24 November 2011

Logs and Specks

The proposed Anglican Covenant mentions accountability three times (Sections 2.2.1, 3.1.2, and 4.2.1). Section 3.1.2 speaks of “autonomy and accountability” which seems at first glance to be a pair of competing interests held in tension. The question is, what exactly is meant by accountability? The term is undefined in the proposed Covenant text, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise: no term is defined in the text.

Colloquially, when we speak of accountability we often mean it punitively, as in the phrase “hold someone accountable.” There's an overtone of “make someone pay for what (s)he has done wrong” or “stop the person from doing the offensive thing.” Certainly that use of the term has been evident in the recent tensions in the Anglican Communion. But there may be another way to understand accountability. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the primary definition of accountable as “liable to be called to account,” which certainly sounds like the colloquial use of the term at first blush. But I want to suggest that it might simply mean that one may be required to explain one's decisions or actions to someone else. If that is what is meant in the proposed Covenant, then it suggests that, when asked, a covenanting Church undertakes to supply an explanation of an action about which another covenanting Church raises a question. But the process of determining whether a “controversial action” is “compatible with the Covenant” indicates that simply supplying an explanation is not enough. It is clear that the explanation will be judged by the Standing Committee as to whether it is acceptable or not. And in the latter case, “relational consequences” will ensue.

Adopting the proposed Covenant, then, implies an undertaking not simply to be prepared to offer an explanation of a Church's actions when asked, but to supply a satisfactory explanation or suffer the consequences. “Satisfactory” and “consequences” are, of course, undefined.

A second question that comes to mind is whether the obligation under mutual accountability is one-way or two-way. That is, does adoption of the proposed Covenant imply undertaking to supply a satisfactory explanation of any given action or decision, or does it also imply undertaking to demand such explanation of others – to hold them accountable? In other words, is the right to raise a question pursuant to the dispute settling process of section 4.2 permissive only, or is it obligatory?

In the Sermon on the Mount/Plain Jesus asks “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour's eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 // Luke 6:41-42)

The proposed Covenant is about logs and specks. It's about being empowered, and possibly even obligated, to look for the specks in others' eyes, which will inevitably give rise to others pointing to logs in one's own eyes. The trouble, as Jesus suggests, is that it is often much more interesting to look for specks than to deal with one's own logs, and in fact it's human nature to be in denial about one's own logs.

I wouldn't suggest that other Churches in the Anglican Communion should never be permitted to ask what's going on with a given action or decision, and my own Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, has been quite prepared to give an account of its deliberations, discussions and decisions. Transparency is a good thing. But do we really want a binding treaty that encourages, and possibly even requires, the search for specks in our neighbours' eyes?

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