31 March 2012

What next?

Last week the process of diocesan consultation on the proposed Anglican Covenant in the Church of England reached a definitive conclusion. With six dioceses still to vote, a majority had already rejected the proposed Covenant. (As of this writing, 40 of 44 dioceses have now voted, with 15 voting in favour of the Covenant and 25 against.) The question the dioceses faced was, procedurally at any rate, whether they wanted the General Synod to consider a motion to adopt the proposed Covenant.
The reason the dioceses were even asked this question is that the proposed Act of Synod adopting the Covenant was deemed to be “Article 8” business, that is that it had to do with “a scheme for … a permanent and substantial change of relationship between the Church of England and another Christian body, being a body a substantial number of whose members reside in Great Britain.” The rules with respect to the reference to the dioceses required that a majority of the dioceses (i.e., at least 23 of the 44 dioceses) vote for the proposal in order for it to return to the General Synod for a vote. In the event that a majority did not vote for the proposal (i.e., at least 22 voted against), the proposal cannot return to the General Synod in the current quinquennium, which I understand runs until July, 2015. So now, with 25 diocese having voted against the Covenant, it is effectively dead in the water.

The blogosphere is full of the comments of pundits examining the entrails of the diocesan decisions from a political perspective, but I am more interested in procedural questions.

What does this mean for the Church of England?

Technically speaking, what this does not mean is that the Church of England has rejected the Covenant. Under the rules of Article 8, the General Synod may now not consider the draft Act of Synod to adopt the Covenant, and thus may not vote either yes or no, at least until the next quinquennium. Whether the leadership of the Church of England wants to resurrect the process of adopting the Covenant in 2015, and whether the General Synod wants at that time to start over with another Article 8 reference to the dioceses, would be matters for them to decide then, prognostications of pundits notwithstanding. So the Church of England has (obviously) not adopted the Covenant, nor has it definitively decided not to adopt the Covenant. Nor can it, by its own rules, consider the question for at least another three years.

I suppose the General Synod could conceivably consider a Act of Synod stating that it does not adopt the Anglican Covenant, although I seriously doubt that is likely.

What does this mean for the operation of the Anglican Covenant?

The proposed Covenant contemplates three categories of Church in the Anglican Communion. It refers in a few places to Churches that have adopted the Covenant “through the procedures of [their] own Constitution[s] and Canons.” (4.1.6) Once they have done so, the Covenant is “active” for them. This means that they can be the object about whom a question is “raised” (4.2.3), that they can participate in the decision making processes of section 4.2 (4.2.8), submit a proposal to amend the Covenant (4.4.2) or withdraw from it. (4.3.1)

The second category of Church consists of those “who are still in the process of adoption” of the Covenant. Although this term is not defined, it seems to refer to Churches that have neither said that they will adopt the Covenant, nor that they won't. These Churches can participate in the processes of section 4.2 (4.2.8), but are not subject to these processes, nor can they propose an amendment to the Covenant. The Church of England is, as I have suggested above, in this category.

The third category, non-Covenanting Churches, is implied by the text in section 4.2.8 and section 4.3.1. It is not clear whether this refers to Churches that have rejected a motion to adopt the Covenant, or have definitively adopted a motion stating that they will not adopt the Covenant. Sometimes voting against a motion is not the same as adopting its opposite. One could argue that as long as the possibility remains that a motion to adopt the Covenant could be brought to a Church's General Synod (or equivalent), that Church is still in the process of adopting the Covenant, even if it has previously rejected a motion to adopt the Covenant.

So, from the perspective of the operation of the Covenant, it is apparently in effect for a few Churches that have adopted it, with the implications set out above. (Exactly which Churches have adopted the Covenant is a matter of some debate.) The rest of the Churches, at least those that haven't definitively rejected the Covenant (and it's not clear that any have done that), are still in the process of adopting it.

What if the Church of England definitively rejects the Covenant?

