Thursday, 14 February 2008

Off the Cuff Unclarity and Extendable Plurality

In the Covenant debate at the Church of England General Synod, differences were displayed between the Bishop of Chelmsford, John Gladwin, and the Bishop of Lincoln, John Saxbee. This is from the report from Episcopal Life Online, and its report on proceedings:

"I am weary by all of this," Bishop John Gladwin of Chelmsford said, adding that he thinks the text is problematic. "Throughout [the text] the Gospel of Jesus Christ threatens to come through with intent but the problems of the church weigh down upon it."

Gladwin also noted his "deep admiration [for] and some growing anxiety" about the amount of time the Archbishop of Canterbury has devoted to Anglican Communion affairs. "I am quite anxious that we don’t institutionalize that as a constant role of sorting out disunity within the Communion," he said, calling for "more of the joy of the world in the text and a little less of the demands of the archbishop's office."

Lincoln Bishop John Saxbee disagreed. "It is important that we don’t get weary but that we get excited with this process," he said. "We can make it better. We're enriched by these kinds of exercises and opportunities."

The situation is, presumably, that no one is allowed to say they are opposed to the Covenant, otherwise technically they cannot go to Lambeth 2008. It's the basis of the invitation. John Gladwin, known to be reasonably liberal, is patron of Changing Attitude that would like to see an inclusive Convenant. This was written by CA in response to what I had written:

We do not want a Covenant which centralises power and gives authority to exclude churches or provinces. Having read the Church of England’s response to the draft Anglican Covenant, published today, we believe a Covenant beneficial to our inclusion in the Communion can still be produced. If an authoritarian Covenant is produced and agreed then we will review tactics again, but we are not there yet.

Such a Covenant (with the St Andrew's Draft) is still not exactly on offer, especially with the tentative appendix, and so John Gladwin expresses that he is weary. John Saxbee is President of the Modern Churchpeople's Union, which by my frequent reading is opposed to the Covenant, but he is excited by the process. I'm just in the business of scratching my head here. John Saxbee is usually a clear sort of chap, so I'm scratching my head trying to work out his excitement.

In the Unitarians twenty years ago there was a Development Commission and there was the idea (in my head at least) that it might lead to more people coming through the door or perhaps the odd risk taken with a church plant in a town, say a minister paid to get on with gathering a flock. Much of it though was actually about a process of a congregation deciding why it met and other fundamentals. We in Hull were supposed to be excited by the process even if there might be no outcome. Perhaps John Saxbee means this - the process is exciting while the potential outcome is different. I rewrote the Covenant text myself, and that was interesting. It does not make me in favour. But I am baffled how one can make something one opposes into something exciting.

Anyway we have the Archbishop's response in the debate. There is clearly a need, given recent Sharia controversies, to be accurate with the Archbishop of Canterbury's words, and so to quote him verbatim would be useful, which we can thanks to the Archbishop of Canterbury's own webpages that record all that he says.

The following quotations come from the Archbishop at the General Synod debate on the Covenant. Note that Rowan Williams speaks in the third person because the Archbishop of Canterbury is an office he holds now but not forever:

I wanted to say just a word about the practicalities of the Archbishop of Canterbury's position; now I have a lot of sympathy with what the bishop of Chelmsford said about this, and I did want to say that in some circumstances it can be a saving of energy rather than otherwise if you know what you can't do or what you're supposed to do rather than being endlessly at the mercies of fantasies and projections about what an Archbishop of Canterbury ought to do, and I just mention that in passing.

This means he wants the role of the Archbishop clear and precise in what can be said (about the Mind of the Communion). John Gladwin though was being more general, that the Archbishop is spending so much time of Communion business and being weighed down by its apparent needs.

The issue of the Covenant is key of course, about which the Archbishop stated in another 'just a word':

just a word about the nature of Covenant. As I understand the biblical concept, Covenant is about the self-giving, the absolute self-giving of God, which calls out a self-giving on the part of human beings to whom God's love is given. And when that response of self giving love on the human side becomes inadequate, corrupted, idle or just something that involved rejection, then something is fractured that has to be rebuilt. Not giving in response to God's giving has consequences and in our relations with one another we try I think in the Church and I think the emphasis is biblical position, we try to find ways of mutual self-giving which in some ways keep alive, alert us to the depths of God's own self-giving and you can say that a covenant relationship between Christians is a promise to be willing to be converted by each other. I think that works ecumenically and in the communion as well. But that's why I think the word covenant is not so wildly inappropriate as all that.

So, again there is a need to undo the unclarity. He sees a positive potential within a Covenant arrangement of converting one another through mutual self-giving. This would mirror God's self-giving and thus Covenant is an appropriate term for this arrangement (whereas the Scottish Episcopal Church objects to the term, and the New Zealand Church finds it highly problematic).

The alternative to converting one another is exclusion, as in the tentative appendix, and he addresses this:

That is a very unpleasant term [exclusion], and I agree with those who said that they feel that discomfort and that unpleasantness in it. Behind it lies the very difficult but I think unavoidable question 'Are there limits plurality infinitely extendable?' Put in those terms I doubt whether we would any of us say that they were, but our problem in the Communion is that there are some things we know we can disagree about and that some things we don't quite know that we can disagree about. I'm tempted to quote Donald Rumsfeld wasn't it on 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' and all that so on; but I think it would be a dangerous assumption that there are no areas where that question doesn't arise, the question of limits.

...there is an issue in the Communion about who speaks for whom; who speaks for the Communion and that's felt very acutely by those who... don't feel they've got the same sort of access as other churches to means of communication, to the English language, that sort of thing. Some of the energy and some of the abrasion in this question of limits and exclusion does come from that set of issues around power, and I think we had better be aware of that.

The notion of Rowan Williams tempted to quote Donald Rumsfeld and then going on about access to the English language as means of communication speaks volumes - but this 'unclarity' is a side issue. The whole issue of the Covenant and the basis of exclusion is indeed exactly an issue of power. The issue is not the extendability of different beliefs and plurality but that he, the Archbishop, in the Advent Letter, and in the appointment of the Windsor Continuation Group and its brief, is drawing the limits far too narrowly.

This is why the Bishop of Lincoln, John Saxbee, should be a little less excited, and why John Gladwin, the Bishop of Chelmsford, is right to be weary.

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