August 11, 2012

Thoughts on Mark Harris’s “Last Thoughts”

A few  days ago, Mark Harris, who chaired the subcommittee that sent the substitute Resolutions D008 and B005 to the legislative floor of General Convention, offered an extended explanation of what, in his view, happened in Indianapolis. (His post is “Last thoughts on B005 substitute and moving on.”) I considered leaving a comment on his Preludium post or on the post about his essay on The Lead. I decided, however, that there was too much that I wanted to say. I will try to say it all here.

Covenant options
Let me preface my comments  on “Last Thoughts” by emphasizing that, although B005 was not the definitive rejection of the Anglican Covenant I would like to have seen, it was nevertheless a vote of no confidence in the Covenant. The Anglican agreement ostensibly was the tool that was going to bring the churches of the Communion closer together, to “intensify” their relationships. If the Covenant was so divisive as to paralyze the decision-making process of The Episcopal Church, how likely is it, really, that it could bring together the diverse churches of the Communion? B005 sent the clear message that our church is unenthusiastic about the Covenant. Moreover, we can be excused our vacillation given the fact that the Covenant was aimed squarely at controlling actions of The Episcopal Church. Global South churches would have considered our rejection of the Covenant arrogant and our adoption of the Covenant cynical.

With that out of the way, let me move on to “Last Thoughts.” In what follows, I will reproduce excerpts from Mark Harris’s essay and follow them with my own comments. The excerpts are presented in the order in which they appear in “Last Thoughts,” but not all of that essay will be duplicated here. If you have not read “Last Thoughts,” you might want to do so before reading on. (See link above.)


The substance of “Last Thoughts” begins with a section titled “Personal opinion and legislative action”:
Regarding the Anglican Covenant, my “thinking process” at Convention was a bit more than a thinking process, it was about being part of a conversation that included people who I strongly disagree with and yet who worked with one another hoping to find common ground.
The conversation, of course, was a conversation within the subcommittee that was tasked with considering resolutions on the Covenant. Members of that subcommittee had a wide variety of views on the Covenant, and the work of the group seemed more about establishing and maintaining harmony within that group than about deciding what was best for The Episcopal Church or even whether the Covenant, objectively considered, was or was not a good idea.
We also knew, and sometimes talked about, the fact that all resolutions are also political and serve some people better than others. We were not without wisdom in noting that agendas within resolutions, even those made by Christians, are sometimes self-serving.

The level of honest discussion in the group was quite amazing. I have seldom been as aware of the gift that is present in the range of opinions, feelings and concerns of others as I was in this group.
I can attest that the subcommittee was conspicuously harmonious, though it isn’t clear that this was a good thing. With a few exceptions, it was very hard to discern what individual subcommittee members actually thought of the Covenant. In other words, the discussion was polite but not frank. The group put its own collegiality ahead of the needs of the church. Perhaps there was more give-and-take in the groups that drafted possible substitute resolutions. I did not think to insist that those meetings should be open, so I did not observe them.
B005 was another matter. The resolution options concerning the adoption of the Covenant seemed to be “yes”, “no”, “not in its present form”, “not at the present time”, “yes, with some work to be done before we can actually sign,” “yes to parts 1,2,3 and more study on 4.” But none of these concerned the reality experienced in the group itself, namely the desire to act in ways that honored the wide range of understandings as to just what the Anglican Covenant, and for that matter the Anglican Communion, was about and the desire to not too easily push us into a win-lose contest.
Taken together, the resolutions themselves and the testimony regarding them were clearly tilted toward “no.” The decision not to decide came from the subcommittee and conflicted with the sense of nearly all the resolutions as originally submitted. Only the last-minute Resolution C115 called for a delay in deciding on adoption. The subcommittee—certainly its chair, anyway—was determined that whatever resolutions were sent forward would actually pass. This represented political wisdom to a degree, but it may also have been an attempt to avoid embarrassment.
What we ended up with was the resolution on the Anglican Covenant that was introduced to the House of Deputies as B005 substitute. It did not say ‘no” [sic] to the Anglican Covenant. But it did say ‘no’ to at least part of the Anglican Covenant game—to that part that said with some urgency “you have to decide for or against the Covenant, now.”
There is no deadline for acting on the Covenant. (More’s the pity!) As far as I could tell, however, the subcommittee never considered when The Episcopal Church might be ready to make a decision. Is there ever going to be a time when all Episcopalians are going to be of one mind about the Covenant? (Not likely!) If the subcommittee did not want to “play the game,” why pass any resolution on the Covenant at all? Why not just ignore the issue?

