28 November 2010

Salman Rushdie and the Anglican Covenant

In a recent interview on CBC radio, Salman Rushdie said that “All kinds of interest groups have come to define themselves by what they claim offends them, and to elevate their offendedness into almost an article of faith. And it seems to me that that’s a very slippery slope. Everything offends somebody.” He wasn’t actually talking about the Anglican Covenant, but he could have been.

(The whole interview is linked from here)

Robert Ombres, OP, once wrote rather famously that “Canon Law is applied ecclesiology.” You may argue that the actual connexion between ecclesiology and canon law is more tenuous than the theory would suggest. And I would agree. As Jan van de Snepscheut put it, “in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.” But even if there is a gap between ecclesiology and canon law, I would still suggest that Ombres provides a useful theory to work backward against. In that exercise we may begin to see how far apart are the theory and the application. In other words, if the Covenant is a species of Canon Law, then it is salutary to work backward and ask of the Covenant proposal what sort of underlying assumptions of the church it implies, if any.

It’s useful to ask, then, what does the Covenant on the table say about the Church? And is that really the kind of Church to which we aspire? I think it has a very pessimistic view of the Church, and not one that would attract me to join. Four years ago, I wrote that there was a real risk “that the Covenant will reflect the context of dispute more than the hope for a fruitful partnership in the future.” I think that fear has been amply borne out in the Covenant we are being asked to consider. It reflects the Communion at its worst. As Rushdie might put it, it raises offendedness to an article of faith for the Anglican Communion. But does it have to be so?

If we should have some kind of document to draw us together, and that is very much an open question on which I have yet to be convinced, then I should prefer something of a vision of what the Communion could be at its best, which would most explicitly not include either an infallible statement of faith nor punitive mechanisms to enforce that faith, nor mechanisms for conducting or even inviting inter-Provincial conflict.

Again, four years ago, I wrote:
“At its best, the Anglican Communion is a glorious project: a world-wide family of churches each of which seeks faithfully to incarnate the Gospel with attention both to its own particular context and to the wider Communion. In recent times, the Communion has not been at its best, marked by disagreement, mistrust and even open hostility. If an Anglican Covenant is to be adopted, it will be important to attend to the balance between setting forth the vision of the Communion at its best and enshrining  mechanisms to protect the Communion from itself at its worst. In the current climate, there is a very real danger that the latter could overshadow the former. ”

(My essay is available as a PDF on the Anglican Communion website here.)
A document that describes a vision of what the Anglican Communion could be, at its best, and calls us all to live into that vision, might be worthy of consideration. Instead we have a document that encodes the fears and offendedness that we find in the Anglican Communion at its worst, and assumes those to be part of the DNA of the Church.

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband....”

Not that the Church is that, not by a long-shot; but perhaps it might be revealed to be that in the eschaton. Hope is better than fear.

25 November 2010

To Covenant or not to Covenant? That is the question

Six years ago, the Windsor Commission proposed, in its Windsor Report, that a Covenant of some sort would be a useful instrument for the healing of the rifts in the Anglican Communion. To help people understand what was intended by this term “Covenant” a model Covenant was published as an appendix to the Report. Since then, the idea of a Covenant has been accepted either as a Good Thing, or at least an Inevitability, and any debate that I have seen has been generally focused on the details of what ought or ought not to be included in the Covenant.

What has been singularly missing in the discussion is either a convincing argument for the concept of a Covenant, or even much debate as to whether this is the only or even best option that ought to be considered. It is the only option on the table, but that does not mean that it is the only desirable option.

A covenant is a form of legal instrument, but it is not the only kind of legal instrument that might be available to help the Anglican Communion to move forward. What has been largely missing in the whole debate about the Covenant is the fundamental question of instrument choice.

Professor Les Pal has published a very helpful (and very accessible) paper on the topic of instrument choice in the civil realm called “There Ought To Be a Law!” (You can get a PDF copy here. Read it!) Pal notes that “most people confronted with objectionable behaviour will mumble some version of the phrase ‘there ought to be a law.’” And he says that “Justice officials and politicians often reach for a law because it is a primary instrument of government, and because it makes intuitive sense to influence behaviour and situations by making rules.” In other words, just as surgeons are wont to perform surgery, legislatures are wont to legislate. In the Anglican world, our Synods are our legislatures, and the Acts of Synod and Canons (and, in the Church of England, the Measures) are our legislation. But, warns Pal, “too often ... questions about instrument choice are not asked.” That is, legislators don’t tend to ask whether there are other possibilities than legislation to accomplish their goals. But Pal points to a range of possible options which ought to be considered.

Among Pal’s list of options for government are:
  • Static Response: Choosing to do nothing
  • Information
  • Expenditure
  • Taxation
  • Service Delivery / Organization of Government
  • Capacity and Institution Building
Obviously, some of these options are not applicable in the Church, and expenditure raises serious questions of the potential for a form of bribery. But I suggest that three of Pal’s areas of possible options are worth considering.

The first is Static Response. Pal says that this is not the same as a merely passive non-response. As he puts it “The idea that ‘there ought to be a law’ assumes that there must be a government response for every problem. But a rational approach to instrument choice should consider the option of deliberately doing nothing.” I wonder if the development of the Covenant has been in part motivated by a desire to be seen to be doing something? But should we not have considered the possibility that doing nothing (as a Communion) might have been a rational response to a crisis that has largely been manufactured?

