22 January 2012

Of Epiphany Letters and Archbishops

Back at the beginning of Advent, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion in which he extolled the virtues of the proposed Anglican Covenant. Nearly two weeks ago, at the beginning of the Epiphany season, the Archbishop of Cape Town responded with a letter of his own, addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but published by the Anglican Communion News Service. (Note to self: when writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury, be prepared to see your letter on ACNS.)

As with Archbishop Williams, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba speaks eloquently about the value of the Anglican Communion. Indeed, there is much of value in his letter on that score. Recalling the visit to Zimbabwe made by the two Archbishops together, Archbishop Makgoba says, “the capacity to act together – across old divides of colonisers and colonised, and contemporary differences of rich and poor, north and south, through God’s gift of unity to the Communion – gives considerable force to our joint proclamation of Christ as the Light of the World.” Indeed, it does. Coming together across divides to speak with a single authoritative voice on a matter of justice gives flesh to the gift of unity for which Jesus prayed, of which we are particularly mindful in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Archbishop Makgoba also recalls with gratitude the way in which the wider Anglican Communion gave strength to the embattled South African Church in its struggle against apartheid. I recall a motion of solidarity in the struggle against apartheid being adopted at the very first Synod I ever attended, and how I was impressed that we were called to think and speak and act outside the narrow confines of our own bailiwick.

The good Archbishop continues:
Yet such mutuality cannot be taken for granted, and indeed, the way that our disagreements on human sexuality have played out suggests we had already begun to drift from that particular sense of belonging to God and to each other, within the wider body of Christ, which was so strong in Southern Africa’s great time of need. It seems to me that the Covenant is entirely necessary, in recalling us to ourselves. Only in this way can we continue to grow in bearing this rich fruit that comes from living the life which is both God’s gift and God’s calling.
He is correct that we cannot take the kind of mutuality of which he speaks for granted. As with any other relationship, the relationships among the churches of the Anglican Communion need constant work. This is why, for example, our bishops gather in the Lambeth Conference, and why we have such programmes as diocesan partnerships. It is about being constantly called out of ourselves and the narrow confines of our own bailiwicks to learn about others in their contexts, to engage with them and to stand beside them in their joys and sorrows. What I don't understand is how Archbishop Makgoba concludes that this means the proposed Anglican Covenant is “entirely necessary” beyond his TINA assertion. But perhaps his reflections on the Covenant would help.

But the problem is that his reflections on the Covenant nowhere refer to the actual text. Like Archbishop Williams before him, Archbishop Makgoba does not seem to be interested in discussion the text on which we will all be voting, and which he depicts as “entirely necessary.” If it will help us to work at our relationships, to preserve and develop mutuality and solidarity, in what way will it do so? Which clauses in the proposed Covenant does he see as assisting these positive outcomes? In fact, I don't know what document Archbishop Makgoba is referring to at all. It doesn't seem to be the proposed Anglican Covenant that I have been reading.

He goes on:
Arguments that the Covenant is ‘not fit for purpose’ (for example through ‘going too far’ or ‘not going far enough’) are too often predicated upon an inadequate model of ‘being church’ and what it means to live as members of the body of Christ. Implicit, it seems to me, is a diminished view of God’s grace, God’s redemptive power and purposes, and God’s vision and calling upon his people and his Church, and so of Anglicanism’s place within these. Our sense of who we are, and called to become, should not principally be conveyed through legal prisms, whether of some form of centralising authority, or of Provinces’ constitutions and canon law which must be ‘safeguarded’ from external ‘interference’. Nor should we primarily look to structural or legal solutions to our undeniable difficulties or for regulating our relationships.
Yes, precisely! There is an inadequate model of being church at play here. And that model has led us to believe that the sort of “structural or legal solutions” against which Archbishop Makgoba argues are in fact a necessary part of our ecclesiology. For the proposed Covenant is nothing other than a legal solution to our difficulties. As Archbishop Makgoba himself says, “Scripture reminds us that solving our problems ultimately rests not on our efforts but on the salvific work of Jesus Christ.” Surely he is not suggesting that the proposed Covenant represents the “salvific work of Jesus Christ” rather than our own efforts?

Seeing the Covenant merely as a product of disagreements over human sexuality, or in terms of whether or not it provides particular solutions to these disagreements, is therefore to miss the fundamental point. As I noted earlier, it seems that, especially in the acrimonious and bitter ways we have often handled our differences, disunity over sexuality was symptomatic of a deeper malaise within our common life.
Quite right! But again I ask, in what way does the proposed Covenant address this “deeper malaise” of which the Archbishop correctly speaks? If it does, he does not enlighten us as to how. True, he asserts that the proposed Covenant “places God’s vision for God’s Church and God’s world centre-stage; and then invites us to live into this as our ultimate and overriding context and calling.” But he doesn't indicate how the document does this, and he conveniently ignores that, even if it does do so, it does it in the context of a legal document with a punitive process at its heart.

The good Archbishop is entirely correct to speak both about the value of the Anglican Communion as a vehicle for living out God's solidarity with each other and with the world that God so loves. He is correct to draw attention to the need to preserve and develop relationships of mutuality and support across theological and cultural divides. He is correct in so many ways. Where his letter disappoints is in its depiction of the proposed Covenant as a magical panacea for all of our relational problems without a single reference to the actual document. He does not apparently see, or perhaps doesn't want us, his readers, to see, that the proposed Covenant is a legal solution to a relational problem – and not a very good legal solution at that. It is designed to empower a central group acting entirely without objective criteria to choose winners and losers by an arbitrary and intrinsically unjust process. It is based on the inadequate ecclesiological assumption that the hard work of developing and maintaining relationships in the context of the grace of God can be replaced by the facile imposition of authority, even to the point of severing those relationships.

