Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Is "Autonomy in Communion"?

There is a major tug-of-war going on right now in the Anglican Communion. The proposed Anglican Covenant is in the center, and the opposite sides are pulling mightily against each other to determine who will decide on its final form. On the one side are the forces who define "autonomy in communion" in this way:
The Anglican Communion is composed of 38 individual church bodies. Each of those provinces in the Anglican Communion is autonomous. ... It governs itself. It's in relationship with other members of the Anglican Communion because of our shared heritage, because of our shared form of worship and to a large degree to our shared theology and understanding of Scripture and tradition.

We don't all believe everything in the same way. We never have and never will. There are parts of the Anglican Communion that don't ordain women and think it wrong to do so, yet we remain in communion and relationship and in mission partnerships together.

We've always had a variety of ways of being in relationship together, and I don't think that will change.
On the other side are grouped the forces who have understood the phrase "autonomy in communion" to describe an independence that is limited by interdependence:
. . . as a body we deeply regret the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster and the Episcopal Church (USA) which appear to a number of provinces to have short-circuited that process, and could be perceived to alter unilaterally the teaching of the Anglican Communion on this issue. They do not. Whilst we recognise the juridical autonomy of each province in our Communion, the mutual interdependence of the provinces means that none has authority unilaterally to substitute an alternative teaching as if it were the teaching of the entire Anglican Communion.
(One of the phenomena in this tug-of-war which continues to amaze me is that the same person -- Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold -- could sign on to the latter statement as a member of the Primates Meeting, and then switch sides to lead the opposite forces as they pulled the Anglican Communion apart.)

Thus on the one side are those who, like our current Presiding Bishop, recognize almost no limits on any Church's autonomy within the Anglican Communion, while on the other side are those who, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, and many others backing the Ridley Draft of the Anglican Covenant, contend that no single Church within the Communion has the right to determine for itself what matters are for it alone to decide. The former group stresses "autonomy in communion", while the latter group stresses "autonomy in communion."

The Anglican Communion Institute and the Bishop of Durham have published a thorough discussion of the issues involved on the former's Website. They reach the not-surprising conclusion that by its actions since 2003 (as most recently reaffirmed by GC 2009), ECUSA has already made the decision to reject the Covenant as currently formulated (in the first three Articles as approved by the Anglican Consultative Council this past May):

An Anglican church cannot simultaneously commit itself through the Anglican Covenant to shared discernment and reject that discernment; to interdependence and then act independently; to accountability and remain determined to be unaccountable. If the battle over homosexuality in The Episcopal Church is truly over, then so is the battle over the Anglican Covenant in The Episcopal Church, at least provisionally. As Christians, we live in hope that The Episcopal Church will at some future General Convention reverse the course to which it has committed itself, but we acknowledge the decisions that already have been taken. These decisions and actions run counter to the shared discernment of the Communion and the recommendations of the Instruments of Communion implementing this discernment. They are, therefore, also incompatible with the express substance, meaning, and committed direction of the first three Sections of the proposed Anglican Covenant. . . .
Equally unsurprisingly, the forces tugging for autonomy as uppermost reject this analysis, and maintain that nothing precludes them from retaining ECUSA's full independence of decision while signing on to the Covenant (so long as the provisions of the as-yet-to-be-finalized Section 4 meet with no objection):
The purpose for drafting a Covenant is not to ensure that all who agree to it will think and act alike and so because of that uniformity of thinking and doing stay together . (If that were the purpose, it is doomed from the start.)

The purpose of the Covenant is to ensure that we will stay together precisely when we have differences — that we won't start flying apart the next time some contentious issue comes along, as no doubt it will. The Covenant is designed to deal with future disagreements, not to settle the differences of the past or present. (Some suggest that this cause is equally doomed from the start.)
Father Tobias Haller develops his look-only-to-the-future, not-to-the-past theme further:
Fortunately, the language of the Covenant is not about settling the controversies, but about living with them. It is about the manner of life to be followed by the Communion as a whole, its chosen lifestyle, if you will: shall it be one that embraces difference of opinion under a loving and overarching charity; or shall it give in to the old fissiparousness that has plagued Western Christendom from long before the Reformation?

In short, How best can the Many be One.
What this viewpoint overlooks, however, is what the current divisions are doing to prevent the Many from being One right now. If the purpose of the Covenant is to address only future differences, then why should anyone expect that it would succeed in doing so, if we are unable to resolve the current ones? Or, stated another way: What is there in the proposed Covenant that would lead to any different outcome if in the future another Church should decide to walk its own path?

