29 February 2012

Implementing the Covenant

It has been said that the proposed Anglican Covenant does not affect the constitution or canons of any Church adopting same. Actually, the Covenant itself says that. It has also been said that this statement is, as the technical term puts it, “poppycock”. Because if any Church truly wants to implement the Covenant, it does have constitutional implications. After all, adopting the proposed Covenant means agreeing to all the terms therein, including the possibility of having any action taken by the adopting Church declared to be “incompatible with the Covenant” (whatever that means) and thus being subjected to “relational consequences” (whatever that means) unless it ceases and desists from its incompatible activity.

So what would it take to implement the Covenant, should a Church decide to adopt it?

It seems to me that it would mean putting into place mechanisms for addressing the possibility that a given action would be declared “incompatible with the Covenant.” So, for example, any action of any legislature in the adopting Church which has been declared “incompatible with the Covenant” would have to be addressed. One way would be to hold an emergency meeting to rescind the offensive action, or alternatively to decide to accept the “relational consequences”, whatever that might mean. (Call me a stickler, but I do wish these terms were actually defined!) But holding emergency meetings in a Church such as the Anglican Church of Canada, whose General Synod only meets every three years, would be a significant burden.

So, the Church could simply incorporate in its constitution a provision automatically to nullify any action that has been deemed “incompatible with the Covenant.” This would, in effect, give the Standing Committee the power to veto any action taken by the adopting Church. Which is actually the point of the proposed Covenant. It's called ceding jurisdiction. And, of course, the veto power would have to extend to any action taken by any given bishop, such as ordaining someone, or authorizing a liturgy. Obviously the bishops of a Church adopting the proposed Covenant would accept that it is necessary to constrain their own powers, and the powers of their successors, in order to ensure that they (and their successors) never do anything, however inadvertently, that is “incompatible with the Covenant.”

A second area to address would be the definition of heresy. Heresy is, after all, a disciplinary offence. At least in my Church. Even if (sadly) it no longer means burning the heretic at the stake. But the definition of heresy would have to be expanded to include teaching anything incompatible with the Anglican Covenant. Which is a bit of a problem, given the fuzziness of the definition of the faith in the proposed Covenant.

A third point would have to do with the question of consultation on significant issues. Many Churches have provision for their General Synod (or equivalent) to consult (e.g. with dioceses) on certain matters such as the ordination of women as bishops, or the adoption of an international treaty such as the proposed Anglican Covenant, prior to the adoption of such measures. Obviously, it would be prudent (or “cautious” as the proposed Covenant puts it) to include in that consultation process a reference to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion through the process known as “raising a question” in order to determine proactively whether the proposed action would be compatible or incompatible with the Covenant. Such a reference shouldn't add too many years to the process of adopting whatever change is contemplated (such as ordaining women bishops, for example). And any delay would be well spent in order to be certain that the contemplated change won't be subsequently found “incompatible with the Covenant” and nullified. We wouldn't want to rush into any changes that might be challenged under the proposed Covenant.

Exactly how to implement these points into the constitution of any given Church would depend on the nature of that Church's constitution. For the Anglican Church of Canada, it is relatively easy to imagine about four changes that would have to be drafted in the Constitution and Canons of the General Synod. (Three changes to the Declaration of Principles, and one to the Discipline Canon, to be precise.) These changes would only take two readings (or about six years) after the formal adoption of the Covenant. It would be a bit more complex to draft the necessary changes for the thirty-four other legislatures in the Anglican Church of Canada (four internal Provinces and thirty dioceses). But it is doable, I suppose.

Even more complex would be the mechanisms to implement the Covenant in the Church of England, with its complex system of governance as the only Established Church in the Anglican Communion. For example, if the appointment of a given bishop were subsequently deemed “incompatible with the Covenant”, the appointment – a Crown appointment – would obviously have to be nullified. Similarly if a Measure (which in the Church of England has the full status of an Act of Parliament) were to be found “incompatible with the Covenant” it, too, would have to be nullified. So, too, with any legacy Act of Parliament. Unless, of course, the Church of England decided to accept the ensuing “relational consequences” such as being expelled from the Lambeth Conference. But that would be absurd.

Obviously, anyone voting to adopt the proposed Covenant has already thought through these issues and accepted the implications. Not to do so would hardly be “cautious”, as the proposed Covenant puts it.