In past posts I have drawn attention to the merits of the Anglican Covenant in checking the unrestrained progress of diversity within the Anglican Communion, diversity which runs the risk of evacuating the word 'Anglican' of any useful meaning, and rendering the word 'Communion' meaningless as we have less and less in common. A specific case in point noted by me is the recent move of the Diocese of Sydney to institute diaconal presidency at the eucharist and to underline (again) its insistence that mere pragmatic considerations restrain archepiscopal hands from signing lay presidency into life. The Covenant I have suggested would highlight the lack of Anglican character and polity in this move. Opponents of the Covenant counter-claim that instituting the Covenant will not fix such problems.
This counter-claim involves one of two views about Anglican coherence: either it does not matter ('let diversity reign ... "unity" is just uniformity and we do not want that') or it can be achieved by current Anglican policy, that is, by continuing to talk with one another. That the latter seems to involve a form of increased coherence by virtue of people dropping out of the conversation appears to be a kind of 'collateral damage'!
By contrast, the Covenant's prospect invites Anglicans everywhere to consider whether or not we might be more active and intentional about being a coherent, distinctive body of Christians in the world than wistfully hoping that it might somehow happen. The Covenant challenges us to consider what a consistent Anglican polity looks like across the layers of Anglican life, parish, diocese, member church, Communion. It also invites us to make a similar sacrifice at each level of engagement with one another, that is, sacrificing autonomy so parishes are guided and governed by diocesan synods, diocesan synods are accountable to General Synod/Convention and so on. In doing this the Covenant is in harmony with God's revelation in Scripture that we are to be one (John 17), of one mind (Philippians 2), and united in Christ as Christ unite all things (Ephesians 1-2).
One of the things you will not see explained in No Covenant writings is why parishes and dioceses are not autonomous but member churches are. It has been a convenient tradition that member churches are autonomous relative to other autonomous member churches of the Communion. But when every aspect of Communion life is under examination in a time of crisis we need a theological justification for continuing autonomy. If we continue to think that autonomy is not a virtue when it comes to parishes, dioceses and member churches, that is, we Anglicans think there is virtue only in limited autonomy for parishes relative to dioceses, and for dioceses relative to General Synods/Conventions, why would we stop there? A Christian theology of unity should be consistent across all layers and levels of the body of Christ, not arbitrarily stop when we feel it suits us.
You will also not see explained in No Covenant writings how expanding Anglican diversity might be constrained. The Covenant involves a formal mechanism for one part of the Communion to call another part of the Communion to account for its claim that some new development is consistent with being Anglican. Without that formal mechanism we are doomed to talk ad infinitum while expanding Anglican diversity continues unchecked. In the end 'Anglican Communion' will mean 'this group of people like to meet together'. Is that what we want the Anglican Communion to be? If we do, well, that is the way things will be. But do we want that? Do we want to continue watering down our wonderful heritage, diluting its substance to the point where we are all style?
What might this mean for the Australian Anglican church? It could mean quite a lot, actually. Something unusual about the Australian Anglican church is that it involves a constitution which gives more power to individual dioceses to block church-wide decisions and less power to its General Synod to call individual dioceses to account than is the case in other Anglican churches. In part this reflects an Australian socio-economic polity in which the independence of its states, and their rivalry (especially Victoria v New South Wales) has shaped the formation of Australia's federal constitution. In another part it reflects the strength of the Diocese of Sydney combined with its independent Anglican spirit: effectively the Australian church operates a compromise in which Sydney is kept on board at the cost of permitting Sydney to live a different kind of Anglican life.
That is, coming back to the Covenant, the Covenant's primary challenge to the Australian Anglican church is not directly to the Diocese of Sydney but to the Anglican Church of Australia itself. Does it intend to review its arrangements with a view to lessening the autonomy of dioceses and to increasing the coherence of its life together? Can it put such a review into action, implementing changes which would enhance coherence in its ministry and mission as an Anglican church? Changes, that is, in the specific matter of eucharistic presidency, which would see Sydney accept that it has been moving away from (so to speak) an Anglican ordering of ministry orders and consequentially draw itself back into the Anglican fold?
Observers here might quickly put such an outworking of the Covenant in the life of a member church in the "too hard" basket. It would be very hard. There is no question of that. But the alternative needs to be considered. While Australian Anglican constitutional arrangements permit the unconstrained reinterpretation of Anglican life by one of its dioceses there is no particular pressure on any other member church to restrain diversity. Without constraint on diversity the Anglican Communion will wither on the vine ... for want of people willing to take on the hard challenges. And individual member churches will continue to fracture along party or cultural or other lines, my own church as much in danger of that as any other.
The point about a theology of unity is not that eventually a group of Christians will wake up to it, do something about it and all will be well. Rather it is a call to act now, before the group ceases to be a group.