30 June 2015

A Canadian at General Convention - A few random impressions

Today is day 6 of the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I arrived here in Salt Lake City on the afternoon of day 2, and got myself registered as a visitor. Mostly, I'm here to see how General Convention works, being a Synod junkie. Now that I've reached the halfway point of my visit, it seems about the right time to record a few impressions. (Of course, there may be some errors in what follows, which I'll try to correct if notified.)

My point of comparison is the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, of which I have been a member 4 times, and have also attended as an Assessor twice. (I've served in both capacities once.) What follows is a set of random impressions and comparisons from that perspective.

General Convention is enormous! It's apparently the second-largest democratically elected legislature in the world (behind the Indian Parliament), and the second-largest convention in the United States (behind the Democrat National Convention).

Formally, General Convention is bi-cameral, unlike General Synod's uni-cameral structure. (curiously, my auto-correct just tried to replace "uni-cameral" with "un-American") However in some ways it might be described as multi-cameral because of its extensive use of legislative committees. (More on those below.)

The two chambers in General Convention are the House of Bishops, presided over by the Presiding Bishop (it includes both active and retired bishops of the Episcopal Church), and the House of Deputies, consisting of 4 clergy and 4 lay members for each of the 109 dioceses. The House of Deputies also includes an Official Youth Presence, made up of 2 youth for each of the 9 Provinces in the Episcopal Church. Unlike the 30 youth delegates in General Synod (one per diocese), the 18 Episcopal youth have no vote, though they do have voice.

The two Houses meet separately (obviously) and have very different look and feel to them. They also each have their own rules of order. I have been able to sit in as an observer in both houses, though on one occasion so far the Bishops met for "private conversations" (i.e. in camera). I'm told the Deputies can do so as well, though they do so rarely. The visitors' gallery in the House of Deputies is much larger, as befits a body that is over 4 times as big as the House of Bishops. (not to mention that it's over 3 times the size of the General Synod)

Both houses are seated at tables. In the House of Deputies, diocesan delegations each sit at the same table. I haven't yet discovered how the bishops are organized into table groups. The smaller House of Bishops speak from their tables, holding up a sign with their table number to be recognized. The House of Deputies have gone high tech, with a scanner being used to put their names into an electronic queue that can be read at the head table so the President can recognize Deputies in sequence at one of eight microphones.

Legislative committees are unknown in General Synod, although we do have sessional committees, but they play a different role. I have been intrigued to sit in on several legislative committee meetings over the past few days. These 23 committees review all substantive resolutions before they go to the two Houses for consideration. The committees hear "testimony" from interested parties, who need not be members of the Convention. In fact, on my first day here, I was invited to address the Governance and Structure comittee on the uni-cameral structure of the General Synod, because the committee was reviewing a proposal to make the General Convention uni-cameral also. Although in General Synod we routinely hear from invited guests, there is no equivalent to someone just showing up and speaking.

Committees review legislation, and may offer amendments, even quite substantial amendments and complete substitutions, based on their deliberations in light of testimony they have heard. By the time a resolution gets to the floor, it is presented by the chair of the relevant committee, and comes with a recommendation that the legislature adopt, adopt as amended, or reject the resolution. They may also recommend that the House "take no further action", which is to say, do nothing with the resolution, neither yes nor no.

At first glance, this committee structure looks like a rather complex and bureaucratic system which gives the committees an enormous amount of power to the committee members. But in fact it seems to serve three helpful purposes. First, it allows for participation beyond the official membership of the Convention. Anyone can offer testimony simply by signing up before the committee meets. Second, it allows for a lot of debate and honing of resolutions to happen before the formal debate, minimizing the number of significant difficulties or omissions in resolutions that might need to be addressed in debate, so Deputies can focus on the substance of a well-formed resolution. Third, and related to the second point, the committees can help the very large House of Deputies do its large volume of work efficiently.

