12 July 2011

Provincial Autonomy

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 First, and preeminently, is the Act of Supremacy 1534, which was repealed under Queen Mary and restored under Queen Elizabeth in 1558.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.

04 July 2011

Blame Canada?

The Revd Canon Dr Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director for Unity, Faith and Order for the Anglican Communion, has written a defence of the proposed Anglican Covenant. If I am reading her correctly, she is suggesting that this document is just a natural development in a series of events that began nearly a century and a half ago at the instigation of the Canadian Church.

Canon Barnett-Cowan rehearses the history of the origins of the Lambeth Conference: Bishop Colenso of Natal had some controversial ideas that upset some bishops in Canada. The Canadian bishops suggested to the Archbishop of Canterbury that he had to do something and the Lambeth Conference was born. Actually, Canon Barnett-Cowan has left out a few salient points. First, Colenso's ideas upset more than just the Canadians. He also upset the other bishops in South Africa. And his metropolitan, Bishop Gray of Cape Town, deposed him for heresy. In fact, Colenso's ideas were generally panned around the world, except by serious biblical scholars, and a cottage industry sprang up producing books against Colenso.

Nor did the Canadian bishops act on their own. They took a motion to the Synod of the Province of Canada, which was endorsed by the clergy and laity of that Synod, requesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury convene a “national” meeting of all bishops to discuss the situation. Although the initial idea was to invite only bishops from the British Empire, thus excluding the Episcopal Church, eventually all Anglican and Episcopal bishops (except Colenso) were invited. But this invitation was not without controversy itself. Despite assurances that the meeting would claim no authority over the Churches, the Archbishop of York, among others, refused to attend for fear that the Conference would develop into a Synod with legislative powers, and centralized authority was undesirable.

So in fact, it is a bit odd to say that setting up a centralized authority with coercive powers by way of a Covenant (legislation) is in continuity with setting up a deliberative (not legislative) body with no claim to any power whatsoever, coercive or otherwise.

Canon Barnett-Cowan suggests that “the idea of having a comprehensive, coherent, agreed-upon understanding of how the Anglican family works has been around for a long time.” And it might be a good idea. But the proposed Covenant is not such a document. It is neither comprehensive nor coherent. Rather it is ambiguous, and so vague that it is impossible to understand what it commits Churches to. And although it makes passing reference to the Instruments of Communion, it does nothing to describe “how the Anglican family works.” It does contain a vague and fundamentally unjust process for resolving disputes, but that's a different matter.

Canon Barnett-Cowan suggests, correctly I think, that the Virginia Report, presented to the Lambeth Conference of 1998, did not get the attention it deserved. The bishops seemed much more interested in discussing sex than governance. The result, says Canon Barnett-Cowan, was that “when, in the first years of the new millennium, three things happened that triggered a crisis of Anglican coherence, there was not an agreed-upon mechanism to consult and decide on what to do.” Actually, I'm not sure that's completely accurate. In fact there were already three Instruments of Communion (still then called Instruments of Unity) that could deal with the events of the turn of the millennium. It is true that none of them had coercive power, which some of the protagonists wished for, but that was by design. Centralized coercive power had never been felt desirable in the Anglican Communion.

Ah, says Canon Barnett-Cowan, but if only the Virginia Report had been given due attention, “there might have been better mechanisms in place for all to come to the table to discern the way ahead.” Better than the proposed Covenant, she means. So, in fact, the Anglican Communion Office is aware of better mechanisms than the Covenant. So why aren't we pursuing them rather than pushing the Covenant? And for that matter, why not use the mechanisms that were already in place? Simple: some people wanted coercive authority and none was on offer.

And so we have the proposed Covenant before us. But, some people are suggesting that it's punitive, so Canon Barnett-Cowan wants to correct that misconception. “It is not about punishment; it is about mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.” As I've written previously, it may not be about retribution, but it's certainly about coercive power, which is one definition of punishment. Just ask Bishop Colenso.

And what of Bishop Colenso? What were his dangerous and radical ideas? He was condemned for two basic ideas: that the Old Testament should not always be read as literal history; and that the Church needed to account for the local context when entering a polygamous culture. He added a third issue: that Bishop Gray should not be able to wield coercive power over him.

Colenso was vindicated on all counts. On the question of a literal reading of the Old Testament has has been vindicated by history and by scholarship. His basic idea is quite unremarkable in any seminary. On the question of polygamy, he was vindicated by the same Lambeth Conference that was set up to deal with him in the first place, which resolved in 1988 that there should be a limited acceptance of polygamy by the Church where culturally appropriate. And on the question of coercive jurisdiction he was vindicated by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which ruled that Bishop Gray had no coercive jurisdiction over Colenso.

What will history say about the proposed Covenant in a hundred years?