November 2, 2012

Living in Safety

Bishop Victoria Matthews
Bishop Victoria Matthews
I was dismayed by the report from Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS) the other day about a talk given by Bishop of Christchurch Victoria Matthews. The good bishop is a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Committee on Unity, Faith and Order, a relatively new Anglican body that appears to be the Anglican analogue of the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She was speaking to the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, which is currently meeting in Auckland, New Zealand.

Bishop Matthews was addressing the Anglican Covenant, whose “reception”—one can only hope that there is more rejection than reception of the Covenant among Anglican churches—is not going well, even though its advocates are trying to put a smiley face on the matter.

The headline for the ACNS story came from this passage:
She [Bishop Matthews] stressed the point that it was not the work of IASCUFO to promote the Covenant, but rather to monitor its reception.

“As we have sought to do that,” she told delegates, “I have often thought that the document people discuss and the actual Anglican Covenant are two different documents

“One is the document that people have in their mind and the other is the Anglican Communion Covenant on paper. So I really want [people] to read the Covenant and be focused on that. Because often, when people start talking about the Covenant, what they describe in their mind as the Covenant is unrecognisable.”
It is curious that Bishop Matthews asserts that IASCUFO is charged only with monitoring reception of the Covenant. Doing that would only require an Internet connection and a spreadsheet. (The No Anglican Covenant is doing a fine job of monitoring reception of the Covenant and has avoided distorting the facts as the IASCUFO has done.) In any case, after declaring the limited role of the IASCUFO, the bishop proceeds to advocate for Covenant adoption, though this is unsurprising, as IASCUFO has already released material in this vein.

Those of us who have opposed acceptance of the Anglican Covenant are weary of  implications that we have failed to read the document, that we would love it if we only put aside our ignorant preconceptions and confronted the reality of the Covenant’s manifest virtues. In fact, opponents of the Covenant have often been quite specific about the faults of the document, whereas its advocates mostly praise the fantastic, not to say magical, covenant in their minds. (This is obvious from reading the material collected on the Web site of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition.)

To Bishop Matthews’ credit, it must be admitted that she does not put on the hard sell. She freely admits that the Covenant has detractors that see it as either too permissive or too punitive. She implies, however, that, in time, people will come around.

What I found most interesting in the bishop’s talk was this: “I believe that in the original idea of the Anglican Covenant, there was a desire to allow the Anglican Communion to be a safe place for conversation and the sharing of new ideas.” The notion of safety occurs two other times in the ACNS report of Bishop Matthews’ address.

“Safety” is a familiar term to Episcopalians who have followed closely the reactionary insurrection within their church. Congregations who want to leave The Episcopal Church and take their parishes’ real and personal property with them often speak of a longing for “safety.” “Safety” has become a codeword for freedom from exposure to ideas that you don’t agree with. It is unclear whether Bishop Matthews was intending to use “safety” in this sense, but she might as well have.

I have often said that Sections 1, 2, and 3 set out what, going forward, the Anglican Communion will fight about, and Section 4 specifies how those fights are “resolved,” or, more precisely, how the winners will punish the losers. The Covenant is not at all about safe discussion within the Communion; it is about limiting discussion and punishing those churches with the audacity to advance unpopular ideas. Criticism of the Covenant has focused on Section 4 because half the Communion thinks it too draconian and the other half considers it insufficiently so. (The bishop got that right.) Safe discussion—in the commonplace freedom-of-speech sense—does not need the agenda of Sections 1–3 of the Covenant, but “safe” discussion, in the codeword sense, requires both a set agenda and a way of punishing “deviant” viewpoints.

The mistake behind the Covenant is the identification of the problem to be solved. Supporters of the Covenant believe the problem is conflict, and the way to eliminate conflict is to specify right opinion and exile any church that doesn’t get with the program. The real problem, however,  is intolerance of new ideas and an unwillingness to discuss them in a meaningful forum. The need is for the Communion to be a safe place for Anglican churches, not a “safe” place for them.

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