Communion Partner Dioceses and The Anglican Covenant

Written by:
Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

The Reverend Canon Professor Christopher Seitz
The Reverend Dr. Philip Turner
The Reverend Dr. Ephraim Radner
Mark McCall, Esq.

1. We address below issues related to the capacity of CP dioceses to sign the Anglican Covenant. We consider the text of Section 4 of the Ridley Cambridge draft, ACC Resolution 14.11, the unique polity of TEC and the ACC constitution and membership schedule. Although the final wording of Section 4 has not yet been agreed, the principles discussed below, particularly the constitutional integrity of member churches, are fundamental to Anglicanism and not in dispute.

Who Can Sign?

2. There are two paragraphs in Section 4 of the Ridley Cambridge text dealing with adoption of the Covenant by participating churches. Paragraph 4.1.4 invites “Every Church of the Anglican Communion, as recognised in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council” to adopt the Covenant. Paragraph 4.1.5 provides “It shall be open to other Churches to adopt the Covenant.” These paragraphs treat the different kinds of adopting churches differently in terms of procedures and the effect of adoption by a particular church. Because CP dioceses are constituent parts of TEC, a member church of the ACC, they are covered under 4.1.4, but it should be noted that if this were disputed they would then come within the scope of 4.1.5.

3. With regard to adoption by the CP dioceses, the most important consideration is the language in 4.1.4 that adoption is to be effected by a member church “according to its own constitutional procedures.” Both 4.1.4 and 4.1.3 emphasize that (quoting 4.1.3) “Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance.” Thus, when it comes to the procedures for adoption by a particular church, these matters are not within the purview of any of the Instruments of Communion. On the mechanics of adoption the Instruments are required to defer to the procedures applicable in the adopting churches.

4. These provisions of Section 4 deferring to the constitutional procedures of the member churches on matters of internal governance reflect a principle that already has been articulated in the first three sections of the Covenant (3.1.2 and 3.2.2) and has long been recognized as fundamental to Anglicanism. This principle is not in dispute.

5. That the reference in 4.1.4 to member churches of the ACC includes the constituent and extra-provincial bodies of those churches is apparent from the fact that not all churches recognized as full members of the Anglican Communion are direct members in their own names of the ACC. The extra-provincial churches are generally (with the exception of Ceylon) not listed as members of the ACC, but are represented through their primatial provinces. In the absence of an expressed intention to excommunicate or otherwise exclude these churches through the covenant process, one must interpret 4.1.4 to include member churches and all their constituent and extra-provincial churches.

What Constitutional Procedures Are Applicable In TEC?

6. There is a tension in Anglican ecclesiology as to the nature of the local church. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has noted, traditional catholic ecclesiology gives priority to the diocese as the expression of the local or particular church. But the Church of England itself manifests the importance of the national church. In the Church of England the supreme governor of the church is the monarch and all bishops swear oaths of due obedience to metropolitical authority. This tension regarding the primacy of the diocese and the national church has been noted by the Church of England in its comments on previous drafts of the Covenant and by the Covenant Design Group in its Lambeth Commentary. Both the Church of England and the CDG suggested that this tension is best resolved by focusing in each case on the particular constitutional procedures of the member church involved. Section 4 of the Covenant implements this approach.

7. In the case of TEC, its polity is widely regarded as unique. One of the ways in which it may be unique within the Anglican Communion is that it is a voluntary association of dioceses that are not subject to any metropolitical authority. Neither TEC’s constitution nor its ordination vows contain any provision establishing a hierarchy above the level of the diocese. Thus, in TEC the dioceses are the national church in a way similar to that in which the member churches are the Anglican Communion. This feature of TEC’s polity was articulated fully by fifteen CP bishops and the three theologians of ACI last April in their “Bishops’ Statement on the Polity of The Episcopal Church.”