Information is also an option. Since 1978 the Lambeth Conferences have repeatedly requested Provinces to study the question of human sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, using as wide as possible a range of resources. Some Provinces have taken this task on with great diligence. Others appear to have limited their resources to Leviticus. And perhaps others haven’t even gone that far. Information on what the Windsor Report helpfully describes as a presenting issue is widely available. Whether it is widely read is another matter. As I have written elsewhere, I wonder if the Lambeth Conferences of 1978, 1988, and 1998 intended that this study should be merely an academic exercise, of if they ever contemplated the possibility that, having done the study and come to certain conclusions, at least some Provinces in their particular contexts would act on those conclusions? The latter is one reading of what the Diocese of New Westminster, to name the diocese mentioned in the Windsor Report, has done. And they have made a significant effort to make available the fruits of their study and the processes by which they came to their conclusions. Using information to influence behaviour is a slow process, and often seen as a liberal response to a problem (any problem can be solved by education), and Pal notes that “Compared to law, the use of information is based on a voluntary response.” But, he goes on to say, “insofar as it changes norms and attitudes over time ... it may be more effective than coercion.” At the level of the Anglican Communion, what this might look like would be to commit to continue to meet and discuss contentious issues, even if we are not sure we will ever understand or agree with each other. As Winston Churchill put it, “better to jaw jaw than to war war.”

The third option that seems to be applicable to the development of the Anglican Communion is Pal’s last one: Capacity and Institution Building. This is based on the idea that developing the capacity of local or non-governmental organizations to deal effectively with their own concerns at their own levels will strengthen the whole of society (or, in our context, the Communion). It also recognizes the idea that, as Pal puts it, “those closest to the problem or situation are best suited to dealing with it ... (the notion of subsidiarity).” (I will pick up this idea in a later post on Provincial autonomy.) Part of the inter-Provincial and inter-diocesan partnerships that we are blessed to participate in has been about just this issue. In sharing our joys and sorrows, our struggles and successes, we learn from each other how to be more effective and committed in our mission in our different contexts, benefiting from the outside perspectives of Anglicans who come from different contexts but who are committed to helping to build up the whole Communion. The trouble with this strategy is that is requires autonomy. As Pal puts it, “capacity and institution-building implies some degree of autonomy for third parties, to the point that they may make mistakes....” but even mistakes “may increase capacity insofar as people learn from their mistakes.” And, of course, what constitutes a mistake, or whether the perception that a mistake has been made is itself mistaken, is a matter of debate.

These are some of the non-legislative options that ought to have been considered six years ago. Even in the realm of legislative action, there are the possible choices between formal legislation and quasi-legislation. In a very helpful essay on the latter, Professor Norman Doe distinguishes between the two in that formal legislation uses the power of coercion, whilst quasi-legislation (codes of practice, guidelines and so on) uses the power of persuasion. “Secular government employs formal law to coerce results, and quasi-legislation to persuade results.” (See Doe’s essay. “Ecclesiastical Quasi-Legislation” in Norman Doe, Mark Hill, Robert Ombres, eds., English Canon Law, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998, p. 93 at 94.) Some have suggested that the Covenant could be adopted without section 4, which would in effect convert it into a form of quasi-legislation by removing the coercive part.

The point of all of this is that there could be other options, but none has ever been proffered and no convincing case has ever been made that a Covenant - any Covenant - is the best way forward for the Communion. It has been simply accepted, or conceded, that the Covenant is not only the best option, it is the only option. Certainly it is the only option on the table, and we are presented with the Covenant as is, take it or leave it.

The question of instrument choice was simply bypassed in an effort to get to the most obvious solution to the real problems of the Communion. But this kind of short cut will not do. Even now, six years after the Windsor Report, and when Provinces are actively considering the adoption of the proposed Covenant as the only option, it is not too late to raise the questions of instrument choice. As Pal asks at the end of his essay, “Ought there to be a law?”

Ought there to be a Covenant?

23 November 2010

Maiden Post

It seems odd to compose a maiden blog post, but I suppose I must if I want to get this thing on the road. My aim with this blog is to have a forum to post what I hope will be items sufficiently interesting actually to be read by live humans and not just web-trolling robots.

Much of what I write will have to do with life as a Canadian Anglican, with emphasis on either element as appropriate to the post. Mainly, I have been stimulated to set up a blog because of my involvement with the No Anglican Covenant movement. I am deeply committed to the Anglican Communion, and it is this commitment that leads me to oppose the Covenant. I believe (and I am not alone in that belief) that the Covenant as proposed will not only not help to strengthen the Anglican Communion, but risks furthering the rifts in the Communion by weaponizing the relations among members that disagree on a variety of issues.

The question of the place of gays and lesbians in the Church, which is often raised as the litmus test or shibboleth or authenticity in current disputes in the Communion, is only a presenting issue. It's an important issue for the People of God, and a test of our embrace of the Gospel, but it is not the real issue that is faced by the Anglican Communion. The real issue is fundamentally power, and who, if anyone, should set the agenda for the various autonomous Provinces of the Communion. Provincial autonomy, in my view, must be protected, not simply to allow each Province to do whatever it wants, but to allow each Province to develop according to its own discernment of what it means to be an authentic Anglican Christian in its own context, its own time and place. Without Provincial autonomy, we are reduced to ecclesiastical colonialism, which helps no-one, and impairs the spread of the Gospel.

In addition to views about the Anglican Communion, I shall likely add my own biased spin about a variety of matters with relevance to modern society, Canadian or otherwise, and my own observations as a tourist and inhabitant of the twenty-first century.

If anything I mention here is of interest or of help in stimulating others to ponder their own place in the Universe, well and good. If anything is amiss, I hope for the grace to amend it. If anything is not helpful, please ignore it.