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.