October 11, 2012

GS 1878

In 2010, the General Synod of the Church of England referred the question of adopting the Anglican Covenant to the church’s dioceses. Adoption was reject by 26 dioceses and approved by only 18. These results are only now officially being transmitted to the General Synod. They are embedded in a report designated GS 1878 that will be put before the General Synod when it meets in London November 19–21, 2012.

Much of the 12-page report is unremarkable, since it presents information that is well known. (I doubt that any member of the General Synod will be surprised to learn that the motion to adopt the Anglican Covenant was rejected by a majority of dioceses.) GS 1878 does contain material that deserves comment, however.

Paragraph 6 summarizes the effect of the voting in the dioceses in this unsurprising sentence:
Thus the draft Act of Synod was not approved by a majority of the dioceses and it therefore cannot be presented to the General Synod for Final Approval. [emphasis in original]
The paragraph then concludes as follows, which certainly will be a surprise to many:
For the record, there is nothing in the Synod’s Constitution or Standing Orders that would preclude the process being started over again, whether in the lifetime of this Synod or subsequently, by another draft Instrument to the same effect being brought forward for consideration by the General Synod before being referred to the dioceses under Article 8. The Business Committee is not, however, aware of a proposal to re-start the process in this way.
Apparently, this statement is true, but it was widely thought that the Covenant could not be reconsidered until the next General Synod convenes in 2015. For example, Fulcrum’s Andrew Goddard, stated flatly last March, “The Church of England cannot reconsider the covenant until 2015.” Members of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition shared that understanding. Also last March, for example, Alan T Perry wrote on the  Coalition’s blog, “Four more dioceses will meet in April to have their say, but since last week the result has been clear: the Covenant cannot come back to the General Synod for adoption, at least until 2015.”

Covenant opponents have worried that supporters might have a plan to give the Church of England an opportunity to reconsider adoption of the Covenant before 2015. GS 1878 exacerbates that worry, though I suspect that nothing will happen before the next Archbishop of Canterbury is in place and then only if the new archbishop foolishly wants to risk dying in the Covenant ditch.

Somewhat gratuitously, GS 1878 comments on the distribution of votes in the dioceses and, in paragraph 10, offers this analysis:
The point can be illustrated in another way by noting that, if a total of just seventeen individuals spread across five particular dioceses had voted to support the Covenant rather than oppose it, a bare majority of dioceses would have approved the Covenant, whereas, if a total of just ten across five other dioceses had voted against instead of in favour, the diocesan voting against the Covenant would have been much greater at 31-13.
If you find this paragraph relevant to anything, let me explain how Americans could have elected President Gore in 2000. It might have been more insightful for the report to have noted the correlation between the suppression of anti-Covenant arguments and the votes cast in favor of Covenant adoption.

 Appendix B of the report summarizes “following motions” that were passed in a number of dioceses. These motions generally supported the Anglican Communion without reference to the Anglican Covenant. One rather different following motion was considered by the Diocese of Chester, a diocese that voted for adoption. The motion it considered proposed changes to Section 4 of the Covenant. The motion was defeated decisively.

Three bishops availed themselves of the privilege of putting a statement into the record on the Covenant, and these statements are reprinted in Appendix A.

The first of the episcopal statements is from the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. The York diocese, of course, approved the motion to adopt the Covenant, but Sentamu felt a need to get his opinion on the record anyway.