If our only course forward at present is to live with what ECUSA and ACoC have done in the matter of same-sex blessings and ordinations, then why have a Covenant at all? What would prevent, say, the Anglican Province of Australia from using that "solution" as a precedent to charge forward with lay presidency over communion? A Covenant that would paper over the current differences that divide us would be no different from having no Covenant at all.

The dichotomy which Father Haller draws is, I beg to differ, a false one:
Paul the Apostle provided one answer: unity in Christ in which the various organs of the body retain their different gifts and functions, and yet are part of one body, under one Head, who is Christ, and in whom unity emerges not from uniformity, but through fellowship, a vibrant fellowship that relishes its own heterogeneity and delights in its manifold gifts.

The ACI provides the other sort of answer, the uniformity that seeks to place some other thing in God's place -- unity itself idolized into a Golden Calf, to which difference is sacrificed, beaten to a homogenized pulp.
This overstates the case, I submit. I have seen no one on the "communion" side of the tug-of-war elevate the goal of unity to an idol which would replace God as the focus of the Anglican Communion. To characterize the opposing view in that way virtually ends the dialogue.

To say that the Communion should just go forward and live with the differences that ECUSA and ACoC on their own have made is indeed to declare the debate over. It is to express complete and total disagreement with the unanimous statement from the Primates' Meeting in 2003 quoted above, and to brush aside everything that has occurred since, from the Windsor Report to the statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury following GC 2009.

Other reactions from the "autonomy" crowd to the analysis by the ACI and the Bishop of Durham have been far less charitable than Father Haller's, and there is no need to link to them. They all come to the same conclusion: "What's done is done -- we're not going back. Live with it." To which the more intemperate add: "-- or run the risk of being regarded as an antiquated bigot." (Only the word I have seen most commonly used is not "bigot", but one that begins with "h".) The same message (without the intemperate part) is implicit in the most recent remarks of the Presiding Bishop, quoted above.

To an objective viewer of the current situation, the perspective is not unlike that of a time traveler who has returned to watch an event unfold, the outcome of which he already knows. The Anglican Communion has already broken up, only the participants dare not acknowledge the fact yet. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not want to admit defeat, while ECUSA and ACoC do not want to declare victory -- just yet -- because to do so would force all others to take a definitive stance. And the other provinces of the Communion are left to find their own way through the muddle in the meantime.

A Communion of Churches preaching opposite doctrine is a mockery -- a self-negating nullity, and not a "communion" at all. The rest of the religious world can see this -- only the current Anglican Communion cannot. The only greater mockery would be to have all 38 of the current provinces sign on to a "Covenant" and declare that they are all still "in Communion" while each continues to go its own way in matters of doctrine.

In another post, I shall return to this question of autonomy, and what it entails for those who still wish to sign on to the Covenant.


  1. You wrote:

    "A Communion of Churches preaching opposite doctrine is a mockery -- a self-negating nullity, and not a 'communion' at all."

    I agree, and I think a key word is "preaching" doctrine rather than studying, agreeing upon, and codifying doctrine. It would be difficult for TEC to write out its "doctrine" in anything akin to the 39 Articles because that would go against an "open" mind set and a "movement of the Spirit" that are perhaps parts of their core beliefs.

    In fact, such a doctrinal statement from TEC might be very entertaining, and would surely set TEC apart from the rest of the world and perhaps even the rest of reality.

  2. Mark McCall has sent the following comment by email:

    Thank you for this timely post.

    For the record, Tobias Haller would do well to read paragraph 75 of the Windsor Report, which states:

    "The word 'autonomy' represents within Anglican discourse a far more limited form of independent government than is popularly understood by many today....In the secular world it is well settled that 'autonomic' laws are those created by a body or persons within the community on which has been conferred subordinate and restricted legislative power. Autonomy, therefore, is not the same thing as sovereignty or independence."

    The reference to principles of international law in the ACI paper is included to inform those, such as Mr. Haller, who do not understand the principles of law to which the Windsor Report is referring.

    Mark McCall

  3. Dear Mr. Haley,
    Thanks for your cogent response to the present situation.

    As to the meaning of the Primates' Statement, I would direct your attention to the final clause:

    "none has authority unilaterally to substitute an alternative teaching as if it were the teaching of the entire Anglican Communion."