The next section of “Final Thoughts” is titled “Changing the possibilities of answer”:
 B005 Substitute essentially changed the question of adoption from something requiring immediate response to a question we could answer at our leisure, when we are ready to do so. We changed the assumption of the game plan.
The subcommittee seems proud of its cleverness here, but it did not opt out of playing the game. Instead, it tried to play it better than the other guys.

The subcommittee seems not to have considered the effect of B005 on other members of the Communion. Some will, no doubt, see our position as being passive-aggressive. Others will conclude that our church is a paper tiger lacking the will or good sense to act in its own best interest. Perhaps more importantly, B005 weakens the position of our ACC representatives, who are hardly in a position to say at the fall meeting in New Zealand that we should either terminate or time-limit the adoption process. B005 makes it look as though The Episcopal Church is simply trying to duck responsibility. If, of all churches, the American church cannot make a decision for at least another three years, other churches must need an eternity to decide.
In my mind, the larger Anglican Covenant game involves a sales pitch where the producers of the Anglican Covenant said we needed to buy a particular product (The Anglican Covenant) because we need, or want, or desire, what it can do for us. The product was advertised to make us part of a very special group—the Anglican Communion—if only we would buy and use the product. If we didn’t—well the heartbreak of psoriasis is nothing compared to the heartbreak of second tier life—not an outcast, but not a player either. But the choice was ours—buy or don’t buy. Every province supposedly gets the same offer—yes or no—and on that full inclusion in the Anglican Communion rests. But who make this game up?
If you actually read the Covenant, you find that failure to adopt it has virtually no consequences not directly related to the Covenant itself. (If we rejected the Covenant, we could not participate in punishing sister churches. Many of us see that as a good thing.) We have indeed been sold a bill of goods, having been told, on one hand, that failure to adopt does not remove us from the Communion, and, on the other, that rejection will make us a junior partner in the Communion. This is another of the many matters the subcommittee did not discuss.

Actually, I have no doubt that, irrespective of what the Covenant actually says, there will be a concerted attempt to isolate representatives of churches that reject the Covenant. Will The Episcopal Church stand up for the rights of such churches in Communion bodies? Probably not.
For some of us on the committee and out there in Anglican land it was clear that it [the Anglican Covenant] was the product of the same minds that turned Lambeth Resolution 1988,I.10 [sic—Lambeth Resolution 1998 I.10 was intended] into a litmus test of Anglican purity, and the Windsor Report into a definitive road map. Both those Anglican disasters made the Covenant the clear strategy of those who were and are opposed to anything like inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the life and leadership of the churches. The Anglican Covenant has been widely disliked as an instrument that serves the wrong ends by the wrong means.
And this wasn’t sufficient reason to reject the Covenant? Doesn’t this paragraph imply that the supporters of the Covenant in The Episcopal Church are either misguided or are themselves among “those who were and are opposed to anything like inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the life and leadership of the churches”? And isn’t that inclusion the policy of The Episcopal Church from which there can be no stepping back?
If one played the Anglican Covenant game at all—saying yes or no—one entered the world of the game … accepting either full inclusion in the Anglican Communion with the possible restrictions on vision and movement, or second class citizenship in the Communion with penalties for exercising progressive vision.
Nonsense! See remarks above. Indeed, had we rejected the Covenant, there would have been an attempt to marginalize The Episcopal Church. Perhaps this would have forced our representatives to defend the church (or perhaps not). The fact is that, when not confronted by representatives of other Anglican churches, we act like determined disciples of Jesus Christ. When we have to confront our Anglican detractors head-on, we act like sycophantic eunuchs. This may have had some effect on how members of the subcommittee acted.

