Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Let Our "Yes" Be "Yes," and Our "No" Be "No" - and Our "Wait a Bit"....

We have had some interesting discussions lately about the Anglican Communion Covenant. Now, when I say “we,” I’m referring to the relatively narrow world in which I write and read. So, I don’t want to claim too much about the authority of those I read and write with. I do want to claim that the discussions have been interesting.

We’ve been discussing widely among Anglicans the meaning and import of the Anglican Communion Covenant, and among Episcopalians what action we in the Episcopal Church should take. We have noted with interest what others have done or are doing. The Church of England is in process. General Synod sent it to the various dioceses to express their opinion; and will act at the next meeting after those opinions have been received. Some other churches have acted. Notably recently that Southeast Asia has “acceded to” the Covenant; while Ireland has “subscribed” the Covenant; and both with what we might call a “signing statement.

I will admit that those choices were interesting. And being the wonky soul that I am, I went to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971):

Adopt (the word in the Covenant text itself): To choose for oneself

Definition 1: gen to take (any one) voluntarily into any relationship (as heir, son, father, friend, citizen, etc.) which he did not previously occupy.
Definition 4: To take up (a practice, method, word, or idea) from some one else and use it as one’s own; to embrace, espouse.

Accede: To come to a place, state, or diginity; to come into an opinion, to agree

Definition 3: To join oneself, become a party, give one’s adhesion; hence, to assent, agree to.


Definition 1: To write (one’s name or mark) on, orig. at the bottom of, a document, esp. as a witness or consenting party; to sign (one’s name) to. Now rare.
Definition 3: To sign one’s name to; to signify assent or adhesion to, by signing one’s name; to attest by signing.
Definition 4: To give one’s assent or adhesion to; to countenance, support, favour, sanction, concur in.
Definition 7: To give one’s assent to a statement, opinion, proposal, scheme, or the like; to express one’s agreement, concurrence, or acquiescence.
Now, perhaps the differences among these words aren’t so great; and yet these words were deliberately and carefully chosen. I find “accession” especially interesting, in that we have been discussing “accession” a lot these last few years in the Episcopal Church. A diocese “accedes” to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church; that is, acknowledges and accepts the normative authority of the Constitution and Canons, and recognizes its own documents and actions as subsidiary. It suggests that Southeast Asia accepts the Covenant as a constitutional document, to which provincial actions would be subject.

Of course, the Irish “signing statement” said just the opposite, asserting as normative the provincial Constitution and Canons. Rather, they chose to “subscribe,” which suggests more an agreement among separate but equal participants.

And that, of course, was different from the “adoption” called for in the document itself. “Adoption” says more about a change in identity, establishment of a new relationship, and in this case participation in a new body: churches within the Anglican Communion that are signatories of the Anglican Covenant (which, at this point, within the Covenant text are indeed separate if overlapping groups).

We have also seen something different, if only in a preliminary step. While this was not their definitive action, the church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia voted on each Section of the Covenant separately. Sections 1, 2, and 3 were passed, and Section 4 wasn’t.

So, what is the Episcopal Church to do? Several of us who speak to the issue have some stake in the conversation, not just because we are Anglicans and Episcopalians, but because each has some small part in the governance of the Episcopal Church.

Mark Harris, a past Deputy to General Convention (and perhaps again), and a member of the Executive Council, has expressed at “Preludium” the opinion that we must say no. This is based in part on the thought that the idea of a Covenant is un-Anglican, and in part that the Covenant text establishes a new centralized structure more like, if not just like, Roman ecclesiology; but mostly because it appears the point of the exercise is to exclude those who most think have stepped too far in embracing changing understandings of who we are as human beings living in the world and before God – and in the first instance, the Episcopal Church and (probably) the Anglican Church of Canada. To do this, the Covenant so changes the relationships among Anglican churches and to the Instruments of Communion as to subvert and divide the Anglican Communion in service of a new Anglican Church. While this is not explicit in the Covenant text (and perhaps not inherent in it), Mark and colleagues simply do not trust those others who will embrace the Covenant not to take these next steps.

Tobias Haller, a Deputy to General Convention, has argued at “In a Godward Direction” that there is a rational reason to sign the Covenant. As he sees it, the descriptions in the Covenant text of the roles and authority of the four Instruments of Communion, as well as of the renamed Standing Committee are not new, and in fact reflect accurately their current extant roles and authority. The Covenant text also incorporates means for revision of the Covenant itself. So, he argues that we need to pursue appropriate revision of the Covenant; and to do that we have to be signatories. We might say he trusts the text of the Covenant itself, and some responsiveness of other signatories sufficient that they will engage with us immediately in a process of amendment, as the Bill of Rights is not part of the U.S. Constitution as passed, but were instead the first amendments to it. He also trusts that some Anglican churches, and specifically some that we could expect to militantly resist efforts at amendment, will follow through on opinions already expressed saying that they can’t sign.

