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Anglican Ecclesiology and the Anglican Covenant

  • Paul Avis


How can we explain the fact that the Anglican Covenant divides people of equal integrity and comparable wisdom around the world? We need to ask whether we have correctly understood both the ecclesiology of the Anglican Communion and the terms of the Covenant. What is implied in being a Communion of Churches, where the churches are the subjects of the relationship of communion (koinonia)? What does the Covenant commit its signatories to and, in particular, what does it say about doctrinal and ethical criteria for communion? Is it legitimate to apply biblical covenant language, in which the covenant relationship is between God and Israel, to relations between churches? By addressing some of the concerns of those who oppose it, a case is made in favour of the Covenant and some reassurances are offered. In conclusion, the mystical dimension of being in communion is affirmed.


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Paul Avis was the General Secretary of the Church of England's Council for Christian Unity, 1998–2011, and subsequently Theological Consultant to the Anglican Communion Office, London. He is currently Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral and Honorary Professor of Theology at the University of Exeter, UK. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Ecclesiology and a Chaplain to HM Queen Elizabeth II.



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4. This is an expanded version of a paper given at a conference on the Covenant at Wycliffe College, Toronto, in May 2012.

5. Norman Doe, Cf., An Anglican Covenant: Theological and Legal Considerations for a Global Debate (London: Canterbury Press 2008), pp. 4751. A helpful analysis of recent Anglican history is provided by Bruce Kaye, Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith: The Anglican Experiment (Eugene, OR; Cascade Books; Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2011). See also Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

6. There is, however, a substantial body of canonical principles that can be drawn from the corpus of the canon law of the Anglican churches and which is held in common: The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2008). See also the discussion by Christopher Hill, ‘Ecclesiological and Canonical Observations on The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal 14 (2012), pp. 400–407.

7. Cf. Colin J. Podmore, ‘A Tale of Two Churches: The Ecclesiologies of the Episcopal Church and the Church of England Compared’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal 10 (2008), pp. 34–70; reprinted in International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8 (2008), pp. 124–54. At least some of what Dr Podmore calls differences of ecclesiology, I would understand as differences of polity, though of course polity should always be grounded in ecclesiology and always has ecclesiological implications.

8. Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue: The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 (London: SPCK, 1985), 28 (p. 18): ‘… even though the seniority ascribed to the Archbishop of Canterbury is not identical with that given to the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Anglican Communion has developed on the Orthodox rather than the Roman Catholic pattern, as a fellowship of self-governing national or regional Churches’. Cf. Methodios Fouyas, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism (London: Oxford University Press, 1972).

9. Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 49: Roger Coleman (ed.), Resolutions of the Twelve Lambeth Conferences 1867–1988 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1992), pp. 83–84.

10. See further Andrew Goddard, ‘The Anglican Communion Covenant and the Church of England: Ramifications’,

11. Goddard, ‘The Anglican Communion Covenant’, p. 84.

12. Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Church of Australia (The Green Book). The Constitution immediately goes on to affirm the autonomy of the Church within certain limits of faith and order: ‘… but has plenary authority at its own discretion to make statements as to the faith ritual ceremonial or discipline of this Church and to order its forms of worship and rules of discipline and to alter or revise such statements, forms and rules, provided that all such statements, forms, rules or alteration or revision thereof are consistent with the Fundamental Declarations contained herein and are made as prescribed by this Constitution. Provided, and it is hereby further declared, that the above-named Book of Common Prayer, together with the Thirty-nine Articles, be regarded as the authorised standard of worship and doctrine in this Church, and no alteration in or permitted variations from the services or Articles therein contained shall contravene any principle of doctrine or worship laid down in such standard.’

13. Constitution I, 1, 1–6. The Constitution Canons and Rules of the Anglican Church of Australia 2010.

14. Statement of Principles within the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Canada.

15. Constitution of the Episcopal Church: Preamble.

16. Canon A 1: ‘The Church of England, established according to the laws of this realm under the Queen's Majesty, belongs to the true and apostolic Church of Christ; and, as our duty to the said Church of England requires, we do constitute and ordain that no member thereof shall be at liberty to maintain or hold the contrary.’

17. Canon C 15.

18. Paul McPartlan, Cf.‘The Local Church and the Universal Church: Zizioulas and the Kasper-Ratzinger Debate’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 4 (2004), pp. 2133.

19. An insight of Orthodox theology that has fed into the more widely received eucharistic ecclesiology. Radu Bordeianu, Cf., Dumitru Staniloe: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology (Ecclesiological Investigations 13; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2011), p. 215.

20. But see the critical examination of this interpretation in Andrew T. Lincoln, ‘Communion: Some Pauline Foundations’, Ecclesiology 5 (2009), pp. 135–60 and my Editorial in the same issue, ‘A Challenge to Communion Ecclesiology’, pp. 132–34.

21. The Eames Commission stressed that all concerned in disagreements over the ordination of women should endeavour to live in the highest degree of communion possible: The Eames Commission: The Official Reports (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1994).

22. Avis, Paul, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole? (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010), ch. 10.

23. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cf., The Cost of Discipleship (trans. R.H. Fuller; London: SCM Press, 1959), pp. 3537.

