The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Taking the Leap of Faith

My friend Nathan Humphrey has answered, in a manner far more gracious than the way in which I initially posed it, my question regarding whether the Covenant is, from a progressive standpoint, a suicide pact. As is his wont, Nathan skillfully finds a way to pose the question to both sides of the debate, urging us to transcend anger, frustration, and distrust:
It doesn't really matter, then, that some people are attracted to the Covenant because they want to use it as a bludgeon. If it's a real Covenant, then that means that those who enter it will be equally responsible to be committed to each other. What this means for the various agendas of either left or right is uncertain: In the current political atmosphere, the left is betting that a Covenant would hinder their agenda, while the right is betting that a Covenant would further theirs, but God has a funny way of turning the tables on both the left and the right if given half a chance. And that's what a Covenant does: it gives God a chance to work in all of our lives at once, rather than only here or only there. I can't say how God will resolve our current conflicts. But I can say that if we trust in God and demonstrate our trust in God through a Covenant, greater things than we can either ask or imagine will happen.

So, for instance, with Gamaliel's counsel in Acts 5:38b-39: "[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" If SSBs and all that is of God, then it seems to me that it is better that we all be committed anew to each other in a covenanted life as God works it out than that we should be impatient and untrusting, either of each other or of God, and try to go our own way and do what we're sure is God's will and to hell with the rest of the world.
There is much wisdom here. I would suggest, however, that there are two difficulties here which need to be addressed. The first is, what are the terms and conditions of the actual Covenant, and will it allow for the Primates or other juridicial bodies to be used as means of oppression? The current draft suggests perhaps so; but we do not have a final text, yet, and therefore speculation is premature. How can we agree to a Covenant in the abstract?

Perhaps a more fundamental problem can be gleaned from traditional contract law theory. (I'm a lawyer, remember? Deal). In The Paper Chase, fictional contracts Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. described a "spectrum of relationships" across which, with varying levels of difficulty, parties could reach functioning agreements. To his students' surprise, relationships which were the most intimate were the hardest; those where the parties thoroughly distrusted each other were marked by greater (external) civility and, far more importantly, cooler and thus more pragmatic levels of dealing with each other. Interestingly, C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, posits something rather similar--the smaller the doctrinal difference, the more heated the debate.

Here, of course, we have a combination of family-level intimacy (bad for cool negotiating) and a lack of trust (surprisingly helpful). But the problem is that the entire Covenant process has been on a "trust me" basis, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as the only negotiator. In other words--and here we're back with Lewis at pp. 20-21)--neither side feels heard, and thus each keeps shouting the louder.

Which leads me to ask: During the period in which the Covenant is knocked into its final form, why shouldn't the Archbishop, or some neutral figure, launch a series of reconciliation dialogues with TEC, the Church of Canada, his own progressive wing--and the reasserter wing? Not, I beg, the much-vaunted, but ultimately meaningless "Listening Process," which reasserters have watered down to the point of hilarity. (Remember Nigeria's response, which can best be summarized as "Shut up. I'm listening to you.") No, real face-to-face discussions at which we seek to find out what we need from each other, not to reach doctrinal agreement, but to maintain some form of relationship across the lines of doctrinal conflict--and let these discussions shape our relationships, whether Covenantal or "two-track" Communion.

A Covenant, in short, is a contract, and the best contracts are organic, drafted with the actual needs and desires of the parties taken into account, even though neither side ever gets all that it wants. A contract of adhesion--one imposed from above by one party, in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion, as the Covenant is now, is usually only grudgingly accepted, and rarely is a basis for a healthy, ongoing relationship.

So what, at this stage, do I say in reply to Nathan's response to my question? That he has convinced me that we are far too early in the process to refuse to do the hard work to try to keep relationships alive, and that we need to be more active in seeking to find out if accord is possible, and what that accord can and should look like. Also, that we owe it to God and to each other to approach this work in the spirit of Christian optimism and faith, and not in a spirit of fear.

I would urge, though, that all parties--liberal, conservative, "reappraiser" or "reasserter" start thinking in terms of directly engaged discussions with each other, with a goal of finding what common ground we can stand upon. That could provide the context for a Covenant, and create the meeting of the minds necessary for a contract to really exist.


Nathan J.A. Humphrey said...

Thank you for your equally constructive response. I wish I could see more irenic engagement with the issues on all sides.

Relationships take work. Being "right" is easy.

Anglocat said...

I agree, Nathan. And am glad to hear from you.