Sentamu begins by asserting that his understanding of the Covenant differs from that of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition. “If the Anglican Communion is to say No to the current proposal, then what? The opponents to the Covenant need to come up with an answer,” he boldly proclaims. Of course, not everyone sees a problem where Sentamu does. He continues
If I may respectfully suggest, there is a widespread lack of understanding that exists in the Church of England about the nature and importance of the conciliar principle of Church governance. There seems to be almost no understanding that the traditional ecclesiology of Anglicanism, as reflected in the Anglican Covenant, is an expression of a tradition of  governing the Church by means of Councils that goes back to the New Testament itself—the Council at Jerusalem and the Council’s Letter to the Gentile Believers in Acts 15.
At issue, of course, is the extent one attaches to the word “Church.” Arguably, the Church of England is indeed governed by councils. Less ambiguously is The  Episcopal Church so governed. The Anglican Communion is certainly not governed by councils. If one believes it should be, why does the need for conciliar consensus stop at the border of the Communion? Why does it not extend to the Roman Catholic domain or the Orthodox or, for that matter, that of the Lutherans or the Presbyterians? There is, I think, no good answer to this question. Particularly, there is no good Anglican answer, as a seminal event—arguably the seminal event—of Anglican history is the assertion of the need for local autonomy by the English church. But the good archbishop laments the lack of “[s]omething akin to our Preface to the Declaration of Assent,“ which is “urgently needed throughout the Anglican Communion.” Why, one must ask. The Covenant, he says, “bridges this deficit,” but Sentamu has not really established that there is any deficit that needs to be bridged. The Communion is not now one big happy family, but it is hardly self-evident that putting it in the straightjacket that is the Covenant will produce peace, harmony, and mutual affection.

Sentamu goes on to say that the Covenant will help Anglicans recover their “true vocation.” He explains, “This includes growing more fully into the life of ‘mutual resourcing, responsibility and interdependence’ which the 1963 Toronto Congress identified and from which the Communion has since drifted.” This represents a distortion of the message of the Toronto Congress. In fact, the Communion has moved toward the goal identified in 1963, not away from it. (See “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence.”)

I will, mercifully, skip over much of the rest of Sentamu’s over-long essay, but I cannot let this paragraph pass unnoticed:
The Covenant would ensure that the Anglican Communion would not rest content with the sort of autonomous ecclesial units that favour unilateralism but would nurture organic interdependence that would make it possible for us to live together as the Body of Christ. This would enable us to take the Communion beyond the contexts in which current difficulties have arisen and help us to heal the breach that has sadly soured and fractured our fellowship as members of one body.
I admire the archbishop’s optimism, but he has hardly made a case for putting any credence in it.

A statement by Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester—the Diocese of Chester also voted to adopt the Covenant—follows that of Archbishop Sentamu. Like the archbishop, he has clear ideas of what the Communion should be like, and it is not a “fellowship” or “federation.” He writes
Does the Anglican Communion wish to retain any sense of being a ‘Church’, alongside the legal reality that its constituent Provinces/Churches are self-governing? It seems clear to me that if it does wish to retain a substantial degree of theological and ecclesial coherence as a distinct communion of Churches, then something like the Anglican Covenant needs to be adopted by its constituent Provinces/Churches.
Many Anglicans neither see nor want to see the Anglican Communion as an Anglican Church, so something like the Anglican Covenant is, for them, an unwelcome innovation.

In any case, Forster clearly sees the Covenant as a step in the right direction, though not as thoroughgoing as it might be. As it is, he agrees with the GAFCON crowd that it should be the primates who evaluate disputes. He notes, however, that the fact that churches are of different sizes “may distort the dynamics of the Primates’ Meeting.” Of course, the churches do not have the same resources, the primates are not all equally well educated, and some primates, such as the  Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, cannot make decisions that bind her or his church.

The final statement in Appendix A comes from the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Robert Paterson. Covenant adoption was defeated in the Diocese of Sodor and Man. Paterson’s argument for a covenant seems to be this:
When a community, a family, a communion has members who do not understand that ‘there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3. 7), a framework for our common life has to be developed. I think the Anglican Covenant is a reasonable instrument to achieve this.
Although this may seem perplexing, it is perhaps elucidated by this:
 The frameworks we have developed to date have worked satisfactorily, but, unfortunately, we have reached a point when opinions can be shared so easily, with too little thought for others, and actions taken which have unforeseen consequences elsewhere. The decision to act unilaterally in one place can have deeply serious effects in another. So, as a necessary means of requiring us to respect on [sic] another across the Communion, I will vote for the Covenant.
In other words, the Covenant is the solution to problems caused by (1) the Internet and (2) primates failing to explain that they aren’t responsible for what other churches do. Perhaps self-control, honesty, and charity would work at least as well. For some churches, the Covenant will clearly make things worse—they will no longer have credible deniability when asserting that they are not responsibility for what other Anglican churches do.

