06 December 2010

Defining Relational Consequences

If, as I have suggested, the rules in the Anglican Covenant are unclear, and hence a recipe for arbitrariness, what of the sanctions for violation of the rules? Are they any clearer?

The Covenant speaks in three places of “relational consequences” which may be applied with respect to a “controversial action.”

Section 4.2.4 gives the Standing Committee the power to “determine a view on the matter at question and those relational consequences which may result.” In doing so, the Standing Committee “may take advice from such bodies as it deems appropriate.” (There’s more to be said on process in a later post.)

Section 4.2.5 states that “if a Church declines to defer [a controversial] action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below.”

Finally, when an action by a Church has been deemed incompatible with the Covenant, section 4.2.7 empowers the Standing Committee to “make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from” that action. This is fleshed out by the statement that “these recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation.”

But what, precisely, is meant by “relational consequences” and “practical consequences?” Father Jake helpfully points to a list of seventeen “relational consequences” listed in A Lambeth Commentary. You can read them for yourself at page 25 of the document. The list is helpful in understanding what the Covenant Design Group had in mind in using the phrase “relational consequences” but it’s important to bear two things in mind. First, A Lambeth Commentary is a response to reflections and questions raised by the bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference concerning the St Andrew’s Draft Covenant. So it is not commenting on the final draft which is now on the table. That said, the list does provide some useful insight. The second point to be aware of is that the list in A Lambeth Commentary is not included in the Covenant itself. So if we are to interpret the phrase “relational consequences” by a close reading of the Covenant text itself, the list becomes superfluous, even where there are overlaps with the final text.

So, turning again to the Covenant text, it is clear that not all of the seventeen consequences considered in A Lambeth Commentary made the final cut. Consequences are centred on two areas, and at two stages of the dispute-settling process. First, in section 4.2.5, “relational consequences” may apparently be used as an interim response to a Church that continues to do the thing at question during the adjudication process. In this case, the consequences have to do with participation in the Instruments of Communion, which may be limited or suspended. So, to clarify, the Standing Committee might recommend one of three things:
  1. removal of voting privileges (retaining the right otherwise to speak and participate in meetings);
  2. removal of voting and speaking privileges (or downgrading to observer status);
  3. removal of attendance privileges (non-invitation).
Three things are important to note here. First, at this stage in the process, these consequences are provisional. That is, it is possible that the Standing Committee will ultimately determine that the “controversial action” is nevertheless not incompatible with the Covenant, and presumably the privileges that have been withdrawn will be restored (though there is no mention of this possibility in the process!) Second, the named consequences are recommendations, and any Instrument of Communion could presumably decline to implement them (though that possibility doesn’t seem to be contemplated by the Covenant, either.) Third, voting privileges are most significant in the Anglican Consultative Council, which would be constitutionally bound to make its own decision with respect to implementation of any recommendations, whilst participation in the Lambeth Conference and Primates’ Meeting is at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Obviously neither speaking nor voting privileges are relevant when it comes to “participation in” the Archbishop of Canterbury as an Instrument of Communion.

Bearing that in mind, it does seem rather harsh to implement a sanction against a Church before it has even been determined that the Church has done anything wrong.

At the second stage, once an action has been deemed “incompatible with the Covenant,” the above-mentioned sanctions appear to be contemplated with respect to participation in, or expulsion from, the Instruments of Communion. In addition, section 4.2.7 suggests a declaration of impaired, limited or broken communion between the offending Church and the rest of the Churches of the Communion. The illusion of Provincial autonomy is retained, as the various members of the Communion explicitly retains the right to “determine whether or not to accept [the] recommendations” of impairment of communion.

But what would happen if the Standing Committee recommended breaking communion with one Church and another Church decided not to break communion? Would that refusal to break communion itself become a “controversial action?” It would also be interesting to see what would happen if, say, a Church’s bishops were disinvited from the Lambeth Conference, whilst the Anglican Consultative Council chose not to act on a recommended sanction against the same Church’s members of the Council. That would be a significant constitutional crisis, to say the least. Similarly, it’s unclear whether the decision to implement a sanction with respect to either the Primates’ Meeting or the Lambeth Conference could be made by the body itself, or only by the Archbishop of Canterbury. One can imagine a scenario in which the Archbishop chooses not to implement a recommended sanction, particularly provisionally, but the Primates or bishops press the matter at the next meeting.