The next section is “Refusing to jump into play.” Its first subsection is “The legislative question”:
Most of the resolutions presented to Convention could not, most of us on the committee believed, garner a majority vote in Deputies, particularly if the vote was made a vote by orders. The only possible one was a distinctly clear “no,” and even there the crystal ball of prediction was cloudy. If we presented a resolution that failed, what then? Would we have to consider others of the resolutions? If we passed a close “no” resolution, would the House of Bishops, which apparently has a mind, issue a mind of the house statement thereby splitting the two houses in their response?
The resolution that had the least potential to achieve an ambiguous result would have been a simple adoption (i.e., “yes”) resolution. The House of Deputies would surely have voted this down. The House of Bishops would then not get to vote on the resolution; the matter would have been dead. Any statement from the bishops would have been irrelevant.

And if a resolution from the subcommittee failed, would the convention’s considering other resolutions have been such an awful outcome? Perhaps the will of the convention, not that of the subcommittee, would have been honored.

The next subsection is “The political question”:
But if a clear “no” passed it would put in question any reassuring statement (D008 or any similar resolution) of our continued engagement in Anglican Communion affairs—particularly if we also reduced our support of the Anglican Communion Office and its programs.
Subcommittee member Charles Osberger made the point on the floor of the House of Deputies that rejecting the Covenant would call into question the sincerity of D008. This, of course, suggests that the two-resolution “solution” proposed by the subcommittee to deal with the problem of conflicting resolutions was really a sham; D008 did not, at least in the minds of the subcommittee members, create space to make an honest decision on the Covenant.

Frankly, our last decade of interaction with the Anglican Communion has not endeared Episcopalians to it, cheery stories from ENS notwithstanding. The reality is that the Communion is dysfunctional. To not say so is to be complicit in its dysfunction. Put another way, The Episcopal Church has a codependency relationship with the Anglican Communion. (Codependency is different from mutual responsibility and interdependence.) The failure of General Convention to reject the Covenant is but another instance of our codependent behavior. The Anglican Communion is in need of an intervention. Apparently, that is not going to come from The Episcopal Church.
Many of us knew that funding for the Anglican Communion work was likely to suffer cuts along with other program support in a tightened budget. While a yes vote seemed impossible, a no vote would be hard to separate from decisions about funding reduction for important and valuable Anglican programs. There are plenty of people out in Anglican land who would gleefully grab onto a “no” vote and reduction in funding and say, “see, they have no need of the Anglican Communion. They have said no to the Anglican Covenant and no to the Anglican Communion.”
D008 declared otherwise. The reality is that there are elements of the Communion that will hate us no matter what we do. We cannot let those people determine our actions.

The next subsection is “The pastoral question”:
It was also clear, at least in our subgroup and larger World Mission Legislative Committee, that a “no” vote, particularly a slim majority vote, would be a clear signal to many who both supported the Covenant and a variety of what are called “conservative” concerns that there was no place in the legislative life of the Church where their voice was heard in a positive way.
That a group loses a vote does not mean that those on the winning side have disdain for it. Are we a church of adults or of petulant children? The reality is that the subcommittee decided to put forth a resolution ducking the Covenant adoption issue before it settled on the “pastoral” rationale for doing so. (See my post “Observations and Thoughts about the Legislative Progress of the Anglican Covenant Resolutions.”)
Just as saying the Nicene Creed does not make The Episcopal Church gathered on Sunday morning a conservative church, but it does make it a conserving church, so being in favor of the Anglican Covenant was seen by some as an affirmation of conserving Episcopal and Anglican values. Several members of the committee strongly supported such a conserving view. (This is where I see The Living Church’s essays coming out.) On the other hand, Susan Russell in her statement to the World Mission Legislative Committee strongly disagreed, contending that the Anglican Covenant is not basically Anglican at all.

