on the laff track
By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 20, 2009
Do you ever get the impression that somewhere around the mid-1980s the Church of England quietly repackaged itself as a BBC-TV comedy serial, without letting on to the laity? The increasingly farcical attempts to contrive a basis for “Anglican communion” succeed one another every five months or so, in reaction to which the actors follow a predictable formula: North America does its drag queen hysterics number, the Africans bellow in indignation, while the straight man in Lambeth Palace, bewildered about the reason for the quarrel, comes up with a ream of unreadable chartered accountancy so tediously irrelevant to the issues that all sides agree to accept it as a truce -- not because they think it means anything, but because they're too exhausted to keep up the shouting. Until the next episode.
Last week’s installment, once the frying pans stopped flying, gave us something called the Anglican Covenant. Ecclesially it will have the half-life of Polonium-214, but its real purpose is to keep the skit alive until the next commercial break. Here’s Archbishop Rowan Williams explaining to his cat why it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter:
It’s quite important in this process to remember what the Covenant is and what it isn’t, what it’s meant to achieve, and what it’s not going to achieve. It’s not going to solve all our problems, it’s not going to be a constitution, and it’s certainly not going to be a penal code for punishing people who don’t comply.
The last bit of the Covenant text is the one that's perhaps been the most controversial, because that’s where we spell out what happens if relationships fail or break down. It doesn’t set out, as I’ve already said, a procedure for punishments and sanctions. It does try and sort out how we will discern the nature of our disagreement, how important is it? How divisive does it have to be? Is it a Communion breaking issue that’s in question -- or is it something we can learn to live with? And so in these sections of the covenant what we’re trying to do is simply to give a practical, sensible and Christian way of dealing with our conflicts, recognising that they’re always going to be there.
If we were to read this seriously we’d be flabbergasted at Williams’ suggestion that what counts as a "Communion breaking issue" is a matter of after-the-fact empirical observation: “Let’s drop the Sixth Commandment and see if the organism gains weight or loses ...” Yet once again the sentences are not supposed to mean anything individually but rather to generate a familiar noise of reassurance.
One Episcopalian at least pretending not to see the joke is (former Catholic) Jim Naughton, whose blog reaction to the Covenant is cited in the Telegraph article: “Who needs it? The bureaucratisation of the bonds of affection is an oxymoronic exercise. On the other hand, if getting disinvited from meetings is the stiffest penalty a church would face for following its conscience, I can live with that.”
But Jimmy my man, don't you see that “bureaucratising” the bonds of affection spares you guys the nuisance of actually “theologising” about them -- a venture in which your team will unquestionably end up the loser? Williams’ gamesmanship has bought you another eighteen months in which to tease the opposition with lesbian bishops while continuing to sing “Once in Royal David's City” on PBS. From your perspective, what's not to like?
A delightful (and gratuitous) footnote: one of the sponsored ads accompanying the Telegraph article on the Covenant betrays a bland professional cynicism towards Rowan Williams’ assurances that surpasses even Uncle Di’s. It reads simply: “Church Split Attorneys: Helping You Honor God in the Midst of Church Splits and Conflict. www:mauckbaker.com” Helping you honor God ... now there’s a law firm with a sense of humor.
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