The Archbishop of York on Constitutions and Covenants

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph's Jonathan Petre. The article included several comments about the centrality of communion with the See of Canterbury to inclusion in the Anglican Communion. They have been widely discussed in Anglican blog-land. But the Archbishop spoke to Anglican Communion issues after the following comments on Britain and the matter of a written constitution. Remembering that Dr. Sentamu was a judge in Uganda in the past his remarks provide an interesting twist on the matter of an Anglican Covenant. Here is what the article said (I have printed the quote in purple and specific sentences of special interest in red.

"Dr Sentamu, a former judge who was forced to flee the regime of Idi Amin, was particularly critical of the rising tide of bureaucracy and Government legislation and he questioned moves towards a written constitution.

"Britain has an unwritten constitution which hasn't failed this nation once," he said. "Why is there a clamour for a written constitution?

"Why are people suggesting that writing one would make Britain a better place? I don't believe it."

He continued: "I think people look for things like a written constitution document because there isn't a shared vision which is big enough to contain all of us," he said.

"The more you write down your laws and have more of them my view is that you are becoming less and less of a free society.

"More regulation implies in the end that you don't actually have confidence that people will act justly.

"And the more laws people pass, it seems to me, that is a society full of fear, of worry, of anxiety....

"I wouldn't want to be a judge in this country. I don't think there is enough time to read the legislation coming out. There is too much of it."

He said he believed that 99 per cent of British people would like to live in peace with their neighbours but there was a "little core that is nasty".

He added: "You can't use legislation to cure a bad minority. It just doesn't work."

Later in the interview the following was written:

"As long as someone does not deny the very basic doctrines of the Church - the creation, the death, the resurrection of Christ and human beings being made in the image of God - then the rest really helps but they are not the core message.

"And I haven't found that in Ecusa or in Canada, where I was recently, they have any doubts in their understanding of God which is very different from anybody. What they have quarrelled about is the nature of sexual ethics."

He nevertheless emphasised that Dr Williams does expect those who attend Lambeth to abide by the decision-making processes of the Anglican Communion.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury is very clear that he still reserves the right to withdraw the invitations and that those who are invited are accepting the Windsor process and accepting the process about the covenant."

The Archbishop on the one hand has considerable reservation about Britain adapting a written constitution, and on the other hand supports the ABC's concern that those accepting invitation to Lambeth are "accepting the Windsor process and accepting the process about the covenant." Interestingly both the Windsor Report and the intent in developing an Anglican Covenant (in whatever form) are precisely about formalizing "the decision-making processes of the Anglican Communion." They are, in other words, documents on the way to a written constitution for the Anglican Communion.

The Windsor Report was never intended to be more than a document that was part of a process. Primarily because of the insistence of the realignment and Global South communities it has become more than an item in a process. It has become something of a proof-text regarding ecclesial standing within the Communion. The Anglican Covenant has been seen both as an idea worth pursuing by a process of decision making and, as an idea, a proof-text for continued participation in the process. For this reason the draft Covenant was accompanied by the proposal that it be accepted in principle and debated only as concerns specifics.

The Windsor Report and the draft Anglican Covenant have both been understood in some circles to make constitution building (under the guise of a covenant) mandatory. The report of the drafting committee attempted to make the outline of the draft somehow beyond question, leaving only fine points for late discussion.

The Archbishop of York has some serious doubts about the need for a written constitution for Britain. Why does he not have similar doubts about the development of an Anglican Covenant?

Will the Anglican Communion be genuinely helped by having a written Constitution? – For that is what an Anglican Covenant will ultimately come to entail.

Perhaps the Archbishop might apply his concerns for the one to the concerns for the other.


  1. So England does not need a constitution, but the Anglican Communion does. Some of the mental gymnastics are getting beyond bizarre.

    I am beginning to wonder about the British way of thinking. N. T. Wright ignores the implications of his own works and ++York lays out a solid argument against a covenant then says we better agree to it anyway. Weird!


  2. There is a consistency here, but it is not a pleasant one.

    Three British friends recently explained to me in very similar terms that the Brits are, in general, more comfortable with oligarchy than we Americans. We tend to see a written constitution, in the governmental sphere, as limiting powers and protecting minority rights (largely due to the way the constitution has come to be used in US politics and law, and thanks to the Bill of Rights, 14th Amendment, etc.). In the church sphere, we rightly recognize that the Covenant, as proposed, is not about protecting minorities or unpopular views; it is a blunt instrument with which to beat TEC until it toes the line.

    But Brits trust oligarchy. Thus, the drafting committee presents something we are all expected to salute; the text itself gives all power to the primates (not even the ACC, which--while still bad, in that it is beyond the national church--is at least slightly less oligarchic); Rowan Williams by many accounts manipulates Frank Griswold via cell phone at GC 2006; the same Williams later calls our decision-making process "bizarre" in a Time magazine interview.

