March 30, 2010

Two Tiers

A recent item in the Church of Ireland Gazette reminded me of an issue related to the proposed Anglican covenant I have been meaning to write about. Now seems a good time to do so.

The Gazette story reports on a talk given by the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev. John Neill, to Dublin’s Marsh Society at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. According to the story’s headline, Neill fears the emergence of a two-tier Communion. He ruefully admitted, however, that this is what might develop. Might, indeed!

Of course, virtually no one admits to thinking that a two-tier Communion, of whatever configuration, is a desirable thing. (Actually, this is not quite true. When I first read that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had suggested that some churches of the Anglican Communion might be consigned to second-tier status, my reaction was, “Where do we sign up?”) It is ironic, therefore, that the proposed Anglican covenant practically guarantees a two-tier Communion in the short run and makes a two-tier Communion likely—assuming the Anglican Communion survives at all—in the long run.

Rowan Williams has suggested that the Communion ultimately could be divided into those churches that have adopted the covenant—members of the real Anglican Communion, I suppose—and those hanger-on churches who have failed to sign on to the covenant, members of the second tier, with a status that is somewhat unclear.

The draft, however, includes an unusual provision in paragraph 4.1.6:
This Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons.
Conventionally, an agreement among multiple organizations requires, if not adoption by all potential signatories, then at least adoption by a majority of them before the agreement is put into effect. For example, Article VII of U.S. Constitution reads:
The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.
Whereas it makes perfect sense for an individual Anglican church to subscribe to many of the affirmations of the covenant, implementation of the provisions of Section 4 by one or a small number of churches is problematic. For example, when the first church adopts the covenant, what meaning should it attach to the phrase “relationships among the covenanting Churches” in paragraph 4.1.2? In any case, once a small number of churches have subscribed to the covenant, they will have taken on certain mutual obligations not shared by other churches; a two-tier covenant is now in place.

We run into more serious problem when we look at Section 4.2. According to paragraph 4.2.2, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion monitors the functioning of the covenant “on behalf of the Instruments [Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, and Primates’ Meeting].” But then we have paragraph 4.2.8:
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.
My interpretation of this—I don’t claim that this view is unassailable—is that, as of now, all members of the Communion are “still in the process of adoption,” since there has been little time for any church to consider adoption seriously. One could ask the question when the process of adoption begins and suggest that, at the moment, hardly any church is in the process of adoption. This view makes it more difficult to figure out what churches are in which category at any moment. I am inclined to think that the “process of adoption” ends when a church adopts or rejects the covenant. But what if a church simply stops any consideration of covenant adoption?

Assume that a handful of churches have adopted the covenant. The provisions for handling disputes and ambiguities—see my earlier essay, “Section 4 Decoded”—are now in play, and all Communion churches, assuming none has actually rejected the covenant, can participate.

Can a church that has adopted the covenant object to the action of one that has not? I would not think so—not on the basis of covenant violation, at any rate—as the latter has not signed on to the obligations that Section 4 is intended to enforce. There would seem to be some temporary safety for The Episcopal Church here. Of course, one covenanted church may object to the actions of another. Apparently, The Episcopal Church, assuming it has neither adopted nor rejected the covenant, may participate in the dispute-resolution process set out in Section 4. Is it obliged to do so, even though it has not adopted the covenant? Is it reasonable for a church to participate in enforcing obligations it has not itself adopted?

Since a church can participate in the dispute-resolution procedures of Section 4 by virtue of being “still in the process of adoption,” can it maintain this status indefinitely? What if The Episcopal Church draws out the adoption process, say, by considering only a few paragraphs of the covenant at each General Convention. Because no time limit has been imposed on adoption—such a time limit has become common for proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution—The Episcopal Church can seemingly remain at the table—remain in the first tier, if you like—without ever having to subscribe to the provisions of the covenant. Is this the best of both worlds? (Don’t get me wrong here. I am not proposing this strategy. I would prefer to see the church reject the covenant at its earliest opportunity.)

Actually, I suspect that the “still in the process of adoption” provision of paragraph 4.2.8 is largely to avoid disenfranchising the Archbishop of Canterbury, himself an Instrument of Communion, before the Church of England considers adoption. What if the Church of England rejects the covenant, however, perhaps by concluding that it cannot legally subscribe to it? How are we now to interpret references to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the covenant?

No doubt, when Archbishop Neill gave his talk, he imagined an eventual state in which the covenant was adopted by a majority of the Communion churches. Assuming that the Church of England is among the adopters, the covenant makes sense even if only three or four churches fall into a second tier by rejecting it. But what if 19 churches reject it? What if 35 churches reject it? Is there a point at which we declare the covenant a failed idea and scrap it completely? Apparently not. A two-tier Communion with nearly all churches in the second tier is at least a theoretical possibility.

The adoption process for the covenant is, at best, fuzzy. The document has been presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, but some churches may attempt to adopt the covenant with reservations. I have no idea what that might mean. Alternatively, attempts could be made to amend the covenant in accordance with Section 4.4. Curiously, in paragraph 4.4.2, it is noted that amendments must be adopted by “three quarters of ” the “covenanting Churches.” It is unclear what churches, based on their adoption or non-adoption, can participate in the amendment process. It is at least conceivable that the first church to adopt the covenant could also amend it unilaterally.

The bizarre provision of paragraph 4.1.6 represents an attempt to push the covenant forward. (Some Communion churches seem to have severe impulse control problems.) It has, as we have seen, strange and—to many, surely—undesirable consequences. It would make a lot more sense for the covenant to become effective only when half (or perhaps two-thirds or three-fourths) of the Anglican churches have agreed to it.

Much of the discussion of the covenant has been about whether we can subscribe to the doctrines set forth at the beginning and whether we can live with the mechanisms of Section 4. I submit that the covenant was written by too many theologians and ideologues and too few lawyers and logicians. In some serious respects, the covenant draft is simply asinine. We should say so and be done with it.

No Anglican Covenant


  1. Theologians shouldn't pretend to be lawyers.

    The Covenant is a legal document drafted by incompetent theologians. Or possibly a theological document drafted by incompetent lawyers. Or perhaps both.

  2. I guess the point is that the status quo ante isn't an option. Whatever it meant to be Anglican, it will mean something different in the days and years to come. The choices seem to fall along a certain range: either we'll grow closer, or we'll grow apart. The Anglican Covenant obviously puts a nickle down on the former option. It is imperfect, as even its most ardent supporters acknowledge. Fortunately it contains within itself a mechanism for reform. In any case, my guess is that over the course of the next couple of years a substantial majority of the Provinces of the Communion will decide to try to work within the Covenant framework. Some Provinces, and I expect ours to be among them, will chose to see if its possible to "be Anglican" outside of the Covenant framework. My guess is that for us, in years to come, "Anglicanism" may have something to do with an affection for the English Cathedral choral repertoire and the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. But that without a relationship of mutual accountability any real sense of being "in communion" will dry up and blow away. Not all at once, of course. But over time.


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