The ACNA Constitution: In Line with the Covenant?

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Monday, January 5th, 2009

Work in formulating and adopting an Anglican Covenant is proceeding, and with renewed focus.  I judge this to be the case despite some vocal claims that the project is both pointless and perverse.  Most of these limited and negative claims have come from Western Anglicans intent on maintaining their local autonomy in terms of non-accountability to other Anglican churches and the Communion at large;  and among these voices, not surprisingly, is a preponderance of Americans.  But there have also been conservative voices, associated with the primarily non-Western group known as GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference), that have labeled the Covenant process as “futile” and “irrelevant” because of its purported lack of theological and disciplinary substance.

I was deeply disappointed that almost 200 Anglican bishops associated with GAFCON did not come to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and so failed to engage a discussion on the Covenant with their colleagues.  One might be left with the impression, in fact, that they share the negative views of both liberals and GAFCON spokespeople, something that, although not fatal to the Covenant itself, at least presents major challenges.  However, the recent publication of the provisional Constitution for the proposed province of the Anglican Church of North America, warmly supported by and supporting GAFCON, seems to provide a very different perspective. For this Constitution in fact embodies many of the very things the current Covenant draft articulates, and in some measures provides even more latitude to members. Whether consciously or not, the Constitution reflects important aspects, in its own proposed intra-provincial relations, that we have long argued are necessary, possible, and realistic elements of communion-oriented commitments.  To this degree, the Constitution demonstrates, perhaps despite itself, a convergence of vision with the current Covenant direction.Very briefly, I would note this convergence on the fronts of doctrine and discipline.

I.  The Province’s doctrinal affirmations, given in Article 1, outline eight “elements” as not only “characteristic of the Anglican Way”, but as “essential” for membership in the province.  The first four of the elements are congruent, more or less, with the Lambeth Quadrilateral, and are found in the current draft of the Covenant (1.1).  More interesting in comparison – because often contested – are elements 6 and 7 in the Constitution:

6. We receive The Book of Common Prayer as set forth by the Church of England in 1662, together with the Ordinal attached to the same, as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline, and, with the Books which preceded it, as the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship.

7. We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1562, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.

The identification of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal, and the Thirty-Nine Articles as “standards” and “principles” has struck some as overly and perhaps impossibly precise.  After all, have not Anglicans, through the Lambeth Conference now over 100 years ago, made formal the lack of explicitness with which these formularies are to be held as standards for all Anglicans. at least as it determines Communion-related “Anglican” identity?  Yet we note the care with which the Constitution has cloaked these standards with a certain indefiniteness:  “We receive the Book of Common Prayer…as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline” and as “the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship”;   “we receive the Thirty-Nine Articles…, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles…”.

The clear implication is that there may be other legitimate “standards”, and that the BCP of 1662 is rather one among many, although obviously an acceptable one.  Clearly, that the early BCP’s represent the standard for “the tradition” of Anglican worship is incontestable as a historical claim.  Furthermore, a “tradition of worship” is itself a loose referent and already indicates an acceptance that the BCP’s of the Reformation and post-Reformation are no longer in explicit use among many Anglicans.  Finally, it is hardly constrictive, let alone historically odd, that the Thirty-Nine Articles would be received as holding doctrine appropriate to its time of composition, that continues to express certain “principles” that cohere with “authentic Anglicanism”.  For the Constitution does not claim that the Articles articulate necessarily all such principles, exhaustively, or straightforwardly (since “principles” can only be gleaned from historical records aimed at local moments and controversies), nor that all “authentic Anglicanism” is bound by them in any exhaustive way.  None of this should surprise us, however, given that the proposed new province contains both Anglo-Catholic and evangelical churches and bishops, who, vis a vis the Thirty-Nine Articles, for instance, hold very different views, and for whom there are, therefore, perforce several “standards” and “principles” at work.

On this score, we must note the difference in the Constitution’s language from the GAFCON “Jerusalem Declaration” (no. 3) regarding the Thirty-Nine Articles “as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today”.   Even this statement is open to some latitude in doctrinal reference however – does “authoritative for Anglicans today” mean for “all” Anglicans, necessarily?  Can one be an “Anglican” and hold to some different (though perhaps not conflicting) standard?  That the doctrine in the Articles is “true” does not clearly imply “exhaustively” true.  And what exactly does “authoritative” mean in this context?  Is it similar to the claims to salvation-status granted to certain beliefs by the Athanasian Creed?  Probably not;  indeed by their own standards, they are authoritative only to the degree that they are clearly supported by Scripture’s own teaching.  Still, while the Jerusalem Declaration is itself hardly explicit in many ways, there is a definite move towards indefiniteness in the Constitution, one that is clearly by design, and most likely involves the reality of catholic and protestant sensibilities and commitments seeking incorporation in the same church.  The Constitution “affirms” the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration (1.10), but such “affirmation” is itself general and necessarily loose in its meaning.