This is where the wheels come off. Some pundits have raised questions about whether the Archbishop of Canterbury acts, with respect to the operation of the Covenant, as an Instrument of Communion, or as a representative of a particular Church. They raise this question because if the Archbishop of Canterbury is a representative of the Church of England, and the Church of England definitively rejects the Covenant, then the whole operation becomes absurd. Elsewhere I have pointed out the several overlapping roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury with respect to various bodies that conduct the dispute settling processes of section 4.2. (The overlap of roles means that the process violates the second principle of Natural Justice, as I have shown.) But if you take the Archbishop out of those roles without in some way replacing him, it creates a procedural crisis. For example, the Primates' Meeting has a key role in staffing the Standing Committee, and advising it in its deliberations. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is the convenor of the Primates' Meeting (and the President of the Standing Committee). He's also the President of the Anglican Consultative Council, which is the other key body that staffs and advises the Standing Committee. If he cannot participate in the process, the process itself becomes unworkable.

And even if the process can somehow be rescued, there is still the question of how Churches which are bound to a certain set of (vaguely defined) commitments can continue indefinitely in a meaningful relationship with a Mother Church which chooses not to take on those commitments itself. The primacy of honour traditionally accorded to the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury within the Anglican Communion would be seriously undermined if the Church of England rejects the Covenant and the Covenant is widely adopted by other Churches in the Communion.

What does this mean for the rest of the Anglican Communion?

Two years ago, I introduced a resolution to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada that it not consider the Covenant until after the Church of England formally adopts it. The resolution was ruled out of order by the chair, and so I was not able to present my reasons for introducing it. My concern was, in fact, that we might face just the current state of affairs. If the Church of England rejects or fails to adopt the Covenant, it would create a problem for the Canadian Church if it were to adopt the Covenant. We are constitutionally bound to communion with the Church of England, and adopting a Covenant with respect to the Anglican Communion to which the Church of England is not party would create constitutional problems, to say the least. Hence, my resolution was intended to suggest that we not spend too much time, effort or money on a constitutional proposal before it became clear that its adoption by the Church of England made it at the very least workable.

I don't know how much time, effort or money has been expended on the Anglican Covenant proposal, but I think it is safe to say “a lot”. And this proposal has distracted Anglicans to a significant degree from pursuing, both other avenues of building relationships, and our primary mission of living out the Gospel in our various contexts. Now that the project is stalled, perhaps irretrievably, in the Church of England, how much more time, energy and money should the rest of us be expending on this proposed Covenant?

What should those outside England do?

It's really up to each Church to decide how it's going to deal with the proposed Covenant, but I see four options at this point:
  1. Continue with the process of considering and adopting the proposed Covenant;
  2. Continue to consider the Covenant, but adopt it conditionally such that an Act of Synod adopting the Covenant does not come into effect until the Church of England adopts it;
  3. Suspend the process of considering the Covenant until it is clear what the Church of England is going to do next;
  4. Adopt a resolution rejecting the Covenant.
The first and fourth options are pretty straightforward. I suggest the fourth because it is clearer than simply defeating a resolution to adopt the Covenant, which is a possible outcome of Option 1.

Option 2 would allow for continued study and debate of the Covenant, but if it is adopted, it would not come into effect, and the Church in question would thus not become a Covenanting Church, until the Church of England chooses to adopt the Covenant. Other conditions such as a critical mass of Covenanting Churches being reached could also be included. This would be rather like the adoption by the British Parliament of the EasterAct 1928, which fixes the date of Easter on “the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April”. The Act itself has not yet come into effect, and will not before an Order in Council is made, “provided ... that, before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.” Similarly, a given Church could entertain a conditional resolution to adopt the Covenant in order to bring the project to a decisive conclusion. If the Church decides to adopt the Covenant, doing so conditionally would mean that it's not actually bound by that decision until the conditions are met.

I think the attraction of Option 3 is pretty self-evident. Perhaps it's time to admit that the proposal for a Covenant has been found sufficiently wanting that it's time to cut our losses and get on with building up the Kingdom of God in our several contexts and building relationships with other members of the Anglican Communion. But if we're not prepared to take that definitive a step, then at least we could take a wait and see approach and let the Church of England untie its Gordian knots before we spend any more time on this project.

