March 1, 2011

The Covenant as Fruitcake

I was at a meeting of my diocese's Covenant Task Force last week. We are working on educational resources to inform the parishes and members about the proposed Anglican Covenant. The topic of other covenants came up, especially the Lambeth Quad and the one based on the Marks of Mission. I noted that they are both there in the proposed draft, and the following image occurred to me:

The elements of the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral and the Marks of Mission, and bits of Scripture and dollops of assorted Anglican Premises have been folded into the batter of the Anglican Communion Covenant like so many raisins, candied citrons, cherries, and whatever those semi-gelatinous green things are, go to form part of the conglomerate of Fruitcake.

It has long been observed that few people actually eat Fruitcake, and yet this does not prevent its seasonal appearance as a "gift-giving opportunity." Someone once wrote that his family used fruitcakes towards building a fallout shelter in the basement. (Remember fallout shelters?) So people keep giving them to each other, in spite of not actually eating them. And it would be considered rude to refuse one, or, once the habit has commenced and taken root, suddenly to stop giving them. They serve as tokens of affection or respect, rather than as food.

It strikes me that the Covenant has become a Fruitcake. We are being urged to adopt it and accept it, in spite of the fact that it offers little in the way of novelty towards solving any of the current or possible future woes of the Communion. It confers no powers on any bodies or individuals they don't already have, though it lays out patterns by which recommendations can be made to those bodies or individuals that might lead them to take actions they could well take without the recommendations. It imposes no mandatory restraint on anyone beyond a call to self-restraint, with the possible consequence of changes in relationships -- which changes, some of real consequence, also have happened and could happen without the Covenant being adopted.

In short, the Covenant is a Fruitcake: we can smile nicely and say thank you, and put it in the cellar with all the other fruitcakes (many a well-meaning scheme or resolution of General Convention or Lambeth or the United Nations); we can refuse it with an equally polite smile, and watch faces fall and lips quiver at this implicit rejection of affection. For Fruitcake it is: a token of habitual affection; and little more.

I continue to be torn between these options, and am grateful for the time remaining before the virtual postal worker struggles up the walk with the burden of the 6-lb. confection, and General Convention is forced to say either, "Why, how nice!" or "Return to Sender" or something in between.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, I think there is another take, based on your metaphor. It has been common, at least in some parts of the country, for fruitcake to be the holiday reminder of choice of commercial relationships - gifts, for example, from a merchant to customers of particular note, who do more than occasional business; or from a supervisor to those under supervision. Other commodities may have displaced the fruitcake from that role; but this is a tradition I remember well for much of my life.

Like you, I am these days ambivalent (and, yes, that means right now. I may well have been more convicted in earlier writings.) I fear that this may be seen as a gift by the sender, and even of a gift that suggests the receiver is valued; but that the relationship and the value are less about affection and more about obligation. The giver feels obligated to give, but the obligation is structural, and not emotional or, really, relational in a functional sense. The receiver feels obligated to accept, not out of affection, or even of gratitude, so much as in recognition that the receiver needs the giver or the giver's good will, and will have some loss, if not outright suffering, if that is lost.

What makes the Covenant so difficult to be decisive about is this ambiguity about the actual relationship. There are those who see the Covenant not as a gift but as a standard and requirement. Few who see it that way really want to give it (because they'd just as soon be rid of the receiver); and fewer who see it that way want to receive it (both because the question the standard, and the sense of imposition).

There are those who see the Covenant as a gift, because they see the relationships as requiring structure. In that case, it is not a gift given in affection or received in gratitude, but a symbol of necessity and authority - authority expressed by the giver and accepted by the receiver.

To see it as a gift freely given in love and freely received in affection is to see the relationships as, well, familial and collegial. In that case we would usually argue that "it's the thought that counts;" but in that case, as you have asked yourself, is the gift really necessary? Is the relationship subject to serious damage depending on the giving or withholding, the receiving or rejecting, of the gift? If it is, then it doesn't sound like love.

We might choose to accept a gift, even if the relationship is not relational but structural, commercial; but it's hard to really make a choice when we're not sure of the meaning of the gift.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Marshall, you've summed up what I was getting at very nicely. There is something "formal" about Fruitcakes. You don't given them to really close friends or family. It's the "I have no idea what they like" place-holder for a gift that otherwise requires greater knowledge of the recipient. Also, there's that feeling of obligation that it creates ("They gave us one, so we must find something for them!")

All of this leads to my feelings of ambivalence, and that something has been lost that may be past recovery by this means.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I could also add that Fruitcake is about the farthest gift possible from "the one you make yourself." Unless you are Truman Capote's crazy aunt!

Brother David said...

