First of all, I have to admit I am not expert by any means on the subject of the European Union. It appears, however, that a recent negative vote to ratify an EU proposal on the part of Ireland led to the failure of the document’s adoption across the board.
This got me ruminating — and I share the ruminations here — about the Anglican Communion and its proposed covenant. Would this new covenant have to be adopted unanimously by the present members of the Communion? Or is this covenant actually the Constitution of a new entity — one of which only those who agree to accept it will be part, and the old informal Anglican Communion, which has always lacked a written Constitution, will become the stuff of history if not legend?
I was reflecting on a line from the Windsor Report which has always troubled me in this regard: it is one of those statements that sounds true but doesn’t stand up to very close examination; an example of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” — “Communion is the fundamental limit of autonomy.” But surely communion in itself does not limit anything. Communion is a mechanism of unity, not of restriction — unless one chooses to look at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Which, it appears, some prefer to do. That is, for such people, communion is essentially not about those who share it, but about those who don’t: a way of saying who is in and who is out; of them and us; of figure and ground. This is the only way I can make sense of the Windsor Report’s usage, and it doesn’t make very much sense, I’m afraid.
For it is not communion itself that places limits on autonomy, but rather agreed-upon rules under which the communion operates — its constitution, or its covenant. Thus the covenant of marriage does place limits upon the autonomy of the couple — by mutual agreement they commit to each other and to refrain from sexual relationships with others. That, among other things, is the covenant of marriage — but it is not the communion of marriage, which is rather the union of the couple with each other. Both of the parties agree to the covenant equally; one cannot impose it on the other, and if both do not accept it there is no marriage. It is a condition for their communion, a means by which that communion comes into existence, and by which it is governed, but it is not the communion itself.
So I think we should retire the phrase “communion is the limit to autonomy” as it is fundamentally misleading and confuses the categories with which we are concerned. Covenant, not communion, spells out the fundamental limit to autonomy; and once we have a covenant — if we ever do — we will know what those limits are.
For now, we would do well to fall back on the old notion of subsidiarity — that things should be done at the level at which a body is competent to accomplish them. This does not mean, contrary to the assertions of some, that every one need approve of everyone else’s actions, even if they do not concern them directly. Even in a marriage one party does not have the right to tell the other who their friends can be or whether they enjoy asparagus or not. In the same way, other members of the communion do not have the inherent right to tell others who may or may not be ordained — although they may reserve the right to refuse to recognize such ordinations if they so choose. This is, in fact, the limit on the degree to which any other province of the communion need be “touched” by the ordination of a class of people whom they would not ordain themselves, whether based on sex or sexuality. No one is forcing them to like my friends or eat asparagus. Furthermore, the use of communion itself, or the bonds of affection, as a coercive measure — this strikes me as inappropriate; as inappropriate as it would be for a wife to say to her husband, “If you really loved me you would stop eating asparagus.” Now, perhaps a man might indeed stop eating asparagus if his wife asked him to do so — but to imply that his failure to do so is a failure of love, or of commitment, of their communion — well this goes a bit too far. And if we come to a matter less adiaphorous — say, who shall his friends be — I think one can see how pernicious a use of affection or communion as a lever for controlling the behavior of another is not really in keeping with the gospel. And the church should be based on the gospel, shouldn’t it?
Tobias Haller BSG