04 January 2011

Church of England Reference to Dioceses

The Church of England is bravely soldiering on with the reference of its draft Act of Synod to adopt the proposed Anglican Covenant, as required by its constitution. The November meeting of the General Synod voted to consider the motion, which has put this process in motion. As a constitutional matter, of course the reference to the dioceses must run its course. But we can hardly pretend that the project hasn't lost some of its glamour now that the GAFCON Primates have rejected the proposed Covenant as "fatally flawed."

An interesting point with respect to this reference to the dioceses is that it is predicated on Article 8. The paper explaining the process states that this is required for "a scheme for … a permanent and substantial change of relationship between the Church of England and another Christian body, being a body a substantial number of whose members reside in Great Britain" notably in this case the Church in Wales and the Episcopal Church of Scotland. (I won’t mention here that “scheme” is rarely used in North American English for anything but a nefarious plot!)

This reference to Article 8 is interesting because of the narrative in support of the proposed Covenant that it will not cause any significant changes, other than to fix the whole conflict in the Anglican Communion. But the Article 8 reference suggests in fact that the adoption of the proposed Covenant will be "a permanent and substantial change". So which is it?

The question facing the diocesan synods is: what, exactly, does this "permanent and substantial change" imply, and is it desirable? All sorts of reasons have been put forward to vote for the proposed Covenant: it’s a way to support the Archbishop of Canterbury; everybody has politely supported it previously; it will fix things without changing anything. What seems to be missing in the sales pitch is a compelling reason to implement this international treaty with a clear explanation of what, precisely, it will accomplish in what manner and at what cost.

The papers sent to the dioceses includes the background paper sent to the General Synod explaining the proposed Covenant. A few points stand out from that paper.

In the background paper GS Misc 966, at paragraph 38, it says "As the Archbishop of Canterbury has commented, 'The Covenant text sets out the basis on which the Anglican family works and prays and lives and hopes.'"  Actually it most significantly sets out the basis on which the Anglican family will fight in future. And if that process is found wanting then family fights will escalate and spill out beyond the bounds of the process. We should ask ourselves whether we want to establish processes to fight, or would it be preferable to find ways of transcending our differences. Fighting has not proven very satisfactory in recent years.

Paragraph 46 states, rather comfortingly, that:
The Standing Committee of the Communion has no power to enforce any of these declarations or recommendations within any province or in any of the Instruments and all it may recommend are responses which already exist in the life of the Communion, several of which have been used by member Churches and the Instruments during recent difficulties. There are no fixed penalties or new “star chamber”. The Covenant text simply offers an ordered way of managing the consequences when a church is held by its Covenant partners to have denied its Covenantal affirmations or breached its Covenantal commitments.
So, all the Standing Committee may do is make recommendations. But bear in mind that it is recommending things to the very people who form the pool of the membership of the Standing Committee. (See my comments on overlapping roles with respect to Natural Justice). And it makes those recommendations in light of the commitment in section 3.2.1 to "endeavour to accommodate [the] recommendations [of the Instruments of Communion]." So there is a built-in expectation that Churches will implement recommendations that will emanate from the Standing Committee through the ACC and PM. These are not simply recommendations from disinterested parties that can be taken or left, they are intrinsically authoritative. This is like a parent to a child saying "I recommend you eat your broccoli."

In addition, the recommendations have to do with relational consequences, but they follow from a definitive declaration by the Standing Committee that an action is incompatible with the Covenant. This declaration is problematic in itself, and is not subject to appeal or question. It is not an opinion, but a definitive and apparently irrevocable statement.

I hope the English dioceses are given the chance to do their homework before they must vote, and that they avail themselves of the opportunity.


  1. Unfortunately, the background paper our English friends has been given is a one-sided bucket of whitewash. Rowan et all are scared to death to let people actually see and hear the arguments on either side because they realize that their "trust us" Covenant of Fraud will crumble if ever exposed to sunlight.

  2. They will certainly need more information than we have seen at Thinking Anglicans was circulated to them in order to come to an informed decision.

    I can think of a couple of blogs that would be a good start.

  3. Alan, I am teaching an adult ed class on the AC in my parish starting next week. I would like to use a bit of this presentation.

    I think the tap dance between the need for a substantitive change to the character of the Anglican Communion needs to be part of the 10 reasons we don't need a Covenant

  4. By all means, Muthah, if there is anything useful on this blog, please do make use of it in whatever way suits your purposes. I'd love to hear how your class goes.

    That goes for any other readers of this blog as well.


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