8. The autonomy of TEC dioceses has long been recognized as a feature of TEC polity. For example, the standard text on polity when many of TEC’s current bishops were trained was the volume in the widely-distributed official series in the 1950s and 1960s entitled “The Church’s Teaching.” It was written by the long-time sub-dean and professor of church history at the General Theological Seminary with the assistance of an “Authors’ Committee” composed of numerous church leaders. The author, Dr. Powel Mills Dawley, summarized the role of the diocese as follows:

Diocesan participation in any national program or effort, for example, must be voluntarily given; it cannot be forced. Again, while the bishop’s exercise of independent power within the diocese is restricted by the share in church government possessed by the Diocesan Convention or the Standing Committee, his independence in respect to the rest of the Church is almost complete.

9. Moreover, the preamble of TEC’s constitution explicitly identifies TEC as a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, which it characterizes (quoting the well-known Lambeth Conference resolution) as a fellowship of “Dioceses, Provinces and regional Churches.”

10. Thus, in the case of TEC the relevant constitutional procedures for adopting the Covenant include direct adoption by its autonomous dioceses, which are the highest governing bodies within their territory and enjoy a particular constitutional prerogative concerning constituent membership in the Anglican Communion. Indeed, given the autonomy of TEC dioceses, central bodies such as General Convention could not commit individual dioceses to the Covenant over their objection. Thus, when the Covenant is sent to the member churches, dioceses are appropriate bodies to respond at that time under the unique constitutional procedures of TEC.

11. This long-standing polity of TEC is now being challenged by the Presiding Bishop in civil litigation that she has commenced against departing dioceses and parishes. Official records show and she has conceded in sworn testimony that she has commenced this litigation without approval from any other body or office in TEC. She does not have the constitutional authority either to change TEC polity in this manner or to institute civil litigation in the name of TEC against dioceses. This civil litigation is in the early stages and final resolution of inevitable appeals will not come for several years.

12. In any event, this remains a dispute that must be resolved within TEC and one in which Communion Instruments must remain neutral as required by the fundamental principle of constitutional integrity of member churches that is recognized explicitly in paragraphs 4.1.3 and 4.1.4 of the Covenant. Any steps taken by Communion Instruments to evaluate these conflicting claims or attempt to reject a diocese’s decision to adopt would be interference in the constitutional procedures of TEC to which the Covenant exclusively commits the adoption process. For these reasons of TEC’s unique polity, TEC dioceses will have the ability to sign the Covenant whenever it is sent to TEC. The Communion has no role to play in this aspect of TEC governance.

When Can CP Dioceses Sign?

13. To address questions of timing, one must begin by noting that the Covenant is an agreement among churches. It is neither a charter of any of the Instruments of Communion nor a creature of those Instruments. The Covenant itself does not flow from the Instruments to the adopting churches. To the contrary, it is an agreement by the churches to recognize first each other and then the Instruments and to undertake to act collectively through those Instruments. The Instruments, with respect to initial Covenant adoption, act only as facilitating mechanisms without any intrinsic authority of their own in that adoption process itself.

14. Thus, no Instrument “owns” or controls the Covenant. Any Instrument or any member church could request others to sign the Covenant at any time. It would become effective for the signatories as soon as any two churches sign on.

15. In practice, the ACC has taken the lead among the Instruments only at the end of the Covenant’s drafting – other Instruments initiated and fostered the idea and its formulation — and has advised that the Covenant be sent to the member churches for adoption at the end of this year after further review of Section 4. But there is nothing in the Covenant itself, nor in the stated program of its initiation and drafting, that required or requires this procedure. Another Instrument or church could request that the Covenant be signed by member churches or other churches at any time, and some have already advocated this procedure. The degree to which the procedure recommended by the ACC is accepted by the Communion as a whole will ultimately depend on the credibility that procedure has in the Communion among its member churches.

16. Even taking the ACC’s own requests as a basis for the adoption process, CP dioceses will soon be able to adopt the Covenant formally.  By Resolution 14.11, the ACC earlier this year asked “the Secretary General to send the revised Ridley Cambridge Text, at that time [at the next meeting of the JSC], only to the member Churches of the Anglican Consultative Council for consideration and decision on acceptance or adoption by them as The Anglican Communion Covenant.” If the other Instruments and member churches defer to this timetable, CP dioceses, as constituent members of TEC, would be able to consider and sign the Covenant when it is sent to TEC at the end of this year.

