28 July 2012

Taking stock ...and what's next?

As we enter the lazy days of Summer, and people are distracted by a sporting event in the British capital, whose name I won't mention for fear of winning a gold medal for copyright infringement, perhaps it's time to take stock of where the Anglican Covenant process is. In a few months, the Anglican Consultative Council will be meeting in New Zealand, and there is to be report on the “progress” of Covenant adoption.

According to the No Anglican Covenant Coalition website, five Churches have definitively adopted the Covenant: Mexico, the West Indies, Burma, Papua New Guinea and the Southern Cone. Meanwhile, three Churches have pretty definitively rejected the Covenant: Scotland, Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, and the Philippines. I say “pretty definitively” because the Philippines haven't actually had a vote on the Covenant, to my knowledge. Rather, it is the House of Bishops that has rejected the Covenant in that Church.

Three Churches are said to have reported some progress along the way to adopting the Covenant. The Province of Southern Africa has adopted it provisionally on first reading and expects to ratify that decision at its next General Synod meeting in 2013. The Church in Wales has indicated that it is willing to adopt the Covenant, but first wants clarification about its status given the uncertainty in the Church of England. And Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Japan) has agreed to soldier on in spite of a recommendation to the contrary from its House of Bishops' Theological Committee.

Finally there are four Churches whose positions on the Covenant reflect a great deal of uncertainty. South East Asia has chosen to “accede to” (not “adopt”) the Covenant, and in so doing issued a rather detailed statement explaining what they thought the Covenant and its adoption by others means. The Church of Ireland has “subscribed” (not “adopted”) the Covenant, without explaining what that means, though it's clear that “subscribe” means something different from “adopt”. The Episcopal Church has simply decided not to decide, at least not just now. And the Church of England has had the dioceses reject consideration of the Covenant by the General Synod, in spite of a particularly aggressive hard-sell campaign.

So, five Yeses, three Nos, three Maybes and four Unclear. And next year we may hear from Australia, Canada and Southern Africa, perhaps among others. That's still less than half the Churches of the Anglican Communion, which hardly suggests much enthusiasm for the project.

So, barring any further action between now and November, that's the state of affairs that the Anglican Consultative Council will be presented with. What should they do next?

There is some talk that a proposal will be brought forward in November to have the Anglican Consultative Council specify a minimum number of adopting Churches as a threshold for the Covenant to become active, as well as a deadline by which that must happen. Presumably if the threshold is not met by the deadline, then the whole project will simply be binned.

About a year ago, I suggested that there ought to have been just these sorts of provisions in the proposed Covenant text. And so I agree fundamentally with the proposal to do so now, even if it is not actually included in the text itself. After all, at some point in the future someone is going to have to declare the Covenant project an unmitigated success (which would be pretty obvious, anyway) or conclude that we have flogged this dead horse long enough. And I suppose that since the criteria by which such a determination should be made weren't included in the proposed Covenant text, it's better for the Anglican Consultative Council to agree to a threshold and a deadline than simply to have the Archbishop of Canterbury wake up one morning and announce he's decided it's over.

That said, however, it would be well for the Council to be aware that in determining go/no go criteria they would be in effect amending the Covenant, which we had all been told rather forcefully is unamendable at this stage. Section 4.1.6 states that “this Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons.” Thus, the Covenant is already active for five Churches. Amending it, or adopting an agreement that the Covenant will be nullified, thus opens the door to the possibility that the Anglican Consultative Council will be overturning decisions of the five current covenanting Churches, and of any others who adopt the Covenant between now and the deadline. At least with respect to any further covenanting Churches, they will be adopting the Covenant in the certain knowledge that their action will be provisional. The first five, however, adopted the Covenant in good faith, presumably without the possibility of its nullification in mind. Thus the adoption of a threshold and deadline would amount to an intrusion upon the autonomy of five churches.

The other option, of course, would be to amend the Covenant formally using the procedures of section 4.4.2 to insert a threshold and deadline into section 4.1.6. For now that the Covenant is active it is, contrary to previous suggestions, amendable according to the procedures it contains. Amending it according to those procedures would be a cumbersome process, of course, but it would at least respect both the integrity of the Covenant and the autonomous decisions of the Churches that have already adopted it. Doing it properly would also demonstrate the Anglican Consultative Council's commitment to and respect for the Covenant project as depicted, even if it would be the first such demonstration by an Instrument of Communion. But I don't imagine that's likely to happen.

Instead, watch for the adoption of a threshold and deadline by the ACC in November. With those in place, the Covenant can simply be left to die of neglect without need for further study or debate or voting. Then we could all get on with building the Communion by engaging in mission together.

08 July 2012

Yes or no? Or maybe?

Rumour has it that the legislative subcommittee working on resolutions regarding the Anglican Covenant at the Episcopal Church's General Convention is crafting a pair of resolutions. The first, apparently, would be a mom-and-apple-pie affirmation of their commitment to the Anglican Communion. Nothing wrong there.

The second is where this commitment intersects with the proposed Covenant. And here, according to my spies on the ground, is where things get a bit weird. Some would like to see a clear resolution adopting the Covenant, though I can't imagine many who actually believe that such a resolution would pass. Others would like a clear resolution declining to adopt the Covenant. So, a clear Yes, or a clear No.

The trouble, apparently, is that the legislative committee believes that a clear No won't fly in the House of Bishops. (The General Convention is a bicameral body, divided between Deputies – clergy and laity – and Bishops. And every resolution must be adopted by both.) And so, evidently, the solution being contemplated is that the second resolution be a motion to defer a decision. Tune in next time, in other words, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. Come back again in three years when we will be pleased to defer the decision again. Maybe then we'll have the courage to defer the decision for thirty years instead of three.

Frankly, there is no need for a resolution to defer the decision. They could accomplish that with no need for debate or legislative time on the agenda simply by not putting forward any resolution at all. So what's this all about?

It's about not wanting to be seen to be the bad guy, that's what it's about. The Covenant was designed to give the wider Communion a way of sending the Episcopal Church to the naughty corner, and ever since the Windsor Report, which first proposed a Covenant, chastised the American Church for its actions in consecrating an openly gay bishop, that Church has been tiptoeing around the Communion trying not to sound half as naughty as it is being depicted as being by its critics. And, of course, saying No to the Communion would be interpreted by those same critics as just another bit of evidence of its naughtiness.

The trouble with such tiptoeing is that it comes at the cost of dishonesty. Yes, the Episcopal Church can tell everyone it's deferring its decision, but everyone will know that it's just a sign that the Episcopal Church wants to have it both ways: to avoid saying No without saying Yes. Because there's no chance the Episcopal Church will say Yes. Why say No when we can say Later? Except no-one is seriously going to be fooled by this. No-one is going to believe that the Episcopal Church might say Yes when Later arrives.

Why say No when saying Later long enough will let the Covenant die a natural death?

Or why not simply be honest?

Here's my suggestion: The General Convention should go ahead with the proposed first resolution, affirming its commitment to the Anglican Communion. I believe that this resolution will be adopted more or less unanimously by both houses. Because I believe the Episcopal Church truly is committed to the Communion.

But what comes next should be two resolutions: one to say Yes, and one to say No. If the Yes fails (which it will), the No should be put forward. And if the Deputies have the courage to say No clearly, it will be up to the Bishops to decide what to do. If they don't say No, the effect will be a definite Probably Not without actually saying No. But at least everyone will know where the General Convention stands, even if it isn't willing to say so clearly.

In either case, now is the acceptable hour. It's time for the General Convention to tell the Anglican World whether it has the courage of its convictions. Yes or No. We don't want to be tuning in next time to find out.