Covenant and conflict: definitions?

This is the second post looking at the conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms of the proposed Anglican Covenant. It suggests that there is significant ambiguity over three key aspects of the Covenant: what constitutes an offence under its provisions, what a 'shared mind' is and how it is obtained, and the underlying purposes of the mechanisms it outlines.

A summary of the conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms of the proposed Anglican Covenant is here.


Define: (1) an offence under the Covenant
One prior question is the nature of the potential offence under the Covenant. 

I am assuming on reasonable historical grounds that the issues which divide will be doctrinal. And even if the presenting issue is not necessarily doctrinal the arguments will be conducted on those grounds. (Because doctrine - the teaching of the church as both noun and verb - is what binds us together and what divides us.)

A quiz from the Magistrates Association - how many
offences can you see?
The only offence under the Covenant is 'that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”.' This would seem to cover offences against (a) doctrine: section 1, (b) ecclesiology: section 2, (c) unity: section 3, and (d) proper procedure: section 4. 

Thus, in effect, any sins of omission or commission in almost any aspect of the life of a church may potentially be “incompatible with the Covenant”.

It is true that no-one can predict where the next big doctrinal row will blow from. Nonetheless the phrasing of  the offence under the Covenant is immensely wide.

Define: (2) A shared mind
Where a shared mind has not been reached the matter shall be referred to the Standing Committee. (4.2.4, see 3.2.4)
This concept has run through the various drafts of the Covenant but it has never been defined, nor has there been any suggestion as to how a definition should be arrived at. 

  • Whose minds have to be shared for the Communion to have a shared mind? 
  • What degree of sharing constitutes sufficient sharing? Should their be a vote? In which case, who should vote? And should there be a super-majority - say 66% - as opposed to 50%+1 in order to establish that minds are shared? Or would there be multiple votes in the different Instruments of Communion?
  • Would a majority vote of the members of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion be sufficient politically even if it is legally?
  • And, before any vote can happen, who formulates the question? What degree of precision is necessary? 
  • What happens after the vote? Will failure to come to a shared mind be definitive - or will there be repeated votes till some agreement is reached?
  • Who has a veto? Could the Archbishop of Canterbury, even in theory, veto something when other Instruments say they have a shared mind? Could the shared mind of the Primates be undone by the unshared minds of the ACC? 
  • Or is the mind of the church sufficiently shared when someone - the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion or the  Archbishop of Canterbury or the Primates - declares that it's shared? Or that it's not.
  • how long should a matter be considered before anyone can or should say that the moment to determine that minds are shared has been reached? 
  • A shared mind map for eliminating stress
  • What would be the test or trigger to move from debate to decision? 
The people who make this judgment on timing hold the key to the whole conflict resolution process - it will be a point of immense power in Anglicanism.

The mind of Christ?
There is also a slightly worrying touch of hubris in the Covenant:
we seek to affirm our common life through those Instruments of Communion by which our Churches are enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ. (3.1.2)
The implication is that Anglican convergence as envisaged by the Covenant may be equated with every closer conformity with the mind of Christ.

So it's both comforting and worrying that this sentence is immediately followed by:
Churches of the Anglican Communion are bound together “not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” and of the other instruments of Communion. (3.1.2)
It is comforting in its reaffirmation of a traditional understanding of Anglican relationships supported by a quote from the Lambeth Conference of 1930.

The worry lies in the apparent dissonance between this statement and the reality of the Covenant: that it will usher in a central legalistic structure, create a greatly strengthened global executive, replace loyalty by contractual relationships and marginalise the counsel of (almost all) bishops in conference.

Define: (3) The goals of Covenant processes - what is it really about?
There is a range of potential objectives for the conflict resolution processes envisaged in the Covenant and it would be foolish to limit them from the start. However some sense of what is envisaged - or what would not be included - might help assess the possible reach and consequences of the Covenant.

Doctrinal agreement
There are two possible formulations of doctrinal agreement:
  • Either there is agreement on what Anglican doctrine is. 
  • Or there is agreement as to what is unacceptable within Anglicanism.
The first is a maximal agreement delineating beliefs and demands a high degree of conformity.

Agreed doctrinal texts are common and often valuable. The extensive ecumenical agreement set out in Baptism, Ministry and Eucharist is a useful example. It is not prescriptive and also outlines those areas where member churches do not agree, sometimes with recommendations for directions of travel. But in its essence it is a voluntary agreement attained with no possibility of coercion.

The Covenant contains the instruments of determining doctrinal difference (conflict resolution). However any Covenant agreement is likely, given its origin in contention between groups with different views, to be used as the basis of coercion - even if it is the passive-aggressive form of coercion envisaged whereby every other member may turn its back on the offending Province.

The second form of agreement - setting out what is unacceptable - is an attempt to set a fence around what may be tolerated. Such an agreement would be more inclusive than the alternative. But the problem is that there is never any clear-cut place to draw any line across the spectrum of belief. Only in retrospect is is possible to say with any confidence what was, and was not, acceptable. Merely making and statement and drawing a line doesn't in fact change anyone's mind. Furthermore, because theology is not an exact science, it is very hard to patrol such a fence given differing emphases and formulations of the same issue.

In an earlier era, John Hapgood, Archbishop of York, argued against an attempt to put a fence round doctrine. Consider cattle farming in Australia, he said, they need no fences despite the vast open spaces - they simply maintain good water holes and the cattle don't stray far. I'm not comfortable with the correlation of Christians and cattle, but otherwise the analogy works for me.

Behavioural agreement
Because doctrine is so difficult to delineate with sufficient juridical precision prospective combatants turn to the behavioural expression of doctrine.

In nineteenth century England the Church Association stopped prosecuting Anglo-Catholics in the courts for their beliefs and turned instead to their ritual. Ritual was governed by law and breach of it was much easier to evidence. Ritual expressed belief and was thus seemed an acceptable substitute route to their main goal of eradicating ritualism and reasserting the unalloyed Protestant nature of the Church of England.

Caxton's printing press:
you can suppress ideas
but not stop them.
At first it worked. Courts declared certain ritualist practices illegal and 5 people were imprisoned. But coercion didn't work. Those imprisoned were regarded as martyrs and, eventually, the courts and bishops simply bent with the wind. The courts did not want to be associated with something that merely exposed their inability to enforce their decisions. Bishops began to veto prosecutions. The Church Association's last fling of the dice in prosecuting Bishop King provided an opportunity to bring prosecutions to an end. Thus the prosecutors achieved the opposite of their objective - the effective legalisation of ritualism within the Church of England.

The same has happened with sexuality. The doctrinal basis that conservatives wish to attack has been expressed in the organizational changes which accept all people as full members of the church - irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation. The attack on the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire was a substitute for a more general attack on the acceptance of modern mores within the Church.

I predict matters will eventually go the same way as the attack on ritualism, but we are not yet at the end of the pain.

Organizational agreement
Organizational change is the goal of the Covenant and will be its inevitable outcome.

If the goal of expelling the North American churches from the Communion is achieved there will be a tectonic shift in relations between provinces. If it is not achieved or only partly achieved (which is entirely possible) there will probably also be a tectonic shift, though in different directions, depending on the actions of the  provinces of the Global South.

Either way the next few decades is going to continue to be an Anglican mess. Out of it will, I predict, come a strengthened and reinvigorated church which will not embody what any of the combatants currently desire for it. Such will be the effect of either enforcing a resolution to conflict or of continuing to avoid a resolution in the face of powerful demands to do so.

In the end, it's all politics.


A summary of the conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms of the proposed Anglican Covenant.

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