    This clearly doe not rule out the development by an individual province of "alternative teaching" but only of their presenting it as if it were the teaching of the whole Communion. The Covenant is not, I submit, about uniformity of teaching in all things, but about being clear on those things which do, in fact, represent the teaching of the whole Communion -- and therefore will have import in matters such as ecumenical dialogue. This, I think, offers an indication of why ++Frank could sign on; and also why he withdrew from his A/RC position. He understood the situation perfectly.

    I appreciate Mr. McCall's reminder about the Windsor Report -- with which I am very familiar. The WR is sadly shakey on legal principles, as well as history. The Episcopal Church is not autonomous because some authorities were "conferred" upon it by some superior entity. Rather, it is autonomous because, at the time of the American Revolution, and in keeping with the Anglican Doctrine of the "independence" of the "national church" (see the BCP, page 10, the paragraph beginning "But when in the course of Divine Providence...") As with the misunderstanding of the legal principle "Quod omnes tanget" the Windsor Report errs in the matter of autonomy, making a false connection to a secular principle that is at odds with the actual history and practice of Anglicanism. The independence of governance implicit in the term "autonomy" is just that. There is not, as yet, a superior governing body (in a legal sense) over and above the individual provinces -- and the proposed Covenant is explicit in stating that fact. The proposed Covenant is only about regulating the inter-provincial affairs of the Communion, not the internal governance of the individual members. Those who persist (or innovate) at odds with the whole will find there are consequences in those inter-provincial relationships -- but there is no indication that there will be any intrusion into the internal governance of those provinces.

    Thanks again for your always helpful critique and insight. Even when we disagree I always gain from your comments and reflections. And I agree with your assessment that, like Saint Paul, I got a bit carried away with that Golden Calf thing. Still, it is a warning to allowing the structure to overwhelm the mission.

  4. Thank you, Father Haller, for coming here to engage with us and to amplify your earlier remarks.

    As far as your response to my points is concerned, I would take issue only with your reading of what GC 2003 did in ratifying Bishop Robinson's election as an "alternative teaching" for the Communion. That suggests that it is something proposed for consideration and further discussion. However, a bishop represents his Diocese to the rest of the Communion. Thus when New Hampshire elected, and ECUSA confirmed and consecrated, a Bishop who could not be received at Lambeth or at other official gatherings of the Communion, they were demanding special treatment for their "teaching" -- not just that it be considered and further discussed, but that it be accepted by the entire Communion as a fait accompli. The ABC has been consistent in refusing to allow ECUSA to dictate to the Communion as a whole what is not its alone to decide. (Discuss and propose, yes -- but not decide.)

    Not everyone, by the way, takes the view that ++Griswold's resignation from the ARCIC was voluntary.

    I will have another post about signing on to the Covenant soon, and I hope that we may continue the dialogue.

  5. Fair points, sir. But I would demur slightly from seeing the election of Bishop Robinson as an instance of requiring the reception of a "teaching." Any diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion only functions as a bishop in any other diocese by permission and invitation. Robinson was not "compelled" to attend Lambeth, and Rowan was free not to invite him, all brouhaha aside. (Whether this was a wise decision is another matter entirely; but it was his decision to make.) As it now stands, no woman bishop can function as a bishop in England; though they were all invited to Lambeth as far as I know.

    So I'm not really sure that your example holds as a "teaching of the whole Communion." Certainly nothing has been "dictated" to the whole Communion or "demanded" of it. That would be a radical rethinking of our unwritten Constitution, the very point of autonomy we respect: the autonomy of another province to refuse to permit a bishop functioning within its bounds who would be unacceptable to that province.

  6. My thanks to you once again, Father Haller, for illuminating the dialogue here. I apologize if I misconstrued your remarks about the final sentence of the Primates' 2003 communiqué on "alternative teaching". I am now unclear as to what you meant in reference to how the rest of the Communion was supposed to treat Bishop Robinson's confirmation and consecration -- if not as an "alternate teaching", then as what? For in contrast to the treatment of women's ordination as a local option, no Instrument of Unity has ever declared the ordination or consecration of same-sex partnered individuals as a matter for Communion-wide discernment and reception.