Impairment of communion is not unfamiliar in the Anglican Communion, for such a relationship already exists with respect to ordination of women. The orders of a female priest from one Province are not recognized in another Province that does not itself ordain women as priests, for example. And the practical consequence is that the priest in question may not perform priestly acts (e.g., preside at the eucharist) in the other Province. Things are more complex when it comes to female bishops, for not only would a female bishop from one Province be unable to perform episcopal acts (ordination or confirmation) in a Province that does not accept female bishops (though she might be able to perform a priestly act if the other Province ordains women priests), but in addition the same episcopal acts performed in her own Province might be held to be null in the other Province. That is, a person who has been confirmed by a female bishop, upon moving to a Province without female bishops might find that she is not held to be validly confirmed, and thus ineligible for any office or privilege that requires confirmation as a prerequisite. Similarly, a priest ordained by a female bishop might find that his orders are not recognized in a Province without female bishops. In any case, impaired communion is an indictment of our inability to get along as autonomous churches in communion.

Breaking of communion has to date only occurred in the Anglican Communion when a faction breaks away and forms its own church. Expulsion of a member Church from the Communion would be a very serious matter, implying a complete expulsion from all participation in the Instruments of Communion, withdrawal of recognition of orders and, at a minimum, a significant change to any collaboration in mission between that Church and other Churches in the Communion. One can only imagine the potential for havoc within the Province in such a case.

On the face of it, “relational consequences” sounds rather like a gentlemanly tut-tutting, but underneath the surface, there is little gentlemanly about sanctioning a Church for doing its best to live out its mission in its own context. If defining the breaches of the rules is a fuzzy matter, at least the sanctions to be meted out are fairly clear, though the process itself leaves a lot to be desired, as I will discuss later.


  1. All this does beg one very curious question.

    If the Church of England were found to have commited an action "incompatible with the Covenant," the Standing Commitee would (arguably) have it in their remit to effectively abolish one of the other Instruments - viz, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

  2. Strictly speaking, to be fair, the Standing Committee has only the power to recommend, so the dirty work would have to be done by the Provinces.

    But yes, if the ABC were to be expelled, it would create havoc, especially given that he convenes the Primates' Meeting and Lambeth Conference.

    Process is on tap for my next post. Watch this space...

  3. I find the issues you raise viz the possibility of members of the Communion refusing to recognise the orders of other members (eg women priests & bishops) & hence the sacramental actions that flow from those orders (confirmation, ordination) deeply troubling. Without agreement on such issues we are not really a Communion at all, but a loose grouping of sects who make ourselves seem bigger on the world stage than we really are by a pretence of unity. Imagine an Autocephalus Orthodox Church denying the validity of the orders of another while still maintaining it is in full communion with them. It would be a nonsense. Unless we are agreed on matters like that, the Covenant, whatever one might think of its merits or lack thereof, is surely to put the cart before the horse.

  4. Thanks, Fr Levi.

    One of the troubles we face is that I don't think we have a clear definition of what it actually means to be in full communion with one another as members of the Anglican Communion. We have some assumptions about what that means.

    I think the key implication of being in communion is mutual recognition and transferability of orders. Already we are in a state of impaired communion with respect to female clergy, as some Provinces accept no women clergy, others female deacons only, others have women priests but not bishops. I'm not aware of any formal statement that refuses to recognize orders, but practically speaking a Canadian woman bishop cannot perform episcopal acts in England. And let us recall the controversy over whether the Presiding Bishop of TEC would be permitted to wear a mitre on a visit to Southwark Cathedral. (She wasn't).

  5. Things are more complex when it comes to female bishops, for not only would a female bishop from one Province be unable to perform episcopal acts (ordination or confirmation)....

    ...including perhaps the act of wearing her mitre. :-)

    Fr Levi, in the very earliest Christian history, there was the church in Jerusalem, the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Rome, etc., and yet all belonged to the church, the Body of Christ, of which Jesus is the Head.

    Fr Tobias Haller wrote a wonderful post, titled "One Means One" on the distinction between ontological unity and institutional unity, which we would all do well to read.


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