So the reason I might use the term "multi-cameral" is because there is a kind of legislative dance including the two Houses that actually vote and legislate and the 23 committees that debate and craft and hone resolutions and recommend action. An example: in a primatial election in Canada the bishops nominate a number of candidates and then the General Synod reverts to a bi-cameral system (as it used to be) so the clergy and laity (which used to be called the Lower House) can vote (by orders) to elect the new Primate. They inform the bishops of their decision and it's a done deal. Here, I observed the Episcopal primatial election, which involved the bishops going off to vote on a slate of candidates that had been prepared by a committee. Then they sent word of their choice to the President of the House of Deputies, who immediately referred the name to the Committee for the Confirmation of the Presiding Bishop. That committee went away for about 45 minutes or so to confer and then returned with a recommendation to the House to agree with the Bishops' choice. It was only at this point that the House was officially informed of the name of the person elected. (Unofficially, someone leaked the name and it went out on Twitter.) Then the House of Deputies had a vote (not by orders) to confirm the election. Now it was a done deal, and Bishop Michael Curry was officially Presiding Bishop-elect. This interposing of a committee in the electoral process to recommend confirmation was foreign to me, but clearly a natural way of doing things here at General Convention. Strictly speaking, of course, the committees don't make decisions, but they certainly play an integral role in steering legislation through the Convention.

Voting is another interesting point of contrast between our two legislatures. Where the General Synod traditionally votes by show of hands (notwithstanding an experiment with electronic voting in 2013), General Convention uses voice votes. Interestingly, however, on a couple of occasions the voice vote result in the Deputies was sufficiently close that the Chair called for an electronic vote to sort it out, and the electronic vote wasn't as close as the voice vote had suggested. In one case the affirmative vote was over 70%. Obviously there's a danger of voice votes distorting results.

I haven't yet seen a vote by orders here, but our two systems are very different on that point as well. In General Synod we simply take three votes: laity, clergy and bishops - requiring a majority (or 2/3 majority in some cases) in each Order. You could call this a tri-cameral voting system. For General Convention, voting by orders only applies to the House of Deputies. Here each diocese gets one collective vote for clergy and one for laity. The procedure is that each diocesan delegation polls its clergy and laity separately, with the majority in each order determining that diocese's vote on the question. So with 109 dioceses it would take 55 clergy and 55 lay votes for a simple majority. (General Synod also has a rarely-used provision for voting by diocese, but that's a different matter, and is not done by orders.) Curiously, it is mathematically possible for a resolution to be adopted by a minority of clergy and a minority of laity in a vote by orders in the House of Deputies. Even a matter requiring a 2/3 majority only needs the barest simple majority under this system - literally 50% plus 1!

General Convention is very formal in the way the House of Deputies functions. Everyone is referred to by title: Mr Secretary or Madam President, or Deputy Johnson. (We learned that Johnson is the most common surname in the House.) And the conduct of business is highly scripted, even ritualized. Each item of legislative business follows this liturgy:

President: "Mr Secretary, what is the next item of business?"

Secretary: "Thank you, Madam President. The matter before the House is the Legislative Calendar. The next item on the Legislative Calendar is ...."

Debate is equally formal. Once the debate is concluded, the result is declared and punctuated with a gavel.

Often at General Synod, I hear people comment on how formal and bewildering Synod is. General Convention is at another order of magnitude in its formality. Indeed, General Synod is positively laid back by comparison. But this level of formality is necessary because of the enormous size of the House. Without it, the legislature would quickly become unmanageable. It does mean, however, that there is a learning curve for new Deputies that must be rather steeper than the learning curve for members of General Synod.

Formality in procedure is reflected in dress, as well. At General Synod dress tends to be almost uniformly casual, but at General Convention large numbers of clergy and bishops dress in clericals, lots of men wear jackets and ties (and bow ties!) and women are no less well dressed. This is serious business, and people dress for business.

Differences aside, there is much more similarity between our two legislative bodies. Synod is Synod. Some of the details are different because of size or culture, but overall I feel very much at home here at General Convention. Part of that is due to the similarities in our legislatures, but a good part is also due to the number of kind people who have been so welcoming.

13 October 2013

Business Arising

Earlier this month, the Provincial Synod of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa formally adopted the Anglican Covenant. This might seem like a new development in the life of the Covenant, as the zombie Covenant refuses to die in spite of some clear evidence that it had already been buried. However, it is important to note that the same Synod had adopted the Covenant provisionally back in 2010, when the project still had some life to it.

