May 6, 2009

Not So Fast

Following the 2006 General Convention, Christopher Wells and I suggested, in an essay in The Living Church, that dealing with the Anglican Communion on matters such as the Windsor Report can be thought of as conducting the foreign policy of the church. I thought of “The Church Faces a Foreign Policy Challenge” as I considered the current deliberations at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting now going on in Kingston, Jamaica, and what the immediate fate is likely to be of the latest draft of an Anglican covenant.

There is every expectation that the current covenant draft, or something very much like it, will be sent to the Anglican provinces, including The Episcopal Church, for acceptance or rejection by the ACC. There is no doubt that only the General Convention could give an official response on behalf of the church.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has already expressed the opinion that such a response could not be considered responsibly at the 2009 General Convention. According to Episcopal News Service, Jefferts Schori said, “[M]y sense is that the time is far too short before our General Convention for us to have a thorough discussion of it as a church and I’m therefore going to strongly discourage any move to bring it to General Convention.”

In our essay, Christopher and I remarked on the fact that, even with substantial lead time, the General Convention had great difficulty responding satisfactorily to the Windsor Report. We speculated that, at the 2009 General Convention, the church might be called upon to react to a proposed Anglican covenant, and we suggested ways in which the church could do a better job next time. Our assumption was that the church would create another commission to study the situation and to offer recommendations to the General Convention. Clearly, there is no time for that or for the other recommendations we made, which I reproduce here:
  1. The commission should be rigorously representative of various voices in the church, have adequate time to do its work, and act as the legislative committee at convention. This last provision would minimize the time needed to build trust and a spirit of cooperation within the group, and could discourage last-minute changes to proposed resolutions, which the convention can find disorienting.
  2. The commission should incorporate into its work plan the model for developing a foreign policy response articulated above, requiring it to wrestle with the difficult particulars inherent in the interplay of autonomy and interdependence.
  3. The commission should consider presenting alternative plans in its report, each with its own set of proposed resolutions; offering alternatives could facilitate agreement on resolutions without requiring agreement as to the policy to be implemented. To encourage clarity, the commission should produce as few resolutions as possible, however, and the commission members, ideally, should be willing to support the resolutions—or all of one set of resolutions, if alternative policies are presented—unequivocally and without amendment.
  4. The commission’s report should appear sufficiently before the General Convention for interested parties to appraise it and for legislators to evaluate it against their own analysis of the questions, desirable goals, and means by which objectives might be achieved.
  5. At convention, the committee might consider holding hearings before the Houses of Bishops and the House of Deputies in joint session, concentrating on strategy, rather than on the minutiae of particular resolutions.
  6. The legislative houses should discuss the strategy recommended (or strategies offered) by the commission and whether it is the one the convention really wants to adopt. Participants, having had ample time to respond to the commission’s report, will have been prepared for this.
  7. Final resolutions should be sent to the houses as early as possible—our recommendations are meant to facilitate this—which will afford the bishops and deputies ample time to put their stamp on the final result. Reporting out the resolutions as a group would facilitate coherent action.
Clearly, there is inadequate time to do any of this; the Presiding Bishop’s remarks were right on target.

Apparently, a resolution has been proposed for General Convention (“Provisional Acceptance of the Anglican Covenant”)—ironically, co-sponsored by Christopher Wells—that indeed proposes a task force to study the covenant and to bring forth recommendations for the 2012 General Convention. It also proposes, however, that the church make a provisional commitment to the terms of the covenant. How can we possibly do that if we have no time to consider seriously whether the latest covenant is anything close to what the church might want to sign on to?

Not only is it unreasonable to consider making a decision about accepting the covenant at the upcoming General Convention, but also is it unreasonable to make a tentative commitment to what is, at this point, something of a pig in a poke.

What we should begin doing at General Convention is discussing what our goals as a church are. What is most important to us, and what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of peace in the Anglican Communion? Conducting foreign policy without any clear notion of what one’s ultimate goals are is a blueprint for disaster.

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