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Debate on a Covenant for the Anglican Communion

Wednesday 13th February 2008

Archbishop's Contribution at the General Synod

I wanted to make three points as briefly as I can, partly in response, partly to open up one dimension of the language of covenant itself.

The first point is what we heard concerning mechanisms of exclusion. That is a very unpleasant term, and I agree with those who said that they feel that discomfort and that unpleasantness in it. Behind it lies the very difficult but I think unavoidable question 'Are there limits plurality infinitely extendable?' Put in those terms I doubt whether we would any of us say that they were, but our problem in the Communion is that there are some things we know we can disagree about and that some things we don't quite know that we can disagree about. I'm tempted to quote Donald Rumsfeld wasn't it on 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' and all that so on; but I think it would be a dangerous assumption that there are no areas where that question doesn't arise, the question of limits.

Second in relation to exclusion, as Tim Dakin has, I think hinted, there is an issue in the Communion about who speaks for whom; who speaks for the Communion and that's felt very acutely by those who, as we were reminded in some of the earlier speeches is very felt very acutely, who don't feel they've got the same sort of access as other churches to means of communication, to the English language, that sort of thing. Some of the energy and some of the abrasion in this question of limits and exclusion does come from that set of issues around power, and I think we had better be aware of that. Next; I wanted to say just a word about the practicalities of the Archbishop of Canterbury's position; now I have a lot of sympathy with what the bishop of Chelmsford said about this, and I did want to say that in some circumstances it can be a saving of energy rather than otherwise if you know what you can't do or what you're supposed to do rather than being endlessly at the mercies of fantasies and projections about what an Archbishop of Canterbury ought to do, and I just mention that in passing.

More substantively and finally, just a word about the nature of Covenant. As I understand the biblical concept, Covenant is about the self-giving, the absolute self-giving of God, which calls out a self-giving on the part of human beings to whom God's love is given. And when that response of self giving love on the human side becomes inadequate, corrupted, idle or just something that involved rejection, then something is fractured that has to be rebuilt. Not giving in response to God's giving has consequences and in our relations with one another we try I think in the Church and I think the emphasis is biblical position, we try to find ways of mutual self-giving which in some ways keep alive, alert us to the depths of God's own self-giving and you can say that a covenant relationship between Christians is a promise to be willing to be converted by each other. I think that works ecumenically and in the communion as well. But that's why I think the word covenant is not so wildly inappropriate as all that.

Bracketing for a moment the details of the exclusionary issue – though it's important and as I hinted at the beginning; not something I want to ignore; bracketing that for a moment, I think we ought to be excited and enthused by the notion that our Anglican family might just find new life and new vigour if it were prepared very consciously and prayerfully to make the sort of commitments to each other within the family that involved the willingness to be converted by each other, and therefore to see our relations within the communion not as a constant struggle of power and leverage but something deeper.

© Rowan Williams 2008

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