January 14, 2010

Section 4 Decoded

When the final draft of the proposed Anglican covenant was released, I was eager to understand the revised Section 4, what some have called the enforcement provisions of the covenant. What, I wanted to know, would really happen when serious disagreements arise among churches of the Anglican Communion? After a good deal of reading, thinking, and drawing, I have to admit that I know and I don’t know the answer to this question. Section 4, it turns out, maps out responsibilities and relationships, and it outlines some basic procedures. It leaves a lot to the discretion of Anglican leaders (mostly bishops), however, so it is difficult to know how matters will play out in practice.

To help me understand just what the draft says, I drew a couple of diagrams, and I offer them here for your edification or amusement. (My apologies to Dave Walker for treading on his turf. I’m not really a threat to Dave, of course, since he can actually draw.) My first diagram attempts to set out the players and their responsibilities. I think it should be reasonably self-explanatory. The numbers in brackets refer, of course, to the notes, which explain, inter alia, the location in the covenant draft providing justification for the corresponding element in the figure. Recall that the Standing Committee comprises representatives of the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. It is therefore heavily weighted toward bishops generally and primates in particular. Since it meets so seldom, the Lambeth Conference is unlikely to have much to do with dealing with conflicts unless a Conference is scheduled at a time of ongoing disputes. The figure below is hard to make out, so you can click on it to see a larger version.

Institutional Relationships Specified by Section 4 of Anglican CovenantI’m not sure what it means that the Standing Committee monitors the functioning of the covenant on behalf of the Instruments of Communion but is only described as responsible to the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council.

More interesting is the next figure, which illustrates the specifics of how the Communion proposes to deal with conflicts. Again, you can click on the figure to see a more readable version.

Issue Handling Specified by Section 4 of Anglican Covenant
Notice that, according to paragraph 4.2.8 of the draft covenant, “Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.” This could mean, for example, that, if Parliament decides that the Church of England cannot subscribe to the covenant, the Archbishop of Canterbury could not play a role in settling disputes. But what does “in the process of adoption” mean? Since The Episcopal Church cannot act on the covenant before the 2012 General Convention, are we now “in the process of adoption”? Can we draw out the discernment process indefinitely, remaining part of the decision-making process by looking at, say, only one paragraph of the covenant at each General Convention? Who knows? This is only one of many imponderables embedded in the draft.

The Standing Committee only gets to grapple with an issue when “a shared mind has not been reached.” What does that mean, and who makes the determination? We are not told how this provision is made operational. Also, when is it “appropriate” for the Standing Committee to refer a question to the Primates’ Meeting and Anglican Consultative Council? The covenant has those bodies delegating authority to the Standing Committee. Can the Standing Committee give the authority back?

The big question, of course, is what sanctions can be imposed on churches that do not “behave,” i.e., ours (at least primarily)? The covenant is silent on the question, merely saying that “relational consequences” can be recommended to the Instruments of Communion and the churches, which, in fact, do not have to accept the recommendations. The “Covenant Working Party Commentary on Revisions to Section 4” is helpful here:
A further question has concerned the “relational consequences” which may follow a declaration of “incompatibility with the covenant”. A reality which has to be acknowledged is that if there is autonomy of governance in the Churches of the Anglican Communion, then a necessary corollary of this is that the autonomy of a Church’s relationships of Communion also cannot be constrained. What the covenant seeks to do is to find an ecclesial framework by which a common response to tensions can be discerned and articulated. This contrasts with the present situation where no agreed mechanisms for action exist, and this lack has seriously threatened the integrity of the Communion. What the relational consequences might be were explored by the Covenant Design Group in their meeting in Singapore in September 2008, and were set out in the Lambeth Commentary at page 25. There they were deliberately listed in a range from the lightest “no action”, to the most serious “breaking of ecclesial communion and walking apart”.
I don’t know that I fully understand this paragraph of Anglican-speak, but the “Lambeth Commentary” referred to can be found here. No obvious authority exists for the imposition of some of the suggested sanctions.

I hope this is helpful. I have made every effort to faithfully represent the content of Section 4 of the covenant draft. Do let me know if you think I have made any mistakes.


  1. Lionel, I appreciate the work you put in on decoding and diagramming Section 4 of the AC. I copied your diagrams to new tabs, so I could enlarge the PDFs to the point I could read them (that's a statement about my eyes, not your diagrams!). Alas, I still got a throbbing in my temple and had to desist!

    I was struck very quickly by the perception that this whole system is massively dysfunctional. Perhaps it would be useful for a psychotherapist or a family counselor to take a look at it. Maybe "change the names" so it isn't obvious what specific organization this refers to, for the sake of a more objective judgment. I can't help but think that a counselor's initial reaction would be, "Oh, my! We need to talk!"

    On the presumption that Sections 1, 2, and 3 are basically okay, or at least bearable although arguably superfluous, what can be done with Section 4? As much as I dislike this "Covenant," Tobias Haller may be right that our best move would be to accept it (or to accept it but with reservations about Section 4). Of course we would expect everyone else to hold to the provisions of the Covenant as well. (E.g., "Don't let your dog poop in our back yard.")

    I think a much better Section 4 would begin, first of all, with Matthew 18:15-17. (Explicitly! Perhaps this was the "Covenant" of the first-century Church!) If Province A says or does something that Province B objects to, the first step is for B to ask A if they can get together and talk about the issues involved. The discussion does NOT begin, "You immoral heretics, what the hell do you think you're doing?" It begins, "This is how WE perceive what you have done or said, and this is how WE feel about it. Please help US understand more clearly." The first step is NOT to go running to the authorities to file a formal complaint! It may be that B misunderstood what A said or did. It may be that A did not understand how others might interpret what they said or did. It may be that B has not realized the issues involved in what A decided to do or say. It may be that thus they may regain their brothers and sisters.

    If this initial discussion does not resolve the dispute, then other Provinces may be called in (by both sides) to help facilitate further discussion. (Hey, folks, this is primary-level stuff! Doesn't anybody who worked on this document have any basic pastoral or human relations skills?)

    Conceivably it might eventually come to the point where Province A might have to be to the whole Communion as a Gentile and a tax-collector. But that should be a VERY long way down the road, and approached VERY slowly.

    Thanks for letting me butt in!

    Bill Moorhead

  2. Bill,

    (1) I like your take on how things might work.

    (2) Although Tobias and I don’t quite see eye-to-eye, he makes a good case, and I think his position is at least tenable. He is not advocating playing doormat for the Communion.

    (3) You are making life difficult for yourself with respect to the diagrams. The diagrams in the post are not PDFs, but GIFs. That is, they are relatively low-resolution graphics files. I tried enlarging then on a separate tab myself, and I agree that they never become usable. What you want to do is to click on each of the files, which will load the corresponding PDF, which should be quite sharp. My apologies if I failed to make that perfectly clear.

  3. Lionel, thank you for your hard work here and for all your previous efforts to help those of us with simple minds to understand the Covenant. I'm afraid that I still lack full understanding of this tangled web, because the Covenant is a sticky mess, not because your efforts were lacking. You point out the many questions that yet remain to be answered and the many points that need clarification.

    And what happens between now and 2012? We shall see.

    Bill, I like your idea of following the Gospel and encouraging the parties in disagreement to talk to each other, rather than running off to tattle or huddling in groups to talk to the like-minded about the wrongheaded.


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