24/08/2008

Who steers the ship?


I have put a copy of my booklet Who Steers the Ship? The Proverty of the Draft Anglian Covenant on the MCU website, acessible here. It is published by MCU.

I argue first that the context for the covenant is a highly fluid and complex process of global change in which the church, like everything else, is being undone and re-made.

I set out what I see to be a fairly stable pattern of ecclesiastical conflict:

In practice, while each conflict in the church has been historically distinctive, they share common structural characteristics.

First, conflict tends to be complex and extensive reflecting incommensurable differences at the level of basic pre-suppositions. These differences have deep historic roots and are reflected in almost every aspect of the expression and embodiment of faith.

Second, because of this complexity, the occasion of conflict is often a relatively small matter, perhaps the actions or teaching of a particular individual. Conflicts take the form of synecdoche in which small matters encapsulate and represent much greater underlying differences.

Third, whatever the occasion and focus of a conflict, the issue is always greater. A struggle about a matter of Christian belief or practice quickly becomes a struggle for the soul of the church and then, equally quickly, becomes a struggle to gain the right to determine how the church decides. Nothing is minor or adiaphora when the identity of the Church is at stake.

Fourth, most church members do not engage in conflict. Consequently the leaders of the contending groups have to work hard to keep supporters on side and engaged in battle. They do so by increasingly strident rhetoric. They declare the conflict vital to the authenticity of the Church as a whole while denying the possibility of middle ground or conciliation. The occasion of conflict becomes a shibboleth by which to divide friends from enemies amongst people who would otherwise be indistinguishable. Ever-present incommensurable aspects of Christianity are highlighted while shared discipleship and good working relationships are minimised. Thus disputes quickly become critical conflicts of self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating seriousness. On the other hand, those seeking a resolution to conflict have the majority with them although, for the most part, the majority remain silent, dis-persed and disengaged.

Fifth, those seeking to resolve the crisis perceive that they cannot find a way forwards by dealing with the occasion of conflict head-on. Because the issues are too great and inherently intractable they seek to move sideways and often propose organizational change. This has the immediate effect of transposing the conflict into new terms, away from its ostensible focus and onto the ultimate goal: the right and capacity to determine how the church makes decisions. Organizational change embodies shifts in ecclesial power and ‘To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.’ (WL Marcy, 1860)

I argue that centralisation and greater conformity are built into the covenants and especially into the St Andrew's draft. The proposals for juridical conflict resolution won't work. The lessons of history are that courts are inneffective as instruments of policy and the idea that those whith differences can be properly cast into the roles of accuser and defendant is a conceptual error.

I suggest that the covenant is an attempt to re-invent Anglican unity (not merely to build on past experience and add a bit) from which the laity would be excluded.

To conclude:

None of this will equip the Church for mission. On the contrary, the St Andrew’s draft Covenant offers a structure with brakes and no engine. Its proposed conflict resolution mechanisms would provide the means to amplify local disputes into global conflicts. The unity it offers is based on the threat of division. The presumption of uniformity will create new strains between and within member Provinces. New structures will lead to a generation of institutional introspection. Archiepiscopal control will be strengthened while the laity will be further marginalised. To hand power to those whose instinct is to resist change would militate against developing flexibility and the imaginative steps necessary to enable the Church to respond to the centrifugal and centripetal forces which are re-making human society across the globe.

I suggest that the church needs to be envisaged as a living entity for which there are never definitive solutions - only living out the tensions together.

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