Tuesday, May 23, 2006

From Common Prayer then to Instruments then to Covenant and to what next?

Suggestions to improve Anglican self-understanding.

Seemingly, all of a sudden in 2006, Anglicans are talking about making a Covenant to bind together all the Provinces, with all their dioceses, with all their parishes and amidst all the variety of liturgies, churchmanships and doctrines. One Covenant for 75,000 000 Anglicans.

1 Not too long ago -- a time when I can remember -- what was generally believed bound together the Anglican national and provincial churches across the world was the use of one or another edition of The Book of Common Prayer (1662 in England and various dates elsewhere) in English and other languages. Anglicans were the people of Common Prayer and wherever one went in the world until the 1970s one could count of finding Common Prayer in use where Anglicans were found.

Of course, there was also a common Ministry, all ordained from the Ordinal attached to the BCP of 1662. And there were bonds of affection towards the Mother Church in England and between members. However, the practical, uniting reality was the use of the BCP.

2. Then, in the 1970s the rush to produce forms of alternative services for worship began and most of the provinces in the North/West had a decade of trial use until they each produced a book of such services. And, in the main, not too wise bishops tried to get all parishes to use these. However, they were not identical, for each province managed in the name of innovation and change to produce a similar but different new book of prayer for public worship. So whereas there had been a general uniformity in content (if not in churchmanship) before 1970 from the 1970s onwards there was variety and much of it in both structure and content of services of worship.

So unity had to be sought somewhere else and, in this period, talk of “the instruments of unity” became increasingly the inspired word from the hierarchy, who, wishing to preserve unity in and amongst Anglican provinces, had to find something to replace Common Prayer as the sign and glue of unity. The “instruments” recognized or created were the See of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops (meeting every ten years), the Anglican Consultative Council (meeting every two or three years) and the Primates’ [Archbishops’] Meeting (now every year). It was believed that different provinces, but with bonds of affection and a common heritage, could be held together through these personal means of conversation, debate and advice. However, it was known from the beginning, and became increasingly clear as the 1990s dawned, that the “instruments” had no real authority or power and they could only influence by moral persuasion.

The ordination of women, first as deacons, then as presbyters and then as bishops, brought tremendous tension and division between and within provinces, and the “Instruments” sought hard to find ways to keep everyone in the same boat, within the one fellowship. However, with the advent of the new sexual doctrine and practice (e.g., the blessing of same-sex partners and the ordaining of persons in such arrangements), the “Instruments” were fully stretched and even stretched beyond their capabilities, for they can only advise and cannot require a given Province or diocese to come to heel. Thus the Anglican Communion is on the verge of explicit division, between the progressives (found especially in ECUSA) and the traditionalists (found especially in the provinces of Africa and Asia).

3. So the new hope for keeping everyone together – even the progressives and the traditionalists – is by means of an “Anglican Covenant”. That is a form of words, carefully created by ecclesiastical lawyers, to which each and every province commits itself, and by which it promises not to introduce any major innovation in doctrine and ethics without long and careful consultation with all. To produce such a Covenant, that is agreeable as a starter to the present “Instruments” and then is approved by the Synods of thirty-eight provinces is a tall order indeed; but that is where the present leadership of the Anglican Churches are seemingly heading, hoping for the best in this most difficult and demanding – maybe impossible – goal.


Common Prayer bound together Anglicans from the sixteenth to the twentieth century; the Instruments of Unity helped to preserve unity for two decades or so; and Anglican Covenant is seemingly the only hope for the future!

Common Prayer did not fail; it was actively pushed aside in much of the North or West or the Anglican Communion in the 1970s. The Instruments have only ever worked very minimally because they are set in the context of autonomous, self-governing provinces and their authority is only at best moral and rational. If ever a Covenant is devised and approved by all, then the Anglican Communion will have reached a stage – where some of its members want it to be now – and that is of pursuing unity for unity’s sake and not unity for truth’s sake.

In contrast to all this, the large Province of Nigeria has set its own course from 2005 as based upon the classic Anglican basis – that is on the Formularies, the BCP 1662, with its Ordinal and Articles of Religion. Maybe others will follow for that is where Anglicans everywhere used to be!

The Revd Dr Peter Toon www.anglicansatprayer.org May 22, 2006

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