The full resolution reads:
This Synod

1. Notes the adoption of the Anglican Covenant at the Provincial Synod of 2010;
2. Recommits the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to playing the fullest possible role at the heart of the Anglican Communion, working to promote its unity in diversity and strengthening of bonds of affection, in a life of mutuality and interdependence, shared between autonomous churches, acting each as we are called in our own particular contexts and according to our own ordering, in response to this common gift and calling we have received in our Lord Jesus Christ;
3. Reaffirms its belief that this ordering of shared Communion life may be furthered as set out in the Preamble to the Covenant:
We, as Churches of the Anglican Communion, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, solemnly covenant together in these following affirmations and commitments. As people of God, drawn from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7.9), we do this in order to proclaim more effectively in our different contexts the grace of God revealed in the gospel, to offer God’s love in responding to the needs of the world, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and together with all God’s people to attain the full stature of Christ (Eph 4.3,13).
4. Resolves to confirm its adoption of the Anglican Covenant.
The key to understanding the actions of the ACSA lies in the first and last paragraphs of the resolution. Given that it had provisionally adopted the Covenant, the more recent action is thus best understood as nothing more than business arising from the previous meeting of Synod.

The reference to “autonomous churches” in paragraph 2 suggests that the ACSA does not intend its formal adoption of the Covenant to impair its own autonomy, nor does it seem likely that it will use the Covenant to interfere in other churches' autonomy, given the emphasis on diversity and “acting each as we are called according to our particular contexts.” Whether the Covenant will change anything, notwithstanding the ACSA's apparent understanding that it isn't intended to, remains to be seen. But for it to bring about any meaningful change, positive or negative, would require its widespread adoption.

My sense is that the Anglican Communion as a whole is generally moving on from this project, and the ACSA has simply cleaned up a bit of unfinished business

16 March 2013

Calling for more study

Note: there hasn't been much recent activity on this blog because there hasn't been much recent activity with respect to the proposed Anglican Covenant. I have some ideas about other topics I would like to pursue in this space, but it was initially set up to address the Anglican Covenant. I have decided to reserve this blog for that topic until the disposition of the Covenant has been determined. Once that happens, I will look to other topics as the muse strikes. In the meantime, posts to this blog will inevitably be sporadic.

As previously noted, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, at its 2010 meeting, called for study of the proposed Anglican Covenant, to be supported by the production of three documents: a study guide, a legal analysis and a theological analysis. We received an excellent study guide and an equally excellent legal analysis in short order. Last November we were disappointed to receive a flimsy report from the group that had been asked for the theological analysis. I would make a lame joke about how it ought to have been titled The Dogma Ate My Homework, except there was no theology in it.

Resolution A-137 of the General Synod of 2010, having called for study of the Covenant, then “direct[ed] the Council of General Synod, after this period of consultation and study, to bring a recommendation regarding adoption of The Covenant for the Anglican Communion to the General Synod of 2013.”

Yesterday, at its last meeting before the General Synod to be held in July, the Council of General Synod (CoGS) decided on the resolution that it will present to General Synod. To wit, the resolution will:
Request the conversations in the Anglican Church of Canada about the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion continue during the next triennium, and

Request the ACWG to monitor continued developments about the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion and report to the spring 2016 meeting of COGS and

Direct COGS to bring a recommendation regarding the adoption of the Covenant to General Synod 2016.
You can see the full discussion toward the end of the CoGS notes for March 15th here.

There are several ways to read this development.

First, and most obviously, CoGS is not doing what it was directed to do by the 2010 General Synod. That is, it is not “bring[ing] a recommendation regarding adoption of The Covenant for the Anglican Communion to the General Synod of 2013.” However, in its defence, it could be argued that it would be premature to do so because the period of consultation and study is incomplete. A few dioceses in Canada have undertaken extensive studies of the proposed Covenant in the last three years, but others have presumably been waiting (in vain, as it turned out) for the theological analysis before undertaking their own study. After all, if you're going to do a study, and you've been told that there will be important background material forthcoming, it makes sense to wait for that material. You can't fault dioceses that have been waiting for the background material for not getting on with the study process. Especially when there's evidence that even CoGS hasn't given the Covenant much study. That said, there are no doubt some dioceses across Canada where there simply isn't a critical mass of interest or energy to study the Covenant document. And now that its future and status are in serious question, interest is waning. It would be nice if some credible body were to make a clear declaration as to whether it's worth flogging the horse any more.

