Autonomy in a confessional church

The Covenant creates a new basis of relationship between member Churches. It sets out (in sections 1-3) a statement of Anglican faith and order to which every signatory must consent. By whatever route Anglican Churches arrived at this point, from here onwards:

In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches. (Covenant §4.1.2)

Thus a new foundation stone is to be inserted beneath the existing historical arrangements. Anglicanism will become a Confessional Church grounded on a new fundamental document.

The Covenant sets out mechanisms for 'conflict resolution' which give the corporate organs of the Church - The Primates' Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, and especially the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion - powers to adjudicate the decisions of member churches.

Yet Provincial autonomy remains - a remarkable feat of political/legal legerdemain.

The Covenant has apparently squared the circle of autonomy and interdependence. By its terms, to be a member of the Anglican Communion is to sign the Covenant voluntarily. Thereafter each member of the Anglican Communion may continue to act in whatever way it pleases – so long as no other member suspects or believes its actions to be outwith the provisions of the Covenant. The punishment for transgressing the Covenant is ‘relational consequences’: withdrawal from some, many or all of the international structures of Anglicanism (§§4.2.4 – 4.2.7).

Yet there is no difference in reality between being expelled and everyone else turning their backs on you. So a Province may still act in whatever way it pleases, just as before, only now it does so conscious that the other members of the Communion may act against it, forcefully, if it offends. Autonomy becomes a legal fiction. Power has slipped to the centre.

Autonomy is essential for the Covenant - and not merely because of the politics of getting turkeys to vote for Christmas. (Sorry, a cliché, how about: getting Anglicans to vote for a Roman Catholic-lite ecclesiastical structure?) Autonomy is essential because The Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, The United Churches of North and South India, the Church of England, and maybe more, cannot enter into any treaty or arrangement which grants some other body jurisdiction over them. They are prevented by the national laws of their own countries.

It is a moot point whether the Covenant, even now, will be acceptable to legislators in all these countries - and a judgement will be made on the reality not on the words. Expect law suits to follow as soon as it looks as though push may come to shove and (in India's case) perhaps before.

If I was evaluating the question I would look very closely at the powers of the SCAC, a body which is legally autonomous as Trustees and Directors of a Charitable Company, and at exactly how their powers (so far not made public) interact with the relevant national legislation. I don't think the answer is legally self-evident despite my belief that the terms of the Covenant do effectively curtail Provincial autonomy.

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