We actually eat fruitcake here in Mexico. That must be why our province signed on!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I have to confess that I do actually eat fruitcake -- both the American kind with the visible fruit, and the West Indian "black cake" that is more of a uniform consistency. It is the difference between concrete and cement!

Daniel Weir said...

I do like fruitcake - and because no one else in the family does, the one we receive from a friend is all mine! That gift is a sign of affection, the giver knows that I like fruitcake. However, I see little indication that there is much affection in the giving of the covenant. The objections from GAFCON, e.g., sound very much like a compliant that we weren't going to be thrashed hard and long enough.
I can do without this particular fruitcake. The one that I've been enjoying bit by bit since Christmas is more than good enough.

Paul said...

I think your point is a good one - although my ex makes fruitcake from his great-grandmother's recipe and it is delicious. I love it, look forward to it, savor and cherish it. Only family and very close friends get some. It bears no serious resemblance to the commercial ones, of course.

With commercial fruitcakes all you write is true.

Marshall Scott said...

Actually, my mother-in-law makes fruitcake. I have never been a fan of fruitcake, having usually experienced creations that would have been put to better use building a retaining wall. However, years ago when I was a new son-in-law, I told her that hers was "as good as any I have ever had." I have been receiving them ever since. Was it Dorothy Parker who said, "No good deed goes unpunished?"

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I suspected this post might bring the Fruitcake-Lovers out of the closet!

Lionel Deimel said...

Tobias, given that you seem to think the covenant either innocuous or dangerous, why should we not be prudent and reject it? Hardly anyone seems to find anything positive in it.

Just for the record, I grew up fond of a fruitcake my family used to make, though, arguably, it was not a cake at all. It was called icebox fruitcake and was not baked but chilled in the refrigerator. It contained the usual fruits and nuts but had a base of crushed graham crackers. It also used some odd ingredients such as sweet pickle juice. Believe it or not, it was yummy, but I haven’t had it in years.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Lionel, I'm not sure I see the Covenant as dangerous. I know that you and others do, but I have yet to get a firm grasp on the danger you discern. (It may be more "dangerous" in England due to the Establishment. So I grasp some of the C of E concern.)

At this point I think it is rejection that may be dangerous. How? 1) It will appear, however we spin it, that TEC is not interested in being part of the continuing conversation. 2) It will give further ammunition to ACNA and its siblings to claim rightful succession as the True Anglicans -- and this may eventually have legal consequences in Pittsburgh, Virginia, and elsewhere. 3) Along similar lines, it may lead to further dissolution of internal TEC discipline and good order for those who see "being Anglican" is more important that "being Episcopalian." 4) If further amendment of the document is desired, it is clear that only signatories have a voice in such ammendment. If we want to be at that table, and perhaps move towards a better Covenant, that is the way forward. 5) Much will depend on who signs on. Failing to stake a claim as part of the process leaves us out of the process.

My point in this reflection is to suggest that the Covenant has become a Token, and its rejection or acceptance will say and do more than it actually does itself.

The Icebox Fruitcake actually sounds quite good... including the pickle juice!

Lionel Deimel said...


As usual, I find your words thoughtful and thought-provoking. I am not ready to offer a thorough response to your last comment, but I do wish to respond to one of your remarks.

I think it likely that adopting the Covenant would increase, not decrease, the threat represented by ACNA. Now, The Episcopal Church can argue credibly that it is independent and that the views of overseas churches have no bearing on property disputes in which our church may be involved. By adopting the Covenant, The Episcopal Church would be admitting to a higher authority that could declare a preference for ACNA—a result of the imposition of “relational consequences,” for example—over our own church.

If this doesn’t make adopting the Covenant “dangerous,” then I don’t know what does.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Lionel, thanks for the response. I don't understand the scenario you outline, however, for one reason: If we do not sign on, we may be seen as abdicating our place as "the Anglican Presence in the US" and the Covenant signers together with the "Instruments" might then feel justified in employing 4.1.5 to "invite" ACNA to sign on. Thus our signing on may be a preventative to such a vacuum being filled.

Signing the Covenant does not, it seems to me, recognize a higher authority than not signing on -- but it does indicate we are part of the Anglican "game" in support of the notion that ACNA is not just another "branch." (I'm thinking more Virginia than Pittsuburgh, here...)

So I'd say if there is "danger" here it lies more on the side of not signing, unless I'm missing something in your scenario.

Closed said...

The problem as I see it is not in the trading of fruitcake as token of affection but when it comes time that someone is asked to taste it or else. Different understandings about what is or will be done with the fruitcake come with the trading.

Lionel Deimel said...

About the only tangible benefit our church gets from the Anglican Communion is our exclusive franchise. It is clear that not even that is being respected anymore. Bring on ACNA. If a 21st-century church can’t compete with a medieval one, we deserve to wither and die.