June 28, 2012

Alternatives to “No”

The Episcopal Church’s 2012 General Convention begins next week, a fact that has me thinking more than usual about what the governing body of the church will do about the Anglican Covenant. Virtually no one expects it to be adopted, but there are many shades of gray between definitive rejection and outright acceptance, some of which are apparent from studying the resolutions that have been put forward so far. (See “A Comparison of General Convention Resolutions on the Anglican Covenant.”)

As I have said repeatedly, I believe that the General Convention should say “no” to the Covenant in the strongest possible terms, not only to opt out of the pact but also to advance the process of euthanizing what is a bad idea badly implemented. That the Covenant is already effective for some churches will make it difficult for the Communion to put the final nails in the Covenant’s coffin, and, even with a clear trend among churches to reject the agreement, the Covenant is likely to remain a zombie-like presence in the Communion for years to come. Episcopalians in Indianapolis can do only so much.

Although I would interpret unambiguous rejection of the Covenant as a courageous act of leadership, some would see it as evidence of Episcopal Church arrogance or, more charitably, rudeness. If nothing else, Anglicans must always be well-mannered. A friend of mine who is opposed to the Covenant but who is nothing if not courteous, wrote to me about “the traditional way of killing things off politely,” namely, referring the matter to a committee. Or, he suggested, we could pose questions to the Anglican Communion Office or the next Lambeth Conference.

This latter strategy is an interesting one and would certainly postpone the church’s having to commit itself for another three (or even nine) years. But, assuming that asking questions about the Covenant is sincere and not just a strategy to buy time—politeness and insincerity are not incompatible after all—can anyone give a definitive answer to how the Covenant will “really” work?

The answer to this question is simply “no.” The Anglican Communion has no ultimate central authority—that is something the Covenant would change. But for now, no one can say how the Covenant will work in practice. Certainly, not the Anglican Communion Office, which some have argued does not even have legitimate existence under existing Communion rules. Likewise, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury (this one or the next) can only speculate about life under the Covenant. None of the “Instruments” is in a position to make promises it can keep, and even the Covenant itself grants to individual Instruments the power to make independent, and perhaps conflicting, decisions about “relational consequences.”

Under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to predict the consequence of new governing documents. (I write this as I await the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Health Care Act. The Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the need for such a legal opinion, and, a decade ago, no one would have considered the individual mandate to be controversial.) This is surely true in the case of the Covenant, which some think will be innocuous and others believe will transform the Communion dramatically. In a sense, every such compact is a pig in a poke, and representations about the pig by the seller need to be taken with a grain of salt. When nasty noises are coming from inside the poke, however, the buyer should beware. There are other pigs. Or we can eat cake.

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