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.


  1. I know for a fact lots of people have read this, so am a little surprised to be the first one commenting.

    The problem seems to be the soundbite generation. Several people really regard the Covenant as impossible to read (I just regard it as tiresome!)

    So I am not really going to do much of my own analysis, mostly looking at what you, Tobias and others have said (oh yes, and the text too) and trying to turn it into soundbites.

    Of course by doing that it is inevitable the nuances will be lost. But if people get the nub, perhaps they will go on to explore the nuances later - that is the hope, anyway!

    Perhaps I will cheekily send you the soundbites to check first?!

  2. You certainly have a point, Laura. Maybe that explains what I read in this month's Anglican Journal, in which the Canadian House of Bishops is quoted as saying that there is nothing wrong with sections 1-3 of the Covenant. They're not the worst part of it, but they do have some real problems, especially once one realizes that they are part of a legal document.

    Do go ahead and be cheeky.


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