A third way on the Anglican Covenant?

July 22, 2010

Like most votes, it was a straight yes or no. Would Albany's diocesan convention affirm the proposed Anglican Covenant or not?

We had come to this point, according to our diocesan leadership, partly because of Rowan Williams' suggestion that individual dioceses express their wishes to their provincial churches. In response, our bishop put forward a resolution in favor of the covenant, which passed overwhelmingly in that up-or-down vote.

During the debate, however, I couldn't help but wonder if we had overlooked better options -- like not yet.

Not yet, admittedly, is not always popular. Some people see it as nothing more than a way to delay the inevitable. But that perspective misses what not yet can do: honor the concerns of the yes and no camps alike, while opening up space for deeper dialogue.

There's room in not yet, for instance, to affirm the wording of the covenant (at least the first three sections) as an eloquent statement of our faith's historic claims, an apt description of the church's vocation, and a deft treading of the tightrope between autonomy and communion. To be sure, faithful Christians from both sides can disagree on the details. But if this draft had been presented as a way for churches of mutual goodwill to walk together, I could have been persuaded to vote yes.

There, of course, is the rub: "churches of mutual goodwill." Our best and noblest covenants, like marriage, work not because of the words per se, but because of the good faith and reciprocal love that form their foundation. We simply do not have that foundation right now in the Anglican Communion. Quite the contrary: instead of striving for mutual respect, reconciliation, and a strengthening of the "bonds of affection," our rancor is increasing and our rhetoric growing harsher.

In this type of environment, any covenant, no matter how well written, would be doomed to failure, because we would be asking it to do something covenants can't do: legislate a solidarity that isn’t there.

Instead of debating the covenant, then, I believe we would better spend our time rebuilding the foundation -- laying aside our rigid positions and stereotypes of the "other side" in favor of authentic dialogue. Then, when we have made significant progress in that direction, we can reconsider the covenant, this time as an affirmation of our restored bonds of affection.

Could not yet have any traction? I hear a lot of impatience in the communion these days: a desire to "get over it and move on." Yet short of outright division, how exactly do we "move on" without rebuilding the foundation of trust?

Rebuilding, in turn, calls for another word that generates impatience: listening. The whole idea of a listening process -- particularly its failure to take place on a wide scale -- has generated cynicism, and justifiably so. But there's no other way to build trust. As we listen, we discover that our adversaries are not precisely who we thought. Subtle variations of belief and character come to the fore. Common ground emerges. We start to revise, and often discard, our preconceptions. In the process, we wonder what else we've misperceived, what else we have in common, and that drives up deeper into dialogue.

I think the will to rebuild trust still exists. It comes through, for instance, in the respectful dialogue between traditionalists and progressives on the Via Media website in my diocese. Undoubtedly it shows up elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.

And I saw it at our convention in June. After articulating some of the ideas in this article during the resolution debate, I heard from several people who expressed appreciation for what I had said. They included one of the convention's most progressive deputies -- and one of the most conservative.

Maybe, just maybe, there's still enough desire to embark on the hard work of rebuilding trust and fostering dialogue. We would be doing ourselves an injustice not to try.

-- John Backman is a writer and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross. He writes about contemplative spirituality and its ability to help people dialogue across divides. He serves on the vestry of St. Paul's Church in Albany, New York.

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