One of the features of the proposed Anglican Covenant is that it purports to protect and respect the autonomy of the Churches of the Anglican Communion. Elsewhere I have suggested that this is not, and cannot, be true. But what is this autonomy, often referred to as “Provincial Autonomy”, and why is it important?
Provincial autonomy was the key element and starting point of the English Reformation. The principle is found in three significant documents from the sixteenth century. First, and preeminently, is the Act of Supremacy 1534, which was repealed under Queen Mary and restored under Queen Elizabeth in 1558. There were a number of reasons for this assertion of supremacy, most of which have little to do with the Christian faith, to be honest, but by putting the Church firmly under the control of the King, the Act did allow for subsequent developments in the Church of England.
The Act of Supremacy is echoed in the 39 Articles. Article 37, Of the Civil Magistrates, states
The King's Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.
And, just to make the implications of this crystal clear, the Article goes on to say:
The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.
Also in the 39 Articles, Article 34, Of the Traditions of the Church, explains
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying.
Finally, the project of reforming public worship in England is explained as follows
And in these our doings we condemn no other Nations, nor prescribe any thing but to our own people only: For we think it convenient that every Country should use such Ceremonies as they shall think best to the setting forth of God's honour and glory....Of Ceremonies: Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained (1549)
So for the English reformers autonomy meant freedom to make some changes in public worship, and in the norms by which the Church lived in England, such as allowing clergy to marry. For Henry it meant the freedom to dissolve the monasteries and make off with the lands. But respect for others' autonomy was part of the claim of autonomy, as we see in the explanation of the liturgical reforms – we do these things in our own country, without foisting them on anyone else, respecting other countries' authority to do what seems best to them in their own context.
The defence of autonomy, especially by North American anti-Covenant commentators like me, is sometimes depicted by proponents of the Covenant as an attempt to evade accountability. But autonomy is about more than just telling the Pope “you're not the boss of me.” Or about saying the same to the Anglican Communion. Having autonomy means being capable of making free and uncoerced decisions and, particularly in the context of Churches, having the right of self-government. It's about taking responsibility for establishing mechanisms of government and discipline for the responsible development and exercise of faith in each Church's context. Those mechanisms are not infallible, of course, but in each context they are the processes by which Anglicans seek to define and live out their faith in a contextually appropriate manner, all the while respecting the responsible efforts of Anglicans in other contexts to make their own decisions about how best to live out their faith and mission in their own contexts.
The notion of the Covenant as a mechanism of accountability circumvents the accountability mechanisms already in place in each autonomous Church. It is the application of coercion, which removes autonomy and refuses to allow the Churches to function in a responsible, adult manner. Provincial Autonomy is fundamentally about taking and exercising responsibility, and about giving other Churches the benefit of the doubt with respect to their responsible exercise of their faith in their contexts. It is fundamental to being Anglican. And it is undermined by the proposed Covenant.