June 16, 2008

Fundamental Limits

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


Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, Tobias. This is good.

I have often thought that one of the most mortal of sins is to use one's own love against oneself-- e.g., "If you really loved me you would XYZ." (subtext: "...even if it is to your detriment or causes you serious harm").

or "You say that you are in communion with us and that you want to be in communion with us, therefore you must XYZ" (same subtext) -- the use of our own desire for communion against us!

Down and dirty, I'd say!

June Butler said...

Tobias, I believe that you have articulated my worries about the whole notion of a covenant. I fear that it will end up drawing lines as to who is in and who is out.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

This post is profound. I especially liked this passage: "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."

I also liked your distinction between communion and covenant. It was very helpful.

R said...


Other comments have already used the words "profound" and "helpful." I heartily agree. You have put into words so succinctly what so many, myself included, have intuited about the whole "if thou wilst be with me, thou shalt not..." approach to communion.

It reduces the focus of communion to behavioral avoidance rather than advancing its fruits.

Perhaps this yet another reason why Jesus shifts the core of teaching away from the Ten Commandments and other "thou shalt nots" and to the commands for love, mercy, and justice.

Ultimately, this is how God engages in communion with us!

Erika Baker said...


If the covenant of the communion of marriage is to refrain from sexual relationships with other people, what then is it that makes the Anglican Communion a communion? What distinguishes it from an ecumenical communion of Anglicans, Lutheran Protestants and Methodists vis a vis Roman Catholics and Green Orthodox, or from a communion of Christians vis a vis a communion of Muslims, or even from a communion of believers vis a vis a communion of agnostics and atheists?

I don't support the idea of a Covenant, but following your logic it would be helpful to hear what you believe to be the glue that makes the communion a communion.
Liking or disliking asparagus cannot be the defining criterium because it occurs between married couples as well as among a loser group of friends.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Erika, for this helpful question. I think this puts a finger on the real dilemma: that the only "communion" of which the Christian is capable is the communion that comes through baptism -- and all the rest is gloss; that is, all the rest is about agreements over certain doctrines, recognition of ministers, even the dread word polity.

The strange thing is that this split ecclesiastical personality is evident in the Draft Covenant: it starts out acknowledging our unity in Christ, but then goes on to lay down implied conditions for how that communion is to be lived out in the nitty gritty of daily life.

So this is not unlike marriage, in a sense that there is both a bond and a covenant -- this is why I'm not utterly opposed to having a "covenant" or "constitution" for the Anglican Communion (though I'd be happiest if we merely put into writing what we've always held to be our limits.)

The schizoid nature of the church is such that Christians can on the one hand acknowledge a common baptism, yet continue to maintain their "political" divisions. Perhaps, ultimately, it is the word "communion" that is being misused when we talk of the Anglican Communion --- our "communion" is univeral, but what makes us "Anglican" involves the particularities. What those particularities consist of has operated by a seat of the pants modality for the last two centuries or so -- and I think it was sufficient; but recent strains have caused some to want to see them set down in an agreeable form. But I would have to see the contract before I sign it! As I've suggested, the Saint Andrew's Draft, minus paragraph 3.2.5, would not be unacceptable even if imperfect.

Marshall Scott said...

All well put, Tobias; and it leaves me with a certain sense of sadness.

The sadness is because I think here we confront a significant cultural difference, one that is skewing our conversation - creating something for us not unlike the translational difficulties that led to translating ousios as substantia.

I came to that as I turned Windsor's statement around for consideration: to what extent is autonomy the limit to communion? For in much of the world autonomy is the limit, if not of communion, then of community. As the Japanese proverb goes, "The nail that stands up gets hammered down." So, I fear that our Anglican siblings might well see autonomy as the limit of community, and so see communion as requiring real limits to autonomy.

I think it is possible to work that through, and even to come to some sort of agreement. However, to do that would require significant time and good will; and I think the extremists (and there are extremist voices on both sides, although I think more on one side than on the other) are burning up both at a great rate. I only pray we who wish to maintain both communion and community can continue to work together.

