31 August 2011

Why I Oppose the Anglican Covenant

About nine months ago, when I began this blog, I set out to explore a series of questions I had about the proposed Anglican Covenant, and to present the resulting analysis as a resource for others who were considering the document. I had already done enough preliminary analysis of the proposed Covenant to conclude that it was not a helpful document, so it would be fair to suggest that I was already biased against the Covenant. Nevertheless, I was not unalterably opposed to some kind of Covenant or agreed document, although I would have required some very serious convincing that this was the correct avenue to addressing the conflict and divisions in the Anglican Communion. (All the more so now that I have done some in depth analysis!) My concern in putting some thoughts into the aether was for the good of the Anglican Communion. I am a committed Anglican, and my Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, is an active and committed member of the Anglican Communion.

I set out to analyze the proposed Covenant primarily from the perspective of Canon Law, which is my area of interest. I hold a Master's Degree in Canon Law from Cardiff University, though I haven't made mention of it to date on my blog, in the hope that my arguments would rest on their own merit, and not on some perceived claim to status or expertise. For in the end, either my analysis is logical and demonstrably valid or it is not, and my credentials will not make any difference.

When I began my quest, I jotted down a half dozen questions about the proposed Covenant, mainly about the dispute-settling process in section 4.2. I thought that after writing six or eight blog posts I would sum them up with a post such as this one. Little did I know that more questions would arise with respect to the proposed Covenant, and that I would write over 30 articles about it!

Supporters of the Covenant have noted correctly that the preponderance of arguments against it focus on the shortcomings and concerns about section 4.2, the dispute-settling mechanism, They sometimes conclude from the relatively small number of concerns about sections 1-3 that these sections are perfectly fine. That is an incorrect conclusion. Sections 1-3 may be in the main less objectionable than section 4.2, but they do have some serious problems, as I have attempted to demonstrate. This was made even clearer to me because of the sequence in which I analysed the proposed Covenant.

Most people who seek to do a study of the Covenant start at the beginning, and begin reading it as a kind of theological consensus document. On this reading, most people will find little objectionable in section 1, not much objectionable in section 2 and a few points of discomfort in section 3. It's when the reader gets to section 4, which has a very different tone to it, that most people begin to get concerned. It's as though there were two documents: a theological consensus statement in sections 1-3, and a legal document in section 4. And many critics conclude that they could live with the first document – even if it's imperfect – but would prefer to drop the second. I began analysing the proposed Covenant with section 4, and then for completeness moved on to the first three sections. So in reading the first part of the Covenant the key question in my mind was not whether I could agree with what the document said as a consensus statement, but how sections 1-3 form a basis for the process in section 4.2. In other words, I read sections 1-3 not as a separate document of a different genre from section 4, but as an integral part of a whole legal document. And that approach revealed a number of serious concerns with sections 1-3.

So, to my concerns. In what follows I will provide links to relevant articles elsewhere on this blog to allow the reader to explore my arguments in more depth.

My first concern about the proposed Covenant has nothing to do with the text itself, but with the very proposal for a Covenant. The idea that it might be desirable to have some kind of agreed document laying out what it means to be an Anglican, and including some commitments and a dispute-settling mechanism was put forward in the Windsor Report. Most of the Anglican world seized on this idea and accepted it in a rather uncritical manner. In so doing, we bypassed the necessary question of Instrument Choice, that is to say, of whether this sort of approach is in fact the best vehicle to address the very real conflict that the Windsor Report described. In uncritically accepting the desirability of a Covenant, we ignored a number of crucial questions.

Turning to the text itself, this time in sequence, there are difficulties with every section of the proposed Covenant, some relatively minor and others which are significant enough to be deal breakers all by themselves. Section 1 of the proposed Covenant seeks first to define the faith in terms of existing documents such as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and the historic formularies of the Church of England. It then goes on to commit signatory Churches to conform to this normative definition of authentic Anglican faith and any future developments. There are two principle problems with this section. First, the definition of the faith is sufficiently elastic and imprecise that whether a given development of the faith fits the norm will always be a matter of interpretation. And secondly, the commitment to live up to this norm, which pays lip service to the varying contexts in which the Churches of the Anglican Communion find themselves, does not adequately account for those contexts and how they will shape both interpretation and development of the faith. We must remember that this section is the foundation of the standards against which any “controversial action” will be judged. The question is whether the standards are sufficiently clear that such judgment will be demonstrably fair and credible, and more or less universally acceptable. Section 1's lack of clarity leaves the standards far too vague, which will inevitably lead to conflict over whether the Standing Committee's interpretation of a given Church's action is fair to that Church in its context.

I have suggested that section 2 of the Covenant text is probably the strongest part of the whole document, speaking to the vocation and mission of the Churches of the Anglican Communion. Centred on the Marks of Mission, this section speaks of the call to engage with the world around us to collaborate in God's mission to establish God's reign. (Section 2.1.4) But in quoting the Marks of Mission, section 2 also distorts them by adding a very definite gloss to each one. As with questions of the interpretation of the faith in various contexts, this gloss of the Marks of Mission assumes a single, monolithic interpretation of the mission of the Churches in their various contexts. Section 2 starts well but ends on a sour note.

Section 3 of the proposed Covenant, which addresses the question of how the Churches of the Anglican Communion live together, has a series of difficulties. This section speaks of living together in communion and describes the Instruments of Communion, though it never actually defines what it means by “communion”. But, as I have said, “there is one fundamental problem with this whole section of the proposed Covenant, and that is that it seems to assume both that Churches will have a tendency to act in a manner which is irresponsible, or that their mechanisms for discernment and consultation are inadequate. And it seems to assume that relations among the churches of the Anglican Communion will normally be marked by conflict.” In fact, those assumptions underlie the entire proposed Covenant, which says much more about the context of our current conflict than about our aspirations for life as an Anglican Communion.

