23 February 2011

Anglican Covenant: the Study Guide

Just in time for Lent, the Anglican Communion Office has issued a Study Guide to assist ordinary Anglicans around the world in coming to a clear understanding of the proposed Anglican Covenant. The idea seems to be that people will gather in groups for five sessions to read through the text together and, assisted by the Study Guide, understand what the Covenant is all about and what it will accomplish.

Each session is supposed to focus on one part of the proposed Covenant, beginning with the Introduction - which actually isn’t part of the Covenant at all, but is intended to provide an interpretive framework for it - and then moving through the four sections of the Covenant itself. A single question is provided for the study of each section. These are:

For each paragraph, read the Bible passages that are mentioned in the text, read the text and discuss it, and then ask ‘How does this paragraph help me/us understand the Christian faith as Anglicans have received it?’
Section 1:
Read each paragraph and discuss it. How is each of these affirmations and commitments lived out in your church?
Section 2:
Read each paragraph separately and discuss it. How do you understand the work of your church in furthering the mission of God in the world?
Section 3:
Read each paragraph separately and discuss it. How do you experience each of these as equipping Anglicans for common life and mission?
Section 4:
Read each subsection (4.1, 4.2, 4.3). What might this mean for your church?
That’s it. Naturally, a few comments come to mind:

1) The stated purpose of the process of study and consultation is "that Anglicans around the world will have an opportunity to understand and rejoice in the commitment which the churches are being asked to make." Funny, that word "rejoice". I would have thought that the purpose of study would be so that Anglicans would be able to make an informed decision about whether to accept the commitment asked of them. Evidently there is no possibility that anyone will do anything upon understanding the Covenant but to rejoice.

2) There is a typo on page 15. The paraphrase of section 4.2.6 says "the Standing Committee many (sic) declare something incompatible with the Covenant." I don’t point this out to be nitpicky, but because this kind of error reflects the haste which has characterized the whole Covenant process. (There are a couple of typos and grammatical errors in the draft Covenant, too). No one is perfect, but surely something as important as this document should have been carefully proofread.

3) The Study Guide is extraordinarily thin on actual study. In essence all it says is "read this section and discuss it in a group". Yes, there is a guiding question for each section, but it seems that the authors of the Guide feel that the value of the Covenant is so self-evident upon a simple reading of the text that no discussion or explanation of it is necessary. Either that or they fear that anything like an in-depth study will lead to people seeing through it and start pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Here are a few supplementary questions of my own:

Section 1:
Bearing in mind that these statements will be the basis on which the actions of  member Churches  may be judged in future, do you think these affirmations will be understood the same way by all members of the Anglican Communion? Are they clear enough to be used in a tribunal?
Section 2:
Based on reading the Covenant text, do you understand what it means by “communion?” What do you think your church should repent of (2.1.3)? Is there anything the whole Communion ought to repent of? Does mission mean different things in different contexts? Can you think of some examples of these differences? Do you think that all other Churches in the Anglican Communion will understand what mission means in your context?
Section 3:
Do you believe your Church is resolved to live in the Anglican Communion with all the current members? Do you believe that all other Churches in the Anglican Communion are resolved to live with your Church as a member? Do you agree that bishops have a central role as guardians and teachers of the faith (3.1.3)? What is the role of other clergy and the laity? Does the Covenant reflect that role? Does the description of the Instruments of Communion help you to understand these four bodies? Do you believe your Church respects the autonomy of the other Churches of the Communion? Do you believe the other Churches respect your Church’s autonomy? Does the Covenant provide adequate protection for the autonomy of the Churches?
Section 4:
Do you understand the process for deciding on controversial actions? Do you understand what is meant by relational consequences? Do you believe that it is helpful to impose relational consequences on a Church which is trying to live out its mission faithfully in its own context? If relational consequences were imposed on your Church, would you accept that the decision to do so is fair? Would you be troubled by the absence of a mechanism to appeal the decision?
In what ways do you believe adoption of the proposed Covenant would help or hinder your Church in its mission? In what ways do you believe the adoption of the proposed Covenant would help or hinder the development of the Anglican Communion? In what ways do you believe the adoption of the proposed Covenant would address or fail to address the current tensions in the Anglican Communion? Do you feel more hopeful about the continuing life of the Anglican Communion and your Church if the proposed Covenant is adopted or rejected? If it were up to you, would you vote to adopt or reject the proposed Covenant?
By all means, do go ahead and study the proposed Covenant. Ask your own questions of the document. Study it in depth. And then ask yourself if it truly does make you want to "rejoice."

As for the Study Guide, I think I will wait for the Motion Picture.

21 February 2011

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It has recently been reported that the Revd Dr Julian Linnell is part of the Evangelism and Church Growth Initiative (ECGI) of the Anglican Communion. Evidently Dr Linnell is part of the schismatic Anglican Church of North America, which is not part of the Anglican Communion. Presumably Dr Linnell has some compelling qualifications that make him a particularly valuable member of this group. The difficulty is that, according to credible sources, Dr Linnell, whatever his qualities, is a cleric who was “granted release from licensed ministry” in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Episcopal Church - part of the Anglican Communion) and who took up ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican Church of North America - not part of the Anglican Communion).

