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.


  1. Alan you've written a fine summing up of the present state of affairs with respect to the Anglican Covenant. My shorter version would be, "It'a mess."

    That the covenant is already in force for the churches which have adopted complicates the matter of putting in place a minimum number of churches and a deadline for the covenant to become active.

    My paragraph above doesn't make a whole lot of sense even to me, nor does the covenant mess.

  2. Thank-you Alan for this characteristically clear and concise sitrep on the Covenant. I have shared on LinkedIn, FB, Twitter and Google Plus.

  3. One problem with the ACC route will surely be the issue of what happens to those who are already signed up, in terms of the Covenant's own wording that it takes effect for those who have signed it upon signing.

    Although a sell-by-date-and-number might be an attractive idea in terms of reaching a terminus, or at least a sense of closure, perhaps it would be best just to let it peter out or evaporate. The danger of it becoming the forgotten and unopened milk-carton at the back of the fridge, exploding a year from now and making a mess of things, is always a possibility, of course -- so a sell-by-date has my support.

  4. My point, precisely, Tobias. If ACC decides to adopt a deadline, they will be changing the decisions of the five current adopting Churches, and in effect amending the Covenant which is already in effect in those five churches.

    But I agree with you that this is still desirable. Nevertheless, just because I agree with it doesn't make it any less arbitrary.

  5. Thanks, Alan. And, of course, any signatories can continue to hold the thing as binding on themselves and each other -- so they could legitimately regard what ACC does as ultra vires --- meddling in someone else's "contract" -- even if an "Instrument."

    My suspicion is that the framers and advocates of the Cov were so sure it would be accepted by the overwhelming majority -- in spite of all the negative feedback that continued on through the Ridley-Cambridge draft -- that hubris set in and the "take it or leave it" model: which has been far less successful than they imagined it might be. The whole program was so poorly conceived and executed, omitting basic elements essential to any truly successful charter or concordat among so many participants -- such as a Congress as opposed to a drafting team -- that I think the enterprise was largely doomed from the outset. The lack of such basics as definition of terms of adoption, time-table, and so on, is just more evidence of incompetence for the work at hand.

    1. I'm sure your suspicion is correct, Tobias.

      Elsewhere I have said that the Covenant is a legal document written by theologians. Nothing wrong with theologians, not at all, but they're the wrong specialty for this task.

      Reminds me of the old joke that the proverb "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is attributed to the first proctologist to do cardiac surgery.


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