The second way of reading CoGS's motion is to see it as a delaying tactic. Perhaps CoGS is suggesting subliminally that General Synod not take any action just now, anticipating a declaration that the horse is dead. Wait a few years, monitor the situation, and then see if there's anything that needs doing.

The third interpretation is that CoGS is suggesting to the dioceses that haven't yet taken the opportunity to study the proposed Covenant that they do so in the next three years or forever hold their collective peace. Maybe. But the problem is that CoGS is not apparently calling for the theological work that was left undone to be done in the next three years. That being the case, the dioceses will still not be in a position to do a thorough study in the next three years because the necessary background material still won't be available. And energy is definitely waning out in the provinces. We have other things to do than engage in a study process that might (and probably will) prove to be entirely superfluous.

It will be interesting to see what General Synod will do with the resolution in July, and what amendments (if any) are introduced.

In the meantime, we continue to watch for the puff of white smoke above Lambeth Palace that will indicate the burning of the Covenant, and the declaration from the balcony: Non habemus pactum.


09 December 2012

Theological Analysis?

Two and a half years ago, at its triennial meeting, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada adopted Resolution A137 calling, in large part, for consultation on the proposed Anglican Covenant by the Council of General Synod (COGS) with dioceses. In order to facilitate the consultation, the resolution requested three things: a Study Guide, and, to support the study process, a Legal analysis of the Covenant and a Theological analysis of the Covenant. The latter two were to discuss the legal/canonical and theological/ecclesiological implications of adopting or not adopting the Covenant. At the end of the consultation process, COGS is to make a recommendation with respect to adoption of the Anglican Covenant to the next General Synod meeting, in 2013.

A year later, in June 2011, the Study Guide was released. At the time, in commending the study guide, I suggested that the two analysis documents would be useful background before actually embarking on a full study of the Covenant. For without expert analysis of the legal and theological meaning and implications of the Covenant, any study would be incomplete.

Within days of the Study Guide, the legal analysis was released. This very thorough study of the Covenant raised a number of serious concerns including the lack of definition of key terms which was so serious that it would be impossible to know what one was agreeing to in adopting the Covenant. Equally serious is the violation of natural justice (procedural fairness) in the dispute-settling mechanism of section 4.2. In my comments on the legal analysis, I said that I was looking forward eagerly to the theological analysis in order to have a complete picture of the proposed Covenant. As I said at the time, “the legal analysis has established a very high standard.”

And so we waited.

Then three weeks ago, published highlights from the Council of General Synod's meeting indicated that COGS had received the long-awaited theological study. I happened to be on vacation at the time, so when I returned I looked for the study. I thought it might have been posted on the Anglican Church of Canada website with the Study Guide and Legal study. But it wasn't. So I asked the General Synod office for a copy and received one by e-mail within a few minutes of my request.

It wasn't worth the wait. To say that I was disappointed is an understatement.

The report begins by saying, perhaps by way of excuse, that the anonymous group of authors “found it impossible to achieve consensus on what [the implications of adoption or non-adoption] might be.” They go on to say that “this is not a matter of interpreting the document itself differently, but rather due to the divergent perceptions of the context in which the text of the Covenant came to exist and is now being read.”

So, if I understand correctly, the committee had no trouble interpreting the text of the Covenant, and in fact agreed on that interpretation. But they couldn't agree on what it means due to “divergent contexts”. Huh?

So what does the Covenant mean, divorced from context? The committee doesn't bother to say. In fact, the report is very thin on analysis. They don’t seem to engage with the text of the Covenant, nor is there much reference to theology broadly or ecclesiology narrowly. I would have hoped that there would be some articulation of what Anglican ecclesiology is and some discussion of the extent to which the Covenant is congruent with that ecclesiology. For example, they don’t engage at all with the question of how having a dispute-settling mechanism in an interprovincial treaty impinges on our ecclesiological assumptions of autonomous Provinces governed by bishops-in-synods. Nor do they engage with the theological meaning of, say, section 1.1’s definition of the faith, which I have characterised as elastic, or the gloss on the Marks of Mission in section 2.2. Nor again do they touch on the traditional use of Hooker’s schema of Scripture, Tradition and Reason in our theologizing, or why the Covenant seems to leave out Reason. I would also have looked for some engagement with the descriptions of the Instruments of Communion in section 3.1.

