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Does the Anglican Covenant Threaten the Unwritten British Constitution?

The Wikipedia entry on the UK constitution has the following on the role of the Church of England :

The Church of England is the established church in England (i.e., not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). The Sovereign is ex officio Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and is required by the Act of Settlement 1701 to “join in communion with the Church of England”. As part of the coronation ceremony, the Sovereign swears an oath to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England” before being crowned by the senior cleric of the Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury – a similar oath concerning the established Church of Scotland, which is a Presbyterian church, having already been given by the new sovereign in his or her Accession Council. All clergy of the Church swear an oath of allegiance to the Sovereign before taking office.

Parliament retains authority to pass laws regulating the Church of England. In practice, much of this authority is delegated to the Church’s General Synod. The appointment of bishops and archbishops of the Church falls within the royal prerogative. In current practice, the Prime Minister makes the choice from two candidates submitted by a commission of prominent Church members, then passes his choice on to the Sovereign.

No wonder the Queen is looking a bit thoughtful these days. Of course, the problem with having a constitution which is the sum of its component parts, the laws of the land , is that it is a minefield for lawyers.

The commentator, Sir Robin Day, attempted to analyse the governance and character of England in his 1975 autobiography:

In this country, we…are entrusted with a set of values through which our reasoning is tempered with humanity, moderated by fairness, based on truth, imbued with the Christian ethic, applied with commonsense, and upheld by law. If there is a gulf of hypocrisy between the professing and the practice of these values, that does not mean that we should abandon them.

Our society…whatever its present troubles, is by nature and tradition reasonable in the way it lives and governs itself. That way is by peaceful reform rather than violent revolution…In the Reasonable Society, there can be no place for absolutes, no place for theories which must be rigidly adhered to, no place for dogmas which must be defended to the death…there should be no principle which is too important to be reconsidered for the sake of others, no interest which cannot make some sacrifice for the common good.

The idea of the Reasonable Society is deeply rooted in our temper and tradition. That temper and tradition has much in common with our climate…and also perhaps with the quality of light and colour which goes with that climate…of light and colour captured with such magical effect by the genius of our greatest painter, Turner, in his landscapes.

The Reasonable Society, and the institutions which have grown with it, has flowered in the temperate climate of our mental habits. Equanimity is preferred to hysteria. Experience is a wiser guide than doctrine. Absolutes are alien to us. We know that absolute equality would extinguish liberty; that absolute liberty would demolish order…The Reasonable Society is not, as may be thought, merely a convenient idea to play about with in argument. It is fundamentally indispensable to the practical working of the British system of democracy. This is because we have no written constitution, no fundamental law to be applied, no judicial review by a supreme court, no basic rights engraved in marble… Such a constitution has only worked, and can only work, with the accompaniment of the conventions, traditions, customs, compromises, voluntary restraints and the national sense of fair play, all of which go to make up the Reasonable Society.”

The pettifogging minutiae of the Anglican Covenant couldn’t be further removed from the society described by Robin Day or the pragmatic arrangements hitherto governing the role of the Church of England in British society.

It therefore seems reasonable to ask whether it threatens, not just Anglicans, but all English people. And not just English people, but all residents in the United Kingdom who choose to live here precisely because of its long tradition of civil liberties and give and take.

To paraphrase John Donne:

The Church of England is not an island entire of itself;
we are all a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
England is the less.

2 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I am not sure of whether it threatens the constitution, but I think it threatens the unity of the Anglican Communion.

As an Instrument of Communion (which is appears to be trying to be) it is a failure because it neglects the essential freedom of each national church or province to determine its own way, guided as the Spirit takes it.

I am not a great believe in autocratic rule, rather a collaborative communion, which respects the diversity of each other and allows the freedom of thought, action and expression of faith which makes each part of the Anglican Communion unique.

I am concerned that the covenant will be passed by degree of apathy, rather then open debate and consensus across the whole of the CofE. My hope lies in diocesan synods doing their job properly and General Synod listening to the voices coming from the dioceses.

I am also worried that the Bishops will try to take it forward by applying pressure to diocesan synods and then voting for it, whatever their diocesan synod wants.

02 April 2011 15:55
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for commenting, UKViewer. I agree with all that you say, you will not be surprised to hear.

In particular, I share your concern that it will go through almost by default. At the moment I am trying to mount a publicity campaign to make the general public more aware of what is it stake, in the hope that they will put pressure on deanery synods and so on up the chain.

All other ideas for stopping this juggernaut in its tracks will be gratefully received (see the No Anglican Covenant Coalition website for example, but they are concentrating on church channels).

02 April 2011 16:27

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