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The Church Faces a
Foreign Policy Challenge
Lionel Deimel and Christopher Wells

What follows appears as a “Reader’s Viewpoint” column in the September 10, 2006, issue of
The Living Church (TLC 233, 11, pp. 4445). Both Christopher and I wrote about The Episcopal Church’s response to the Anglican Communion to be made at the church’s 75
th General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, in June 2006. Shortly before the Convention, we wrote a series of essays seeking common ground. We compared notes as the Convention unfolded, and we discussed what had happened when it was all over. We would find it difficult to characterize the outcome of the deliberations at the Convention in a mutually satisfying way, but we found that our views about the process itself—what worked well and what did not—were similar. Thus, two people with very different perspectives on the substantive issues, could collaborate on the essay below.

— LED, 8/30/2006

Because it differed from typical legislative business, responding to the Anglican Communion posed a challenge to the 75th General Convention. Typical business is conducted without much explicit concern for a wider communion of churches, but in June the General Convention found itself engaged in the ecclesiastical equivalent of conducting foreign policy. The interactive character of this activity usually makes it an executive responsibility.

In the United States, for example, the State Department and the Office of the President, not the Congress, manage foreign affairs. This arrangement puts diplomatic expertise at the disposal of those who must act expeditiously, consistent with expressed legislative and electoral preferences. Despite similarities between American and Episcopal Church polity, however, the Presiding Bishop is not our president, and neither the House of Bishops nor the Executive Council is our State Department. The Episcopal Church conducts much of its “foreign policy” legislatively.

Ideally, to respond to a foreign policy challenge, a government develops a consensus regarding the status quo and articulates long- and short-term objectives. Analysts devise possible responses, consistent with resources and constraints, and evaluate their advantages and disadvantages. Decision makers then choose the plan seen as most likely to advance the nation’s goals, including idealistic ones such as promoting international peace and justice.

Did our church engage in an analogous intellectual—and spiritual—exercise in the run-up to and during the convention? Yes, but we could have done better, and the coherence of the process degraded as the convention wore on. The outcome received mixed reviews, but many, perhaps most, found the process unsatisfying.

The fundamental questions at issue revolved around the relationship of autonomy and interdependence in the Anglican Communion. One can see persistent irresolution regarding this relationship in the report of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion and in the resolutions that emerged from its Special Committee and were passed by the convention.

The Special Commission’s report made a strong argument from and call to “communion,” grounded in an ecumenical reading of scripture and a commitment to a shared Anglican faith and order. It viewed communion as at once a gift and a responsibility, informed in every instance by love—“bonds of affection.” The Special Commission was not of one mind, however, concerning the Windsor Report’s argument that “what touches all should be decided by all.” Do, for instance, questions of human sexuality that divide us “touch all”? If so, how should the Communion “decide” about them?

It is no surprise therefore that the “mind” of the church is difficult to discern from the resolutions actually passed .

At Convention, these difficult questions were bequeathed to the Special Committee. The nine resolutions the committee inherited—two were assigned to other committees—favored “communion” generally, without adequately exploring the vexing, persistent particulars. Little notice was taken, one way or the other, of Resolution 1.10, adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1998, for instance.

It is no surprise therefore that the “mind” of the church is difficult to discern from the resolutions actually passed. We committed ourselves to interdependence in the Anglican Communion (A159), to the Windsor and listening processes (A164), and to the Anglican Covenant development process (A166), while affirming that no resolution of the General Convention is intended to affect the “historic separate and independent status of the churches of the Anglican Communion” (B032). After rejecting one “moratorium” on the election of partnered gay bishops (A161), we voted, in the end, for a notably different one (B033).

In 2009, we may face a similar task, likely related to a proposed or evolving Anglican Covenant.

Taken together, these resolutions lend plausibility to the common perception that The Episcopal Church was more concerned about getting itself out of its predicament, one resolution at a time, than in articulating exactly what it is willing to commit to.

In 2009, we may face a similar task, likely related to a proposed or evolving Anglican Covenant. How might another special commission and committee improve on what was done this time? We offer some suggestions to encourage orderly and effective deliberation, as well as greater clarity of result:

  1. The commission should be rigorously representative of various voices in the church, have adequate time to do its work, and act as the legislative committee at convention. This last provision would minimize the time needed to build trust and a spirit of cooperation within the group, and could discourage last-minute changes to proposed resolutions, which the convention can find disorienting.
  2. The commission should incorporate into its work plan the model for developing a foreign policy response articulated above, requiring it to wrestle with the difficult particulars inherent in the interplay of autonomy and interdependence.
  3. The commission should consider presenting alternative plans in its report, each with its own set of proposed resolutions; offering alternatives could facilitate agreement on resolutions without requiring agreement as to the policy to be implemented. To encourage clarity, the commission should produce as few resolutions as possible, however, and the commission members, ideally, should be willing to support the resolutions—or all of one set of resolutions, if alternative policies are presented—unequivocally and without amendment.
  4. The commission’s report should appear sufficiently before the General Convention for interested parties to appraise it and for legislators to evaluate it against their own analysis of the questions, desirable goals, and means by which objectives might be achieved.
  5. At convention, the committee might consider holding hearings before the Houses of Bishops and the House of Deputies in joint session, concentrating on strategy, rather than on the minutiae of particular resolutions.
  6. The legislative houses should discuss the strategy recommended (or strategies offered) by the commission and whether it is the one the convention really wants to adopt. Participants, having had ample time to respond to the commission’s report, will have been prepared for this.
  7. Final resolutions should be sent to the houses as early as possible—our recommendations are meant to facilitate this—which will afford the bishops and deputies ample time to put their stamp on the final result. Reporting out the resolutions as a group would facilitate coherent action.

The 75th General Convention has completed its work, of course, and we await what Archbishop Rowan Williams has called “the process … of assessing [the Communion’s] situation in the wake of the General Convention,” which should achieve some formal climax at the primates’ meeting in February. The Lambeth Conference follows in 2008. In this period, before the 76th General Convention in 2009, the Presiding Bishop, House of Bishops, and Executive Council will each have some role to play before the ruling body of The Episcopal Church is given another opportunity to make a definitive statement, should that be required. We pray that our leaders will make wise judgments and that, anticipating the 76th General Convention, they will reflect on the lessons that might be learned from the 75th.

Lionel Deimel of Pittsburgh has written about the church’s response to the Anglican Communion. Christopher Wells was a lay deputy to General Convention from Northern Indiana and a member of both the Special Commission and Committee (#26) on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

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