The Anglican Communion is, has been, and can be the kind of gift that the Archbishop depicts in his letter. But here's the point: it has been such a gift in the past without a Covenant. No Covenant was required for the Communion to stand in solidarity with the South African church in its struggle against apartheid. No Covenant was required for the recent Archiepiscopal visit to Zimbabwe. And, for all his passionate eloquence, Archbishop Makgoba never once demonstrates how any Covenant, let alone the one on the table, is remotely “entirely necessary” for the Anglican Communion to grow into the kind of gift he hopes it can be in the future.

In the end, the Archbishop's letter is rather like one of those awful children's sermons about a squirrel in which the squirrel is mean to represent Jesus, but no one, least of all the preacher, is able to grasp how. It's not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with stories about squirrels, but if there is no clear connection with Jesus, the preacher would be ahead simply to leave the story in its proper context rather than force a connection. Similarly, there is much worth reading in the Archbishop's letter about the value of the Anglican Communion and about the need to work at our relationships. But the remotest connection with the proposed Covenant is forced at best.

Unless the proposed Covenant is a squirrel.

03 January 2012

Hear the Other Side Redux

This blog has been on hiatus for a while as I have been in the process of moving from Montreal to Edmonton to take up a new post. Now I have an opportunity to take it up again, and the New Year is as good a time as any.

Laura Sykes has challenged all Anglicans, especially those involved in synods, to take on a New Year's resolution to read the Anglican Covenant. Given that many of those Anglicans will be asked to vote on whether or not to adopt the Covenant in the months ahead, that sounds like a sensible idea. I hope Laura won't mind me adding to her proposed resolution, that those who take her up on it should read the proposed Covenant carefully, bearing in mind from the beginning that it is a legal document. This is especially important in reading the first three sections, as they don't look like a legal document. With the elasticity of language in sections 1-3, they look more like a theological consensus document. But it is vital to keep in mind that these sections will become the basis for any judgment of a controversial action pursuant to the process, such as it is, in section 4. So, whilst reading the first three sections, it is useful to ask whether the language is clear enough to be used as a basis for deciding whether an action is compatible with the Covenant or not, and how any given action might measure up to the standards therein.

Laura has also taken on a challenge herself, not only to read the proposed Covenant, but to publish her own analysis of it over the coming months. I look forward to reading the fruits of her efforts.

I would like to add my own challenge to Laura's, this time aimed at the leadership of the Anglican Communion at every level. I have in mind the Instruments of Communion, the Anglican Communion Office, the national, provincial and diocesan leadership, bishops, archbishops and those who are responsible for organizing synods – the very synods that will be deciding on the Covenant in the months ahead.

My challenge is simple: please, I implore you, ensure that there is a balanced presentation of both sides, for and against, with equal time for both at all stages, before putting the proposed Covenant to a vote.

I make this challenge for two reasons.

First, because there has been an unfortunate pattern in several synods that have already voted on the proposed Covenant. A number of these synods have heard only one side in the formal presentation of the document, and thus have been asked to vote without hearing any presentation or receiving any material on why the proposed Covenant should not be adopted. Naturally, when presented only with a rosy picture of the proposed Covenant and reasons to adopt it, and no reasons against, these synods have tended to adopt or recommend adopting the Covenant. And the senior leadership has taken the approach of dismissing any opposition to the Covenant rather than engaging it and demonstrating why those opposed are wrong.

There is an irony here, for one of the chief fears about the proposed Covenant is that it will lead to greater centralization and control in the Anglican Communion, a fear that is hotly denied by proponents of the Covenant. But in presenting an unbalanced picture of the Covenant to those who are asked to decide on it, and denying circulation of materials opposed to it alongside materials in favour, the leadership is modelling the very centralization and control that opponents of the Covenant fear.

Ironic, too, is the way in which this pro-only presentation of the Covenant models the criticism that the process for deciding on controversial actions in section 4 is arbitrary and intrinsically unfair. And this gives rise to the second reason for my challenge.

Previously I have written that the dispute-settling mechanism in section 4 of the proposed Covenant does not measure up to the standards of Natural Justice, the first principle of which is audi alteram partem – hear the other side. It's all very well for the senior leadership of the Anglican Communion to tell me not to worry my pretty little head about Natural Justice in settling disputes, but when they refuse to allow the other side to be fairly presented in debating the proposed Covenant they do much more to stoke than to assuage my fears. If they are unable – or unwilling – to demonstrate the skills and habits of fairness in the process of debating the proposed Covenant, how can we believe that they will suddenly acquire these skills and habits when it comes to deciding on the first controversial action that comes their way? For it will be the very same people who are actively campaigning for the proposed Covenant who will be sitting in the judgment seat when a question is raised.

So, if the senior leadership of the Communion truly believes that the proposed Covenant is the unalloyed Good Thing that they depict it as being, why not allow it to be subjected to careful and fair scrutiny? For if they are correct, then the Covenant will withstand the scrutiny. Of course, if they are not correct, then that scrutiny may well save us all from a very unfortunate mistake.

Hear the other side! Let the presentation of the proposed Covenant be balanced and the process for deciding on it be fair, so that those who are called to vote on it can do so fully informed.