In the most recent instalment of the Living Church's series of pro-Covenant articles, Bishop Victoria Matthews, of Christchurch, New Zealand, speaks about the need for improved communication among the Churches of the Anglican Communion. Global communication, says Bishop Matthews, has changed the way in which the Anglican Communion is able to operate, and that communication is not always used effectively, as Churches from different cultural contexts fail to hear each other. What's needed is a commitment to effective communication and a protocol for that communication. Bishop Matthews raises the three-tikanga nature of her own Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, which requires “very careful rules” about how the three groups relate to each other.
Wouldn't it be wonderful, suggests Bishop Matthews, if we could all commit to communicating with each other, and maintaining relationships as in the example of the New Testament, where we find Paul greeting the saints by name in his letters? “What if the requirement of the Covenant actually enforced listening and being in relationship?” she asks. In fact, asserts Bishop Matthews, “Section 4 of the Covenant exists precisely to ensure the kind of listening, communication, and relationship that is presently missing in the Anglican Communion.” (italics in original)
Yes, what if?
Bishop Matthews paints a very hopeful picture of commitment to relationships through thick and thin, and of finding ways to communicate effectively across our cultural divides. And I think that she is quite correct to say that these elements are essential to finding a way forward for the Anglican Communion. But I wish that she would take the time to demonstrate where she sees these elements in the proposed Anglican Covenant, particularly Section 4!
In fact, Section 4 does not exist to “enforce listening and being in relationship” at all! It exists to adjudicate disputes, producing winners and losers. And if it enforces anything, it does so by the threat of impairment or termination of relationships (relational consequences), which is surely the antithesis of “enforcing being in relationship.” Listening and dialogue and indaba are all wonderful things, but the proposed Covenant is in fact not designed to generate any of them, let alone enforce participation. It's about deciding who's right and who's wrong; choosing who wins and who loses; and coercing the loser to capitulate or face marginalisation or expulsion.
It is true that the Anglican Communion is in the midst of a very divisive conflict. But conflict has been a feature of the Church since the first century. For alongside his laudable greetings of the saints, Paul himself engaged in conflict, even using language that would make some modern bloggers blush.
And as to the Covenant, Bishop Matthews' article, like so many others in the series, leaves me feeling that she has treated it not as a text to be analysed, but as a screen on which to project her most fervent hopes for the strengthening of the Anglican Communion.
But the proposed Covenant is not simply a screen; it is a legal document, a binding treaty. And ultimately its value will depend not on our most optimistic hopes for the Anglican Communion, but on the use of its protocols to adjudicate disputes. If even its most ardent supporters are either unwilling or unable to show us how the Covenant is supposed to help address the very real conflict in the Anglican Communion, then why and on what basis should anyone vote to adopt this treaty?
Laudable though I find Bishop Matthews' hopes and vision for the Anglican Communion, I do not see them in the proposed Anglican Covenant. Perhaps I am not using the correct projector. I continue to wait for someone to mount a convincing argument, with reference to the actual Covenant text before us, as to how it represents an improvement on the status quo, or indeed how it will not exacerbate the conflict.