20 April 2011

Test Driving the Anglican Covenant – Part 1

In 2007, at its meeting in Winnipeg, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada adopted Resolution A186, which reads:
That this General Synod resolves that the blessing of same-sex unions is not in conflict with the core doctrine (in the sense of being creedal) of The Anglican Church of Canada.
The resolution followed on a report from the Primate's Theological Commission, the St Michael Report, which came to the same conclusion, and added that “the Commission does not believe that this should be a communion-breaking issue.”

Obviously the resolution was controversial, and the subject of much debate and several amendments. It was adopted on a vote by orders, but by a narrow majority in the Order of Bishops. I'm not going to discuss the merits of the resolution here, but instead I am interested in exploring how it might be addressed under the proposed Anglican Covenant, were it in force at the time.

First, it is important to understand the significance of the resolution under Canadian polity. The St Michael Report was written as a result of a request to the Primate's Theological Commission to advise whether the blessing of same-sex unions was a matter of doctrine or not. The request was made in 2004, prior to the adoption of the Civil Marriage Act 2005, which made same-sex marriage legal across Canada. Thus the language was of “unions” rather than “marriages” both in the request and the report, as well as in the resolution. The reason the question arose is because “the definition of the doctrines of the Church” is a matter of the jurisdiction of the General Synod under our constitution. (Declaration of Principles, section 6(i)). So, reasoned some people, if it were a matter of doctrine, then any statement on same-sex blessings would be a matter for the General Synod alone and thus if any other Synod (of a diocese or internal province) were to pronounce on the issue, that would be ultra vires. The point was that some opponents of the decision of the Synod of the Diocese of New Westminster to request their bishop to authorize a rite for blessing same-sex unions felt that they could have that decision ruled ultra vires, and hence null and void, if it could be demonstrated that it were a matter of doctrine.

Of course, asking a bunch of theologians whether something is a matter of doctrine is like asking the proverbial man with a hammer whether there are any nails about. But the resulting report, which is still worth reading, not only stated that blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine, it also differentiated between core doctrine and non-core doctrine. Core doctrine, such as we find in the creeds, is non-negotiable. Non-core doctrine, according to the report, involves matters about which there can be legitimate disagreement among faithful Anglican Christians. And blessing same-sex unions, says the report, is one of those items of non-core doctrine. People of faith can agree or disagree with such blessings, even passionately, but it's not worth breaking communion over.

So, Resolution A186 is the General Synod's response to the Report, in which the Synod agrees with the Theological Commission. Constitutionally, it represents the General Synod exercising its authority as the body with jurisdiction to define the doctrines of the Church. In other words, it is the definition of the doctrinal position of the Anglican Church of Canada with respect to same-sex blessings. (It leaves unsaid whether we should bless same-sex unions and, if so, in what manner and by what process such blessings should be authorized.)

But what if the proposed Covenant were in force?

In that case, someone – either another Church or one of the Instruments of Communion – could “raise a question” pursuant to section 4.2.3. The question could arise in one of three ways:
  1. another Church might openly disagree with the doctrinal position of Resolution A186 and seek a ruling on whether it is compatible with the Covenant, presumably expecting a negative answer;
  2. another Church, or one of the Instruments of Communion, could, without stating disagreement, still ask the same question from a stance of uncertainty;
  3. the Anglican Church of Canada itself, presumably as a result of a motion by the General Synod, could ask the question, though this would imply some uncertainty or lack of conviction in its own resolution.
So, what happens if the Standing Committee declares, pursuant to section 4.2.6, that Resolution A186 is compatible with the Covenant? That would suggest that there is nothing in the core doctrine of the Anglican Communion, or at least in the Covenant, that conflicts with the blessing of same-sex unions. The Canadians, and perhaps some others, could carry on. Of course, you can imagine how well such a declaration would go over in some churches! It is not a significant stretch of the imagination to foresee that some churches would disagree, perhaps quite vehemently, with such a declaration. If the question came about as in the first scenario above, because another Church disagreed with the Canadian position, a positive answer would not settle the matter for that Church. We can talk about mediation, as in section 3.2.6 of the proposed Covenant, but really in this kind of matter there wouldn't be much to discuss, would there? Either the Canadian General Synod is correct or it isn't. So if there is an open dispute between the Anglican Church of Canada and another Church, a positive declaration isn't likely to end the matter. Nothing would be solved.

Well, then, what if the Standing Committee declared Resolution A186 to be incompatible with the Covenant? That would certainly make any Church that disagrees with the Canadian General Synod happy. But what of Canada? As I said, either the Canadian General Synod is correct or it isn't. But constitutionally the General Synod is always correct, albeit not infallible. It is the highest body, and with respect to doctrinal matters the only body, with jurisdiction to make decisions. The General Synod is sovereign just as Parliament is sovereign. So in this case we have a constitutional crisis in the Anglican Church of Canada. The General Synod has made a statement, in exercise of its jurisdiction in the Declaration of Principles, and constitutionally there is no other body competent to refute or overturn that statement. If we've got this far the General Synod will have adopted the Covenant, and the Covenant states repeatedly (e.g., sections 3.2.2, 4.1.3) that it respects the constitutional autonomy of the signatory Churches. So now you have two processes, both recognized by the General Synod, which have come to opposite conclusions on the same issue. How is the General Synod to resolve the matter? Either it will have to revisit Resolution A186 and rescind it, or live with whatever “relational consequences” befall it - or withdraw from the Covenant, pursuant to section 4.3.1 and live with whatever consequences that would trigger. And as for the Covenant's assurance of respect for constitutional autonomy, it's empty. Because true respect for the constitutional autonomy of the Anglican Church of Canada would mean that the Standing Committee would have to decline to rule on any question about Resolution A186, or any constitutionally similar resolution.

This, of course, raises a third possibility. The Standing Committee could decline to make a ruling, perhaps because it decides that it must so decline in order to respect the constitutional autonomy of the Anglican Church of Canada, or because it realizes that neither declaration will actually resolve the dispute, or possibly even because the Standing Committee itself is divided on the question. But making no ruling would be de facto the same as ruling that the matter at hand is compatible with the Covenant. Canada would go home happy, but those who raised the question might well go home angry and frustrated. Of course, I only use Canada as an example. The same could be true of any Church that decides to adopt the proposed Covenant.

And is there any way in either of the above three scenarios in which the proposed Covenant will have actually made things better? Would it give us anything that the existing structures of the Anglican Communion can't give us? All I can see is a process that would exacerbate the dispute.

I've skipped over the details of how the Standing Committee might come to a decision, but I'll pick that question up in the next post.

Based on possible outcomes, the proposed Covenant fails the test drive.

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