What Effect Does the ACC Constitution Have on the Covenant?

17.  The Covenant and the ACC constitution are two distinct documents. The Covenant does not purport to, nor could it, amend the ACC constitution. And the ACC constitution neither serves the function of the Covenant nor otherwise precludes it. The ACC is a consultative body; its constitution limits its role in inter-Anglican affairs to advice, viz., “To advise on inter-Anglican, provincial, and diocesan relationships, including the division of provinces, the formation of new provinces and of regional councils, and the problems of extra-provincial dioceses.” In the Covenant, the participating churches agree to recognize the ACC as an Instrument of Communion and commit to endeavor to accommodate its recommendations. But that is a status that derives from the Covenant, not the ACC constitution. The covenanting churches could agree to de-recognize the ACC or recognize another body in its place. We are not recommending such an action in the future.  But the point is that, although this would have significant consequences for the covenanted communion, it would have no effect on the ACC constitution.

18.  Given the distinct functions of the Covenant and the ACC constitution, two questions arise as to the interrelation of the two documents. The first is relatively minor and easily handled. How would covenanting dioceses be represented at the ACC if TEC is unwilling to undertake the commitments entailed by the Covenant? This issue could be resolved in a number of ways under the ACC’s existing procedures and precedents. For example, under recent precedent a member selected in a way deemed to be inconsistent with the Windsor moratoria was found to be not “qualified” and was not seated. The ACC might decide following this precedent to seat only members from bodies that had committed to the moratoria through the Covenant. Or, taking a different approach, the Communion has long had extra-provincial churches whose interests are represented at the ACC through their primatial churches. Covenanting dioceses could be represented indirectly in an analogous way. Or in some cases they might have direct representation through the co-opted membership provisions in section (e) of the ACC membership schedule. In any event, this question can be handled under the ACC’s existing procedures.

19.  A more profound question unrelated to diocesan adoption might arise, however, from the possibility, indeed likelihood, that the membership of the ACC and the covenanting churches will not be identical. There is even a possibility, albeit unlikely, that the ACC would be subject to substantial influence or control by churches that are not parties to the Covenant, a fear already voiced by some. In such an event, the ACC might not have the credibility to function as an Instrument of Communion for the covenanting churches. This would be a possibility to be seriously guarded against for the sake of the Communion as a whole.

20. Given these realities, constitutional reform of the ACC might become necessary.  In this regard, it is significant that reform of the ACC has been recognized as necessary by a number of Communion members and groups, including the Lambeth Conference, the Church of England and the Windsor Continuation Group. Such reform could not be undertaken effectively, however, until the Covenant is in place. What kinds of reform might be necessary and the extent of any necessary changes are questions that cannot be answered until the Covenant is fully implemented.

21. In the meantime, it is essential to the integrity of the Covenant that provisions be included in Section 4 limiting consideration of Covenant issues to churches (and representatives of churches) that have adopted the Covenant. For similar reasons, it is crucial that these provisions be applied realistically to limit participation in Covenant matters by those who have provisionally rejected the Covenant by their actions even while nominally continuing to consider it. The Covenant is a powerful and flexible instrument. As already noted, it can be taken up and utilized by any member church or Instrument. “Official” processes are likely to enjoy the confidence of a Communion in which trust is in short supply only if those processes are seen to be effective and not subject to undermining by parties hostile to the intent of the Covenant. Otherwise, other processes, potentially more disintegrative of the Communion, will inevitably arise.

22.  Both ACI and the Communion Partner fellowship have been committed to the revitalization of the Anglican Communion through the working and enhancement of its Instruments. That is a defining feature of our groups. We remain committed to that objective as set out above.

September 08 2009 11:08 am | Articles