And how to sum up the problems of section 4, which are legion?

Section 4 provides mechanisms for adopting, withdrawing from and amending the Covenant as well, most controversially, for dealing with disputes among signatories.

To begin at the beginning, Section 4.1.3 claims (echoing section 3.2.2) that adopting the Covenant will not affect the constitution or canons of a Church, nor impede its autonomy. Poppycock. The very purpose of the Covenant is to restrict the way in which the signatories exercise their autonomy. And by adopting it, those Churches will be sewing it into their ecclesiastical law. Indeed, adopting the Covenant will imply ceding jurisdiction over a number of matters. And still on the topic of adopting the Covenant, it doesn't seem to contemplate any minimum number of Churches required for the Covenant actually to come into force. Instead, it is in force for a Church as soon as it adopts it. Thus, for example, when Mexico became the first Church to adopt the Covenant, it was in force. Mexico could have raised a question about the activities of another Church, except that there wasn't another Church that had adopted the Covenant. In theory they could have amended it, too. Which would have been absurd.

As to the question of withdrawing from the Covenant, there is a naked threat that doing so can result in “relational consequences” or punishment for the Church that withdraws. How this logically can occur is a mystery.

And what to say of the dispute-settling mechanism? It provides for a process by which “controversial actions” can be assessed and, if such actions are determined to be “incompatible with the Covenant,” impose “relational consequences” on a Church that refuses to withdraw the offending action. But this process has more holes than Swiss cheese. For starters, there is no definition of what might constitute a “controversial action.” You might imagine that it would be something that is contrary to the standards of faith, but since, as mentioned above, these standards are not clearly defined, we're really no further ahead. Nor are “relational consequences” clearly defined. So we don't really know what the rules are or what the punishment is for violating them.

And if the standards are vague and the punishments undefined, the process itself is unclear. For example, it's not even clear how a Church with a question even starts the process rolling! What is clear is that the process violates the fundamental principles of Natural Justice, as I have demonstrated in a two-part analysis here and here. The trouble here is that we have a process which is ill-defined, vague, and demonstrably unjust. Not only is this a recipe for arbitrariness, these flaws in the process undermine any shred of credibility of any decision made by the Standing Committee pursuant to its powers in the proposed Covenant.

This is not an exhaustive analysis of the proposed Covenant, though I think it is fairly extensive. There are other questions that might be asked of it, and no doubt I will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead. But I hope that it is clear that there are some very grave problems with the proposed Covenant, which must be weighed by any Synod in deciding whether or not to adopt it.

And what of the other side? What are the arguments for the Covenant? I wish I knew! In fact, I have seen a few attempts to defend the Covenant, for example by claiming that the punishments in it (relational consequences) are not in fact punitive. Then there is the claim that it actually won't make any difference at all (except that adopting it is vital to the life of the Anglican Communion!) Hmmm.... “this placebo will save you from your terminal disease.” And of course there is the claim that There Is No Alternative. But beyond these claims and an assertion that adopting the Covenant will demonstrate our loyalty to the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury, there has been very little put forward as a convincing argument for the proposed Covenant. Which raises a number of serious questions:

If there is no significant argument for the Covenant, why adopt it? If its adoption is merely symbolic, why not choose another symbol? If its dangers are even partially as bad as I have suggested, in what way are these outweighed by whatever benefits might come from the Covenant? Are there any benefits? And is there not an onus on those who would propose significant change in the Anglican Communion to make a convincing case for that change?

I oppose the proposed Covenant because I do not believe that it will benefit the Anglican Communion, and worse because it risks weaponizing the already serious conflict among the member Churches. I oppose it because in place of a mechanism to build up the Communion it provides a dispute-settling mechanism that is vague, arbitrary, and demonstrably unjust. I oppose it because, on the basis of careful analysis, I believe that it will cause serious and possibly irreparable harm to the Anglican Communion to which I am committed.


  1. What does it say about our Communion that it would consider adopting such an unfair and, frankly, poorly drawn document? I would like to think that I am part of a fellowship that is both fair and competent. The Anglican Communion, however, appears to be neither.

  2. Alan, I don't have a Master's in Canon Law, but you write in a manner that the average person can understand, and I think your summary is excellent.

    Your words that follow particularly drew my attention:

    "...And it seems to assume that relations among the churches of the Anglican Communion will normally be marked by conflict.”

    What a crooked foundation upon which to build a community based on the New Covenant of Jesus Christ in which we are bid to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves!

    And then these words which are so very true:

    So we don't really know what the rules are or what the punishment is for violating them.

    So. We are to sign on to play the Anglican Covenant game despite uncertainty about what will be required of us after we sign and what consequences will follow if we break the rules of the game, even though we don't know the rules.

    Alan, those words actually made me laugh out loud, but it's not funny, because the folks who ask us to agree to such an absurd document are quite serious.

  3. I joined the Episcopal Church in the first place because I found it to be (unlike the Roman Catholic Church, of which I was a member for some fifty years), a church that works, one in which disputes are not the norm, but that can be resolved when they do arise in human and interpersonal fashion (i.e., by listening to the Holy Spirit for real!).
    To take the Anglican Communion, which thus far has also worked, and turn it into something dysfunctional, seems to me, to say the least, irrational.

  4. Your analyses are detailed and your insights into the issues are sharp and helpful. Thank you for your well done article!
    Best wishes,
    Andy Hill


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