03 May 2011

Mostly Harmless

I have had a number of conversations with well-informed, thoughtful Anglicans, many of them in leadership positions such as Synod members and bishops and ecclesiastical lawyers, which convince me that a large number of people have essentially adopted a narrative about the proposed Anglican Covenant, a narrative which seems to be relatively uninfluenced by anything like reading the document. Their comments typically go like this:
I don't actually believe that the Covenant will accomplish what it is supposed to do. It won't really address the tensions in the Anglican Communion. But I don't believe that it is the Abomination of Desolation, either. I don't think it's going to have any ill effect. Recommendations of Relational Consequences are nothing to worry about.
This reminds me of the succinct description of the Earth and its inhabitants in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: “Mostly harmless.” Not to mention feckless.

I'm not sure about that assessment, but let's assume it for a minute. What amazes me is the conclusion reached based on it:
Since it's mostly harmless, even if it's also not likely to produce any positive effects, I will vote to support it because by doing so we can show our commitment to the Anglican Communion and our loyalty to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Now, I am committed to the Anglican Communion, and loyal to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I don't grasp how this conclusion follows from the assumption that the proposed Covenant is both harmless and feckless.

First, the tensions in the Anglican Communion are well known and beyond dispute. And they certainly need to be addressed creatively. If we don't believe that the proposed Covenant is the vehicle to do so, then why support it? Especially, why continue to support the narrative that the proposed Covenant will help us to strengthen the Communion if we don't actually believe the narrative? It would be like the World Health Organization going round injecting people with some inert substance like saline solution during a flu pandemic in the hope that the placebo effect will stop the spread of flu, or at least that they will give a convincing impression of doing something. It's no good pretending that something we believe won't help will be of any use to us. That's not a very effective way of demonstrating commitment to the Anglican Communion, let alone actually doing something constructive about the aforementioned tensions.

And as to demonstrating loyalty to the Archbishop of Canterbury, surely supporting a proposed Covenant which we believe will eventually just sit harmlessly on a shelf gathering dust is equally ineffective. Do we participate in a charade simply to avoid hurting the Archbishop's feelings, or to cheer him up by giving him something in the win column? Is that not to play the role of the royal advisers, praising the Emperor's new clothes to his face whilst trying to avoid sniggering behind his naked back? In what way is that loyal to the Archbishop?

All that assumes that the assessment that the proposed Covenant is harmless is correct. But I don't believe that to be the case. Regular readers of this blog, if any, will know that I have some grave concerns about every section of the proposed Covenant, not least section 4.2, which sets out the mechanism for addressing disagreements in the Anglican Communion. The lack of definition of what constitutes a matter of concern, the ambiguity in the definition of the parameters of faith and practice in authentic Anglicanism, the unclear, arbitrary and unjust process by which questions will be decided, all give every reason to worry that the process will be anything but harmless. And when relational consequences are imposed (yes, “imposed”; not merely “recommended”, for recommendations will be expected to be implemented) following a vague and arbitrary process, there may be real harm to the Anglican Communion and possibly to its churches.

What kind of harm to its churches, you ask? For an example, consider a lawsuit which is still before the courts in Canada. Some Anglicans who left the Diocese of New Westminster sued the diocese in an attempt to gain ownership of the church properties and other assets that they were trying to take with them. They lost in the lower court and again on appeal. They are currently applying to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Part of their argument was that they, the dissenters, and not the Diocese of New Westminster, were the true Anglicans, and thus that they were entitled to keep the properties. The court found that the Diocese of New Westminster was in fact the true representative of the Anglican Communion in Vancouver. As evidence, the court cited the fact that Bishop of New Westminster had been invited to the Lambeth Conference (whilst the dissenters' “bishop” had not) and other points. But what if the Anglican Church of Canada had been subject to relational consequences pursuant to the proposed Covenant? What if we had been suspended from participation in the Lambeth Conference and the other Instruments of Communion? Although it might not have been fatal to the defence of the lawsuit, such a state of affairs certainly would have introduced an element of risk on the point of who, if anyone, were the authentic Anglicans. And that kind of risk we could do without. And even if you don't think your own church is ever likely to be engaged in such lawsuits, why inflict that risk on others? Isn't the Covenant process supposed to be about taking other churches into consideration?