In the last paragraph, the report suggests that “sections 1-3 ... articulate some of the principles of contemporary Anglicanism,” though leaving us in the dark exactly how these sections do so. But in fact this suggests a very superficial reading of the Covenant text. Sections 1.1, 2.1 and 3.1 do attempt to set out some basic principles in outline of what it means to be an Anglican Christian, though not at any depth of theological or ecclesiological analysis. But sections 1.2, 2.2 and 3.2 contain some specific commitments, which go beyond articulating principles of contemporary Anglicanism. And, as I have suggested before, there is a problem in section 1.1 with suggesting that the “historic formularies” of the Church of England can simply be transported into our modern context and assumed thus to be “contemporary.” At the very least we would need some discussion on how, exactly, these historic formularies can be received and used authentically in our own context. For the Anglican Communion of the 21st century is not the Church of England of the 16th and 17th centuries.

My overall impression is that they have not engaged with the question they were asked, having to do with the theological and ecclesiological implications of adopting or not adopting the Covenant. Instead, they have given a brief and superficial political analysis that seems to come down to a suggestion that how one reads the Covenant will depend on whether one likes it or dislikes it, and that this will influence how one might vote on it, as well as one’s interpretation of the implications of the vote.

If I were using this document to help come to an informed decision on how to vote at General Synod, I would find myself no further ahead.

The bottom line seems to be that after a two and a half year wait for a serious theological analysis of the Anglican Covenant, in order to come to some kind of informed decision as to its adoption, we have been presented with a slap-dash all-nighter reflecting the most superficial reading of the Covenant, virtually no engagement with or quotation of the actual text, and nothing that looks like theology to me in the whole document. We really do have some theologians in the Anglican Church of Canada, but you'd never guess that from this document. No wonder the authors left their names off it.

So, we are left with six months before the General Synod meets. We have a very fine study guide from the Canadian Church (which was produced in time to allow it actually to be used), and we have an equally fine legal analysis (also provided with plenty of lead time). Theological analysis? Not so much. But we can only work with what we have and what we have suggests, albeit without stating it in those terms, that we shouldn't touch the Covenant with a barge pole.

General Synod will meet in July, presumably to make a decision on the proposed Covenant, without the benefit of the theological analysis it asked for. But the legal analysis should be enough to decide that the only rational vote on the Covenant will be “no.”

07 November 2012

Fallout from New Zealand

The Anglican Consultative Council has finished its meeting in New Zealand, and now we can evaluate the meeting's implications for the proposed Anglican Covenant.

First, there was a rather confused report on the “progress” of the Covenant process in which the authors demonstrated difficulty counting and an apparent inability to understand the word “no” as I have commented before.

Second, there was apparently some conversation about the proposed Covenant.

But third, and quite interestingly, I think, there were no resolutions on the Covenant. So all the ACC did with it was to receive a report on its status with very questionable figures. But notwithstanding some comments about their conversations on the Covenant, formally they said nothing.

(You can see all the ACC resolutions here).

Given that there were no resolutions on the Covenant, the ACC has thus made no formal comment about its status or the direction of the project. We have therefore no indication of an answer to the question raised by the Church in Wales as to the status of the Covenant in the light of the Church of England's decidedly negative vote in its diocesan synods. (This rather bizarrely depicted as a “partial decision” by the report to the ACC.) So the poor Church in Wales, and anyone else waiting for the answer to the same question, is left in the dark.

Nor has the ACC chosen to suggest any criteria for when we might know if the project is either a stunning success or dead in the water. In the summer, after the Episcopal Church's General Convention, I reported that there was talk about setting a deadline for adoption of the Covenant, and specifying a minimum number of churches that should adopt it for it to be in effect. Obviously, I was wrong.

In a related move, the ACC has amended the fourth Mark of Mission, which makes section 2.2.2 of the Covenant out of step, as I predicted previously. Now that the fourth Mark of Mission has new language incorporated into it (in lieu of introducing a sixth Mark of Mission) the quotation in section 2.2.2.d is out of date. The only remedy, as I noted before, is to go through the rather cumbersome process of amending the Covenant, which really doesn't make sense unless and until a critical mass of Churches adopt it.

