The Anglican Covenant: a briefing paper (part 2)

This is part 2 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 radical agenda of the Covenant

How did we get here? The development of the Anglican Covenant and the Church of England’s contribution.
Of course there is more to the story, but I think this summary is fine for its length.

The one element I would like to add is that Towards an Anglican Covenant (2006), echoing The Windsor Report para. 118, envisaged an extended time scale, a 'long-term process, in an educative context` (para. 21), so that the Communion could fully own the Covenant.  When Archbishop Drexel Gomez was appointed Chair of the Covenant design Group the tone changed.  Thereafter the repeated message was that the Covenant was urgent, urgent, urgent - the timescale was abbreviated and consultation reduced.  The Communion no longer had to fully own the Covenant, merely adopt it.

What does the Covenant say?
The Introduction doesn't really fit the rest of the Covenant and the idea that it 'shall always be annexed to the Covenant text, is not part of the Covenant, but shall be accorded authority in understanding the purpose of the Covenant.' (4.4.1) sheds little light. See my earlier critique.

The following three sections of the Covenant, with their pattern of affirmation and commitments in our shared Anglican inheritance, calling and life, contain much that is welcome and praiseworthy.  The text is richer, more nuanced and more comprehensive than earlier drafts.  Of course every commentator will want to see some aspects strengthened, others down played, and favourite omissions rectified. But this is a concise composite document which shows the benefits of its consultation process and inevitably everyone has to compromise.

It is important to note that these sections set out general principles by which Anglican provinces should relate to one another.  They say nothing about the substance of what divides us: nothing about the ordination and consecration of women, nor the place of gay people in the church, nor lay administration of the sacrament, nor the organized intrusion of one province into the jurisdiction of another.

As general principles, grounded in our shared inheritance, none of these statements is new to Anglicanism nor do they set out radical changes.  Those who assert that the Covenant is not introducing anything new into the Communion are right to that extent.  Even the idea of bringing such statements together as a single shared document is not new though it has not been done in quite this way before.

Judging the Churches
What is radically new, and what will change the whole basis of the Communion, is that the affirmations and commitments of these three sections are not merely re-affirmations of the bases of Anglican unity, nor descriptions of existing reality, nor aspirations towards which Anglicans should labour.

Each commitment is also a test. Each is a criterion against which each signatory member can be called to account by any other member or by the central bodies of the Communion (4.2.3).  The commitments set out in the Covenant are, in effect, new Canons of the Communion.  

Although the language is coded the process envisaged is not unlike the proceedings in an ecclesiastical court (however much these have fallen into abeyance in practice).  An accusation that commitments have been breached is described as a 'question':
When questions arise relating to the meaning of the Covenant, or about the compatibility of an action by a covenanting Church with the Covenant, it is the duty of each covenanting Church to seek to live out the commitments of Section 3.2. Such questions may be raised by a Church itself, another covenanting Church or the Instruments of Communion. (4.2.3)
It may be that the matter can be quickly resolved (arriving at a 'shared mind', 4.2.4) but, if not, a process is begun which is not at all unlike a Commission of Enquiry, i.e. the accusation is investigated.  But what is to be investigated is not whether, for example, the consecration of a partnered lesbian bishop is heretical nor whether intrusion into another church's jurisdiction is a breach of church order.  The only matter to be investigated is whether or not a church has conformed to the commitments it signed up to when it signed the Covenant.  That is why the phrase 'incompatible with the Covenant' is used to describe the judgement on an errant church.

Therefore no Church will be judged for its decisions and actions (so, formally, its autonomy of action will not be compromised).  Rather its decisions and action will be the evidence on which a judgement is made as to whether a church has fully met its commitments under the Covenant (and so, actually, signing the Covenant compromises its autonomy).

The possible outcomes are that the offending Church delays or renounces its action or decision, or that its participation within the Communion can be down-graded or, finally, that all other members and instruments of the Communion can be asked (given 'recommendations'), in all likelihood, to withdraw from the offending Church. (4.2.5-7).  There is very little difference between being evicted from the group or having every one else walk away from you except, of course, in law.

No document is its own interpreter
No document is its own interpreter.  What the commitments mean in practice is unlikely to be clear-cut and it is entirely possible that any two Churches will have at least two interpretations. Any formal enquiry into the actions of a Church - and, in fact, any formal request for clarification as to the meaning of the commitments - will inevitably lead to further interpretations of the meaning of the commitments.

Very rapidly the new Canons of the Communion (though under a different name, of course) will grow extensive and elaborate.

The changes the Covenant will instigate
There are few changes to the Communion set out in the text of the Covenant.  In its implementation, however, the Communion will be irrevocably changed:
  1. For the first time Churches will be able to hold one another to account. Each Church or Instrument of Unity will be able to to accuse a Church of failing to abide by its covenanted commitments knowing that a semi-judicial process may follow.
  2. Therefore the basis of the Communion will no longer be its shared history, liturgy, ethos, bonds of affection or communion with the See of Canterbury. The basis of Communion will henceforth be signatures to an international treaty.
  3. The ultimate sanction in the Covenant is the negative one of exclusion. All lesser or intermediate sanctions stem from this one. The voluntary nature of Communion will be tainted by the possibility that action may be taken against any of its members.  Inevitably Churches (and their lawyers) will look twice over their shoulders, becoming more timid in innovations of mission and ministry.
  4. The culture of the Communion, especially at the international level, will have an additional layer of legalism which will grow steadily as the Covenant is parsed and interpreted in specific contexts.


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

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