And even if the proposed Covenant cannot be definitively demonstrated to put churches at risk of losing lawsuits, what of the potential for being tied up in endless dispute-settling procedures on other areas of tension? For friction in the relationships in the Anglican Communion is not limited to sex, nor will the current tensions, if resolved, be the last we face. There is a significant number of possible areas of conflict waiting in the wings, such as lay presidency at the eucharist, admission of unconfirmed children to communion, admission of unbaptized persons to communion, differences in practice with respect to remarriage after divorce and the implications for clergy, interfaith dialogue, and ongoing differences with respect to the ordination of women, especially as bishops. What will happen when a woman is appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, if some churches can't accept her authority as an Instrument of Communion? Could a question be raised as to whether the Church of England in making the appointment was not sufficiently cautious, or failed to obtain sufficient consensus? How harmless will the Covenant look then? Either it will have no effect, in which case the tensions remain and fester, or it will make things worse. Neither outcome is particularly attractive, to say the least.

I could be wrong. Maybe the proposed Covenant is as harmless as some people believe. But if it is, then it is also as feckless as that narrative suggests. In that case, rather than adopting a Covenant for purely symbolic reasons, wouldn't it be better to be honest and adopt a resolution affirming our commitment to the Anglican Communion and our loyalty to the Archbishop of Canterbury? And if I'm right, if the proposed Covenant is not harmless, is it responsible to sleepwalk into adopting it for all the wrong reasons, and then be stuck with the consequences?


  1. Oh, I so agree! Thank-you for this succinct summary of the problems and unintended consequences which the Covenant is likely to result in.

  2. Thanks, Lay.

    It seems to me that there is only one reason to vote for the proposed Covenant, and that is that, having studied the document and thought carefully about the probable outcomes, one is convinced that it will actually help to address the tensions in the Communion, and strengthen the Communion for the future. And that it won't have any serious probable unintended negative consequences.

    If a Synod member comes to that conclusion, then he or she should vote for it. But otherwise, I suggest that there is no reason to vote for it. It's not good enough simply to vote for it for symbolic reasons, come what may. So, unless one is honestly convinced that it will do what it purposrts to be intened for, then I suggest one should vote against.

    I am not so convinced, of course. I don't know if I will have the opportunity to vote on the proposed Covenant, but I can't see any reason to support it.

  3. Another good one, Alan. A good many dioceses in the US seem to understand the possible negative consequences of signing on to the proposed daft covenant to influence the vote at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2012. I hope so. And I hope that the understanding spreads to churches and dioceses in other areas.

  4. Thanks, Mimi.

    What worries me about the growing number of US dioceses that are speaking against the Daft Covenant is that it would be easy to write off their voices as self-interested - voting against because they don't want to be constrained in furthering their "divisive" liberal agenda. That kind of reaction could well ignore the well-considered and principled objections that are being put forward.

    I hope other voices join in, which will be harder to write off in the same way.

    I'm not opposing the Covenant because I don't want someone telling me what to do; I'm opposing it because I honestly believe that it will make things worse, not better, for the Communion.

  5. Alan, I can't blame the dioceses whose representatives take a position on the covenant. I wish my diocese had done so. In all that we do, self-interest plays a part, whether consciously, or not.

    I so very much agree that the covenant will give rise to more disputes than we have at present. The language of the covenant is unfit for settling disputes amongst school children, much less amongst supposedly mature members of Christian churches, because it encourages tattling. What is a grave offense, and what is a minor offense against "true Anglicanism"? As I read the document, any member can "tell on" any other member for whatever they consider a breach, and then a vague judicial process for settling the dispute will be implemented, which could result in possible relational consequences.

    The covenant is not harmless, and it is feckless, so why have it?

  6. I don't blame them, either, Mimi. The statements I have read to date indicate that the delegations are taking a very serious look at the proposed Covenant and finding it lacking.

    I don't think they are operating only out of self-interest, though of course we all operate at least partially out of self-interest even at our best.

    I think the diocesan statements are very principled and articulate, and deserve to be read carefully. I only worry that some outside the Episcopal Church may write them off without actually reading them.

    I agree with you: the Daft Covenant is not harmless, so why have it?

  7. Yep, right on the nose, Alan. I don't understand how the Brits think that it is harmless, though. Any kind of legislation in the wrong hands can be used to manipulate or coerce. And since we don't have any say in who is going to wield the Instruments of Unity, I want no part of this thing.

  8. It's not just Brits who have bought into this narrative, Muthah. I've heard the same from Canadians and a few from the Antepodes. No doubt there are more out there who believe the same thing.

    We do staff three out of four of the Instruments with our own bishops, primates and those whom we send as ACC members. It will be crucial to ensure that the latter are well chosen and well informed. (Not that I have any evidence to the contrary). But the wild card is the staffing of the Standing Committee. How will the Primates choose their half? How will the ACC choose theirs?

  9. I hate to state the obvious, but it occurs to me that there is a spank the Americans mistake here. The idea is that clearly as we are the English we won't get smacked, the Americans might but oh well! Wrong. Nigeria is quite after the UK too.



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