20 April 2011

Test Driving the Anglican Covenant – Part 1

In 2007, at its meeting in Winnipeg, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada adopted Resolution A186, which reads:
That this General Synod resolves that the blessing of same-sex unions is not in conflict with the core doctrine (in the sense of being creedal) of The Anglican Church of Canada.
The resolution followed on a report from the Primate's Theological Commission, the St Michael Report, which came to the same conclusion, and added that “the Commission does not believe that this should be a communion-breaking issue.”

Obviously the resolution was controversial, and the subject of much debate and several amendments. It was adopted on a vote by orders, but by a narrow majority in the Order of Bishops. I'm not going to discuss the merits of the resolution here, but instead I am interested in exploring how it might be addressed under the proposed Anglican Covenant, were it in force at the time.

First, it is important to understand the significance of the resolution under Canadian polity. The St Michael Report was written as a result of a request to the Primate's Theological Commission to advise whether the blessing of same-sex unions was a matter of doctrine or not. The request was made in 2004, prior to the adoption of the Civil Marriage Act 2005, which made same-sex marriage legal across Canada. Thus the language was of “unions” rather than “marriages” both in the request and the report, as well as in the resolution. The reason the question arose is because “the definition of the doctrines of the Church” is a matter of the jurisdiction of the General Synod under our constitution. (Declaration of Principles, section 6(i)). So, reasoned some people, if it were a matter of doctrine, then any statement on same-sex blessings would be a matter for the General Synod alone and thus if any other Synod (of a diocese or internal province) were to pronounce on the issue, that would be ultra vires. The point was that some opponents of the decision of the Synod of the Diocese of New Westminster to request their bishop to authorize a rite for blessing same-sex unions felt that they could have that decision ruled ultra vires, and hence null and void, if it could be demonstrated that it were a matter of doctrine.

Of course, asking a bunch of theologians whether something is a matter of doctrine is like asking the proverbial man with a hammer whether there are any nails about. But the resulting report, which is still worth reading, not only stated that blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine, it also differentiated between core doctrine and non-core doctrine. Core doctrine, such as we find in the creeds, is non-negotiable. Non-core doctrine, according to the report, involves matters about which there can be legitimate disagreement among faithful Anglican Christians. And blessing same-sex unions, says the report, is one of those items of non-core doctrine. People of faith can agree or disagree with such blessings, even passionately, but it's not worth breaking communion over.

So, Resolution A186 is the General Synod's response to the Report, in which the Synod agrees with the Theological Commission. Constitutionally, it represents the General Synod exercising its authority as the body with jurisdiction to define the doctrines of the Church. In other words, it is the definition of the doctrinal position of the Anglican Church of Canada with respect to same-sex blessings. (It leaves unsaid whether we should bless same-sex unions and, if so, in what manner and by what process such blessings should be authorized.)

But what if the proposed Covenant were in force?

In that case, someone – either another Church or one of the Instruments of Communion – could “raise a question” pursuant to section 4.2.3. The question could arise in one of three ways:
  1. another Church might openly disagree with the doctrinal position of Resolution A186 and seek a ruling on whether it is compatible with the Covenant, presumably expecting a negative answer;
  2. another Church, or one of the Instruments of Communion, could, without stating disagreement, still ask the same question from a stance of uncertainty;
  3. the Anglican Church of Canada itself, presumably as a result of a motion by the General Synod, could ask the question, though this would imply some uncertainty or lack of conviction in its own resolution.
So, what happens if the Standing Committee declares, pursuant to section 4.2.6, that Resolution A186 is compatible with the Covenant? That would suggest that there is nothing in the core doctrine of the Anglican Communion, or at least in the Covenant, that conflicts with the blessing of same-sex unions. The Canadians, and perhaps some others, could carry on. Of course, you can imagine how well such a declaration would go over in some churches! It is not a significant stretch of the imagination to foresee that some churches would disagree, perhaps quite vehemently, with such a declaration. If the question came about as in the first scenario above, because another Church disagreed with the Canadian position, a positive answer would not settle the matter for that Church. We can talk about mediation, as in section 3.2.6 of the proposed Covenant, but really in this kind of matter there wouldn't be much to discuss, would there? Either the Canadian General Synod is correct or it isn't. So if there is an open dispute between the Anglican Church of Canada and another Church, a positive declaration isn't likely to end the matter. Nothing would be solved.