And I, also a Deputy to General Convention, have been reading and responding on both blogs (and especially to Tobias). I have a concern that for signatories of the Covenant, the processes of Section 4 will eliminate reception, Indaba discussions, and mediated conversations (from Section 3 of the Covenant text). As I wrote,

Perhaps my greatest concern is that this will indeed stifle adhocracy (sic) - when in a world more and more "networked" than institutional, adhocracy will be useful more often than it will be painful. "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail;" and while we can imagine that there will be other means for addressing differences, the temptation of possible resolution will pull more differences, more "problems," under the "hammer" of the Covenant's Section 4.

Our understanding of engagement and gradual reception seems largely gone from our discussions of how ideas are shared and embraced (or not) among the churches of the Communion. I hesitate to sign on to the Covenant, in fear that it will only "drive another nail into the coffin."
Perhaps we might say that I don’t trust the process – either the specific processes suggested in the Covenant text, or the intentions of all those who might be in the signatory group. With that in mind, I have noted that there is no deadline by which we must sign. We could at the next General Convention express our commitment to Communion, and to the existing Communion structures, and to continuing the Covenant process without being ready yet to commit. We could continue study and reflection until 2015. In the meantime, we would have more information. We would know who else had signed on. We would know what intentions had been expressed by signatories and by some of the Instruments of Communion in understanding the relationship between the churches of the Anglican Communion and the signatory churches of the Anglican Covenant. We would be embracing some tension in delaying, but we would be making a more informed decision.

And there are other possibilities. We could adopt the Covenant with our own “signing statement.” We could act something like Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, considering each Section separately and announcing what we have adopted, and what we haven’t. We might adopt, and also pass a resolution describing the amendment(s) that we intend to pursue.

We also need to acknowledge that each of these choices has some risk. If we choose not to sign, then among those who do sign there may well be enough still who wish to redefine participation in the Communion as participation in the Covenant so as to make that certain. Indeed, some who have said they couldn’t sign might just change their minds, magnifying the possibility. If we do sign with the intent to amend, there may still be enough among the signatories who don’t want amendment to prevent it; and so we’ll find ourselves committed in relationships that can inhibit us in living out the Gospel as we understand it in our own time and place. First and foremost, we’d be embracing further tension at home, and confusion and frustration among Anglican colleagues abroad. We would continue to be challenged as to whether we’re serious about communion. Moreover, if we delay for more reflection, time may still hurt us. While I think it unlikely that significant change could be accomplished in three years, enough change could happen to establish a trajectory we’d find it hard to turn. Even if we sought to adopt in a more controlled way, whether section by section, or by adding a “signing statement” or proposed amendments, some of these same risks would be present.

So, what are we to do? Like other Deputies, right at the moment I can’t say what I would do. That’s because the real action will be that taken in General Convention; and we don’t know yet what resolutions will be proposed, much less what will come from the appropriate legislative committee to the floor of either House. We don’t know what amendments or substitutions will be presented. So, we can’t commit to one specific vote or another, whatever we think about in all this thinking out loud (and what, after all, is a blog but thinking out loud?). I think first and foremost, we need to be conscious and informed about possible choices, and about the risk each entails. Then when it comes to a vote, we’ll be offering our best, most informed leadership.


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Marshall. What do you think about my latest suggestion: that we continue to study the Covenant by the means the Covenant itself suggests such important documents should be adopted (while perhaps indicating basic assent to secions 1-3 as consistent with our understandings, similar to what some other semi-adopters have done)?

Marshall Scott said...

I think it's very reasonable. It expresses continued willingness for communion more concretely than simply saying we're waiting to study. It seems to me that if we want to do this, we would also need to describe the means of consultation that we wish to pursue. Could we, for example, invite representatives of other provinces to a series of meetings, not unlike ecumenical discussions in parvo? Could we gather scholars across the Communion? I still have respect for Michael Nai Chiu Poon, even if I largely disagree with him. As long as we established a broad enough representation of the Communion, I think it would be respectable, and would be evidence of commitment to communion.

It would still draw criticism for delay, and perhaps allow time for efforts at exclusion. However, it would put some substance into our statement of good faith.

Daniel Weir said...

Marshall, thank you for a rather thorough review of the options as they appear now. Things will, as you said, change some between now and GC, so there may be more, or more clearly defined, options then. I think the idea of consultation with others in the Communion is worth pursuing. I have often thought that the words near the beginning of the marriage rite are appropriate here. There is a danger, for us and for the Communion, if we enter into this Covenant in haste. As I have said in a comment elsewhere, I think that any positive GC action should make clear our reservations about the document and our intention to refrain from using the provisions in the fourth section. Running to mommy/daddy when we have a disagreement with a sibling is not an adult response. If the sibling won't talk with us, then I doubt resorting to the provisions in section four would help.