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Last Updated: Monday, 9 July 2007, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Nervous support for Church rules
By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

The Church of England's ruling body, the general synod, is backing a set of rules - or covenant - aimed at resolving disagreements in the Anglican Communion, such as that over the ordination of gay bishops.

While some see the move as a necessity, others believe it goes against the traditions of the Church.

Church of England bishop's cross
The ordination of gay bishops has proved a divisive issue

Until the American Anglican Church defied the rest of the Communion and ordained the openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, the idea of an Anglican rule book would have been unthinkable.

One of the hallmarks of Anglicanism is its lack of rules. In fact there's barely any definition of what it is to be an authentic Anglican.

But on Sunday evening, the synod faced up to what many of its members see as a regrettable necessity and voted for a covenant - or binding agreement - setting out the responsibilities of each Church to the others.

It was best put by the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright.

"We thought we had some sort of agreement and then, four years ago, it turned out that we didn't," he said testily.

"Lambeth, and the Primates [the archbishops leading the 38 independent Anglican churches] asked the Americans not to do something, and they did it anyway."

'Inclusivity and tolerance'

But the loudest voices were raised against the covenant.

One non-clergy member, Dr Kevin Ward, warned that a written agreement would "destroy the Communion's tradition of inclusivity and tolerance".

A vote against the covenant is a vote for anarchy
Tom Wright
Bishop of Durham

"The pervading aim is to punish and discipline dissent to ostracise those Churches who welcome gay and lesbian members," he added.

The covenant is also controversial because it would lead to the Communion's member Churches giving up at least a portion of their hitherto almost total autonomy.

Liberal Anglicans fear it would act as a brake on necessary evolution of the Church's teaching in the light of changing societies.

The synod was told it no longer had the luxury of unwritten understandings.

Bishop Wright told members "a vote against the covenant is a vote for anarchy" and they agreed by a two-thirds vote to back at least the principle of a covenant.

Matrimony decline

The synod may have had grave reservations about the solemnising of its relationship with the other Churches of the Communion, but it couldn't be faulted for its steadfast support of the institution of marriage for the rest of us.

There's been some alarm in Church circles at the steady decline in the number of couples opting for matrimony. Figures last month showed the lowest rate ever.

It also faces intense competition from clubs, hotels, and even beaches in far-off countries to host the event.

The result was a measure significantly extending the choice of parish churches open to couples.

The old rule has been that you have to live in the parish, or attend services at the church for several months.

But soon couples can expect to be able to marry not just in the parish, but in any parish where either of them has ever lived, even as a baby, or where they were baptised or confirmed, or even in the church where their parents or grandparents were married.

'Proper' venue

Sceptics have warned of a deluge of couples alighting on the most picturesque churches, and shunning less fashionable ones, but the Church hopes the net result will be positive.

There still seems to be a feeling that a church is the "proper" place to get married.

The Church's own research suggests that people feel vows made in the sight of God carry more weight than those made elsewhere.

Many Anglicans feel the Church, and its Christian message, carries more weight in the country because of its status as the "established", or state, church.

That partly explains the nervousness when Gordon Brown announced last week that he wants to give up the prime minister's central role in choosing bishops and most deans.

Members of the synod had already been sent a report backing the continued role of the prime minister.

This was despite the fact that, when seen from the outside of the Church, the appointment of senior clerics by politicians seems an oddity.

But some in the Church may have in the back of their mind the continuing presence of bishops in the House of Lords.

Despite the prime minister's support for the established church, the justification in the legislature of members chosen only by the Church might be called into question.

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