    The comfort with oligarchy allows the Abp. of York to reject a written, governmental constitution here, because it would constrain the political oligarchy and delineate rights for the plebs. Simultaneously, he can endorse the Covenant because it would be a way of bringing to heel those upstart Americans who keep injecting those darn democratic principles wherever they get their hands on the church.

    For my part, anyone comfortable with oligarchy can't have been reading the newspapers--in Britain or the US--for the last 6 years or so.

    I write all of this without particular spleen, but with the growing sense that American, democratic values, embodied in TEC's polity, are not compatible with the Covenant, or with the ethos of the C of E. I doubt they will ever understand our ethos; I pray we never embrace theirs.

  3. While I largely agree with you, Mark, about the Windsor Report, I think there is some point to a process that keeps us working toward means for clearer communication and interaction.

    And it strikes me as interesting that York has connected Lambeth to participation in the process, not to a specific result. It might sound restricting, but at this point we are compliant. General Convention has committed to participating, and Executive Council is acting on that resolution.

    Now, as to whether that process can actually produce a document; and whether any document could make it through the constitutional processes of the various provinces - well, those things remain to be seen. Our concern for the Episcopal Church needs to be focused there, and not on whether there is value to a process.

  4. The Archbishop of York has some serious doubts about the need for a written constitution for Britain. Why does he not have similar doubts about the development of an Anglican Covenant?

    Mark, excellent questions. I don't get it.

    He nevertheless emphasised that Dr Williams does expect those who attend Lambeth to abide by the decision-making processes of the Anglican Communion.

    I thought that Lambeth 2008 was to be a consultative body and not a legislative body - that there would be no voting. Am I wrong about this?

  5. To be clearer about what Dr Sentamu is saying, it helps to know a bit about the context of the English Common Law.

    A great deal of the Common Law has never been written down as statute and approved by a legislature. Matters governed by Common Law are perhaps best seen as things on which everyone agrees, so we don't have to write them down. As an example, I haven't checked this recently, but the Common Law definition of burglary, the one used by any English court, is "breaking and entering in the night time," which means that in order for a charge of burglary to be proved, the act has to happen at night and the burglar has to force entry in some way. No Parliament ever passed this, it has just always been agreed that that's the way it is.

    In the contemporary UK (and in this country as well) there is a movement, based at least in part on a greater cultural diversity in the population, to clarify these understandings and write them down as statutes. This process has the advantage of making sure that a majority agrees with the idea and that it is (at least somewhat) clear as to what the law is. It seems to me that Dr Sentamu (and he is not the only one) regrets the current profusion of statutes and the lack of shared, unwritten societal understanding that they represent.

    When it comes to talking about the CoE, matters are entirely different. The Church in England was never governed by a body of unwritten law. From the earliest timeswigg, church law was always written down. The only change brought by the Reformation was that the use of Roman canon law was abolished and English canon law took its place. In the area of church law a written covenant, while still a new idea, is not such a major change as a written constitution would be in English Common Law.

    Although Dr Sentamu does mix the two areas together, I think he is assuming that his audience, in the UK anyway, would understand the difference.

  6. The more I think of it the more I think we should have an Anglican Congress to do some of this work.
    As it stands, it's far to small a set of groups to do anything other than repeat the groupthink.

  7. Anonymous is absolutely right.

    The British constitution, as understood by Walter Bagehot as his followers, has a unitary theory of political power and legitimacy. Unlike the Americans, who saw sovereignty as inherent in the people and partially delegated to the government, 19th century British lawyers argued that Parliament and the Monarchy together ("the Crown in Parliament") was the source of all sovereignty and that the rights of the people derive from it.

    Britain in this view does need a written constitution because the constitution is whatever Parliament decides at any moment. There can be no external review of Parliaments actions by the judiciary because the judiciary itself has no authority other than that delegated to it by Parliament. Plus there is no need for the judiciary to decide if legislation violates fundamental human rights because those too are bestowed by the central government.

    (Now there is not quite the way things are today, particularly after the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights which functions as a kind of check on some of the powers of Parliament. Also, devolution has created a quasi-federal system, and it's not clear that this could be repealed by another Parliament.)

    The proposed covenant may be written, but in essence it creates a similar situation to that of 19th century England. The Covenant seems to envision a church where spiritual authority emanates from the Primates and the hierarchy, and not from the "laos", the people of God, incorporated into Christ through baptism.

    We American really do have a different system based on a different set of values. I suspect that just as England's government is now becoming more like ours (federal system, written rights, independent judiciary) in time the slow motion disestablishment which is occurring in the U.K. today will make the English Church more like the American.

    The current hysteria is annoying, but I believe history is really on our side, and that the current uproar will appear as idiotic to future generations as the Jerusalem bishopric or the Colenso affair are to us.