But given the ACC's silence on the questions surrounding the Covenant, we are left wondering whether this is a project worth spending any time on. Should we continue to study and deliberate on the proposed Covenant, or simply walk away and find a better project, such as the Continuing Indaba process, which the ACC endorsed in a resolution?

I conclude from the ACC's silence on the Covenant that it is moving on from the project. If it's not important enough for the ACC to comment on officially, then it's lost its significance for the Communion. I think it can be shelved.

The ACC took a brief glance at the Covenant as it sank unceremoniously beneath the waves of Auckland Harbour, but made no efforts to stage a rescue.

30 October 2012

Anglican Math

There's an old joke about three people being interviewed for a job as an accountant. The interviewer asks, “how much is two plus two?” The first confidently says, “four.” The second, not to be outdone, says, “four point zero.” The third says, “how much do you want it to be?”

I think the third is working for the Anglican Communion Office.

The Anglican Consultative Council is meeting in New Zealand as I write, and is in the process of considering the status of the proposed Anglican Covenant. In the opening presentation on the topic, the assembled Council were updated on what the various churches around the Anglican Communion have done with the Covenant to date. There are, they were told, three categories of response.

In category A there are nine churches. Eight were said to have adopted the Covenant.
Those in the so-called Category A that have approved the covenant are Ireland, Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Southern Cone of America, and the West Indies. In addition, according to the document, South East Asia adopted the covenant with an added preamble of its own and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has subscribed to the covenant’s first three sections but said it cannot adopt section 4, which outlines a process for resolving disputes.
That left the Scottish Episcopal Church all on its own as having “refused” to adopt the Covenant.

It's funny how you can add up churches' responses and come to eight approvals. Ireland didn't approve the Covenant; rather it “subscribed” it. Whatever they intended by “subscribe” wasn't entirely clear but it was clear that they didn't mean “adopt,” which is the verb actually in the text. As the Anglican Communion News Service put it at the time, “in the course of the Synod debate it was stressed that the word 'subscribe' in relation to the Covenant, rather than 'adopt', was important.”

Similarly, South East Asia chose a different verb, voting to “accede to” the Covenant, rather than to adopt it. And, as noted above, they did so in the context of a lengthy preamble which effectively amends the document unilaterally. So, which Covenant exactly did they accede to? Not the one on offer, evidently.

As for the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia approving the Covenant, that's not the impression one gets from the text of the motion they adopted in July, which stated that that church “is unable to adopt the proposed Anglican Covenant due to concerns about aspects of Section 4, but subscribes to Sections 1, 2, and 3 as currently drafted as a useful starting point for consideration of our Anglican understanding of the church. The Anglican Communion News Service story that reported this turn of events depicted the resolution as “a final 'No.'”

So we have five “adopts,” one “subscribe, but definitely not adopt” one “accede to our own version” and one pretty definite “no” which somehow add up to eight “yeses”.

Anglican Math.

Category B is just as convoluted.

The Episcopal Church, which just last July “declined to take a position” on the Covenant, is depicted as having made a “partial decision,” which I suppose is meant to convey that they're in the process of adopting the Covenant and will certainly say Yes once they assume a position. At least as certainly as New Zealand has, at any rate. Similarly Australia and Canada, which have both sent the document to dioceses for study are in this category. And most bizarrely so, too, is the Church of England, whose dioceses have voted the Covenant down rather soundly. Korea and Melanesia have both expressed difficulties with section 4 of the Covenant, and are also counted as having made “partial decisions.” About the only Church that I can see that actually fits in this category is South Africa, which has in fact given preliminary approval to the Covenant, but needs to ratify that decision (or not) at its next Synod meeting. But then, a category of one isn't much of a category, not that it bothers the Anglican Communion Office.

Category C consists of just one Church, the Philippines. Their Council of Bishops has rejected the Covenant. But the Anglican Communion Office isn't quite certain what that means, exactly, and are seeking clarification.

Here's a hint: it means “no.”

I suppose if all this Anglican Math means that churches that say “no” are counted as having said “yes” and churches that say “maybe to something else” are also counted as saying “yes”, and churches that say “let us do a bit of due diligence before we answer” are counted as having made a “partial decision” (which, nudge, nudge, means “yes”) before long everyone will have adopted the Anglican Covenant without actually voting to do so. Except the Scottish Episcopal Church, who, like the cheese, will stand alone.

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.