February 28, 2007

Anglican Ambiguity

I was reading Jim Naughton's latest blog post this morning and thinking about the communiqués we have come to expect from meetings of the Anglican primates. Jim and Kendall Harmon have been debating the meaning of the latest such document coming out of Tanzania. Tellingly, Kendall sees a “clear meaning” in the primates’ request regarding same-sex blessings, and Jim sees ambiguity, probably intended ambiguity. Jim would like to have the Archbishop of Canterbury clarify the intention of the document regarding the point in question. This likely won’t happen, and probably shouldn’t happen, since we have no reason to consider Rowan Williams’ opinion definitive, given that the communiqué was the product of a group process that reflected, however imperfectly, the intentions of dozens of people.

Most readers would have to admit that the primates’ communiqués of recent years have embodied a good deal of ambiguity overall. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing in the abstract, I suggest that ambiguity is inevitable as long as the primates insist on issuing a single, unanimous opinion at the conclusion of each of their meetings.

The pressure for unanimity must be enormous, given that our presiding bishops have signed the statements emanating from Lambeth, Dromantine, and Dar es Salaam, even though each statement was critical of the actions of The Episcopal Church. Given the devastating criticism and draconian demands that some primates have found in these missives, we must conclude either that our presiding bishops are spineless representatives of our church who are indifferent as to its future, or that they have been willing, at some level, to endorse the consensus of these meetings because they were able to read a more benign and acceptable message in their closing statements.

Of course, the nature of the “endorsement” implied by signing a Primates’ Meeting communiqué is itself ambiguous. I argued that Katharine Jefferts Schori should not have signed a communiqué “contrary to the interests of The Episcopal Church”—I believe the latest communiqué should be so characterized—but perhaps she signed with the understanding that her church, and not its nominal leader, should respond to the declarations of the primates. Nonetheless, reports suggest that Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria withheld his signature in order to strengthen the criticism of and demands on the American church. Did our Presiding Bishop threaten to withhold her signature? If not, why not?

In general, meetings of the primates address a variety of topics, and, even if not all of these are as sensitive as those touching on human sexuality, diverse opinions among the participants can be expected. The latest communiqué, for example, has 37 numbered paragraphs, aside from the attached “schedule,” and it is reasonable to assume that discussion of most of the issues treated involved some amount of disagreement. Introduction of ambiguity, shading of meaning, and the occasional explicit admission of disagreement are all ways of achieving a document that all are willing to sign. If this is a defect in the process, it is an inevitable one, as long as a single, unanimous declaration is required.

Increasingly, the Primates’ Meeting looks like a legislative body. (That the Anglican provinces have never empowered it to be such is a serious matter I will not deal with here.) Surely it is what is described in Robert’s Rules as a “deliberative assembly,” operating, in some sense, like a town meeting, state legislature, or the U.S. Congress. Every student of such assemblies knows that, the longer and more complex a proposition to be voted on is, the more compromise is required for passage and the more compromised the “message” of the proposition becomes. Are we to assume that the primates are as united in their endorsement of a worldwide study of hermeneutics as they are in the view that The Episcopal Church “has departed from the standard of teaching on human sexuality accepted by the Communion in the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10”? Probably not, but no insight into the relative consensus of diverse points is to be had in a document signed—endorsed in some ambiguous way—by all participants.

In the past, I have viewed Anglican ambiguity as a tool that helped keep Anglicans together, a way of minimizing our differences and allowing everyone to save face, to tolerate in others viewpoints and actions they might otherwise feel compelled to condemn. I am beginning to feel differently about Anglican ambiguity, however. Archbishop Rowan Williams, addressing the Church of England General Synod earlier this week, described the reactions of the primates to the response to their requests made last year by General Convention:
About eleven provinces were fairly satisfied; about eleven were totally dissatisfied. The rest displayed varying levels of optimism or pessimism, but were not eager to see this as a life and death issue for the Communion. Of those who took one or the other of the more pronounced view, several on both sides nonetheless expressed real exasperation that this question and the affairs of one province should be taking up energy to the near-exclusion of other matters.
How did such a divided group of primates come to issue the severe communiqué that was released on February 19? Is our use of ambiguity beginning to work in ways that drive us apart? I think it is.

The angriest primates held out for treating The Episcopal Church harshly, demanding this as the price for achieving the “necessary” unanimity in the communiqué. More moderate voices were only able to accept this because of ambiguity in the document, both in its actual provisions and in the meaning that might be attached to a primate’s signature. Does our own Presiding Bishop approve of everything in the communiqué? Is she obliged to defend it to The Episcopal Church and to recommend that its provisions, in one form or another, be implemented? Who knows?

If the primates did not insist on everyone’s signing a final statement, Katharine Jefferts Schori could simply have said, “I will not sign.” The other primates could have accepted that—certainly an action the world at large would have understood—or they might have actually tried to accommodate her concerns so that she would sign. Better still, the primates could vote on individual provisions and, even if they did not announce the vote count, they could represent that, as a group, they endorsed certain positions. No recommendation (or demand) would thereby be foisted on the Communion by an actual minority of the primates. This would show clearly what the primates, collectively, support or do not support. Clarity, however, is not the Anglican way.

Of course, no one in full possession of his or her faculties believes either that every primate is 100% behind all the provisions of the Tanzania communiqué or that each primate understands it the same way. Beyond that, we know very little, however, and all sides are inclined to project their hopes and fears onto the necessarily ambiguous document, a process that fosters conflict, rather than reconciliation. The reality is that the process by which such statements are produced is fundamentally flawed, possibly dishonest, and is certainly driving the Communion to take more radical stands than it might in the absence of current constraints. Episcopalians, and Anglicans generally, for that matter, have little reason to put much faith in either the process for or products of the Primates’ Meeting. Given that the primates have no right to legislate or dictate to the various provinces anyway, that faith should be even further discounted.

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