11 March 2012

Of Archbishops and Videos

The Archbishop of Canterbury recently issued a video defending the proposed Anglican Covenant against what he depicted as some “misunderstandings” about the proposed Covenant, which seem to be abroad. I assume he refers to such “misunderstandings” as some of mine. Though I don't flatter myself that the Archbishop has ever read my blog in person.

I think the Archbishop has a few misunderstandings of his own.

For example, he seems to believe that
A lot of people have said that the first few sections of the Covenant, the first three bits of the Covenant, are uncontroversial. They set out a common ground on which we all agree and they, in general ways, urge us to think about these things – to think about the impact on other parts of the Communion and what we decide to do.
Well, I for one am not among that “lot of people.” The first three sections are, in my view, very controversial. They have some serious problems which I have outlined in depth. The biggest problem is that they purport to set out a coherent understanding of the Anglican faith and the Anglican way, against which future actions can be objectively measured (in section 4's process). That's what the Archbishop seems to believe. But, with the greatest respect, he's wrong. Sections 1 to 3 are very far from coherent, and although they may look attractive to a broad constituency because of the elasticity of their language which lends them to a variety of interpretations, that very elasticity of language will make it quite impossible to use them as the basis of anything remotely resembling an objective comparison with a proposed future action by a Church.

The reason these sections have attracted so little comment from opponents of the propose Covenant is not because they are so brilliant or uncontroversial. It's because section 4 is so very awful that it attracts the lion's share of the debate. As I have suggested before, if a man with a bad haircut attacks you with a knife, your attention is on the knife, not the haircut. Section 4 is a knife; sections 1-3 are a very bad haircut.

But the biggest problem, as the Archbishop sees it, is not any quibbles obscure Canadians like me might have with sections 1-3. No, there is apparently some false propaganda circulating. As the Archbishop puts it:
one of the greatest misunderstandings around concerning the Covenant is that it’s some sort of centralising proposal creating an absolute authority which has the right to punish people for stepping out of line. I have to say I think this is completely misleading and false.
I would be more convinced if he were to demonstrate, citing the actual Covenant text of course, precisely why these concerns are “misleading and false.” Without doing so, he engages in unsupported assertions and even verges on ad hominem attacks.

The fact is, as I have already demonstrated, that the so-called dispute-settling process in section 4 of the proposed Covenant is vague, arbitrary and intrinsically unfair by design. And it is designed to determine winners and losers. Either an action by a Church is compatible or incompatible with the Covenant. And the decision is final, with no mechanism for further discussion or appeal.

Oh, says the Archbishop, “what the Covenant proposes is not a set of punishments, but a way of thinking through what the consequences are of decisions people freely and in good conscience make.” Given the vagueness of the process, it's not much of a way of thinking through anything. We don't even know how to start the process. It's that unclear. I challenge the Archbishop to demonstrate where the Covenant text says how a question is to be raised, as it quaintly puts what elsewhere would be called lodging a complaint. It's simply not there in the text.

And furthermore, as I have shown before, the “recommendations” of “relational consequences” will be made with the a priori expectation that they will be adopted. Indeed, it might be that failure to adopt a recommended relational consequence would in itself be “incompatible with the Covenant.”

This is not about having scones and cream at tea, but no jam; it's about not being invited to the popular parties because one has been sent to the naughty corner. It's about churches being judged by an unfair and arbitrary process against unclear standards, and on the basis of that judgement, without any right of appeal, having their participation in the Instruments of Communion withdrawn.

“The Covenant suggests a process of scrutiny,” says the Archbishop. Yet for some reason the proponents of the Covenant try to block or ignore every serious attempt to scrutinise the Covenant text. The Archbishop's video is yet another attempt at diverting decision makers from having access to the necessary information on which to base their decisions. It's because he knows what decision they will make with that information.