14 February 2018

Oaths, Subscriptions and Consensual Compact


Occasionally the question arises as to the nature and status of the Constitutions and Canons of the various synods in the Anglican Church of Canada. Fundamentally, enquirers ask about the basis for the authority for such rules.

Legally, the Anglican Church of Canada and its constituent parts are understood as voluntary associations. In such an organization, two or more persons “agree to be bound together for common purposes and undertake mutual duties and obligations.” (I am grateful to Russell Sandberg’s Law and Religion for this succinct definition at pages 72f.) Voluntary associations exist in many forms throughout our society. A secular example would be a curling club. Voluntary associations generally need some form of structure for internal governance and ultimately need to develop rules for governance and operations. This is as true for a church as for a curling club, though obviously the details differ significantly.

Members of voluntary associations agree, or are deemed to agree, to the rules of the organization. This is referred to as the doctrine of consensual compact. In the case of a curling club or some similar organization, a new member might be given a copy of the rules, possibly a membership card, and there would typically be some kind of annual membership fee. Membership would confer rights and obligations, notably the obligation to abide by the rules. And there would be some mechanism to change the rules form time to time.

If we understand the church as a voluntary association, the doctrine of consensual compact implies that the members of the church are understood to have agreed to the rules, and to the system of governance which adopts, amends, interprets and enforces those rules. That is, under the doctrine of consensual compact members of the Anglican Church of Canada are deemed implicitly to have agreed to be governed by our bishops in synods, and by the Constitutions, Canons and other policy instruments that have been adopted or may be adopted from time to time.

When clergy are ordained or licensed, they take oaths which are prescribed in Provincial canons.

Thus, in Canada, a cleric will swear:

I, N, do solemnly declare that I profess the faith set forth in the Scriptures and in the Catholic Creeds and affirm my allegiance to the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as set forth by the Book of Common Prayer and in the Ordinal; in public prayer and in the administration of the Sacraments I will use the form of the Book of Common Prayer and none other except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority;

I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Bishop of _____ and to his/her successors, in all legal and honest demands;

I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Canons which have been or are from time to time passed by the General Synod, the Provincial Synod and the Synod of the Diocese of _____.

Similar oaths are found in Rupert’s Land as follows:

I, A.B. do solemnly make the following declaration: I assent to the Solemn Declaration adopted by the first General Synod in 1893 (as printed in the Book of Common Prayer), and to the Book of Common Prayer, and of the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons; I believe the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God; and in Public Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, I will use the form in the said book prescribed and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority.

I, A.B. do swear that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Bishop of ... in all things lawful and honest. So Help Me God.

I, A.B. do willingly subscribe to and declare that I assent to and abide by the Constitution and Canons of the General Synod, Provincial Synod and the Synod of the Diocese of ... that are lawfully in force from time to time.

And in British Columbia and Yukon the oaths are:
I................... do solemnly make the following Declarations:

I................... profess the faith set forth in the Scriptures and in the Catholic Creeds and affirm my allegiance to the Doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer and no other except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority;

I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Bishop of ................. and his or her successors in all legal and honest demands; I will abide by the Canons which have been or shall be from time to time passed by the General Synod, the Provincial Synod and the Synod of the Diocese of ……………
For some reason the Province of Ontario no longer specifies the oaths to be taken on its canons, having delegated these to the dioceses. However, that Province has provided a recommended form of oaths, which I believe are in general use, as follows:
I, _________, do solemnly make the following declarations:
a) I profess the faith set forth in the Scriptures and in the Catholic Creeds and affirm my allegiance to the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, in the Ordinal, and in the Book of Alternative Services;
b) In public prayer and in the administration of the Sacraments, I will use the form in the Book of Common Prayer or the Book of Alternative Services and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority;
c) I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Bishop of __________, and to his/her successors, in all legal and honest demands;
d) I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Canons which have been, or shall be, from time to time passed by the General Synod, the Provincial Synod, or the Synod of the Diocese of __________.
The key point here is that the norm is that clergy at their ordination and licensing make explicit what is already implicit in the doctrine of consensual compact. That is, not only are clergy as members of the Anglican Church of Canada deemed to have agreed to the relevant Constitutions and Canons by consensual compact; they also explicitly swear an oath to obey the Canons. This undertaking is made in writing.

Occasionally someone suggests that they only agreed to abide by the canons that were in force when they took the oath, and that they are thus not bound by some new piece of legislation to which they take exception. But that’s not what the oaths say. The oath is to abide by the canons which are in force “from time to time”. Our system of governance through synods allows for the adoption of new canons and the amendment or repeal of existing ones. And when synods legislate, clergy have already accepted (and sworn on oath) that any new legislation applies to them.

Similarly, clergy sometimes assert that their oath of canonical obedience of the bishop applies only to the bishop who was in office at the time of the oath, and that when a new bishop takes office they don’t have to obey him or her. Again, that’s not what the oaths say. The key phrase in Canada and British Columbia and Yukon is “the Bishop of … and his or her successors.” And in Rupert’s Land, even though explicit reference to the successors is omitted, the oath is to the Bishop in his or her official (not personal) capacity which implies the Bishop who is in office from time to time.

So what does one do if a Synod legislates in a way that one finds intolerable? It's no good claiming to reserve the right not to be bound by some rule that one disagrees with. Really, there are only three options. The first is to live with it. The second is to propose subsequent amendments that might make it more livable (bearing in mind that there is no guarantee that such amendments will be adopted). And the third is to leave the Church. For clergy, this last option involves relinquishing ministry pursuant to Canon XIX, the colloquial term being laicization. Obviously this last course of action would not be an easy step to take, but that is the ultimate remedy. For under the doctrine of consensual compact, as long as one is a member of a voluntary association, one is presumed to consent to the organization’s rules, and clergy in particular are bound by the canons under oath.

Thus we see the doctrine of consensual compact in action.

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