In any case, while admitting that Section 4 has its flaws, the bishop explains, “I simply do not recognise some of the criticisms made of it.” Perhaps he should try harder.

I suspect that the significance of GS 1878 will be minimal. The Covenant is dead in the Church of England, and the next Archbishop of Canterbury would do well to let it rest in peace. Perhaps Archbishop Sentamu’s view of the Covenant is one reason he is not going to be succeed Rowan Williams.


  1. "The Covenant would ensure that the Anglican Communion would not rest content with the sort of autonomous ecclesial units that favour unilateralism" (Sentamu)

    The kind of unilateralism that gave us, say, the ecclesiological innovation (and enormity) of flying bishops?

  2. My understanding of basic parliamentary law (including Roberts' Rules) is that once a resolution has been defeated, no resolution identical to it in form or substance my come up at the same session of the body, except by a form of motion to Reconsider. This requires a 2/3 vote. The point is that the body has made its mind known, and it is dilatory to keep bringing up things it has rejected, unless there is a groundswell to do so, at least in the same legislative session.

    The English may do things differently in this regard, as they do in so much else; but the silence of the Synod's Constitution on this point should, I hope, defer to some more general Rule of Order or basic principle of parliamentary law. Otherwise someone who wanted to tie an assembly in knots could just keep introducing the same failed motion again and again. There will be plenty of time to reconsider the Covenant in 2015 -- both in the C of E and TEC -- if there is a desire so to do at that time. There will be significant water under several bridges by then, and haste seems pointless.

  3. Yes we do do things differently in England. Subject to some general constraints set by its constitution the procedures of General Synod are governed by its standing orders (SOs). Synod itself determines these SOs. There is no English equivalent of Roberts’ Rules and Synod would at most look to parliamentary standing orders (which are different for the two houses) for guidance in setting its own SOs.

    Moving to the particular proposal to adopt the Covenant, this was to be done by passing an Act of Synod.

    SOs specify that certain things cannot be re-introduced within the remainder of the lifetime of a Synod. But the problem is that SOs only specify what cannot be re-introduced (and there is no consolidated list of such things). So in this case the evidence that an Act of Synod can be re-introduced is the absence of an SO forbidding this. But I have searched SOs for the word "lifetime" and found four instances, none of which refer to Acts of Synod or anything similar.

    There is also an SO (number 24) that prevents matters being re-introduced after less than eleven months. In this case the relevant motion was debated in November 2010, so the 11 months has long passed.

    Because of this I am confident that the statement in GS 1878 that the procedure for adopting the Covenant could be restarted at any time is correct. But it would have to start again at the beginning; it cannot at this stage be sent back to the dioceses with a request for them to think again. The full procedure starts with the introduction into Synod of a draft Act of Synod to adopt the Covenant and a debate on this motion: "That the draft Act of Synod adopting the Anglican Communion Covenant be considered". If that is passed, any proposed amendments (to the Act - not to the Covenant) are dealt with. Only then is the matter referred to dioceses. If a majority vote in favour the draft Act then comes back to Synod for final approval.

    If anybody wants to check this you can download the SOs from here.


    Unfortunately you cannot search that version, although I used a searchable version that used to be on the CofE website.

    The Constitution of General Synod is online here:


    Peter Owen (former member of General Synod)

    1. Dear Peter,

      Thanks for the clarification. Sounds like a fairly typical English "complexity"! We have similar Standing Orders in the two houses of the General Convention; but each includes a "covering clause" to refer any unanswered question to Robert's Rules.

      Do you have a finger on the pulse of how likely a reintroduction is to come prior to 2015?

  4. You can find a searchable version of the General Synod’s Standing Orders here. Warning: This is a big file.


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