    But let that pass. I would be very interested in your reaction to this recent post by Father Tony Clavier, in which he says (in part -- I commend the whole to your consideration):

    "After a century or more of Ecumenism it seems to me tragic that some in our church seek to resurrect a theory of a National Church, and yet one with a crucial difference from that advanced by 'Anglicans' during the Reformation. The crucial difference is that no one claims that TEC is The Church of America. Rather the claim is now being made that TEC, as a worldwide body, is a [discrete] and autonomous unit competent to advance and create not only a local flavor suitable to serve a distinct 'culture' but whose reference to any wider body is discretionary not only in local government and liturgical usage but in doctrinal 'development' and a discipline stemming therefrom. Such claims, like those advanced by Tudor historians are proposed in order to justify local unilateralism. Thus some propose a theory of a 'National Denomination' in voluntary association with other churces throughout the world whose origins are in the migration and missionary activity of the English. Such complete 'denominational' autonomy has no justification in a reasonable interpretation of Scripture or in the historical Tradition. Rather it relies on a concept of [discrete] 'denominationalism' which is part of the heritage of Protestant American religion."

    What are ECUSA's intentions, as you see them, if not to claim, throughout all this discussion of whether to adopt an Anglican Covenant, status as "a worldwide body . . .[which at the same time is] a discrete and autonomous unit competent to advance and create not only a local flavor suitable to serve a distinct 'culture', but whose reference to any wider body is discretionary -- not only in local government and liturgical usage, but in doctrinal 'development' and a discipline stemming therefrom"? How is Father Clavier's description of the current situation wide of the mark?

  7. Dear Mr. Haley, thank you again for your cordial invitation. I do want to address your initial point first, however, as I think the whole intent of the Windsor Process (and the related Covenant) is in fact in part designed to either affirm the past consensus or lead to a new one, on the matter of same-sexuality. This is explicitly mentioned in the Windsor Report in Paragraph 134. The point I was attempting to make -- and I may have misread you -- is that the question of the ordination of a Bishop like Robinson is being presented for reception, but not as a demand. That is the meaning of "reception." Novelties do arise in the life of the church, and they either gain wide acceptance or not.

    Which leads me to Fr. Clavier's comment. Tony is an old friend and colleague, though we differ on a number of topics. It strikes me that in this essay he is being rather idealistic. It is true no one suggests that TEC is a "national church" in the established sense (all citizens naturally a member of the church) -- but as the Preface to the 1789 BCP notes, and ever since, TEC has been "nationally governed." It is in its governance, not its membership, that TEC is a "national" church. It is also true the William Reed Huntington, in his A National Church did advance a notion of TEC becoming the center for the reunion of all non-Roman Catholics. Tony can dislike the term "denominationalism" as much as he likes, but this is how TEC described itself from 1789 on -- it's there in the BCP!

    Thus it is entirely accurate to speak of TEC as an "independent" church in free association with other churches around the world (and in our own country, viz. ELCA, Moravians, etc. -- is Huntington's dream being slowly fulfilled?). Most of the other Anglican Provinces similarly understand themselves (with a few exceptions, such as England -- though even there Toleration has undercut a literal nationalism). Some, CPWI, CPWA (West Indies, West Africa) are also, as is TEC, multinational to some extent.

    But we are speaking in in terms of governance -- and at present there is no juridical governing body superior to the final synods of each member of the WWAC. Any joint decisions must be signed off on by the individual provinces -- as with the Covenant, which at this point is clear in not wishing to establish such a juridical body.

    One of the reasons I cautiously support the Covenant is that I too am troubled by the sentiment often heard, in more muted terms, "We don't need the WWAC." I think it would be a terrible loss both to the WWAC and TEC if we were to part ways. My point is merely that the WWAC remain a fellowship of national or provincial churches, flexible enough to deal with the developments that must happen if the church is to survive (and as it always has!) based on local innovations being more widely adopted or rejected over a reasonable space of time. This is naturally more important when speedier communication between very different cultures brings such innovations into collision with very different understandings.

    I hope this clarifies my intent and direction. All the best.

  8. Dear Mr. Haley,

    I think the following quotation from a prominent Anglican churchman of the early to middle 19th century might bear on the issue of autonomy vs. independence:

    "The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given. . . . If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of Revelation."

    I make this assertion in large part because of the chorus from those who support the innovations being introduced into TEC that "the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing." If that be the case, then I maintain that the quotation, and the necessity of a covenant, necessarily follow. And that they do so whether one describes the authority as infallible or, simply, final, the latter term being substituted for the former owing to the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance of yours and mine. What is being claimed is revelation. And Christ sent the Holy Spirit to the Church, not to us individually, or denominationally for that matter.

