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 First, and preeminently, is the Act of Supremacy 1534, which was repealed under Queen Mary and restored under Queen Elizabeth in 1558.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


  1. Covenant proponents insist, on one hand, that the Covenant preserves autonomy. At the same time, they try to embarrass Covenant opponents as belonging to churches that are self-absorbed whenever they protest the loss of local control that the Covenant would effect.

    Autonomy has indeed been a hallmark of Anglicanism. “Autonomy and interdependence” is an oxymoron.

  2. Well said, Lionel.

    I don't have a problem with "interdependence" if it means that we're all in this together as responsible adults. I do have a problem if it means that I get to second-guess your adult decisions, which means I don't really treat you as an adult at all.

  3. I was at York this weekend and witnessed the archbishop of Canterbury's angry outburst and undisguised attempt at moral blackmail towards his Synod who were not bending to his will. I was present in London in February when the Archbishop of York browbeat the Synod and demanded they agree with the Anglican Covenant because the Bishops and the Archbishops wanted it. Scandal has broken in Lambeth amongst creditable stories of Rowan's reduction to tears of women in the appointment of Bishops process. The AC will be governed by questionable men with questionable motives. At least the BCP was open about its prejudices! MrC

  4. Thanks for this, Alan.

    I am sorry Brother Tom witnessed yet another outburst of the ABC. Such outbursts like these show just how much he has sold his soul to this covenant process that has been devised by the ultra-evangelicals. This tells me that NACC is gaining.

  5. Whatever else is going on, for me the question about the Covenant is entirely about the text itself. Is it intrinsically good and useful or otherwise?

    It's amazing, as I think Jim has pointed out elsewhere, that there is such a dearth of actual explanation or argument basedon the text itself coming from the pro-Covenant side. Nor have I seen any serious refutation of the growing volume of clear arguments against.

    The more you study the text, the clearer it becomes that this treaty, regardless of the motives behind it or the sincerity with which it is being sold, is not the soluton to anything and does not live up to its claims to protect Provincial autonomy.

  6. ... but the Act of Supremacy 1558 doesn't give provinces complete, unqualified autonomy, does it? I thought section 8, which is still in force in England and Wales, declared provinces to be visitable by the secular state (and only by the secular state).

    As it happens, I think that's a reasonably good way to go about overseeing provinces. Although at a communion-wide level, one has to worry about what to do when the state on whose territory a particular province operates is too tyrannical and/or undemocratic to be trusted with the power of visitation - or when the state on whose territory a province operates, although it's trustworthy, is unable to exercise the power due to a "separation of church and state" clause in its constitution.

    Any thoughts on how all this interacts with the proposed covenant?

  7. You are correct, Feria, to say that the C of E isn't completely autonomous because of Establishment. But the point of the Act was to put the Church of England clearly under the control of the Crown as opposed to the Pope.

    But establishment only applies to the Church of England now, Wales having been disestablished. And of course, it doesn't apply at all outside the UK. Other churches are certainly subject to any relevant laws in their own countries for purposes such as taxation, the regulation of charities, employment laws, health and safety and so on. So autonomy isn't absolute. But on internal matters having to do with doctrine and discipline they are otherwise unregulated by their various states as far as I know. And unregulated by any other outside authority unless they choose to adopt the proposed Covenant.

    Whether there are any implied interactions with the proposed Covenant is an interesting question. I am assured by well-informed people that the Covenant shouldn't have any implications for Establishment in the Church of England.

  8. Thanks Alan.

    The "show geographical extent" facility on legislation.gov.uk definitely says that section 8 of the Act of Supremacy is still applicable in Wales as well as England - although on further investigation, possibly only to a handful of cross-border parishes that voted to stay established under section 9(1) of
    the Welsh Church Act 1914. Sorry for the confusion.

  9. There could be a variety of reasons for the Act of Supremacy having residual effect in Wales. The Welsh Church Act only makes sense under the Act of Supremacy (you can't disestablish unless you've established previously). And there are a few vestiges of Establishment in Wales, as well. But without checking more closely, I can't say exactly what would be referred to by the geographical facility of the legislation website.

    The issue of autonomy is still a significant one, though. Whether we have the freedom at the Provincial level of moving at a rate that is locally appropriate on, say, the ordination of women, is an important question. And the general trend of the Covenant is to encourage moving at the rate of the slowest, which is ultimately a recipe for paralysis.


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