Anonymous said...

Oh Tobias. You and I are on the same wavelength. Wait to see my Church Times column this week. I hope all well.

Anonymous said...

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

Interesting analogy!

Now I hate the stuff, but from what I've heard asparagus does to one's urine (the smell), maybe it's not SUCH a strange ultimatum after all? (Especially if the wife coupled it with a "...if you EVER expect me to [deleted-deleted-deleted] EVER again!" ;-p)


Now, on a less puerile level: what everyone else said. Outstanding grasp of The Sitch, Tobias.

If I may suggest another analogy? (or is it a metaphor? I can never keep those two straight!)

Back when I was writing my Master's thesis, on the Brouhaha re Hyun Kyung Chun's Keynote address at the 1991 WCC Assembly, I put it thusly: "When one hand reaches for a second, a third may pull away". In that context, it was about how (via HKC's address) efforts at interfaith relations, were causing intra-Christian disunity (notably at that time, w/ the Eastern Orthodox).

Ergo, we may see it as the efforts to extend "communion" (in this case, the Order of Bishops) to another group of people (LGBTs, in the person of +GR), has caused a third party (anti-gay Anglicans, in the persons of their GAFCON-goin' hierarchs) to pull away.

Lord have mercy!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Marshall, and Giles. (I look fwd to seeing the Church Times article! Probably via TA's "weekend comments" section...)

Interesting insight, JCF, on the difficulty of balance in a multiple partnership. This is, in fact, one of the base arguments against plural marriage: it is so much more difficult to maintain balance; some might say impossible. And so it does raise interesting questions in regard to a communion with about 40 members, who are not evenly divided into two opposing camps, but rather form a continuum of opinions on a number of issues. This is why it will only work if people are willing to forgo insistence that all do what each insists on -- and instead tolerate (or even protest) but whatever the opinion remain in communion "for better for worse."

Paul (A.) said...

I always had thought from first reading the Windsor Report that its signal weakness was defining "autonomous" as meaning "not autonomous". I seem to recall that the WR authors derived this from the Virginia Report, but I can't check that because it seems to have disappeared from the Anglican Communion website.

Anonymous said...

Paula, you're right about "autonomous" and (so far as my memory serves) about its first croppingt up in the Virginia report: I recall being sufficiently startled by the usage that I saved a copy (not, unfortunately, on the computer from which I am writing). I suspect the word came into the VA report from a British context, and that it reflects another of those "divided by a common language" issues. When I was in school here in the US, we were taught to see "autonomous" in all those old Soviet governmental units as ironic "newspeak": but I think the UK broadly took the new sense and dropped the (to me) original one. There's no question, as I have illustrated here in the past, that 1950's Americans who called PECUSA "autonomous" meant it in the strong sense, not the Windsor report sense.

Anonymous said...

Paul (A.)--

Apologies for the conversion to Paula--I have made an appointment with my optometrist.

Though the Virginia Report lies behind it, I think the key document is Norman Doe, "Communion and Autonomy in Anglicanism: Nature and Maintenance," which is still up on the web at:


Doe's discussion of autonomy, beginning on p. 24, focuses on the national law sense of subordinate bodies which have been granted "autonomy," and (for no discernible reason) cites but rejects the international law sense of autonomy (the sense which I take to be the general one in the US). Here is a key quotation (without the footnotes): "An autonomous (or autonomic) body is one which is selfgoverning.
<247> Autonomy may also be contrasted with: independence, <248> federation, <249>
association, <250> sovereignty, <251> or autocephaly (in Orthodox tradition). <252>"

Doe is a significant figure in Anglican Canon Law (http://www.law.cf.ac.uk/contactsandpeople/Doe), but I can't help thinking that in this case he is (a) wrong as a matter of fact, i.e., not every autonomous province of the AC means by "autonomous" what he thinks they all mean and (b) dangerous, in that his misinterpretation has been so widely accepted that is at the point of subverting the historical understanding of Anglicanism, at least as that understanding has existed in this country.