I must say I agree with her. My argument against the Covenant has been that sections 1, 2, and 3, are conserving of the wrong things, or of the right things wrongly stated, and forgetful of other matters also worth conserving, and that section 4 is not about conservation at all, but about bad process.
Both Russell and Harris are right, of course. Sections 1–3 of the Covenant are slanted to a particular view of Christianity, one different from that of most Episcopalians. Why did not Harris uphold this view in the subcommittee? As chair, he seems to have assumed the role of neutral mediator. Was he designated chair to take his personal views out of the mix? Could he not have been more active in arguing that the Covenant was simply a bad idea? Could anyone have?
I have been a consistent critic of the Anglican Covenant and have good friends who see the Anglican Covenant as antithetical to all they hope Anglicanism to represent. Several of these friends have accused the writers of this resolution as weak and lacking in courage. Being among the writers and chairing the meetings on this I of course can read the tea leaves … the accusations are against me as well. Life has its less pleasant moments, I suppose.
I very much appreciate Mark Harris’s contributions to The Episcopal Church, but, if the shoe fits …
I said what I believed was the sense we had that we were under no obligation to respond to the matter of adopting the Anglican Covenant until we were ready to do so. Of course we could have put it to a vote and it would perhaps have been “done with.” But I think not. I supported the resolution because I came to believe it was not time to force a “no” or “yes.” It was time to let it go and let it rest.
Again, when will the time be right? If the world waited until everyone was of one mind about this or that, civilization would never make any progress at all! It strains credulity to suggest that General Convention could make a decision on same-sex blessings but not on the Anglican Covenant. Or, God forbid, will it take us as long to decide on the Covenant as it has taken to decide on same-sex blessings? A church that is incapable of making a yes or no decision is a church that may not be nimble enough to survive in the 21st century.


Permit me my last thoughts about B005 and its legislative trajectory.

All too often, legislation seems to be about editing the words that arrive in resolutions. Too seldom are the big questions asked: What are we trying to accomplish? What problem are we solving? How is a resolution expected to accomplish its goal? Should we be concentrating on a smaller or larger problem? The subcommittee working on Covenant resolutions concentrated on different questions: What can we pass? How can we avoid offending anyone?

It may seem like a minor point, but legislative committees seemed to be saddled with restrictions that are unhelpful. (I assume that the restrictions under which the subcommittee worked were institutional ones having to do with requirements for resolutions and the deadline for introducing new ones. I do not claim to be an expert on General Convention procedures, however.) In particular, (1) a completely new resolution could not be written, (2) the title of a resolution could not be changed, and (3) the explanation of a resolution could not be changed. Since the substance of a resolution can be completely rewritten, the restrictions might seem odd. I do think it important, however, that the explanation could not be changed. This restriction means that a resolution can be sent to the legislative floor without an explanation of the thinking behind it. This puts legislators at a disadvantage. It is hard to think about such a resolution in advance; one has to rely on a last-minute explanation on the legislative floor.

Finally, what is a legislative committee supposed to do when presented with a resolution that says A and with another that says Not A? This is essentially what Mark Harris’s subcommittee faced. Should the resolutions cancel one another out? Is the proper response a resolution that says that General Convention is too divided to decide the issue? It seems to me that, particularly if a committee believes that there is substantial support both for A and Not A, the committee should forward either an A or Not A resolution or both. Anything else takes the decision out of the hands of General Convention and  allows a handful (or a few handfuls) of people to decide the issue—in this case, a very important issue—for the church.

Update, 8/11/2012, 12:01 PM. It was pointed out to me that, if a “yes” resolution failed in the House of Deputies, bishops would not get to vote on it. I have corrected a statement that suggested otherwise.


  1. "The group put its own collegiality ahead of the needs of the church. "

    It was ever thus in national committees. We sometimes seem surprised by it. Often, reports from these sorts of committees say stuff like "Although we had a difficult task we were all amazed by the power of the presence of God/Jesus/The Holy Spirit to assist us in our work. It's not what everyone wanted but we felt we were faithful to the group."

    I usually read these things and come away screaming, "Of course The Trinity showed up. of course you were supposed to act like mature adults. But your job is to be faithful to GOD not each other!"

    If you think this was bad, wait till you hear the report from the committee to restructure the church!

  2. I fear you are correct Rev. E. That committee will be stacked with those who value nice over reform. The results are sadly predictable.

    Lionel, I LOVE the graphic. I think you capture Mark's approach if we can call it that, perfectly.


  3. Good post, Lionel.

    Is collegiality a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Ha, ha. Just joking.

  4. June, Actually, I think it is.



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