Tuesday 28 February 2012

Our Church and Canon Law

This is the edited version of some reflections shared on 28 February 2012 with a group considering the re-launch of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa's Canon Law Society.

Thank you for coming today, to consider the re-launch of ACSA’s Canon Law Society. Let me offer a few reflections, from my own perspective.

I recently asked staff to put together a file of papers on the canon law issues that have crossed my desk since becoming Archbishop barely 4 years ago. The file, I have to say, is far too fat! And it seems to me that there are two reasons that contribute to this.

The first is that there is not enough awareness of how and where to apply and implement canon law – and there is a particular need for Bishops to be better equipped in this area. So my first challenge to a new Society, to you, would be to compile a sort of ‘Dummies’ Guide to Canon Law’ – a user-friendly manual. Particularly helpful would be some guidelines that say ‘If situation X arises, do Y’, where this is appropriate.

But the second issue we face is the need for a right understanding of when to resort to canonically based actions. As someone has said, the Canons do not replace the Bible! And scripture is clear. While Jesus came to fulfil the law, he was against legalism. St Paul also writes about avoiding – and avoiding provoking – legislative procedures, especially in secular courts, wherever possible. Both put the emphasis on relationships and actions that are rooted in, unearth, and birth, love and compassion.

In equipping Bishops and church leaders, all should know how to respect and uphold canon law and the regulations of the church, in all forms. But, more importantly, they must be chief pastors, and understand how our first obligation is always to exhaust the pastoral routes open to us.

At Morning Prayer today, we read the 23rd Psalm, and I was reminded again of the calling, particularly to Bishops, to shepherd our sheep as Christ does his flock. Legal actions should, generally speaking, always be the last resort. And the legal advice that comes to us should share this same perspective. The laws of love and grace are our priority.

Those giving legal advice should not be afraid to challenge Bishops! We need this. We need to be told if we are thinking of heading in the wrong direction – in the procedures to which we look, and in their appropriate application. If you don’t tell us clearly, you are not helping!

There is another angle to this, specifically in relation to clergy ‘vocation’ questions. I know that the relationship between Bishops and clergy as not one of direct employment remains where we stand in terms of case law. But this is no excuse whatsoever for Bishops to treat clergy poorly. The church should behave towards its clergy better than the best practices of any employment code. She should live the biblical values of what it is to be human and created in the image of God, as well as demonstrate the wider constitutional context within which she serves.

I know that in the past rectors treated curates, and bishops treated clergy, often more than high-handedly. But we need to wake up, and acknowledge that this was wrong; and that it is completely unacceptable to perpetuate either such attitudes or such practices today.

Nor can we ignore the changed legal context, which has rebalanced working relationships, providing workers with far fuller rights than in the bad old days. In my view, then, vocational and employment matters are also first a moral and then a legal question. There is no justification for Church practices to be anything less than the best we see in the world around. Therefore, on moral grounds at least as much as legal grounds, I hope that we resort to this area of law as little as possible.

I also hope that through regularising clergy licensing across dioceses, we will also be able to avoid some of the recent sorry tales – including where (as in the case of Fr Mbombo and the Diocese of the Highveld) secular courts have told us that we are failing in our responsibilities, including at the highest level, through our appeals system.

There are some other reflections I want to mention briefly.

The first is this, that all of us need to be aware of the high, high, cost of litigation. It is scandalous that we have to spend such vast sums, which ought to be directed towards the mission and ministry of the church. Indeed, I would put it stronger – we are depriving the church of these sums, which were given precisely for mission and ministry. It is appalling stewardship. People, on whatever side of whatever argument, need to know this. (For example, ensuring the consecration of the Bishop of Mbashe in the face of court challenges cost ACSA a lot of money. And there are other examples I could mention.)

Arising from this is the thought that we need to do better in ensuring matters of canon law are included in training clergy. I know some dioceses are now including this within Anglican Studies modules, but we need to do this more widely. This not only means College of the Transfiguration (COTT), but – and perhaps especially – with those who follow more general courses that are not taught within an Anglican framework. Perhaps you might be able to help with producing training materials.

So, as is clear, there is plenty on the canon law plate for you to get your teeth into! May God bless your discussions – so that you, and your work, may be a blessing to God’s church and God’s people, in our ministry and mission to God’s world. Thank you.