This episode raises a serious question about the proposed Anglican Covenant. The proposed Covenant requires each signatory Church “to respect the constitutional autonomy of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion....” (Section 3.2.2) This would suggest that the Covenant requires each Church to respect the various constitutional and canonical processes of each Church with respect to the regulation of the ministrations of its own clergy, for example. So, if a cleric in one Church is found guilty in an ecclesiastical trial of heresy, the other Churches would need to respect that decision. If said cleric were deposed, then he or she would be ineligible to serve further as a cleric, and that sentence would necessarily, under the proposed Covenant, need to be respected by all the other Churches of the Anglican Communion. Someone who departs a Church of the Anglican Communion to take up a position in a Church which is not part of the Anglican Communion ceases to be himself or herself a member of the Anglican Communion. If the reports are correct, then this is the case with Dr Linnell. (To avoid any doubt, I am not here accusing Dr Linnell of heresy. I am taking on face value the validity of reports that he is part of a group which has departed from the Anglican Communion.)

The question then arises, aside from Dr Linnell’s appointment being an apparent slap in the face of the Episcopal Church, how is it that the Anglican Communion Office decides to appoint a schismatic to an official body of the Anglican Communion without clearly stating that he is not an Anglican? It may be that the Communion Office is in the habit of appointing ecumenical advisors or partners to various committees, task groups and other official bodies of the Anglican Communion, and there is nothing wrong with that. Ordinarily such a person would be identified as such an ecumenical guest. It may be that Dr Linnell's particular expertise is such that he is uniquely qualified to be part of this particular group, and there is nothing wrong with that, either, in principle. But to appoint a member of a schismatic Church, particularly one which is embroiled in the very controversy which has given rise to the proposed Covenant, and which is involved in ongoing lawsuits against a member Church of the Anglican Communion, is to say the least a questionable action. It raises the question as to whether this appointment, or one like it, is in any way compatible with the proposed Covenant.

The trouble is that the proposed Covenant contains in it no requirement that the Anglican Communion Office act in accordance with the Covenant. The signatory Churches, not the Anglican Communion Office or, for that matter, the Instruments of Communion, are bound to “respect the constitutional autonomy of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” And a question may be raised pursuant to the proposed Covenant only with respect to “the compatibility of a covenanting Church with the Covenant” (section 4.2.3) and not with respect to the offices of the Communion itself. There is, in short, no form of check or balance to ensure that the actions of the Anglican Communion Office or the Instruments of Communion themselves respect either the letter or the spirit of the proposed Communion.

This absence of regulation of the very servants of the Communion allows them to act arbitrarily and with impunity. If they are unregulated and thus in effect unaccountable under the very framework that they themselves are so vigorously promoting, then there is a serious flaw in the framework. It is yet another reason to reject the proposed Covenant.

18 February 2011

Why not just adopt sections 1-3 of the Covenant?

From time to time in conversations about the proposed Anglican Covenant someone suggests that perhaps we should just drop Section 4, the disputed dispute-settling mechanism, and just adopt sections 1-3, which more or less set out agreed - and mostly agreeable - parameters of Anglican faith.

The idea is well-meant. After all, no-one wants to be seen to be obstructive, or to be anti-Anglican Communion. And adopting the Covenant, or at least part of it, seems to be test of our loyalty to the Communion (not to mention the Archbishop of Canterbury). Dropping section 4 would seem to be a way of making the exercise less unpalatable. We might not have to hold our noses quite so tightly to adopt the rest of the Covenant, and it would seem that opposition to the Covenant might be reduced in the process. And then we'd look like we were playing nice and being co-operative.

So, why not? In fact, there are several reasons not to take this approach.

First, the suggestion to drop Section 4 really intends a desire to drop section 4.2. We would still need sections 4.1, 4.3 and 4.4, or something like them, to provide for adoption of, withdrawal from, and amendment to the Covenant. But that said, the Covenant process has now reached a point at which no-one is permitted to offer any further amendments to the text, and dropping section 4.2 would be a significant amendment to the text. So, it’s a matter of all or nothing.

But even if we could drop section 4.2 and adopt the rest, there are still reasons not to do so. At first blush, the first three sections look  relatively innocuous. After all, they mostly say things that we could all agree to say. Who, after all, could argue against the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, or the Five Marks of Mission, which are both quoted in the first three sections? Certainly not I!

But dig deeper. Most of us in saying these things are likely to mean slightly different things by them, depending on our various contexts. And the one context that is vital to account for in reading these sections of the proposed Covenant is the context of the document itself. I suggest that sections 1-3 need to be read through the lens of section 4. And when you do that and begin to ask yourself how these sections can be used as a basis on which to decide whether or not a proposed action would be
"compatible with the Covenant", then these three sections begin to look much less attractive.

What makes them attractive on their own is that they allow for a variety of interpretation in a variety of contexts. But the Covenant itself is designed to limit the variety of interpretation, and to allow for cross-contextual questioning of each others' actions. That being the case, the polysemous nature of sections 1-3 becomes, in light of section 4, yet another aspect of ambiguity or fuzziness which becomes unhelpful when used as a measuring stick in a quasi-judicial proceeding which will lead inevitably to relational consequences.

And, anyway, do we need another document which just quotes documents that already play a significant role in the life of the Communion? Wouldn’t that just be redundant?

And even if sections 1-3 are mostly innocuous, they are not without their difficulties. I’ve begun an analysis of these sections and will continue in the days and weeks ahead.

But the bottom line is that we are in a position now where the document is fixed. We do not have the liberty to amend the text or to adopt parts of it piecemeal.

Take it or leave it? Leave it!

04 February 2011

Primatial Tea Leaves

About a week and a half ago the Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Dublin. Well, most of them met. But some were unable to be there because of health reasons or visa problems or because they had to deal with urgent matters at home. Fair enough. And a few decided to stay away to make a point about how upset they are with the Anglican Communion and certain of its members.

On the latter, the Church Times, in its leader, said that:
the Global South absentees had wished to signal by their absence the insignificance of the Primates’ Meeting, as long as it proved unable or unwilling to enforce earlier disciplinary measures against the Episcopal Church in the United States concerning gay bishops and same-sex unions.
Point taken. But the Primates who attended issued, among several documents, a Working Document which described what they understood to be the purpose of the Primates’ Meeting. It’s worth a read. The Working Document is not perfect, but then it doesn’t claim to be perfect. There are a few questions I would like to raise about it, but that will have to wait for another time. For today, I would like to suggest that this is in general a useful step.

It seems to me that what has happened with the Primates' Working Document is a bit of a reset of the Meeting, back to the original purpose. The accumulation of power in the Meeting since Dromantine, with the conservatives egged on by their "advisors," has been unhelpful, divisive and increasingly fractious. The boycott and the dismissive criticism of the Meeting by certain Primates this time was probably inevitable. The reason the Primates haven't "enforce[d] earlier disciplinary measures" is because they never had the authority to do so in the first place. Their purpose was never discipline, and the attempt to hijack the Meeting and turn it into a disciplinary body with coercive power was doomed ultimately to fail, even if it seemed to be working for a while.

In Dromantine, the Primates’ Meeting stopped acting as an Instrument of Unity, and became an Instrument of Disunity.

What happened in Dublin was that the Primates stopped being bullied. From my vantage point across the Atlantic it looks to me rather like the dynamic at the most recent meeting of the Canadian General Synod. The previous few meetings had been characterized by well-organized and well-funded efforts to push the General Synod in a direction it really didn't want to go, using a combination of threats, warnings, strategic tactics and propaganda to impose a conservative agenda on the Synod. But by last year's meeting in Halifax, the most strident and angry voices had left to pursue what they saw as their mission in other climes.

With the loud, angry people out of the room, we found that there was the possibility of a calm, rational, respectful set of conversations about sexuality. There was the opportunity to address the divide between the progressive and the conservative positions without the threats and attempts to hijack the meeting that had gone on before. There didn't seem to be a conservative war-room strategizing into the wee hours of the morning as there had been before. And the result was a document that said, in effect, that we are in disagreement about how the Church should respond to the presence of gays and lesbians, but we are in this together, and we're prepared to work at it together, and try to find a way to live with each other.

I think a similar thing happened in Dublin. I think the Primates sat around those candles signifying the absence of the advisors as much as the people who stayed away and asked themselves what their purpose was, and whether they really wanted to be the kind of group they were becoming since the last time they met in Ireland. And from the document they produced, for all its imperfections, it looks like the answer was "no".

Now as a Communion we need to do a similar thing. We need to ask ourselves whether we really want to be the kind of family of Churches that imposes a central authority on itself with a vague, arbitrary and demonstrably unjust process for imposing "relational consequences" on Churches that cross some ill-defined line in the sand. Or do we want to be the kind of family of Churches that takes seriously a commitment to each other and to each others' contexts, to worship and work and speak with each other respectfully, finding unity in diversity, rather than the illusion of unity promised but never fulfilled by the imposition of uniformity. Do we want to be what we can be at our best, or do we want to continue to go down the road of becoming our worst?

Do we want to be the kind of Communion where people refuse to come to the table unless they can use the opportunity to expel others from the table, or do we want to be the kind of Communion where people gather with all our differences and imperfections to continue to try to find ways of bringing light into the world together?

I think Lambeth 2008 and now the Dublin Primates' Meeting have given us a start. There is a way that we can build the future together as a Communion, and that way will take commitment to meet rather than refusals to attend meetings. It will take time to discuss matters respectfully rather than engage in ad hominem attacks and threats and strategizing. It will take humility rather than arrogance. It will mean, in short, a willingness to live out the Gospel in diversity.

The next step will be to rid ourselves of this troublesome Covenant.