May 22, 2007

Reflecting on Responding to the Study Guide

I’ve spent a good deal of time the last couple of days answering the questions asked by The Episcopal Church in “A Short Study Guide to Aid The Episcopal Church in Responding to the Draft Anglican Covenant as Prepared by the Covenant Design Group.” This was not an easy task. Even after having invested much energy in the project, I have not produced definitive essays on the proposed covenant, though I trust that others’ work will complement my own efforts.

Answering the 14 questions posed by the Executive Council was something of a double obligation for me. As an active combatant in the ongoing church wars—I know that some people don’t like such metaphors—I would have seemed derelict had I not addressed the questions about the covenant. Along with other members of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP)—and, in particular, President Joan Gundersen—I had produced both a worksheet for people to use to record their answers, as well as a collection of materials to provide context for the task. How could I not see how these resources worked in practice?

You can read my answers and find links to relevant material by going to “Responding to the Study Guide” on my Web site. What I want to do here is to offer some observations about my experience.

The Study Guide. I quickly learned that the Study Guide is pretty lean in the easy question department. Its questions are quite specific and are not always the ones you most want to answer. No doubt, this is intended to elicit feedback on particular issues and to discourage shallow, rambling, or irrational responses. It is difficult to see any overt bias in the questions, and those on both the left and right may find them maddeningly “objective.” The questions are certainly comprehensive, however, and, since essay answers are expected, no one should feel that his or her thought on the covenant cannot fully be expressed. The Study Guide questions proceed from the specific to the general, which may not be to everyone’s taste. I will have more to say about this below.

If the details of the questions do not discourage you from sharing your opinions with The Episcopal Church, seeing someone else’s answers might. I have been encouraging several fellow parishioners to answer the Study Guide questions, but, when I showed them my answers, their reaction was that they were insufficiently prepared for the task. That may be true, or I may simply be obsessive.

Preparation. Having been following Anglican conflicts for many years now, I was reasonably well prepared to address the questions at hand. I must admit, though, that I felt more like I was taking a final exam than like I was responding to a questionnaire. The term “Study Guide”—it is actually called “A Short Study Guide”— is not so much an aid to study as a prod to study. If you expect to answer its 14 questions, plan to read the obviously relevant documents several times over, and expect to need reference material close at hand as you work. It is difficult to evaluate the covenant without already having a good understanding of the events that brought the Anglican Communion to its present state. That background is difficult to obtain in a hurry, so anyone who looks at the Study Guide or the report from the Covenant Design Group (CDG) and says, “What is this?” should probably just forget the whole thing.

Tools. PEP’s “Evaluating the Draft Covenant,” which collects many pertinent documents into a single PDF file with search capabilities and a digital table of contents, proved invaluable. I kept the document open all the time I was working on my answers. Although I did not consult Joan Gundersen’s annotations of the CDG report on a question-by-question basis, I did read all her notes and fond them quite helpful in framing an overall view of the proposed covenant. I did go back to Joan’s annotations to clarify particular points.

I also used the PEP Microsoft Word worksheet to record my answers. This was very helpful for organizing and presenting my thoughts, though I discovered that Word text form fields, which are used in the worksheet, have some peculiar properties that I cannot find documented anywhere. Text was easy to enter, but it was sometimes difficult to edit. (Hint: If you are having trouble positioning the cursor within your text, try using the arrow keys.) Were I to do everything over again, I think I would keep the PEP worksheet open in one Word window, but type and edit my text in another. When I was satisfied with an answer, I would copy and paste it into the PEP document. (PEP may try making a PDF form with Acrobat next time it perceives a need for such a mechanism.)

Getting It Down. I would recommend developing a good overall view of what you want to say before you start answering specific questions or even studying the questions in detail. This will help assure that you get to say all the things you believe are important. You might even jot down indications of the points you want to make. There will still likely be issues you have not considered that will be raised by the Study Guide, but this approach will minimize the problem of what to say and focus your attention on where to say it. That the PEP worksheet extracts the questions from the full Study Guide text is helpful at this point, and it might be useful to assign your points to make to specific questions. I did find myself making similar statements in more than one place, but this is probably inevitable and possibly even desirable (see below).

One’s psychological makeup or intellectual preferences may have a bearing on how comfortably you are using the Study Guide. I found myself wanting first to write a summary of my reaction to the draft covenant, whose conclusions I could then support with specifics, but the Study Guide focuses on the particular before it treats the general. Episcopalians with my inclinations may want to answer the last few questions before returning to the first ones. I was concerned about procrastinating, so I forced myself to begin at the beginning and skip no questions. No one will know if you do otherwise, however.

Aggregating the Answers. Some people have suggested that the difficulty of the questions asked in the Study Guide and the short time allowed for responses (less than two months) will mean that few responses from Episcopalians will be forthcoming, and most of those will be from institutional respondents. (I see that the General Convention deputation from the Diocese of New York has posted its answers to the questions on the Web.) Some cynics have suggested that the Executive Council actually wanted to discourage responses and wasn’t planning to pay much attention to those it did receive. I’m not that cynical, but I do wonder if the Study Guide authors considered carefully how data was to be handled. Whereas multiple-choice and true-false questions can be reduced to easily assimilated statistics, complex essays cannot be. Moreover, answers will likely be long. Although I cannot know if the length of mine will prove typical, the answers from the New York deputation certainly cannot be described as terse.

Will those responsible for presenting the responses of Episcopalians to the Executive Council analyze data by question or by whole response? Will they try to reduce answers to statistical summaries, or will they try to identify responses from particular people or groups that are somehow representative of distinct positions? Who know? That there is only a week between the deadline for responses and the beginning of the June Executive Council meeting makes me thankful that I personally don’t have to figure out what to do.

The data-analysis problem actually has consequences for respondents. One should not worry about making a point more than once, particularly if it is especially pertinent to more than one question. The redundancy makes it more likely that your voice will be heard. Since all one’s answers may not be kept together, it is a good idea to avoid cross-referencing your answers; repeat a point if it needs to be made in more than one place. On the other hand, it would be wise to be sure that you actually do answer every question directly and in the form it is asked. This will help assure that the points you make are noticed and not misunderstood.

Good Luck.
If you’re planning to submit your responses to the Study Guide, be aware that you have less than two weeks in which to do so. (Answers are due by June 4.) Time to get to work if you have not already begun. Good luck!

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