23 August 2011

Send in the Theologians

Andrew Goddard has written a defence of the controversial fourth section of the proposed Anglican Covenant. Goddard focuses on the fourth section because, as he correctly notes, it “for many is most troublesome. It was the section which changed the most through the various drafts and the section which continues to be most objectionable to critics of the Covenant.” Of course, as Goddard notes, it is really section 4.2 that is the most controversial part. Sections 4.1, 4.3 and 4.4 on adoption of, withdrawal from, and amendments to the Covenant are less controversial and necessary in some measure. Not that these are perfect, but they do seem to be necessary elements of a Covenant if one is to be adopted. Not much controversy there. Move along.

But what of section 4.2? Well, it's self-evident that some kind of dispute-settling mechanism is necessary in an agreement in case someone breaks it. Really, Dr Goddard? It's funny that such a notion never occurred to the authors of the Porvoo Common Statement. But, asserts Goddard, “if we covenant together by making joint affirmations and commitments to one another then someone is clearly wronged if another party to the covenant denies those affirmations or breaks commitments.” Actually, it's not at all clear that “someone is wronged” in such circumstances. The whole idea of a Covenant emerges from a very nasty conflict over who is allowed, and at what level of the Anglican Communion, to determine what constitutes legitimate development of the faith and practice of the Anglican expression of faith. The conflict exists because: (1) some churches have described developments in some other churches as tantamount to denying or illegitimately altering the faith; and (2) because those churches claim to have been wronged or injured or aggrieved as a result of said developments. But in fact, the first claim has not been satisfactorily proven. And the claim to be wronged has never been demonstrated, but merely asserted. Yes, these churches, or at least their leaders, do seem to be genuinely upset. But being upset or offended is not the same as being wronged. So in fact, Goddard's assumption is at the very least open to debate.

But if the need for a dispute-settling mechanism in the proposed Covenant is not so self-evident as Goddard would have us believe, the process itself is not as benign as he depicts it, either. Goddard tells us that “part of the aim of the Covenant has always been to discern if we can agree together what is to be done in such circumstances rather than having to make up processes in the context of addressing the conflict.” Well, if such a mechanism were necessary, it would certainly be better to have a clear process in place in the event of a dispute than to make it up as we go along. But in fact the whole process of developing the Covenant has been an exercise in making it up as we go along. And, as I have shown, the process the Covenant proffers isn't very clear at all, and in fact will lead to rather a lot of improvisation.

And not only is the process vague, but the role of the Standing Committee is not as benign as Goddard would have us believe. Goddard tries to reassure us that the Standing Committee is not some kind of Star Chamber. But he's not very convincing.

Goddard suggests that “the Covenant both embeds the standing committee within the wider structures of the Communion but also severely constrains its powers.” For evidence he cites the provisions in section 4.2.2 that the Standing Committee is responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting and that it “shall be supported by such other committees or commissions as shall be mandated to assist ... and to advise it....” But far from giving comfort these two points are worrisome. First, the Standing Committee is indeed responsible under the Covenant to the Anglican Consultative Council and to the Primates' Meeting. But let us recall the composition of the Standing Committee. It is made up entirely of people who are members of either the Anglican Consultative Council or the Primates' Meeting. Or both in at least one case. So if this is accountability it is circular.

Secondly, it is not at all clear what “other committees or commissions” might “be mandated” to assist and advise the Standing Committee, nor by whom they might be mandated, nor with what role. Is the Standing Committee bound to receive their assistance and to accept their advice? And what of the Standing Committee's discretion to “take advice from such bodies as it deems appropriate” in doing its work? (Section 4.2.4) In fact, the Standing Committee has complete discretion to consult whomever it sees fit to consult, or no-one, in coming to its conclusions. And given that it has no criteria to follow either in determining whether a controversial action is “incompatible with the Covenant” or what “relational consequences” should ensue, the whole process is bound to be arbitrary.

