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.


  1. On the other side of the Great Divide (the border between Canada and the US, to "table a motion" is to set it aside without either voting it up or down, pending some event. Typically, we do this to kill something we do not choose to formally say we have killed.

    To the extent that procedure is available in other provinces's would be to "table the motion to the call of the chair in a meeting subsequent to formal notice that the Church of England has adopted the 'Anglican Covenant.' "

    That is safe, I suppose, but it is also wrong. It seems to me that we in the colonies (:-) have an obligation to be clear, and to make our moral decisions. So I think, I have no idea what that notoriously temporizing body, the TEC General Convention will think, I think we should clearly and forcefully say, "no."


  2. I think you're right, Jim. Tabling the motion to adopt the Covenant is inferior to defeating it at this point. My concern two years ago was that we were going to spend a whole lot of effort for nothing. But now that's water under the bridge.

    But remember that there is a possibility that any given Synod will vote to adopt the Covenant, in which case I think conditional adoption is the preferable route.


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