  8. Actually he says England does have a constitution, it's just unwritten.

    Rules appear to be neccesary for maintaining a community. Certainly all the monastic communities have rules covering a great many areas of life. On the other hand rules do restrict, and multiplying rules can decrease freedom.

    Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves isn't whether we need some sort of rules, either written or unwritten. Perhaps the question to ask is how many and which rules we need.


  9. Here's another constitution:

    Thirty-three years ago, a small and committed group of gays and lesbians founded INTEGRITY and set as a goal the transformation of the Episcopal church into an institution which would be a safe haven for uninhibited homosexuals where they could pursue their proclivities without being subject to judgement, criticism or moral constraint. Their strategy was simple;

    1. First and foremost terrorize the traditionalists by labeling them bigots and homophobes. Central in this was the duty to wail unceasingly "homophobia" at anyone who even remotely questioned their goals.

    2. Pretend that their real goal was to create a "kinder, gentler and inclusive" church, which would be tolerant of gays and lesbians, when in fact their goal was to take over the Episcopal power structure in order to protect their interests. "Kinder, gentler and inclusive" was guaranteed to produce a generally positive response from most traditionalists, and crack the door open to achieving their more radical aims.

    3. Infiltrate the seminaries over an extended period with steadily increasing numbers of gays and lesbians, until a tipping point was achieved when those in favor of their agenda overbalanced those opposed to it, and moved out into the wider clergy environment in their respective dioceses. Again cries of "homophobia" against their opponents were the order of the day. (The term "Gay Mafia" was to become increasingly common in the seminaries).

    4. Downplay the importance of family creation and support, and the nurturing of children, and make same-sex unions and gay marriage the top priority, while insisting that all children be made aware of the gay lifestyle, and wherever possible be encouraged to choose it.

    5. Ridicule and slander any group which ministers to unhappy or suicidal homosexuals by using the premise that through the grace of Jesus Christ they could change.

    6. Restructure the theology of the church to a format that could be happily accepted by gays and lesbians, by revising, censoring, parsing and ridiculing the Holy Scriptures' references to homosexuality wherever and whenever possible. Make sure that this approach is used in the seminaries. Foremost in this effort was Jack Spong, who with his internet theses made the focus of his efforts the denigration and devaluation of St. Paul and his Epistles, and the debunking of the Ten Commandments and the Creeds.

    7. Take over the National Executive Council, and if possible the office of the Presiding Bishop. Louie Crew, the founder of INTEGRITY, the Episcopal Lesbigay lobbying group, himself has told us that now 20% of the Executive Council are gays.

    8. By carefully analyzing the voting histories of each and every voting member of the House of Bishops as concerns Lesbigay issues, as catalogued by Louie Crew on his website (see: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/bishops/thread.html ), and using aggressive tactics by a multi-person INTEGRITY lobbying team before important votes at General Conventions, tip the scales in the House of Bishops, and House of Deputies to the point where they would approve an active homosexual bishop, and hopefully elect a Presiding Bishop completely favorable to the Lesbigay agenda. (Note: Louie stopped updating this after the 2003 convention, except to report bishops who had died since then. Clearly he must have thought he had achieved his goal and therefore it was no longer important to his cause to update it through the 2006 convention.)

    9. Force the traditionalist and orthodox elements in the church to abandon the Episcopal Church and leave for friendlier pastures. Threaten to sue them using church funds and fire their vestries if they try to take their properties with them.

    10. Create an environment in which The Anglican Communion would be forced to expel the Episcopal Church. Perhaps someone can tell me which of these goals have not been achieved, and if this is where we are, why I am wrong in assuming that these were the original goals in the first place, and not something that "just happened".

    -- JF

  10. "The Covenant seems to envision a church where spiritual authority emanates from the Primates and the hierarchy, and not from the "laos", the people of God, incorporated into Christ through baptism."

    In a sentence, this line from "Anon" crystalized why I think the convenant idea is a really bad one. It also describes the great problem with RC canon.

    Thanks whoever you are!


  11. anonymous aka JF: You write comments here fairly often, so I think you read the postings. Thank you for both.

    You write: "Here's another constitution..." and then list a set of supposed goals. Whatever else is questionable about your depiction of the goals (and I believe much of what you say is questionable and am hopeful that others will respond)you confuse a constitution with a statement of goals.

    Since the posting had to do with constitution, not group goals, your post is tangential at best. While I hope someone will take your statements to task, I hope the thread that follows on the posting I made does not go in this direction.

  12. I can't decide whether Anon/JF p*sses me off w/ his appalling bigotry, or more amuses me w/ his twisted-funny parody. *LOL*

    [Yeah, I know it's the former---but I think I'll p*ss him off more if I take it as the latter!

    Anonymous of the 2nd post: very helpful. Thanks.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.