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.