By Robin G. Jordan
Note: I had considered titling this article, "Midsummer Madness," as the "Inaugural Provincial Assembly" has been moved up to June 22, 2009, the day after the Summer Solstice. It will also be a New Moon.
Bishop Bob Duncan recently announced that the Inaugural Provincial Assembly of the new Anglican Church in North America to be held in Bedford, Texas had been moved up to June 22, 2009. In his announcement Bishop Duncan stated that the meeting would be more like the annual Winter AMiA Conference than the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. The last two items on the agenda would “the consideration of the ratification of the (Provisional) Constitution” and “the consideration of the ratification of a Code of Canons.” The meeting will be what I anticipated in my article, “The ACNA Constitution: What You See Is What You Get,” a carefully orchestrated media event at which those groups of churches wishing to become constituent bodies of the ACNA will be invited to ratify the seriously-flawed provisional constitution and an expanded version of the provisional canons.
The form of church government embodied in the provisional ACNA constitution is not synodical but corporate, with most of the power concentrated in the small, clergy-dominated Provincial Council rather than the larger, more representative Provincial Assembly. The Provincial Council is comparable to a very powerful board of directors and the Provincial Assembly to a very weak stockholders meeting. This form of church government is also analogous to The Episcopal Church striping the General Convention of its powers and giving them to the Executive Council without requiring any accountability to the General Convention on the part of the Executive Council. The Provincial Assembly has no real power. It elects the Provincial Council and ratifies the amendments and additions to the ACNA constitution and canons. As the provisional ACNA constitution is worded, it must ratify these changes. It cannot initiate legislation of its own. It cannot conduct hearings and investigations. It cannot demand reports from the Provincial Council or ACNA officials. It cannot suspend or remove members of the Provincial Council or ACNA officials. This form of church government is even more susceptible to manipulation than that of The Episcopal Church. One special interest group can eventually come to dominate the Provincial Council and impose its agenda upon the ACNA—women’s ordination, gay marriage, or whatever. There are no safeguards to prevent the possibility of such a takeover happening. It is the kind of church government the liberals would love to implement in TEC. It would give them absolute control of that denomination and they could pick up the pace of reshaping it to their liking.
Under this form of church government the existing leadership of the ACNA, the leadership of the Common Cause Partners, will retain their hold on the reins of power in the ACNA and will continue to determine its direction. A provision in the canons requires the ACNA College of Bishops to select the first bishop of each new constituent body of ACNA from a list of candidates nominated by that body. This means that the leadership of the ACNA can pick the candidate that they find most supportive of the direction in which they wish to take the ACNA. The College of Bishops is not required to select a bishop from the first slate of the candidates that the new constituent body nominates. It is very possible for the College of Bishops to refuse to pick a bishop until the new constituent body nominates a candidate to its liking. This is a method of selecting a bishop that is used in a number of African provinces. In North America, however, selection of a bishop by a college of bishops has usually been reserved for those occasions when a diocese cannot agree upon a choice of bishop. For example, the Diocese of Ecuador recently asked The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to select its bishop. The first bishop of a diocese or other judicatory plays a key role in shaping the culture of that body and in turn the direction that it will take.
I must wonder whether those who are so caught up in the excitement of the establishment of what they hope will be a new province of the Anglican province have fully weighed the implications of this and other aspects of the form of church government embodied in the fundamental documents of the ACNA.
Most provinces of the Anglican Communion have a synodical form of church government. In a synodical form of church government a provincial general synod is the governing body of the province and a provincial council or standing committee is its administrative and executive arm. The provincial council or standing committee is accountable to the provincial general synod and subject to its control and direction. The diocesan synod or an elected or partially elected diocesan episcopal electoral college selects the bishop of a diocese, subject to the confirmation of the provincial college of bishops or the provincial general synod.
The form of church government that the ACNA is implementing is out of character with North American Anglicanism. If it represents the character of a new “Anglicanism” that the ACNA is seeking to promote, North American Anglicans may wish to think twice about becoming a part of the ACNA and giving their support to that organization. The synodical form of church government in which the laity share in the government of the church with the bishop and the clergy is something that is worth preserving. However, under the ACNA form of church government the laity will be relegated to what will at best be a token role. The ACNA form of church government reflects a strong prejudice against the participation of the laity in decision-making that affects the faith and life of the church. It calls to mind statements heard in certain quarters over the past few years that the laity was responsible for the drift of The Episcopal Church into heterodoxy and heresy and that if the clergy had been in charge, it would not have happened. Such statements ignore the fact that bishops and other clergy were the ones who set TEC on its current path and show more than a tinge of clericism.
While the provisional ACNA constitution makes provision for the formation of constituent bodies on the basis of territory or theological affinity, what has been happening since the ACNA began to accept applications for recognition of groups of churches as ACNA constituent bodies is that the bodies that have been seeking recognition have been largely forming on the basis of territory. Already different theological affinity groups are vying for dominance of these forming constituent bodies. The formation of constituent bodies solely on the basis of theological affinity would have reduced, if not eliminated, the occurrence of this kind of power struggle and would have given each theological affinity group a place in the sun. Duncan’s reference to the newly formed constituent bodies as dioceses suggests that the ACNA leadership has a weak commitment to the commitment to the principle of forming constituent bodies on the basis of theological affinity. This may explain why the ACNA has not encouraged groups of churches to form themselves into a constituent body on this basis and to avoid the power struggles over which theological affinity group dominates the new constituent body.
The ACNA canons require that a group of churches seeking to become a constituent body of the ACNA must have at least twelve churches with an ASA of at least 50 each and total combined ASA of 1000. This effectively excludes the recognition of small groups of churches or groups of smaller churches as constituent bodies of the ACNA, thereby barring a small group of churches belonging to a particular theological affinity group or a group of small churches belonging to a particular theological affinity group from becoming a constituent body of the ACNA and providing a nucleus for constituent ACNA body composed of churches belonging to that theological affinity group. In order to be admitted to the ACNA such a group of churches must affiliate with a group of larger churches with which it may not have any theological affinity and to which it can be expected to play second fiddle. The group of larger churches will dominate the leadership of the constituent body and shape its culture and the direction that it takes.
What was missing from Duncan’s announcement was that before Inaugural Provincial Assembly the Code of Canons would be made available for public examination and comment. This is an example of the tight control that the ACNA leadership has maintained over the drafting and amendment of the canons and its lack of interest in any input from outside its own ranks. It is also an example of the ACNA leadership’s approach to the decision making process. There is no real public discussion of proposals before they are presented for approval or ratification. The element of transparency is singularly lacking in the ACNA, as is the element of open and participatory decision-making.
These developments do not bode well for the ACNA since they replicates in conditions in the ACNA very similar if not identical to those in The Episcopal Church. They will not only produce power struggles but can also be expected to lead to the ascendancy of one theological affinity group in the ACNA and the marginalization of other theological affinity groups. Even though they are major stakeholders in the ACNA, building its churches, and funding its ministries, the laity will have a negligible share in making the major decisions that affect them. A small oligarchy will make the important decisions behind closed doors. This is what the future holds in store for the ACNA.
North American Anglicans might ward off this approaching danger by going to Bedford, resoundingly rejecting the provisional constitution and the expanded version of the provisional canons, and demanding a more synodical form of church government for the ACNA and a new constitution and new canons for the ACNA including guarantees and safeguards that would prevent the development of conditions in the ACNA like those in The Episcopal Church. Sadly they are so bemused by the desire for a third province in North America, they will in all likelihood ratify whatever is put in front of them. When the excitement wears off and the disillusionment sets in, they are likely to regret their actions. But by then it will be too late and the damage will have been done.