How shall we compare these doctrinal commitments to those of the proposed Anglican covenant?  The Constitution’s articles here are certainly more fully written, within narrow limits, than in the proposed Covenant.  The latter speaks instead, more compactly, of “profess[ing] the faith which is uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures… and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England [explicitly defined in a note as the 1662 BCP, Thirty-Nine Articles, and Ordinal] bear significant witness”.  But the distance, in substance, between the two is not as great as some might imagine. For the notion that these formularies might prove “a standard” and provide “principles” for “authentic Anglicanism” is not only not ruled out by the Covenant’s language, but, given our explanation above as to the seeming deliberate indefiniteness of these terms, is arguably implied by the phrase “significant witness” (although this could certainly be spelled out).  Certainly, the Constitution converges, rather than diverges, from the Covenant’s commitments, especially when taken in the context of the initial Scriptural and creedal commitments that both Covenant and Constitution hold.

(One area of puzzlement lies in the explicit identification in the Constitution and GAFCON Declaration of the Athanasian Creed as a doctrinal norm.  Given the recent and profound reconciling work done with the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Christians, this retrieval of a 16th-century Western Protestant norm, with its linkage of  propositional claims to salvation itself, yet some of whose propositions are in many ways at odds with developed dialogues with Eastern Christians, seems short-sighted.  The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s appeal to the “sufficiency” of the Nicene Creed, and of the Covenant’s to the “catholic creeds”, strikes me as more attuned to the realities of catholic orthodoxy today.)

II.  On the matter of discipline, certainly a thorny issue in the Covenant drafting and debate, the Constitution again appears to have moved in the direction of the Covenant’s hopes, in terms of its own internal provincial discipline, especially as discussed in the Design Group’s recent “Lambeth Commentary”.  The difficult practical (let alone theological) issue around discipline has always focused on the question of communion relationships, sometimes spoken of in terms of “membership”, sometimes more in terms of relational responsibilities and engagements.  Nothing in the Constitution’s disciplinary outline gets beyond these issues; rather, it seeks to resolve them in terms already set forth, by and large, by the draft Covenant.

The proposed Covenant, as explicated in the Commentary, makes clear that the “discipline” both appropriate and possible for a Communion Covenant is one that pertains to international engagement in common council and related matters.  It cannot pertain to the internal life of a member church.  Hence, according to the current draft Covenant’s understanding, “discipline” must and can only focus on the relationships between Covenant members as pertaining to Covenant-defined relationships;  it cannot touch upon individual relationships between individual Anglican churches (dioceses, national churches, or provinces), nor on relationships within such individual churches.

This turns out to be the very approach taken by the Constitution when it comes to its proposed intra-provincial discipline.  Article 14 of the Constitution points out that a member church (diocese, cluster, network, etc.), may be “removed” from provincial membership pursuant to a specified proportion of voting members’ decision.  But because Articles 8 and 12 leave all internal matters untouched with respect to a member’s ecclesial life – doctrine, discipline, structure, etc. — , and assert local ownership of all properties, the removal alters nothing but literal membership in the Assembly of the province.  Other members are allowed to continue in communion with the disciplined or “removed” church, and the church in question, of course, can continue its life as before – bishops are not deposed, local congregations must continue to be subject to local canons and so on.  Indeed, the Constitution does not require that provincial members let drop their membership in other and alternative ecclesial structures (e.g. the provinces of Rwanda and Nigeria).  Nor have the relevant members (e.g. in AMiA and CANA) of the proposed provinces indicated their intention of removing themselves from these structures.  It does not appear, therefore, that removal from the proposed Province will necessarily alter current arrangements, just as membership may not alter them either.  Many of these arrangements seem fraught with potential confusion, when it comes to an integral province.  But at least insofar as its principles are identified, they are not very different from the Covenant’s sense of what is possible and properly expressive of Anglicanism on a Communion-wide basis.

What the Constitution does provide, not yet articulated in the draft Covenant, is a final  mechanism – along with a provincial tribunal to deal with disputes over the interpretation and application of the Constitution and future provincial canons – by which to establish a decision regarding membership “removal”.  It does not, of course, say anything about the circumstances under which such a final vote for removal would be taken, or about the procedures leading up to such a vote, precisely the knotted issue being debated with respect to the Covenant.  Presumably the yet-to-be-formulated canons of the Province would speak to this issue, but as yet there is no indication of how to sort out this challenge.  For the moment, then, the proposed province is leaving this procedure undefined, although its purpose, once defined, can go no further than the Covenant’s current proposal for the Communion as a whole, as I have just indicated.  Indeed, one wonders if there is a good deal of faith being placed on the stability of incoming commitments held by the proposed Province’s new members.  But there is a parallel to this with the Covenant’s purpose to lay out its own commitments up front with sufficient (though realistic) concreteness as to sift the actual willingness of churches to embrace its common life.

In summary, the shape of the proposed province’s Constitution demonstrates some fundamental convergences, deliberate or not, with the direction being taken by the draft Communion Covenant.  This fact is important.  For given the explicit support offered to the proposed province by leaders who chose not to attend the Lambeth Conference, we might conclude that the Covenant’s direction is indeed coherent with their own desires.  The Constitution, that has been formulated freely and with every permission to state a desired set of commitments without impediment, has turned out in key respects to be very close to the Covenant’s own current thrust for Communion relationships.   Where it demonstrates confusions, as it does, they are generally ones inherent in the process of seeking common accountabilities across lines where individual churches still clearly wish to guard their own autonomy. The Covenant Design Group will want to take this seriously into account as we proceed further and continue to learn from the responses of the Communion at large.  As part of this work, the proposed Constitution represents a very significant response of its own.

January 05 2009 09:25 am | Articles