13/11/2010

What is the Covenant supposed to solve?

It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone reading this that I really don't like the Covenant.  More than that, I think it is profoundly misguided, a denial of so much that is precious in the Anglican tradition that we have inherited, and a pitiful response to the deep divisions of the Church.

There are always alternatives.
The most prominent alternative, the Jerusalem Declaration, will serve to bind together most conservative Evangelicals - at least while the enemy that threatens them (the values they see corrupting the western church and leading it out of the fold of Christians) is bigger than they are.

The great weakness of any confessional statement is that it must be either vague, so that large numbers can endorse it, or so exact that it convey the views of its authors' precisely, thus guaranteeing that relatively few people will sign up.  Hence the critique by Bishop John Rodgers in SPREAD that the Covenant is 'too weak for the orthodox and too strong for the revisionists'.

The normal way - these days, anyway, following western states' use of government by fear - is to sound the alarm.  The enemy is massing at the gates - defend the citadel!  Of course the enemy within is more dangerous than the enemy without so any confessional statement is simultaneously intended to unite and divide - a shibboleth by which to discriminate between people who would otherwise look just the same. (See: the fourth point of how to mount a coup).  Such statements last only as long as the threat is real.  Afterwards the statement is consigned to history and people get on as though it wasn't there apart, perhaps, from an occasional, formal, acknowledgement.  Or the statement is taken seriously, in which case people fight over the exact interpretation and take sides within its framework.  (The historical option - get sufficient agreement and use force to impose it on everyone else - is not really available to the Communion.)

Rodgers' choice of the Primates' Meeting, rather than the Standing Committee, as the implementing body has already been defeated.  And it now looks so divided as to be unable to take on this role if the task were thrust upon it.

But what problems is the Covenant supposed to solve (now, as opposed to when it was first conceived)?

First, the unity of the Communion.  Sadly, I think it's too late - and perhaps was always too late.  In fact it increasingly seems that pushing people to sign will be the last step in the de facto schism.  By going for a Covenant that was acceptable to a sufficient majority of the players in Global Anglicanism the Covenant Design Group has failed to bring enough of the Communion on board.

This is described as a civil war cannon and
 a toy that really works and is safe.
 The perfect illustration
Second, to provide the framework for future disputes.  Sadly the Covenant procedures will almost certainly only work for little disputes or issues exclusively between two parties. And they could probably be resolved in any framework.

Or they will work to exclude TEC and Canada - and then everyone will take fright because they could be next. They will move quickly to dismantle the Covenant - it will prove to have been a disastrous one-shell cannon.

The Covenant framework will not be adequate to any significant dispute.  It's back-to-front: what happens is that administrative structures & agreements work because people agree to make them work.  In normal times conflicts flow through, and are contained by, the channels of the pre-existing system: people and systems are in continual dialogue.  In abnormal (though not uncommon) times disputes overflow the system and leave it in pieces.  Then people coming together, pick up the pieces and rebuild. The cycle starts over again: systems cannot be imposed without assent.

Third: as one more step in a long-term programme to reform the Communion by centralising and reducing the differences between provinces.  This goal might well be met, in part at least, by the process to arrive at a Covenant as much as by the document itself.  In the course of debate, it seems to me, the previously normative idea that the Communion was a federal structure with central consultative bodies seems to have been replaced by the normative idea that the Communion is a single entity whose centre needs to be strengthened because its component parts are too fissiparous.

Some possible alternatives
First, the diverging Communion.  Reality-defying projects have their place and can create wonderful things.  But often they just crash.  I would now go for recognising the reality of division and seek to keep as many people as linked together as possible by multiple informal networks - of liturgists, historians, mothers' union, mission societies, even train-spotters - to keep communication channels open despite formal division.  I would try to keep as many parish-parish, diocese-diocese, mission society links as strong as possible for as long as possible. I would offer small no-strings grants to foster them.  I would encourage them to publicise their work.  But I would not try to control them. When the dust settles we will need those continuing friendships and conversations to build the new Anglicanism.

Second: conflict resolution.  Perhaps the task is to rebuild the communion from the base up - and on the presuppositions that it is a voluntary association, that all are faithful followers of Christ, that each member will offer hospitality to any other - no matter how alien the expression of faith may seem.

I would also offer skilled, experienced people who can lead non-binding arbitration to help resolve small disputes and those between two-parties.  In other words, to encourage Christians not to go to court, but to come to a resolution between themselves: a resolution they are responsible for (i.e. not determined by some other body).  Non-binding arbitration gives people choices without sanctions.

Third: I would strengthen the links between provinces and the central bodies of the Communion and also the direct links between provinces (the formal expression of the informal networks in my first point).  I would stress that the role of the central bodies is to facilitate and broker relationships, to provide financial, technical and educative aid.  There is no lack of energy and initiative in the provinces, dioceses and parishes: let the centre support the exchange of information and wisdom such that the whole Communion benefits.

Location-specific networks?
But, to be fair, this is a western, IT-informed vision.  I'm not sure that it'll sell in Nigeria or Burma or Japan.  I'm not sure it will work well in areas of Africa with minimal and expensive internet access.

I can see too that it rests on a presumption of people's inherent goodness.  It will certainly have to be tough enough to cope with human evil but the primary safeguard is that networks and arbitration are voluntary: anyone can walk away without ceasing to be part of the wider church.

If it is to work it will have to be fundamentally people-focused. Technology should be secondary and appropriate to the people involved: mobile phones in central Africa, super-fast broadband in New York and Tokyo and old-fashioned pen and paper anywhere.

To be people-focused is also to take into account the disparity of wealth and poverty. Networks should be fostered in ways that will enable people to live out their faith in shared ways, not burden them with costs and duties that distract from the primary tasks of discipleship.

I dare say my vision will be nonsense to many but, on the other hand, I can see how very, very few are enthused by the Covenant.

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