24. E.g. The Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report 2004 (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2004), Foreword by the Most Revd Dr Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh, Chairman, p. 11: ‘The “bonds of affection”, so often quoted as a precious attribute of Anglican Communion life ..’.

25. John Henry Newman, Parochial Sermons (London: Rivington, 1835), II, p. 254 (Sermon XIX, Whit-Sunday: ‘The Indwelling Spirit’).

26. Vanier, Jean, From Brokenness to Community (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), p. 76. See also A.E. Harvey, ‘Schizophrenia in Young People and the nekrosis of Christ’, Theology 115.2 (2012), pp. 92–98.

27. See further Avis, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology, ch. 8: ‘Building and Breaking Communion’. The teaching of various Anglican divines on questions of separation is given in Paul Avis, Anglicanism and the Christian Church: Theological Resources in Historical Perspective (London and New York: T&T Clark, rev. edn, 2002), passim.

28. See further: John Rees, ‘Covenant and Communion’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal 14 (2012), pp. 235–55 – particularly helpful on section 4 of the Covenant; Andrew Goddard, ‘Unity and Diversity, Communion and Covenant: Theological, Ecclesiological, Political and Missional Challenges for Anglicanism’, in Mark D. Chapman (ed.), The Anglican Covenant: Unity and Diversity in the Anglican Communion (London and New York: Mowbray, 2008), pp. 47–80; Benjamin M. Guyer (ed.), Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012).

29. For historical examples of the juridical issues raised by ‘provincial autonomy’ see Frances Knight, ‘“A Church without Discipline Is No Church at All”: Discipline and Diversity in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Anglicanism’, in Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (eds.), Discipline and Diversity: Papers Read at the 2005 Summer Meeting and the 2006 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society (Woodbridge: Boydell Brewer, 2007), pp. 399–418. See also Mark Chapman, ‘“By Schisms Rent Asunder, By Heresies Distrest”: Anglicanism after the Windsor Report’, in Gerard Mannion (ed.), Church and Religious ‘Other’ (Ecclesiological Investigations, 4; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2008), ch. 10.

30. Paragraphs 72–86. Cf. Norman Doe, An Anglican Covenant, pp. 105–107.

31. See Avis, Paul, Beyond the Reformation? Authority, Primacy and Unity in the Conciliar Tradition (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006).

32. Guyer in Guyer (ed.), Pro Communione, p. 15.

33. For resources on the substantive issue of same-gender relationships see Groves, Philip (ed.), The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality (London: SPCK, 2008).

34. J. Robert Wright (ed.), Quadrilateral at One Hundred: Essays on the Centenary of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral 1886/88–1986/88 (Anglican Theological Review, March 1988, Supplement Series, Number Ten; Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications; London and Oxford: Mowbray, 1988); R. William Franklin, ‘The Episcopal Church in the USA and the Covenant: The Place of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’, in Chapman (ed.), The Anglican Covenant, pp. 101–22.

35. Coleman (ed.), Resolutions of the Twelve Lambeth Conferences, p. 165: Resolutions of 1968, Resolution 43: ‘The Conference accepts the main conclusion of the Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Christian Doctrine entitled Subscription and Assent to the Thirty-nine Articles …’.

36. See also Peter Doll, ‘Autonomy or Communion? The Passion of the Episcopal Church’, Theology 115.6 (2012), pp. 427–35.

37. John Barton, ‘Covenant in the Bible and Today’, in Chapman (ed.), The Anglican Covenant, pp. 193–203, at p. 202.

38. Vriezen, Th. C., An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2nd edn, 1970). pp. 166170; Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. John Baker; London: SCM Press, 1961), I, pp. 36–69; Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. A.W. Heathcote and P.J. Allcock; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958), p. 211; Ephraim Radner, ‘Foreword: The Covenant Way’, in Guyer (ed.), Pro Communione, pp. xvii–xxvii. The expression ‘bond of communion’ for God's covenant with Israel is used by both Vriezen and Jacob.

39. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 38, 52.

40. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 211.

41. Nicholson, Ernest, God and his People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 209.

42. Nicholson, God and his People, pp. 210–16.

43. Koehler, Ludwig, Old Testament Theology (trans. A.S. Todd; London: Lutterworth Press, 1957), pp. 6071.

44. Dodd, C.H., According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952), pp. 4446: ‘Although… there is only one place where the prophecy of the New Covenant is expressly cited as from scripture [Heb. 8.8-12], it seems clear that it was widely influential in the Church from an early date, since it has not only influenced Paul, Hebrews and the Synoptic tradition, and possibly the Johannine tradition too, but probably had a place in primitive liturgical forms’ (p. 46).

45. See the discussion in Doe, An Anglican Covenant, chs. 2 and 3.

46. See Fiddes, Paul, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003), ch. 2.

47. An Anglican-Methodist Covenant (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House; London: Church House Publishing, 2001).

1. Paul Avis was the General Secretary of the Church of England's Council for Christian Unity, 1998–2011, and subsequently Theological Consultant to the Anglican Communion Office, London. He is currently Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral and Honorary Professor of Theology at the University of Exeter, UK. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Ecclesiology and a Chaplain to HM Queen Elizabeth II.

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Journal of Anglican Studies
  • ISSN: 1740-3553
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