    It was this understanding, coming from an Anglican also quoted by you, that caused me to depart TEC to join the same church joined by its author, who made the transition to Rome one hundred years, to the exact day, before I was born—most likely a trivial coincidence, but one which nevertheless spoke to me.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  9. Dear Mr. Haley,

    The citation from Newman is telling, but to my mind it does not really solve the question, since it assumes that the claim of infallibility is true; while in fact it can only be shown to be believed to be true by those who so believe it. So, for them, albeit a vast majority of extant Christians, there is unity both of form and substance. But every sect that claims such unique status -- and Rome is not the only such claimant even if it is the largest on the block -- could, and does, say the same thing, and so the problem is not really solved except for those for whom it is solved, personally. It then becomes a matter of congruence between the cult of individual personality and the cult that individual chooses to accept as his choice. Thus Mr. Topfer finds peace in the Roman Communion, and the Sanctified Brethren are equally at ease. So, I might add, are the militant atheists, such as Mr. Dawkins. In this way those who desire certitude and the peace it brings may well look with pitying glances on those of us who seek unity not in uniformity of doctrine, but in charity of purpose.

    This is by no means to denigrate those who seek such a solution -- they are in very good company, and numerous. But as it is a solution that all do not accept, it is difficult not to see it as a bit Gordian in effect: all differences are to be overcome by slicing them through with the sword of infallibility. The problem is, which sword shall be taken from the arsenal of pretenders? (Newman spends a good bit of time in "Development" to offer why he thinks Rome the best -- not technically "infallible": Newman did his best work before that dogma was defined in 1870)

    So, I am not sure this actually solves the dilemma; it merely offers one radical approach to it. Though I certainly do understand its appeal to those "weary of all trumpeting."

  10. Dear Fr. Haller,

    A couple of minor points:

    • The quote from Newman is, I am given to understand from the citation in which I encountered it, from 1844—well before 1870 by most calendric calculations.

    • I tend to sense in many of Mr. Dawkins words (written and spoken) not so much the peace that you ascribe to him, as a considerable anger toward the God whose existence he denies. And, I might note, I am neither alone in, nor the first to make, this observation.

    • As a physical scientist (and a Myers-Briggs INTJ) I think I am on considerably firmer ground in trusting my soul to the teachings of, to use your word, a cult whose teachings have been substantively, as well as internally, consistent for something of the order of two millenia, than trusting the understanding of either: (a) one person who has lived nearly 64 years, and only been speaking in recognizable English sentences for the last 59 or so of those (namely, yours truly), or (b) a cult whose existence traces back only a few hundred years, and oft contains certain identifiable logical errors, at least as some of their teachings are commonly understood (i.e., sola scriptura, in the sense of basing one's beliefs solely on what one understands scripture to say about any particular topic. And that is why I believe Newman's observations most aptly apply to this issue.

    • A very minor point, and one at which no offense was taken, but I had assumed from your name (which appears Germanic) a likelihood that you might recognize that the umlauted letter o (ö) is fully orthographically equivalent to 'oe' (Note: not 'oe ligature'), but apparently I was mistaken. So my last name is correctly spelled, in English, Toepfer.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  11. Dear Mr. Toepfer,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. (Sorry about the umlaut -- I am working from a miniature laptop and the umlaut is virtually invisible on my screen.)

    Yes, I did assume to citation from Newman was from "Development" or a similar essay from the 1840s. My point was that this was well before the promulgation of the dogma of infallibility in 1870. Newman is relying on the principles you suggest, since his thesis is not that the doctrine of the church is unchanging (it obviously has changed) but that such changes should be under the custody of such an entity as the Roman Catholic Church. In a sense, "Development" was Newman's way of writing himself into Roman Catholicism. He also later softened some of the criticisms of Rome in the first edition.

    Please know that I have no objection to that process of conversion, for those who find it either emotionally or intellectually helpful, as you clearly do. May your decision bring you much blessing. I fully understand the objective approach you take to this, though as an ENFP I hope you will understand my willingness to put up with Anglican messiness!

    I think you may well be right about Mr. Dawkins. There is clearly an emotional charge driving his energetic assaults on religion -- more than can be explained by a mere intellectual difference of opinion. Of course, it also sells, which may be an even bigger factor.

    Thank you again, and may the Lord bless you and keep you.

    And I do hope our gracious host does not mind this wandering a bit from the primary topic! ;-)