Ah, soothes Goddard, but the Standing Committee has no real power anyway, merely to request that a Church defer a controversial action, and to recommend relational consequences. (Section 4.2.5) And, of course, declare an action or decision “incompatible with the Covenant.” (4.2.6) But, says Goddard, “it cannot do these on its own initiative but only 'on the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting' (4.2.6)” Actually, that's not clear from the text at all. For one thing, the Standing Committee is not necessarily required to solicit the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council or the Primates' Meeting. The Standing Committee has discretion to consult whomever it pleases, and to determine whether it is appropriate to include either of its parent bodies in that list. Section 4.2.6 seems to assume that the Standing Committee will have received some advice from these two bodies, but what if it has not? Or what if the advice of one of these two bodies is incompatible with the advice of the other? It does not follow that the Standing Committee is precluded from coming to is own conclusions on the matter at hand.

And even if Goddard's reading were correct, let us recall the circularity of the whole set-up: members of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primate's Meeting consult their own groups and confer together to come to a conclusion, and then to make recommendations back to those bodies, which will determine whether or not to act on those recommendations. They are consulting themselves, advising themselves and then making recommendations to themselves. There is a word for that: overlapping roles. And overlapping roles is a violation of the principle of nemo judex in sua causa debet esse (“no-one must be a judge in his own case”), a fundamental principle of Natural Justice. The problem here, as I have shown, is one of institutional bias.

If the absolute discretion given to the Standing Committee to act without criteria, consulting whom it pleases following a vague process, and then issuing its decisions does not make it a Star Chamber, then I don't know what would. Section 4.2 is a recipe for improvisation and arbitrariness. And even if in this improvisation the Standing Committee manages by happenstance to fulfil the requirements of the first principle of Natural Justice (audi alteram partem – “hear the other side”), given the overlapping roles of Anglican Consultative Council, Primates' Meeting and Standing Committee (not to mention Archbishop of Canterbury, who is a member of all three!) section 4.2 of the proposed Covenant violates the second principle of Natural Justice.

The No Anglican Covenant Coalition has put out a public call for the best arguments in support of the proposed Covenant. So, send in the theologians. I'm sure that Andrew Goddard is a very competent theologian. But his comments on section 4.2 of the proposed Covenant suggest that he is out of his depth when it comes to international canon law. We really shouldn't send a theologian to do the job of a canonist.


  1. Excellent post, Alan. I would have described Goddard's defense in one four-letter word, but your response is much superior. One hopes serious people will pay attention.

  2. Thanks Leonardo and Grandmère.

    I'm trying to figure out what four-letter word you had in mind? "Incompetent" isn't four letters. Neither is "inept".


  3. Alan, if you must know, the first word that came to mind was 'crap', but that sort of commentary doesn't get us very far, does it?

  4. At least Naff is more polite. :-)

  5. “Naff”? Never heard of it. My dictionary calls it “chiefly British slang.”

    On a more serious note, I was struck by your phrase “what constitutes legitimate development of the faith.” Almost by definition, the conservatives in the Communion want to prevent any “development of the faith.” The real question here is whether the Anglican Communion is to be a worldwide network of churches or of museums.

  6. You make a good point, Lionel, but I think that those on the conservative side are still trying to develop the faith, in the sense of changing the character of what constitutes authentic Anglican belief and practice. There are all sorts of strands of DNA being injected into the faith from that direction, including biblical literalism, foreign ecclesiology, idiosyncratic christology....

    So it's not necesssarily a case of being against any and all change, but rather wanting to be the ones who determine what changes will fly, with the power to veto all others.

  7. Alan,

    It is true that conservatives are making substantial changes in what they see as Anglicanism. The point is, however, that they represent what they are doing as simply preserving what has always been.

    Of course, it may be that most of the clergy who are pushing the changes do, in fact, know what they are doing and are cynically convincing their gullible flocks that they are simply preserving “the faith once delivered to the saints.”

