January 22, 2009

A Toothless Covenant

In December 2007, the Church of England responded to the Draft Covenant for the Anglican Communion by noting that as it presently stood, England would not be able to sign on, due to the legal difficulties involved in ceding directive authority to any body (or anybody) outside of the Church of England. One would have thought this clear on the basis of Article XXXVII of the Articles of Religion. Similar principles, of course, are to be found in the governing documents of the other autonomous provinces of the Communion. And that is, after all, what autonomous means -- self-governing; that is, just to spell it out, not governed by someone else.

It appears from the recent draft of a report to the upcoming General Synod that the second draft of the Covenant (St Andrew's) has been attenuated to such an extent that in the eyes of the committee this difficulty no longer presents itself. Whether the Synod as a whole will agree remains to be seen. At this point the motion is to "take note" rather than to act; a wise move given that the final draft is yet to come.

Meanwhile, the report raises a number of questions concerning the present St. Andrew's draft. Perhaps the most interesting is in paragraph 52, where the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury (as Primate of All England) runs into the possible practical difficulty that might arise should England itself not be part of the Covenant, either by not signing on or choosing to stand apart at some later time.

Of greater interest to an American reader, given past suggestions that individual dioceses (with "Windsor Bishops") might sign on to the covenant even if their province or national church didn't, is the answer given for the Church of England in paragraph 53-54.

53. An issue that was raised in the Church of England response to the Nassau draft of the Anglican Covenant and that still merits discussion is the issue of the proper understanding of what is meant by the local church. Are the churches of the Anglican Communion, properly so called, the thirty eight national bodies that belong to the Communion or are they the dioceses of the Communion gathered round their diocesan bishops?

54 This issue raises in turn the two further issues of whether the appropriate signatories of the Covenant are the Provinces or the dioceses and whether (and, if so, in what circumstances) it might be permissible for an individual diocese to become part of the Covenant even if its Province decided not do. As far as the Church of England is concerned an individual diocese has no power to issue a statement that purports to declare the doctrine of the Church and could not sign the Covenant. As noted in paragraph 17 above, however, dioceses would have a key part in the decision making process since the General Synod could not give final approval to the Church of England as a whole signing the Covenant without the agreement of a majority of the dioceses at meetings of their diocesan synods. [Emphasis mine.]

So it seems clear that whatever being a "unit of the church" means, English dioceses, at least, do not have the power unilaterally to ally in a Covenant that defines who is in communion with whom; though they do have a role (unlike the dioceses of The Episcopal Church) in approving the final effect of any such agreement for the whole church.

As far as being in communion goes, the same is true for The Episcopal Church. The question of who is in communion with it is decided only at the national (provincial) level -- it is a part of our Canon Law. (Canon I.20) So it appears that no individual diocese will be able to sign on to the Anglican Covenant -- or choose not to be part of it -- in opposition to whatever General Convention decides. In this sense TEC is more hierarchical than the C of E, in that General Convention does not have to go back to the dioceses for approval of its actions.

Are there any remaining teeth in the Covenant as it now stands? Certainly I think so, and have noted some of them earlier -- and most of the sting is in the tail, the appendix. If the General Synod's response can help lead to the extraction of the last remaining fangs from the Anglican Covenant, and the new Draft takes a form worthy of a church document, it may well be that most of the present Anglican Communion will be able to sign on. We would do well to remember the words of Paul to the Galatians: "If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." Unity need not require mutual digestion.

Tobias Haller BSG

Hat-tip to Thinking Anglicans.

11 comments:

4 May 1535+ said...

Tobias, thoughtful and (imho) accurate as always. With reference to your opening paragraph (and my own personal _delendum est_), I notice that Padmore's essay cites yet again the Windsor report's "weak" definition of autonomous, as opposed to the "strong" sense you (and Henry VIII) would give the word.

Davis said...

I wonder, Father, if you could give a general sense of what the Covenant actually says (perhaps I missed an earlier post)? What I'm wondering is why this is a troubling concept to many.

Seemingly the Gen'l Synod is going to discuss it, so why can't Gen'l Convention at least look at the thing?

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks 14 May. That is one of the weakest sections of the Windsor Report -- the others are the strange section on adiaphora, and totally missing the point about the legal meaning of "What touches all..." But then, I've amply commented on these problems before.

Davis, if you read the earlier post to which I refer, I've laid out the difficulties that remain in the present draft of the Covenant, most of which are echoed in the English report. The General Synod will not be voting on the Covenant in February for two reasons: 1) the final draft will not be available until May; and 2) the motion is a "take note" motion which flags issues but doesn't lead to any final action.

Nothing is stopping TEC from discussing the next draft at GC this summer. The PB has expressed a wish that we not vote on it at this time, with such a short time to reflect on the new draft; but that doesn't rule out discussion. As a matter of fact, I think there will be considerable discussion of the proposal; and it might even arise to a level of consensus high enough to lead to a vote one way or another. But since we don't have the actual proposal in hand any prognostication is subject to revision.

Davis said...

Thanks, I understand it's too little time to vote on it it would seem and I appreciate the PB's decision to avoid a vote at GC, but I think it ought to be discussed.

JCF said...

I think the PB is smart enough to know that IF Gen Con took a vote this summer, the vote would ALMOST certainly be "No."

She's buying time (to see if other provinces may well kill it---for whatever reasons!)

David |Dah • veed| said...

Bro T, the Lead seems to have a different understanding, in that the CoE cannot sign;
Take note: The CoE still can't sign the Anglican Covenant

Tobias Haller said...

Dahveed, I saw that posting, but my sense is that this is all up in the air. The report is hinged on the additional changes being made that will make the covenant signable. I agree the present draft is problematical, but the report seems to suggest that further changes are in the works. So I would say they have offered a cautious "pass" rather than a firm commitment either to sign or not. Like us, they want to see what the final form is before they sign it!

WSJM said...

"General Convention does not have to go back to the dioceses for approval of its actions."

Well, that depends on what they are. I think I would argue that signing on to an Anglican Covenant (if it has any teeth at all) would be comparable to a Constitutional amendment, or an amendment to the Book of Common Prayer, and would require a second passage at GC, which would give the dioceses plenty of opportunity for input.

(Personally I think the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral constitute an entirely adequate Covenant.)

Tobias Haller said...

Bill, what I meant was that unlike the English situation, the dioceses do not actually vote on constitutional or BCP changes in their own synods and conventions. Yes, such actions do take two consecutive GC sessions, but that's not quite what the English do when they send things back to the dioceses for an actual vote. A subtle, but I think important difference.

And, of course, I agree that our present system is adequate, and see no need of another covenant.

John B. Chilton said...

Isn't possible that CoE members have concluded that the covenant would be toothless for some (e.g., CoE), but not for others (e.g., TEC)? Signing an unenforceable contract (unenforceable on CoE) doesn't make it enforceable.

Tobias Haller said...

As I see it, unless there is an explicit "out clause" for the C of E, it appears to me that the legal status of any disciplinary aspect of the Covenant would have to be the same across the board. Unless TEC, for example, is willing to grant such disciplinary powers to a higher forum, there is no way they can be forced upon us. It would be contrary to our historic self-understanding to submit to such a heteronomous authority.

It remains to be seen what the final draft says -- but it sounds like England will be the limiting factor on the extent to which any external body will be able to interfere with them; and if on them, I think on anyone else -- barring a "grandfather clause."