|Let’s say you have a long-simmering dispute in your family. Maybe part of your family is made up of are strong supporters of some divisive political figure—say Trump, or Johnson, or Le Pen, or Baudet—and another part are people just as opposed. Or some of you think climate change is an emergency, and others of you think its an elitist hoax to wrest control over governments. Or whatever.|
Because you are a family, you have some basic obligation to try to get along. So what will you do?
You want to be a peacemaker, so you decide to host everyone at a party. Call it Christmas dinner, because presumably that is a moment everyone sort of feels like they ought to try to get along. You are maybe motivated to do this because you know that some of the folks under your own roof in the family are inclined toward these views, too.
Well, it is good that you want to do this. But first there are some true things you need to grapple with. When it comes to talking across differences, some things will work, and some things will not work. A lot of people who have done really good work at talking across differences, like Bishop Bonnie Perry in her days leading the Chicago Consultation, will tell you that from the jump.
Also if you go into the conversation with the objective of changing the minds of those who disagree with you, your party will be a flop. In fact, if whatever forum you decide on for meeting each other has “changing our minds” on its list of goals, you might as well save your money on all the turkey and tell everyone to just stay home.
Also it probably will not help if you tell just some of your extended family members to leave their spouses at home because they make other family members uncomfortable. This kind of makes it seem like you are already taking sides before the party gets started.
But, okay, you decide to do that because you think maybe more people will end up coming. So you invite (most but not all of) them and say, look, we are a family, and we don’t all get along, and yes we are all autonomous but we are also interdependent, and we should at least talk.
Maybe even you publish a book on the importance of reconciliation.
Now you are setting the expectations in a different way that might work. You are saying that Christmas dinner is for the purpose of just talking as a family, maybe at different tables spread out in your house. (You are a skilled host with a large house. Work with me.) You have now cunningly removed “changing our minds” and replaced it with “hearing each other.”
So you get your fractious family to sign up for your party, which is good, and you send them all a book to read to talk about together, which is also good and even generous. and you tell the neighbors and your friends what you are doing, which is maybe risky but probably also good, because everyone behaves better if they think the neighbors are watching. You tell the people outside your family that what you want to create for your family is a time of walking, listening, and worshipping together, which maybe makes them wonder a little bit just what goes on in your family but gets them to smile and nod politely.
Okay, so now you get to a week before Christmas dinner. What should you do?
Well, you could continue on as you had planned, and go buy all the food, and think about seating arrangements, and give your family that is already edgy toward each other the thing you said you were going to do to get them to come.Or you could write to them and say, look, I have been thinking about this party and some other members of our family that I trust have been writing things, and now when you come to the party I want you to be prepared to talk about these ten papers I am sending to you and vote on them using electronic devices I will give you, whether you like this idea or not. Which, let’s face it, is sort of a proxy for a vote on whether they like you or not.
So now what was supposed to be walking, listening, and worshipping has pretty suddenly become debating, disagreeing, and deciding. And how is this going to make the “stop the steal” folks be in dialogue with the “January 6 was an insurrection” folks, or the “Covid isn’t real” cousins find a safe space to talk to the “My mask protects you” cousins? Probably it won’t and you will end up with food on the floor.
Until the 19th of July, about eight days before the start of the Lambeth Conference, the gathering was the first kind of Christmas party—at least so far as most of those invited knew. Then that day a message came to bishops who had registered to attend the meeting sharing with them a document containing ten “Lambeth Calls” documents—basically, position papers on various topics, ranging the spectrum from apple pie to hand grenade. And in a section called “How bishops approve Lambeth Calls” (which does sort of tip the hand about desired outcomes, huh?) there is a pretty big change in the nature of the party, because now we are expected to make decisions:
“[F]or each decision there will be two choices for each bishop to make: [either] ‘This Call speaks for me. I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can to implement it’ [or] ‘This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process.’”
Which is basically the choice between “Yes” and “Yes, but not yet.”
It is said by the document that the papers were each drafted by “Drafting Groups,” but aside from identifying the (all male) lead authors of the ten papers you can’t tell who the authors are. The opacity of the drafting process reaches almost comic heights; one of the footnotes seems to be the directory path to the location of an (inaccessible) file on a contributor’s personal hard drive.
Leaving aside the high-school-social-club-level, last-minute-switcheroo antics, there is a revelation and a tragedy to talk about here.
1. The revelation is about the difference between ecclesial polities (a fancy way of saying, “how a church governs itself”) that regard deliberative processes as “the thing we talk about doing and perform doing whenever we’re being watched” and those that regard deliberative processes as “the fundamental commitment we make to each other to study together and talk together and decide together and work together in a way the widest number of people can participate in.”
To say this in different terms, what this process ends up revealing is that the thing that most divides the different Provinces in the Anglican Communion is not actually theology or even positions on questions like human sexuality or the climate emergency or safeguarding. It’s polity—who gets to be included in the conversation; how the conversation is shaped, bounded, and held; what the authority of the conversation is in discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it calls to the church across the future.
No one who takes that second kind of process seriously would dump ten papers addressing immensely important topics on participants drawn from places and cultures all over the globe eight days in advance together with a reminder/ultimatum that they would have to decide on them using “electronic devices” and a binary up-or-sort-of-up choice. You would have to come from a culture of something like democratic centralism to think that was a good process. But if you did, you would think it was a fine process.
So what is revealed here is that at least some Anglican Provinces think that’s really a good process, and some others will pretty certainly think it’s really an awful process. That’s probably the single most important, most intractable difference in the Communion today, and not the rest of the stuff we usually argue about. All the rest pretty much flows from that.
2. The tragedy is that there is actually a lot of good stuff in these papers, some of it really good, and some of the really good stuff is in (intentionally?) close proximity to some really, um, weird stuff.
This is how you can get a paragraph that confesses “….international Anglicanism often emerged in the context of colonialism. We acknowledge the existence and ongoing impact of an imperialist Anglicanism involved in dehumanizing practices predicated upon cultural and racial supremacy” (right!), followed by a paragraph that says “A commitment to human dignity means the church stands in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized and stands in witness against injustice as the poor and the marginalized” (preach!), followed by a paragraph that says “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. It is the mind of the Communion to uphold faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union.” (Wait, what?)
Well, no, that is not the “mind of the Anglican Communion.” The whole reason that you asked some of the spouses to stay home was that at least in their part of the Anglican Communion they are regarded unapologetically as legit children of God.
But the play here is pretty obvious, right? Who wants to be seen voting against a great statement acknowledging our colonial past and condemning our unequal present? How clever!
So now what? After all it is the Archbishop’s Christmas party (although, oh right, we are paying to go), and he can ask us to do anything, even play charades (which might actually be better for understanding across cultural differences) if he wants to. Many of the folks traveling to the meeting are already en route, and have likely not even seen the message or the papers or grasped how the party has changed. (I see pictures of them traipsing across Scotland or going to museums in the Netherlands, and other not-great-for-studying-white-paper venues.)
I suppose you could just declare yourself to be a Conscientious Objector to the idea of using a consultative meeting for the purpose of up-or-down votes claiming to be binding in some way, and leave your “electronic device” somewhere it can’t register one or another form of “yes.” (I am thinking that is what I’ll do.) Or you could try to collect an actual consultative conversation among willing participants in a place apart from the Family Feud tally board.
Whatever happens, it won’t be the gathering that was first on the invitation. No wonder the Queen ditched the garden party.