendum, and the published responses (from only 21 out of 38 Provinces) posted on the Anglican Communion website are complex, incomplete and raise many thoughtful, unanswered questions. There is no groundswell here.

2.) The word catholic (small c) appears several times in the draft. But not the word Protestant, which represents a major part of the Anglican heritage. A revolutionary aspect of the English Reformation was placing the Bible in the hands of the people (“Laity” is another missing word in the Covenant). The current draft (1.2.4) speaks of the Bible, but its interpretation is primarily left in the hands of bishops and synods. Guess where that leads.

3.) The draft Covenant appeals to tradition (1.1.2). But carefully read the footnote. Tradition is not the via media that is Anglicanism’s balanced, delicately wrought heritage, but the 39 Articles and 1662 English Prayer Book (never adopted in Scotland or the United States). The 39 Articles of 1563 were influential but never accepted as a creedal document in Anglicanism. They represent a restrictive temporary compromise reached during a particularly fractious period of English Reformation history.

4.) Surprisingly, the foremost Anglican voices of the English Reformation are ignored, especially Richard Hooker and John Jewell who wrested with the same power issues as the covenanters, but came to more gracious, commodious solutions that allow for the expression of differing opinions within reasonable boundaries.

5.) Additionally, covenants were once a widespread feature of Protestant Europe, where a “Covenant Belt” once existed. They Covenant idea was proposed in England and was rejected. Ignoring the English and Continental Reformations won’t make them go away.

6.) The Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces represent starkly different histories and structures. The resultant organization is at best a loose confederation, the understandable byproduct of a postcolonial era, arrived at more by historical accident than administrative intent. There are 38 dotted lines linked globally in various patterns of religious relationships, person to person, church to church, diocese to diocese, etc. Real mission flow in the twenty first century is horizontal, not vertically. Canterbury is not Rome, and all roads do not point to a favored European capital. There is no need to change that.

7.) The document’s grimmest line is near the end where the Covenant is supposed to be signed “with joy.” What joy? Whose joy? There is not a joyful line in the whole leaden document.


While individual Covenant sentences have been shaved to give an appearance of balance, tracing a wiring diagram through the actual document reveals multiple lines leading to forms of centralized power that were previously unknown and unacceptable in Anglicanism. This effort is done with the subtlety of elephants moving through dried grass.

The Covenant exercise should be seen for what it is, one part of a multi-year power play that has gone awry. It represents a sustained but erroneous effort to rewrite history and claim that a narrow, mean spirited perspective somehow represents our heritage. Windsor was an incomplete, biased report, the coup attempt at Dar Es Salaam failed, and the draft Covenant represents an unattainable effort to seize the levers of power in an amorphous organization.

The Anglican Communion’s binding ties are not legal ones but extend through long cultivated bonds of affection and commitment to the creative challenges of mission. The fish bones in the draft Covenant are far too numerous, and the following wind has long expired. So should the Covenant.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn has served as advisor to constitutional drafters in several countries of central and Eastern Europe, and as a chaplain of Washington National Cathedral. He has written extensively on law, history, and religion. He is former head of the Rule of Law programs for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

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