Not long ago I edited a study guide for the Chicago Consultation on the proposed Anglican Covenant. It was called The Genius of Anglicanism, and while it included many excellent essays, one in particular has stuck with me, perhaps because I covered a few trials during my days as a reporter.
In an essay called “Section Four: The Devil you know”, Sally Johnson, a lawyer who served on the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons for six years, examines the quasi-judicial process outlined in the final section of the covenant. She writes:
In essence, the Standing Committee receives a question, receives assistance from unspecified “committees or commissions” mandated by unspecified authority, takes advice from any body or anybody it deems appropriate and decides whether to refer the question to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting. The Standing Committee then decides whether to request a Church to “defer” a decision or action and what relational consequences should result if it does not. It ?then moves on to a determination of whether or not a Church’s action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant.” The Standing Committee does this “on the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting,” not on the basis of a process or procedure in which the Church whose action is in question participates in any way, other than to the extent it has representatives on the ACC (from which it could already be barred) and a primate at the Primates’ Meeting (from which its primate could have been excluded). …
Agreeing to an undefined, unspecified process in which the decision-making bodies have full discretion to act in any manner they deem best–not only as to the process but as to the standard and burden of proof, information considered, and all other aspects of the dispute resolution system–is what the covenant contemplates. In the words of the rule of law, there is no procedural due process and no substantive due process guaranteed by the covenant. The outcome is to be trusted and respected based on the persons/bodies making the decisions rather than a system based on how the decision is made. (italics added.)
I thought of Johnson’s article on Saturday when I learned that all four of the dioceses in the Church of England that had voted on whether to adopt the covenant that day, had voted in the negative. Thus far, ten of the 15 dioceses that have considered the issue have thought the covenant a bad idea. Twenty-nine dioceses are still to vote, and at least 18 of them must vote in the affirmative if the covenant is to be considered by the Church of England’s General Synod.
Arguments about the covenant often deal in lofty theological concepts, and are spiced by rival interpretations of Anglican history. But we can also examine the document through the lens of common sense.
No one would want to be tried under the legal system that Johnson describes. No one would their loved ones tried under such a system. So I ask my Anglican sisters and brothers, if it isn’t right for us, why is it right for our churches?