  8. In neat summary, Alan states:
    "The conflict exists because: (1) some churches have described developments in some other churches as tantamount to denying or illegitimately altering the faith; and (2) because those churches claim to have been wronged or injured or aggrieved as a result of said developments. But in fact, the first claim has not been satisfactorily proven."

    If there is a need for such a thing to be "proven", where should this occur? Who judges what is proof?

  9. One answer, the answer proffered by the Covenanters, is that the matter should be decided by the Standing Committee based on whatever tea leaves it feels like reading.

    But that's not the only answer. Another would be ongoing dialogue combined with respect for each others' varying contexts. But the notion that something is ok in one context even if not possible in another is unsatisfactory to some of the players.

    There is a quote from Marx that's trying to worm its way out of the dark recesses of my brain. Something about the human predilection for insisting on, and attempting to impose, the universal truth of one's personal experience.

  10. Alan, I am not sure I am a fan of the covenant, but endless ongoing dialogue may not appeal either.
    Dialogue is good. Endless dialogue, maybe not. You rightly raise the issue of satisfactory proof when an issue is raised, but no one seems to quite know where or when that might happen.

  11. John,

    I suggest that dialogue is better than strife. Yes, endless dialogue that is unproductive is likely to prove unsatisfactory, but surely it's worth a try.

    As to criteria for satisfactory proof when a question is raised, one of the key weaknesses of the proposed Covenant is that it is almost completely devoid of criteria for anything. I think I've at least shown that much.

    We don't have to agree on everything. In fact, if that's all we agree about, then we've made good progress. I assume that you're doing your best in your context to be an authentic Christian, and if you will give me the benefit of the doubt about the same then I think we're on our way to building a better Communion. And the Covenant won't be of much use in the journey.

  12. I think it was a progressive blogger, Bill, who first told me that endless dialogue may actually be oppressive, and in some cases coercive. It was a valuable lesson.
    There is a point that dialogue, endlessly protracted, starts sapping everyone's energy. I think we may be at that point in the Anglican Communion. Thats not to say dialogue can't be resumed sometime, or continue at a low level.
    But for me to endlessly show up on progressive blogs, will lead some to accuse me of being a troll, no matter how polite I am. And I can see their point of view.
    But you are wise to point each of us to living as best we can as authentic Christians and giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

  13. You're always welcome here, John.

    Bill is certainly correct about endless dialogue being potentially oppressive, particularly if it degenerates into a perpetual exchange of "yes it is," "no it isn't." But then I would question whether it is really dialogue, or a Pythonesque parody like their Argument sketch.

    I think the problem is the desire (on both sides) to resolve the dialogue. Sometimes it can't be resolved, or at least not now. Having gone far enough down the road to understand each other there may come a time to admit taht the dialogue has run its course in terms of productivity. But that doesn't mean we have to break off relations. Another option is simply to agree that the dialogue won't be resolved at least for now, and move on together.

    We can still worship together, and work together to improve the world around us.


  14. Excellent well done, sir. You have hit precisely on the fallacy "not liking others actions" = "being wronged." This is the heart and soul of the whole weak foundation upon which Windsor and the Covenant are built.

    As to endless dialogue -- I believe that is all that awaits us in heaven, so it would be good to become accustomed to it rather than the alternative...

  15. All this worry about altering the faith and such like...mymymy...for me, the faith is this: "We have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation." IMHO, all the rest is gravy. Meanwhile, the issue underlying all of this seems to me to be a perfect opportunity for exercising the ministry of reconciliation. Even if you think I'm a grave sinner because I'm gay, does that make me a more grave sinner than anyone else? Do I really talk, walk and act like a duck any more or any less than anyone else in the church? I rather doubt it. Schism and Apostasy have long been considered among the gravest "sins" the Body's members can act out. Those who threaten schism (i.e. withdrawing--refusing even to talk together, much less to share the fellowship of the Table--in essence, refusing the ministry of reconciliation) is infinitely more damaging to the life of the Body of Christ than where I put my


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