Well, then, what if the Standing Committee declared Resolution A186 to be incompatible with the Covenant? That would certainly make any Church that disagrees with the Canadian General Synod happy. But what of Canada? As I said, either the Canadian General Synod is correct or it isn't. But constitutionally the General Synod is always correct, albeit not infallible. It is the highest body, and with respect to doctrinal matters the only body, with jurisdiction to make decisions. The General Synod is sovereign just as Parliament is sovereign. So in this case we have a constitutional crisis in the Anglican Church of Canada. The General Synod has made a statement, in exercise of its jurisdiction in the Declaration of Principles, and constitutionally there is no other body competent to refute or overturn that statement. If we've got this far the General Synod will have adopted the Covenant, and the Covenant states repeatedly (e.g., sections 3.2.2, 4.1.3) that it respects the constitutional autonomy of the signatory Churches. So now you have two processes, both recognized by the General Synod, which have come to opposite conclusions on the same issue. How is the General Synod to resolve the matter? Either it will have to revisit Resolution A186 and rescind it, or live with whatever “relational consequences” befall it - or withdraw from the Covenant, pursuant to section 4.3.1 and live with whatever consequences that would trigger. And as for the Covenant's assurance of respect for constitutional autonomy, it's empty. Because true respect for the constitutional autonomy of the Anglican Church of Canada would mean that the Standing Committee would have to decline to rule on any question about Resolution A186, or any constitutionally similar resolution.

This, of course, raises a third possibility. The Standing Committee could decline to make a ruling, perhaps because it decides that it must so decline in order to respect the constitutional autonomy of the Anglican Church of Canada, or because it realizes that neither declaration will actually resolve the dispute, or possibly even because the Standing Committee itself is divided on the question. But making no ruling would be de facto the same as ruling that the matter at hand is compatible with the Covenant. Canada would go home happy, but those who raised the question might well go home angry and frustrated. Of course, I only use Canada as an example. The same could be true of any Church that decides to adopt the proposed Covenant.

And is there any way in either of the above three scenarios in which the proposed Covenant will have actually made things better? Would it give us anything that the existing structures of the Anglican Communion can't give us? All I can see is a process that would exacerbate the dispute.

I've skipped over the details of how the Standing Committee might come to a decision, but I'll pick that question up in the next post.

Based on possible outcomes, the proposed Covenant fails the test drive.

17 April 2011

Yes, Virginia, There is an Alternative

TINA: There Is No Alternative.

The slogan was used so often by Margaret Thatcher that my English friends tell me her detractors began to call her Tina.

TINA can indicate a number of possible things:

At times, it is true, that options are in short supply. And it may seem there are no choices but a single proposal on the table. But that is not the usual meaning of TINA.

TINA can also indicate a failure of imagination or initiative. In this case, it's not so much that there are no alternatives, but rather that whoever is in charge is unable to think of any, or simply couldn't be bothered.

But in its usual sense, TINA is an ideological assertion. It's not that there aren't any alternatives, but that whoever is saying TINA is unwilling to entertain any other options than that which is being pushed. In this sense, TINA is a slogan. It's propaganda, which dismisses any attempt to suggest that alternatives should be imagined and explored. It's a slightly less impolite way of saying, “my way or the highway.” TINA is the slogan of what is euphemistically called strong and decisive leadership, or bullying in plain English.

TINA has taken a central place in the narrative in support of the proposed Anglican Covenant. We are told that it is the Covenant or the demise of the Anglican Communion. We are told that there are no other options, so we'd better get on board with the right side of history and support the Covenant. I'm not here launching an ad hominem attack on the leadership of the Anglican Communion. I'm not calling them Margaret Thatchers or bullies. Nor am I suggesting that they are deliberately engaging in propaganda. I am prepared to believe that they honestly believe that there is no alternative to the Anglican Covenant as proposed.

But they're wrong. TINA isn't true. There are alternatives.

Earlier, I wrote about Instrument Choice. In a nutshell, Instrument Choice is about exploring alternatives to legislation before committing to going the legislative route. Sometimes Instrument Choice is either/or; sometimes it's both/and. It depends on the specifics of a given issue, the problem, the range of proposed solutions, and the specific goals. But Instrument Choice has been bypassed in the quest to address the malaise of the Anglican Communion. Instead of looking at options a few years ago, the Instruments of Communion seized on the suggestion of a Covenant and immediately committed to it. TINA.

Drawing on a paper by Les Pal, I wrote previously about the option of Capacity and Institution Building. From the perspective of government, this way of dealing with problems means equipping local agencies to deal more effectively with the problems on the ground. From the perspective of the Anglican Communion, it might mean helping Churches to engage in dialogue more effectively, and strengthening the Instruments of Communion and the various agencies of the Anglican Communion to be more effective in promoting and facilitating encounters between Churches and church leaders.

Strengthening the Instruments of Communion is precisely what was suggested by the Virginia Report. Although the purpose of the report was not to give specific recommendations, it did raise a number of questions with respect to the desirability of strengthening the Instruments, and also regarding the possibility of enhancing the roles of the lower clergy and the laity in the Communion through the vehicle of a periodic Anglican Congress which, like the Lambeth Conference of bishops, would be held every ten years. Addressing the need to strengthen the Lambeth Conference by addressing the issue of attentiveness, or of hearing voices that are not always heard, the Virginia Report says:
Increasing the opportunities for, and occasions of, Christian attentiveness should be promoted and protected at the Lambeth Conference. This will allow the bishops gathered at Lambeth to share in, to be shaped by and to show forth the attentiveness of God the Father's love as we know it in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. (section 6.15)
Thus, for example, special care must be taken to facilitate the hearing of bishops whose first language is not English, and to hear the voices of women bishops. Lambeth 2008 tried to get at the issue of attentiveness through the Indaba process. Although some have criticized Indaba because it did not produce any resolutions, that was not its point. Its point was to empower the Lambeth Conference to do its job more effectively by providing a mechanism by which the bishops could be more attentive to each other.

Similarly, a recent initiative to gather Canadian and African bishops for dialogue specifically on questions of sexuality has borne some initial fruit. Opportunities to meet, to worship together, to speak candidly and openly with each other and to do the hard work of building relationships can only strengthen the Communion.

The Virginia Report also reminded bishops of their accountability to the marginalized:
Bishops are accountable for their words and actions at Lambeth, before God and the whole Church. The bishops at Lambeth are to represent those who have no voice: those who can rely on no one else to tell their story and plead their case; those whose concerns society and/or the Church have chosen, sometimes deliberately, sometimes forgetfully, [not] to address. It is when the bishops consider themselves accountable to those who have the least that they discover the way of the Kingdom of God. (section 6.20)
In other words, Lambeth is not to be a venue for exercising power, but one for careful listening and deliberation, particularly with regard to those who normally have no voice in Church and society.

The Virginia Report also made some observations about the Anglican Consultative Council, noting:
It is important that the representation be balanced between laity and clergy, with greater continuity of membership than at present. Representatives should have entree to the councils of their own church and be knowledgeable about its concerns and interests. (section 6.26)
That is, staffing of the ACC through the various Churches' appointment processes is an essential consideration. We need to ensure that the people we send are the best and the brightest, that they are well informed and that they have access to engage in conversations with the governance structures in their own churches. I have no evidence that this is not generally the case, but obviously the authors of the Virginia Report thought it necessary to address.

Strengthening the work of Lambeth, the Primates' Meeting and the ACC through attention to appointment processes, and mechanisms for respectful and attentive dialogue, as well as providing for discussion and relationship building through mechanisms such as the recent meeting in Tanzania of Canadian and African bishops, and diocesan partnerships, are long-term sorts of projects. But such exercises in Institution Building bear long term dividends in the form of healthier governance and its benefits.

I can see why the proposed Anglican Covenant seems more attractive than the longer-term option of institution building. It's quick, and it's more tangible. Building relationships takes time and effort and generally doesn't produce documents that can be shown as evidence that we've done something. But in my view it's more satisfying and, in the long term, it's likely to produce more good.

But the idea that there is only one way to strengthen the Anglican Communion is simply not true. TINA is an illusion. So, Virginia, there is an alternative.

01 April 2011

Life Together

Section 3 of the proposed Anglican Covenant describes the way in which the Churches of the Anglican Communion collaborate with each other. At the heart of this section is a description of the Instruments of Communion. These used to be know as Instruments of Unity, but for some inscrutable reason the term was changed in recent times.

Section 3.1.2 correctly notes, quoting the Lambeth Conference of 1930, that “Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together 'not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference' and of the other instruments of Communion.” This statement is a little ironic, of course, being contained within a document which is being proposed as central legislation for the Communion, and which gives at least some executive powers to the Instruments of Communion and the Standing Committee. As we say in Quebec, it seems the proposed Covenant is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

Section 3.1.3 speaks of the role of bishops in mediating relationships among Dioceses and Churches. The language seems to be drawn from the Virginia Report, but I must say that I really don't understand the point of the last sentence in this section: “We receive and maintain the historic threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, ordained for service in the Church of God, as they call all the baptised into the mission of Christ.” There's nothing wrong with the statement per se, it's just that it seems to be a bit of a non sequitur here. It seems to me that it would make more sense to include it in section 1.1, which describes “Our Inheritance of Faith.”

The meat of this section of the proposed Covenant is found in 3.1.4, which describes the four Instruments of Communion: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting. This section looks quite innocuous at first glance, but I do have a few questions about it.

First, 3.1.4 begins by affirming “the importance of instruments in the Anglican Communion to assist in the discernment, articulation and exercise of our shared faith and common life and mission.” Sounds good so far, but the question is, in what way can these instruments meaningfully discern and articulate our shared faith, in light of the affirmations of section 1? Can our faith evolve, as the instruments continue to discern it? Or is their role to become one of interpreting the faith as outlined in Section 1, in the absence of any future amendments to the Covenant text?

Second, I wonder if the descriptions of the four Instruments is adequate. On the face of it, there isn't much to quibble with here, and it is evident that these statements are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, but look for a moment at the description of the Primates' Meeting. It states:
The Primates' Meeting is convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury for mutual support, prayer and counsel. The authority that primates bring to the meeting arises from their own positions as senior bishops of their Provinces, and the fact that they are in conversation with their own Houses of Bishops and located within their own synodical structures. In the Primates' Meeting, the Primates and Moderators are called to work as representatives of their Provinces in collaboration with one another in mission and doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters that have Communion-wide implications.
That's a bit of a mouthful!

Now, the first sentence is fine, but we begin to see some difficulties beginning in the second sentence, about the authority of the Primates. The recent meeting of the Primates noted that there is a vast range of roles, responsibilities and terms of office for the Primates of the various Churches. It may not be correct, for example, to state that a given Primate has authority because he or she is in “in conversation with” his or her church's House of Bishops. In Canada the Primate's authority is clearly laid out and circumscribed in a Canon on the Primate. And the Canadian House of Bishops has no constitutional authority as a body. I'm not saying that the Primates have no authority, but the primary purpose of the Meeting is not to exercise authority at all, but rather for “mutual support, prayer and counsel,” which role the Primates themselves affirmed in their document “Towards an Understanding of the Purpose and Scope of the Primates' Meeting.”

And then there's a rather thorny question about their collaboration on “matters that have Communion-wide implications.” The question is, what matters have Communion-wide implications? How is this discerned? I will pick this up below.

Finally, with respect to section 3.1.4, having set out the descriptions of the Instruments of Communion, even briefly, does the text say too much? Can the Instruments evolve? What if a fifth Instrument were to develop? As I have noted with respect to the proposal for a sixth Mark of Mission and the implied need to amend the Covenant, the same can be said for the possible development of a fifth Instrument. The Virginia Report proposed the convening of a periodic Anglican Congress of clergy and laity along with bishops. Although the Report said it should not be an Instrument of Communion, it could nevertheless develop into one just as the Lambeth Conference did.

I could point out the misuse of “comprise” in the phrase “The Anglican Consultative Council is comprised of lay, clerical and episcopal representatives....” which should say either “is composed of” or “comprises”. (Is this a typically North American linguistic faux pas, or does it happen elsewhere in the English-speaking world?) I could also point out the typo in footnote 18, which says “cf. the Objects of the ACC are set out in Article 2 of its Constitution.” Either “cf.” or “are set out” shouldn't be there, of course. I could point out these two infelicities as evidence of the haste with which the proposed Covenant was drafted, but some readers might think I was being overly critical and might even point out my typos, so I won't mention them.

As interesting as the affirmations in section 3.1 are the commitments in section 3.2. There is much to commend here, but still a few things that I wonder about.

Section 3.2.1 starts out well enough, committing signatories “to have regard for the common good of the Communion” and to support the Instruments, but then this clause ends with a further commitment “to endeavour to accommodate (the) recommendations” of the Instruments of Communion. So, the narrative that the disciplinary process isn't punitive because it can only produce recommendations falls right there. Recommendations are there to be accommodated, and presumably failure to accommodate a recommendation would be contrary to the Covenant.

Elsewhere I have written about section 4.1.3's claim that adoption of the Covenant does not imply any change to a church's constitution. The same issue arises with respect to the commitment in section 3.2.2 “to respect the constitutional autonomy of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion.” The whole point of the proposed Covenant is to restrain the exercise of autonomy, even to the point of the detriment of a Church's mission, and the procedure for “raising a question” in section 4.2 is in fact an invitation to interfere with a Church's exercise of its autonomy. We can say until we're blue in the face that we respect each others' autonomy, but it seems that this respect stops once autonomy is actually exercised.

Section 3.2.3 speaks of taking time to work through new or controversial proposals, “with openness and patience”. What is left undefined is where is the limit of patience? The proposed Covenant seeks to address the question of the limits of autonomy, but how long should a Church wait before implementing a proposal it sincerely, prayerfully believes is the correct thing to do? After all, notwithstanding suggestions to the contrary, I haven't seen much evidence of any headlong rush to act by progressive Churches. On the contrary, they have consistently engaged in lengthy processes of extensive study, consultation and prayer, often deliberately deferring action in order to give a chance for more study and consultation. No-one can reasonably accuse the Church of England, for example, of acting precipitously or hastily in moving to ordination of women as bishops. But at some point, there is such pent-up demand for a change, that yet another delay becomes intolerable. At some point, you have to decide either to fish or cut bait. Where is the limit to patience? Indeed, the only area where I have seen significant evidence of impatience is the headlong rush to draft and adopt a Covenant.

Section 3.2.4 is about seeking “a shared mind ... about matters of common concern.” As mentioned above with respect to the Primates working on matters with Communion-wide implications, how do we know in advance that a matter is of “common concern”? Is something a matter of common concern because someone claims it is, or are there some criteria for testing such a claim? Without some agreed-upon criteria, we have the potential for arbitrary action. And what if some other Churches aren't interested in seeking a shared mind? Then what?

Section 3.2.5 returns to the theme of “diligence, care and caution” again implying that there has been a lack of these qualities in recent times. It also introduces the concept of a mission for the whole Anglican Communion, which it seems is to take priority over local actions or decisions. What is the mission of the Anglican Communion as a whole? Who decides? How do we discern when there is a conflict between the mission of a member Church and that of the Communion?

Section 3.2.6 finally comes to the point of the proposed Covenant: “situations of conflict.” Here perhaps some of my questions are addressed, in that there is a commitment to participate in “mediated conversations.” And presumably an unwillingess to participate in such conversations would constitute an action incompatible with the Covenant, which might carry with it some relational consequences. Although, frankly, that would be rather a matter of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Which is pretty much where we are now as a Communion. There's really nothing particularly wrong with this clause; it's just that if we need a Covenant to commit ourselves in some enforceable way to act like adults, then a Covenant in and of itself isn't likely to bring that about, is it?

Finally, section 3.2.7 reminds us of the need “always to uphold the highest degree of communion possible.”

For me there is one fundamental problem with this whole section of the proposed Covenant, and that is that it seems to assume both that Churches will have a tendency to act in a manner which is irresponsible, or that their mechanisms for discernment and consultation are inadequate. And it seems to assume that relations among the churches of the Anglican Communion will normally be marked by conflict. Yes, we are in a period of serious conflict right now in the Communion, with open hostility between churches and blocs of churches. And this hostility has led to boycotting of the Lambeth Conference and of the Primates' Meeting, which is sad.

These boycotts also reveal a missing element in section 3.2. In the draft, or model, Covenant in the Windsor Report, there was a commitment to show up at international meetings, or not be absent without good cause. Perhaps the drafters of the model covenant could foresee the possibility of a boycott. It's clear, and section 3.2.6 implies as much, that when people refuse to come to the table a relationship is seriously impaired, if not irretrievably lost. And when that happens, we are all diminished.