The Anglican Covenant: a briefing paper (part 1)

This is part 1 of my response to GS Misc 966 (pdf)The Faith and Order Commission, The Anglican Covenant: a briefing paper.  This is a briefing for members of the Church of England's General Synod who are to debate the Covenant on November 24th.  I am using the same headings as the briefing paper.

Part 1: centralisation  ~  Part 2: the radical agenda  ~  Part 3: answering the critics
(pdf - All three parts, slightly edited)

The centralising Covenant

Overall GS Misc 966 is, as you would expect, a fair and carefully considered introduction to the Covenant.

However the briefing is focused on the Covenant as though it were a stand-alone document.  It isn't.  It is intimately bound up with recent changes in the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion and needs to be read in this context.

So I would encourage a close reading of the Covenant, especially section 4, keeping in mind these questions:
  1. How will the Covenant be implemented in practice?
  2. What will change if the Covenant is agreed?
  3. What are the predictable long-term effects of endorsing the Covenant?

The bishops have decided to commend the Covenant to the Synod.  Yet few of them seem to be enthusiastic and many have their doubts.  There seems to be a feeling around of tolerating something they'd rather not have to swallow, partly because none of them wants to break ranks, and partly because they don't want to embarrass or oppose Rowan.

If I'm right, and the Covenant really is a key step in a major shift in the culture and relationships of the Communion, then this is a significant failure of leadership, a feeble way of dribbling into the future.

Introduction: What is the Covenant?
The Covenant is about the perennially difficult question of how autonomous Churches are simultaneously one Communion.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted as saying that the Covenant proposals
... are emphatically not about centralisation but about mutual responsibility. 

This is both true and highly misleading.  The Covenant text is not about centralisation; it stresses the continued autonomy of member Churches (e.g. 3.2.1, 3.2.2 and 4.1.3). See also The Legal Fiction at the Heart of the Covenant.

(By centralisation I mean the transfer of authority and power from member Churches to the Instruments of Communion and from them, and from the Churches directly, to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion - already legally the Communion's Board of Trustees.)

Once the Covenant has been adopted, it will be maintained through the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.  (The alternative, the Primates' Meeting, was rejected in the course of consultation.)  The Standing Committee is given a duty to 'monitor the functioning of the Covenant' aided both by committees and commissions (4.2.2) and by liaison officers or equivalent in each member Church (4.2.9).  Thus, in the implementation of the Covenant, information flows to the centre (and information is power). It may be that information will flow sideways between Churches as well but that is not explicitly provided for in the Covenant.

Churches in dispute are encouraged to come to a shared mind in mutually respectful conversation in the first place (4.2.3).  If that fails it's down to the Standing Committee to have another attempt to attain a shared mind (4.2.4).  Thereafter, taking such advice as it sees fit, the Standing Committee, shall
determine a view on the nature of the matter at question and those relational consequences which may result.  (4.2.4)
It may ask a signatory Church to put off (or stop) a decision or action.  If it declines to do so 'relational consequences' can be invoked: provisional suspension or removal from the international bodies of the Communion (4.2.5).  Thereafter, with advice from the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, the Standing Committee may declare that an action or decision is 'incompatible with the Covenant' (4.2.6). It can then make recommendations to all the other Church members and Instruments of Communion (4.2.7).

The Covenant does not limit the Standing Committee as to the recommendations it may make, nor are the Churches or Instruments obliged to act on such recommendations (which would be an obvious breach of autonomy).  But consider: the Standing Committee is not separate from the other Instruments of Communion and every Church will, by this time be caught in the the affair.  The Standing Committee is not an independent judge but a forum for political decision making.

The Covenant assiduously tries to avoid having the Standing Committee make a judgements on the detail of the matter at issue.  But it is impossible to avoid: its declarations and recommendations cannot merely concern procedural matters. They must be justified by reference to the substance of the matter.  Thus the Standing Committee will inevitably have to declare (and thus, to determine) the doctrine, worship, ethics of the Communion. It would articulate the 'shared mind' of the Communion over against the minority who do not concur.

A 'shared mind' - which sounds so good - is a chimera.  If the question needs to be raised then there is clearly no shared mind to start with. So the question becomes: how would a sufficiently shared mind be attained?  The Covenant's answer is, in effect, that the shared mind in the Communion may be determined by the vote of the 15-person Standing Committee (having taken advice).  That, surely, is centralisation.

Steady centralisation
The long-term consequence of the Covenant is steady centralisation.  Once a determination on an issue has been made by the Standing Committee no individual Church will be able to re-open the issue without risking disruption of the whole Covenant relationship. Authority over that issue will have moved from individual Churches (including those which took no part in the dispute) to the central bodies of the Communion. In fact, rather than risk a dispute many Churches will be likely to consult before a dispute blows up.  This is, inherently, a good thing.  However if, as is highly likely, the answer to such a consultation is sought directly from the central bodies of the Communion then, even without a dispute, all the Churches will have transferred authority on that question to the centre.  Piece by piece autonomy will be diminished.

And because the Standing Committee has the capacity to determine the shared mind of the Communion it will make itself the target of all the factions and pressure groups within the Communion.  They will go where power is perceived to lie.  The way to reshape the Communion in the future will be to capture the point of decision making, that is, an effective majority of the Standing Committee.  There will be no incentive to keep little local difficulties little or local.

Centralisation would come through another route as well.  The gaps and omissions in the Covenant, and the questions that will be raised as soon as the Covenant mechanisms meet a novel conundrum, mean that bureaucrats and lawyers will have to write 'procedures', 'explications', 'common standards' (or whatever terminology is deemed acceptable).  These will become a Communion Common Code: a mixture of procedural steps, legal opinions, Standing Committee obiter and determinations that will slowly grow into the central Code of the Communion.

One question already being asked is: what is the responsibility of the provincial authorities for actions taken in dioceses or parishes which themselves breach the existing moratoria although the actions and decisions of the province do not constitute a breach?  The logic of the question is that a province ought to be responsible (irrespective of its constitutional arrangements) for the actions of its constituent parts, and ought to be able to impose its will on a subordinate authority should it try to ignore the decisions of the province.  Clearly the efficacy of the Covenant depends on enforcement.  If, say, a diocese authorises the blessing of a same-sex partnership although the province does not, the force of the Covenant is immediately negated as things stand at the moment. Logically Covenant mechanisms must reach further and further into the body of a province to be effective.

So, the Covenant is not about centralisation. Nonetheless centralisation will follow:
  1. in the administrative and consultative bodies of the Communion
  2. by the flow of information from the Churches to the central bodies
  3. in the concept of a 'shared mind' as the test of both unity and progress
  4. by focusing conflict on the central decision-making body of the Communion
  5. by deferring to the cumulative decisions made by the central bodies of the Communion 
  6. by deferring to non-definitive guidance from the central bodies of the Communion 
  7. in the creation of a Communion Common Code, and
  8. by the central organs of the Communion reaching below the level of provincial decision making and requiring provinces to enforce its decisions.

In all the debate about the Covenant there has been no discussion of subsidiarity (though it was included in the Windsor Report, paragraphs 3883, 94-95 ).  The emphasis on autonomy is simply not strong enough to counteract the inevitable centralising force of the implementation of the Covenant.


Part 1: centralisation  ~  Part 2: the radical agenda  ~  Part 3: answering the critics
(pdf - All three parts, slightly edited)

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