No, not that kind of UFO. This is more a Unifying Fright Obliterator, in the person of Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity Faith and Order at the Anglican Communion Office. The "fright" she is seeking to address is the negative reaction to the proposed Anglican Covenant. She proposes we need a "fair and accurate" debate — a phrase which for some Americans will be a bit too reminiscent of the "fair and balanced" news reporting provided by the Fox network.
I cannot criticize her suggestion that people read the text of the Covenant itself. But I have to say I find her characterizations of the Covenant to be merely the most optimistic reading of a perilously ambiguous text. Having been brought up on a "hermeneutic of suspicion" I have long believed that legal texts need to be read in the light of the worst, not the best, that could happen.
Let me give just one example. Canon Alyson says
Some critics in the Church of England have suggested that Provinces would become subordinate to the judgements of the Standing Committee. This is not true. The Covenant explicitly says in section (4.1.3): “Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion.”This is, of course, true as far as it goes. It hinges on what one means by "subordinate." Provinces will not be forced to submit to any external jurisdiction, nor to alter their practice, nor come to a better mind about decisions they have taken. But the lack of control does not mean there is a lack of pressure in terms of "relational consequences." As the Canon puts it, rather too delicately to my way of thinking,
In a globalised world, it is no longer possible (if it ever was) for one church to act entirely for itself; decisions have ramifications, and the intention is for these to be explored together.She also notes,
The Standing Committee... is made up of elected Primates and elected members from the Anglican Consultative Council and it co-ordinates work in the Communion. Regarding the Covenant, it would have the role of monitoring developments and has no power other than proposing to the Instruments of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting) steps to be taken to encourage discussion and discernment about disputed questions among the Provinces, or, if processes of mediation have broken down, what the relational consequences might be.First, let me note how much this reminds me of the plausible deniability in which the Inquisition cloaked itself when it truthfully claimed to kill no one — that onerous task was carried out by "the secular arm." But that leaves me to be open to a kind of antique version of Godwin's Law, so let that pass.
More importantly, there are those "relational consequences" again. There are "ramifications," there are "consequences" to not accepting the discernment of the Standing Committee and its advice to the Instruments. And what might those be? Well, let's take the Canon's advice and look to the text:
(4.2.5) The Standing Committee may request a Church to defer a controversial action. If a Church declines to defer such action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below.The only "process set out below" consists of the following:
(4.2.6) On the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, the Standing Committee may make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”.So the Standing Committee clearly does more than merely "monitor" as the Canon puts it. It reaches decisions and makes declarations, and passes on recommendations for action to those empowered to act on them. But from a legal standpoint, at this point there is a complete lack of "sentencing guidelines." The Standing Committee is, all other claims to the contrary notwithstanding, empowered to make a "declaration" of incompatibility with the Covenant, and to recommend undefined consequences. But if provisional limitation or suspension from participation in one or more of the Instruments can result from the mere indictment of incompatibility, what will the sentence on conviction be?
(4.2.7) On the basis of the advice received, the Standing Committee shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations.
What sense, after all, does it make to turn an ad hoc impairment in communion into something that looks very much like an institutional severance in communion? Since participation in the Instruments is at least in part definitive for membership and participation in the Anglican Commuion, and as the Covenant declares as well, the means by which the members "are enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ" (3.1.2), anything remotely resembling permanent suspension by or from those Instruments as a "relational consequence" seems to indicate a serious and debilitating breach in the Anglican Communion and the body of Christ. And the Covenant provides a mechanism to promote it, and little in the way of helping to prevent it. It is the schema for an autoimmune disease in the Body of Christ.
This is a Bad Idea. Please, England, put it down.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG