May 4, 2011

Unanswered Questions (and the Covenant)

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones."
Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"
"True Humility" by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 1895. [via Wikipedia]

Alan Perry, in his usual wise and witty way, has taken a look at the suggestion that the proposed Anglican Covenant is, as “the late Douglas Adams” said of planet Earth, “mostly harmless.” I confess that I have myself been somewhat of that mind, though it now appears to me that rather than “mostly harmless” it would be better to describe the Covenant as “mostly useless” and “possibly harmful” — depending. Depending on what I will get to in a moment.

But first of all let me repeat something I have said about the Covenant for some time: if ever there was a Curate’s Egg, this is one. A few parts of it are passably good, but even the best bits seem to be a bit underdone — or perhaps, given the long stretch of committee editing, overdone.

Further, the Covenant as a whole does not appear to answer some very pertinent questions — which anything purporting to be a roadmap for the future of Anglicanism really ought to have answered. This is a map with uncomfortably large portions still labeled Terra Incognita — if not, “Here be dragons.” And the primary unanswered questions have to be, “What is the Anglican Communion exactly?” and “How does the Covenant relate to that Communion?”

The problems begin right in the Preamble with “We, as Churches of the Anglican Communion...” This is the sort of language one finds emerging from a broadly representative Council or Convention, introducing a conclusion to which a gathered body has come; not from a select committee cobbling together a text submitted to various rounds of “feedback” and then submitted to the “We” for approbation. In other words, from the very beginning this document seeks to put words in the mouths of those who have not yet signed it. Worse than that, it presumes an agreeable “We” when in fact it is now abundantly clear that a significant number of the first person plural have no interest in adopting the thing at all.

I have noted before the strangeness of a text purporting to be for “We” of the Anglican Communion which assures that failure to sign, or withdrawal after signing [4.3.1], need not indicate a church is not part of the Communion (though “recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion” [4.2.1]). Moreover, the document unhelpfully states that other non-Anglican Communion churches might be invited to adopt the Covenant, which would not in itself bring with it “any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion.” This is one of the reasons I say the Covenant fails clearly to define what it means to be Anglican. Though it does quote the standard definition at 4.1.1, it seems to be both an afterthought and discordant with the rest of Section Four. The Anglican Communion has, like England itself, survived without a written constitution to this day, and the Covenant is not a clarifying step forward, but a source of further confusion, and perhaps division. Since the communion already exists, will this document “enable” it or disable it?

However, taking that traditional definition in hand, it seems to me it can be said that the reality of the Anglican Communion has about it aspects historical, confessional, and relational. The historical is mercifully beyond our power to alter, though it can be, and has been, spun in a dozen different directions from the very beginning. Suffice it to say that the Anglican Communion is not and was not the result of a definitive constitutional plan, but is an outgrowth of the colonial and missionary work primarily of the Church of England, and later and to a lesser extent, the Episcopal Church in the United States. That much is, I think, factual beyond dispute.

The extent to which the Anglican Communion is confessional is a matter of greater debate. The Articles of Religion were definitely framed with an eye to setting doctrinal boundaries, and were adopted as such by the various historical heirs of the Church of England. The fact that they have fallen to desuetude down through the years can hardly be contested, but it is absurd to claim that the churches of the Anglican Communion do not have some minimal doctrinal positions in common that distinguish them from other streams of the Christian tradition. “Confessional” may well be too strong a word to describe our present state, or even the rather cluttered yet sadly patchy tapestry offered by the Covenant, but Anglicans do have theological and ecclesiastical opinions not shared by other traditions, a few in direct opposition to some of those other traditions, and which distinguish Anglicans from them.

In the long run, the Anglican Communion is primarily relational — given the history and doctrinal traditions, it is ultimately made up of those who wish to be part of it, whether through the “accidents” of history, or the late-coming “Instruments of Communion” or simply on the basis of “showing up” and taking part in bilateral and multilateral mission and ministry down through the years. And this is where the proposed Anglican Covenant opens the door for the greatest possible harm: for it will use communion, or the withholding of communion, as its primary disciplinary tool, under the chillingly forbidding phrase, “relational consequences.” It will ironically bring about the very thing it was supposedly designed to prevent: division in the communion.

You will note above that I referred to “possible harm” and alluded to dependencies. In the end, the Covenant will be harmful only to the extent that it is employed in a disciplinary way, as destructive to the relationships of the communion — which is to say, of communion itself. If the severance or diminution of communion (though I’m not sure what partial communion could possibly be!) is the only way to discipline those who are creating tension in the communion, then it seems to me better not to introduce a mechanism that could produce such a result.

On the other hand, since only those who adopt the Covenant have any chance to help guide it in a productive, rather than a destructive, direction; and further, since at this point among the most vocally opposed to it are those who also most wished to employ it in this surgical fashion, this may present a reason for those who really do want to encourage the communion to stay together in spite of disagreements — at least among those who wish to self-select togetherness over institutionalized schism — to adopt the Covenant with the understanding that Section Four shall never be appealed to or employed, and perhaps to move for its amendment or removal.

Ultimately, it depends... Like so much of life, it depends on who shows up. Like any party, it is the guests who will make it a success or doom it to failure.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said... adopt the Covenant with the understanding that Section Four shall never be appealed to or employed, and perhaps to move for its amendment or removal.

Tobias, how would a church do that? With a signing statement? Perhaps not all of the signatories will understand or agree that Section Four will never be used. It seems to me we'd be playing a game of, "I dare you."

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, you note that "but Anglicans do have theological and ecclesiastical opinions not shared by other traditions, a few in direct opposition to some of those other traditions, and which distinguish Anglicans from them." I agree; and have long been saddened by the oft-quoted statement of the Archbishop of Canterbury - was it Fisher? - who said that we did not have a distinctive perspective, but only the shared tenets of the church Catholic (is this sort of a latter-day Vincentian Canon?).

I am one who believes that first and foremost we have a distinctive method, reflecting both Hooker and Jewel. Yes, we share the Scriptures and the history; but it is our method that has led to our distinctive perspective (as I would argue about other perspectives: we share the basics, and differ on our approaches).

I would argue that one distinction within the Communion - one not addressed at all in the Covenant draft - is between those focused on a specific content (whether Scriptural literal-lite or quasi-Roman), and those focused on method.

NB: my verification is "chori" - bringing to my mind the various Greek choroi, simultaneously performing, but not necessarily in harmony.

Tim said...

Interesting points, and I probably agree.

There needs to be a second half to the sentence "we do without it and...".

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, there are not, I think, guarantees in this, but by being part of the game (including continued ability to work within the system if matters do arise through the provisions of Section 4) along with other provinces who have already indicated their dislike of Section 4, we stand at least a chance at avoiding the downside of its implementation. The question becomes, "What are the risks of not signing?" If the Covenant becomes the locus for "those who want to get along" it is better to be in it than out of it, I think -- or at least less risky. If nothing worse can happen in signing the Covenant than can happen without signing the Covenenat -- and as I've said before no real new powers are conferred by the document, only new processes of recommendation -- then it seems the risk of not signing is greater, as it removes the capacity to influence the course of events for good.

Marshall, this is why I've always liked the phrase "the Anglican Way."

Tim, thanks. I don't find your reference... but then, I'm in some haste this morning!

Erika Baker said...

I agree that those who want to sign the Covenant are those who wish to stay together and those who want to use it as an instrument for punishment do not seem to want to sign it.

But that in itself cannot be sufficient reason to adopt the Covenant, because it is not merely a potential tool to deal with the present conflict but once in place, it can be used in any future conflict.

There is nothing to suggest that we couldn't find ourselves in a future debate just as fierce and passionate as the present one, in which some of the then 1st tier Communion members would not hesitate to use the Covenant for punishment.

The possibility of it alone, enshrined in a legal document, is enough to make me believe that it is harmful.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, while that is true, there is as I say no new power granted in the Covenant -- everything is referred to the "Instruments" for action, and they only have the powers they have now. If the "punishment" is not being part of the Communion, or in a diminished status, there is just as much, if not more, "risk" for those who do not sign. If we do not want to see the Covenant used punitively, then we should be part of it together with those who feel the same way.

This is to say nothing about the real risks not signing might bring to the current and future lawsuits.

Finally, I think too many "liberals" are stuck in the "it's all about us" mode. I refuse to accept that TEC did anything wrong, and I think it might well be the Covenant could be a tool for spreading the Gospel as we understand it. I refuse to accept the false judgment that we have rebelled against either the "mind of the communion" or Scripture, tradition and reason in what we have done. It is important that we keep pressing back against those false claims.

Erika Baker said...

On TA you also said the Covenant was a Curate's egg. So it strikes me that your support for it here is more a kind of tactical voting than a real love for the thing itself.

The strange thing is that I suspect the Covenant will eventually be voted through because all those who would really rather not have it nevertheless believe that it's tactically better to join it than to be on the outside.

Unintended consequences?

June Butler said...

I love the cartoon, and I may change my reference from daft covenant to Curate's Egg.

If the Curate's Egg is rotten, then no part of it is good, despite the curate's polite words.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Oh, yes, Erika. I thought it was clear that I think the Covenant is not a very good article. Whether signing on is a tactical decision or not is another question. I see it more as strategic, that is, long range.

When it comes to consequences, I have to confess I see the possible (and likely) consequences of not signing as more deleterious than those of signing. The fuel that would give to the lawsuits is very real indeed. In fact, I don't see what if any negative consequences arise from signing that don't also have an equal chance of coming to play even if we don't sign, and some consequences that are ruled out if we do sign. I'm applying the strategic thinking of game theory here, and I'd welcome elaboration of the consequences of signing, if any, that don't already stand as possibilities. FWIW I don't see it as "inside/outside" so much as "engaged/disengaged."

In the long run I think it may be a case of the lesser of two evils in a US presidential election. Some take what they think is the moral high ground of not voting for either candidate; but ultimately someone is elected and that is the reality with which we all then have to live.

I think you are right that the Covenant will be adopted but with little enthusiasm. This is, I think, the best (though not good in itself) we can expect, and then we could get on with the real work of the Communion.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Quite true, Mimi.

The title of the Cartoon, btw, is "True Humility." Personally I see it as an example of good strategic political thinking. See my comment above to Erika.

June Butler said...

How does "Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no', 'no'", fit into your strategy, Tobias?

I admit I'm thinking more of myself, if I had a vote. If I voted "yes", my insides would be screaming, "Noooo! No Curate's Egg!" I concede that others might be more at ease with a "yes" vote.

Erika Baker said...

Yes, ultimately a President will be elected because the vote is for one of two possible candidates.

But if the vote is either for or against the adoption of something, and if the majority does not want to adopt it but votes in favour simply because they fear that everyone else will, the result is definitely one of unintended consequences.

At what point do tactical voters shoot themselves in the foot?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, I'm perfectly happy, when the time comes, to let my Yes be Yes or my No, No. That time will come next summer. In fact the Rules of the House of Deputies require that every deputy must vote. There is no abstention. So the time will come for a vote. I have not yet made up my mind, and I cannot regard the Covenant as a kind of actus purus divorced from the political and real context in which it exists -- as a document designed to outline various principles. As I have pointed out on a number of occasions, in its present draft it does not actually institute any new powers, but does outline some procedures. Frankly, many of the critiques raised against it are fantastic: it does not give any new powers to the Standing Committee, it does not disenfranchise the laity (any more than their current participation is already limited), it does not restrict the use of Reason in coming to decisions, etc. Most of the opposition to the covenant revolves around fears of possible consequences, or an idea that a "covenant" is intrinsically un-Anglican (a notion I've demonstrated as false above with reference to the Articles of Religion). I am also warning that the consequences of not signing will very likely be much worse -- and at least one of them is definite: an inability to function as part of the Standing Committee on the implementation of the Covenant itself. (4.2.8)

I refuse to go to the back of the bus. I will not walk apart or wash my hands of the whole affair.

Erika, at the present time I am, along with many others, weighing the advantages and disadvantages to adoption vs rejection. As is I think apparent to all, the main issue at this point is not the Covenant itself. One can critique it as much as one likes, but it is what it is, and we cannot make it become what we might like it to be if we abdicate from the discussion. It is not about consequences, but participation. I am also enough of a realist to say that while I wish the Covenant were different than it is in many respects (especially Section 4), the church is and always has been fraught with imperfections, and that is not likely to change. Unless we work to change it -- and at this point that means participation.

Perhaps I should engage in the old Jesuit exercise of spelling out all of the pros and contras of adopting the Covenant or not. I especially invite those opposed to the Covenant to spell out the advantages and disadvantages of not signing, as they urge the No vote.

Erika Baker said...

I think the point I'm trying to make, clearly quite poorly, is that there seems to be a majority of people against the Covenant.
I suppose it depends on how many yes votes it takes for it to be adopted and not just dropped.
2 Provinces, 3, 4?

You are assuming that there will be something to participate in, and if that should be the case, then I fully agree with you that participation is necessary.

I just wonder whether, if all those who didn't really want the Covenant voted No, the actual number of genuine supporters would be so small that the whole project would come to an end before it started.
Whereas if all those who believe it's safer to be in than out vote in favour, it's bound to come into force.

Am I misunderstanding this? Would the Covenant become a reality even with only a handful of signatories?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

It seems to me, Erika, that the starting premise is not secure. There appear to me to be a very vocal minority opposed to the Covenant. That minority consists, ironically enough, of parts of the Global South who think the Covenant too weak, and a number of progressives who think it too strong. To read the hype prior to the recent General Synod, one would think the Cov was doomed to die -- yet the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of passing it along to the Dioceses for approval. My English contacts tell me that defeat by a majority of dioceses is very, very unlikely. Of course, that's England -- yet other Provinces such as Mexico have already approved it, and only a few of the GS have said "No."

If you are correct and it ends up that very few provinces join in the Covenant, I still think I would rather be among those expressing willingness to participate than to stand idly by. If we want to make the Covenant a better thing -- and while still a terribly conflicted document (and I have, after all, been one of its more vocal critics) the successive drafts have shown marked improvement and I see no reason that improvement cannot continue along the same trajectory. At this point one major edit (delete Section 4) and a few minor ones would leave us with what I think could be a very helpful document, or at least not a harmful one. As it stands the help or harm will be determined by those who are part of it.

I am, as you say, perhaps incorrectly presuming a fairly wide adoption -- and I think we ought to be part of it, and you agree that such participation would be necessary in that case. As the TEC final decision need not be made prior to summer 2012, I think it is prudent to continue to monitor the adoption process.

I don't just think it is "safer" to be in; I think it is the more Christlike way of participation and engagement, over against walking apart or sitting quietly in the back of the bus. I refuse to accept the GS-pushed line that TEC has "erred" and ought to repent. If it comes into "force" -- I employ the scare quotes to indicate that the document invokes or bestows no new powers, but only structures recommendations (and yes, I am well aware of how recommendations become norms and then demands, a la Lambeth 1.10! and that is a concern in and of itself, and one not pushed back on often enough) -- it will not just be "safer" to be part of it, but I think morally better, and offer an opportunity for further development and amendment in a more positive direction.

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, I can follow your logic, although I'm not sure I agree with you. And like you I'll be on the floor with responsibility to vote.

That said, I do see one additional thought. We do not have only one opportunity to vote on the Covenant. We can vote not to adopt in 2012 and reconsider in 2015. We can make a partial statement, and begin living "as if" - kind of like delaying filing a tax return, but paying a requisite percentage in good faith - and reconsider on 2015. It is true we aren't necessarily "at the table" until we've adopted it (although, if I recall correctly there is also an "in process" provision); but it is also true that we can opt into the Covenant at any General Convention.

Is waiting wise? I'm not sure. It would give us more information, at least about the number of national/regional churches that do sign on. We would indeed if the early adopters are anxious to amend the text in ways harmful to us (although I wouldn't expect it, since so far Uganda, Nigeria, and others say they can't sign). We would also hear more about how the Instruments as they exist would respond to both churches that adopt and churches that do not. We could be considering our relationship with a new Canterbury. Conceivably, we could coordinate adoption in 2018 with Lambeth.

Again, I don't assert that delaying is wise. I only note that it is possible.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Marshall, that is a very sound suggestion. A "we are still considering" vote rather than an outright rejection would perhaps be the most prudent decision, and it is definitely a possible one.

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

I, too, am intrigued by Marshall's suggestion. While we are already deep into the realm of unintended consequences (my late grandmother might call them "facts of life") two things are pretty clear to me when it comes to the proposed covenant:

1. As a political document, it is being read very differently in different provinces of the Communion depending upon their local political circumstances. Myanmar and Zimbabwe were raised as two striking examples in a recent conversation the deputations of California engaged with Dr. Dan Joslyn-Siematowski on the document. I'll refrain from drawing any conclusions from that here, except to wonder aloud if our assumptions about the ability to significantly alter the framework should we adopt is colored by our experience of living in an open democratic republic.

2. I also believe and hope General Convention and our leadership will offer the Communion a statement of reason for whatever vote we end up with in 2012. I agree with you, dear Tobias, that the assumption that it "is all about us" is an impoverished perspective to bring to bear (and it ironically plays into the hands of our most vociferous detractors); it will be no better to adopt this posture at General Convention. Our "yes," "no," or "not yet," can't stand naked in a relational context.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

R., could you say more on your point (1)? My point is not that we will be able to alter the document's framework, but only that our lack of participation ensures an inability to alter the document. Being part of the conversation opens only another possibility, not a certainty; but rejection closes off that possibility, and leads to certain incapacity. This is your "process" guy speaking, of course. Some paths lead to new possibilities, other paths close those possibilities off. If one attends the dance, one may not get the partner one likes, but if one refuses to attend not only will one not get the partner one likes, but no partner at all.

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

I was thinking most specifically of the floated suggestion in this thread that we might, should we sign on, be able to jettison section 4. When Dr. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski (I misspelled his name in my previous comment) raised the question of the Province of Myanmar in his presentation the other week, the suggestion was their living under isolated authoritarian rule made the proposed covenant appear to them a strong ecclesiastical/political counterpoint to their circumstances. It was my impression from that all-to-brief part of the conversation that to sign on was a counter-cultural (or even counter-political) act that sent a clear message in their context for mission. When pressed by one deputy how important section 4 might be in those circumstances, the response was probably it would be very important. That marked difference of experience with the covenant nuances, if it doesn't alter the calculus.

In the meeting, the question was raised about what we mean by justice, and justice for whom, and what happens when justice for one group in the Communion collides with justice for another. To that question, there are no easy answers, except that it leads me back to the analogy of a values-conflicted couple contemplating marriage. In my experience, marriage can frequently magnify or exacerbate such points of conflict rather than resolve them. In this sense, could signing on to the covenant yoke us to one another in a way that leads to an even greater wreck? That's one of my ongoing concerns.

In any case there is a clear need to continue to engage Myanmar and other provinces in similar circumstances in a much more extensive conversation for understanding. Whether the covenant would hinder or help that process is harder to say.

To your point about process, I, like you, am a process guy. I deign to point out, however, somewhat along Marshall's line, that even a clear "no" at General Convention 2012 does not forestall the possibility of our signing on later. The provinces that do adopt may be inclined to make changes to the Covenant that might make it more palatable in future. (Or, I concede, as you point out, they may make it less so. But we are back into the murky realm of prognostication.) My point is that sitting out of the dance at this juncture doesn't necessarily mean we might not step onto the floor later in the evening.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, R. That helps me understand a bit.

My concern at this point is that there is a difference between "No" and "We are still considering." Much will depend on how the resolution(s) that will come before GC are worded. I'm sure we will see everything from a definitive No to a definitive Yes and much in between. Ir this point I would be reluctant to go with a definitive No, as I think that would be taken as more of a refusal to attend than simply sitting out a dance. Nothing in the Covenant itself suggests that there is only one chance to sign on, and provision exists to withdraw. But once one has said No that definitely excludes one from participation in any further discussion of amendment or implementation. (4.2,8 and 4.4.2). That is my concern.

June Butler said...

I wouldn't mind if GC2012 decided to sit out the dance and reconsider the Curate's Egg at GC2015.

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Tobias, I think I am in full agreement with you on your last comment. Back to my earlier point, I think any "No," would or will warrant significant explanation to the wider Communion-- much more than a "Yes" would in any case. We can't simply legislate and be done with it.

In the Diocese of California in our deputation's summary of feedback from the conversations we held, we were particularly mindful of this point, and endeavored to reflect that in our statement.