Against anxiety

A potentially anxiety-producing story has appeared in today Daily Telegraph in London and is now whizzing about on the internet.

(Friday afternoon update: the estimable Steve Waring, news editor of the Living Church has a story that, demystifies the Telegraph, piece, and makes it look rather shoddy in the process. Steve accomplished through solid reporting what I labored to do below. And he used far fewer words!)

The Telegraph piece begins:

“An audacious plan to save the worldwide Anglican Church by allowing it to divide into two tracks, one fast and the other slow, is being backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The proposals, which have parallels with the idea of a two-speed European Union, could permit liberals from North America to push ahead with divisive reforms such as homosexual bishops without destroying the Church.

But they could also allow conservatives from Africa and Asia to form an influential inner core that would edge out the liberals from positions of power and reduce them to a second-class status.

The blueprint, which has been seen by The Daily Telegraph, was drawn up by senior advisers and approved by Dr Williams and Church leaders at a private meeting in March.”

Obviously, we don’t relish the idea of becoming second class citizens in the Communion. And it would, of course, be a matter of interest whether, were we to become second class citizens, we would still be expected (and willing) to pay 30 percent of the Communion’s bills while first-class citizens continue to contribute percentages in the low whole numbers. But let’s put that aside for the moment and look if we can at the story within the story, and then at the story behind the story.

The story within the story:

The “blueprint”, Jonathan Petre writes, “is expected to form the basis of a ‘covenant’ aimed at averting future crises.”

Okay. But we’ve known since the publication of the Windsor Report that proposals for a covenant would be coming down the pike. This is one of them. Petre says that the archbishop “backs” it. But the story quotes no sources, not even anonymous ones. (Say what you will about the mainstream U. S. media, but I can’t remember the last time I read an article that contained no attribution whatsoever.) So it is very difficult to know whether Williams’ “backing” consists of his thinking it is among the ideas worth considering, thinking it is worth floating as a trial balloon or thinking that at last he has found the one and only way forward.

We’d do well to keep our anxiety on a short leash, until the archbishop’s attitude is clearer.

According to Petre the blueprint was “drawn up by senior advisers and approved by Dr Williams and Church leaders at a private meeting in March.” This is a peculiar bit of phrasing, and it oversells the significance of the story. The Archbishop of Canterbury has no power to “approve” anything on behalf of the Anglican Communion. (Nor does he claim to have it.) Neither do he and the unnamed “Church leaders” have the authority to accept the blueprint on behalf of the Church of England. So what is portrayed here as, at the very least, a quasi-official action was, at the very most, a group of high ranking church folks saying that the plan they just looked at was worth further effort.

Another curious thing about the story is that while it predicts the marginalization of liberals unwilling to sign the covenant, it gives no hint of what is actually in the covenant. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that may be because the covenant does not exist.

I think this story tells us two things that anybody who has been following our saga already knew: 1) that the development of an Anglican covenant will force the Churches that make up the Communion to decide whether they will sign it or not; 2) that Churches that do not sign will face some kind of diminishment in their relationship with Churches that do.

These facts will be with us for as long as it takes to draft and approve this covenant, or until the effort is abandoned.

Now for the story behind the story:

I’ve got no inside information on how this article ended up in the paper. But I can offer a few thoughts on how to read stories like this one in the lead-up to our General Convention next month, and to the Lambeth Conference in 2008.

Leaders facing situations like the one Rowan Williams faces now frequently find it helpful to float trial balloons as a means of gauging public reaction. Trial balloons are either floated by anonymous sources, or by surrogates. If the trial balloon sails smoothly, the leader embraces it. If it hits heavy weather, the story quickly disappears, and only a small amount of harm is done. I initially thought this story was a trial balloon, but since it doesn’t actually offer much in the way of news, I am no longer certain about that. What exactly is being tested?

In this instance, it may make more sense to focus on Petre rather than Williams. He’s seen a document that Ruth Gledhill of The Times and Stephen Bates of The Guardian, the other pillars of the religion beat in the U. K. may not have seen. It does provide some new information about what a post-covenant Communion might look like, and that’s worth putting out there. But if you write a story that says: here is a potentially interesting development in the Windsor process, that isn’t going to play as well as a story that implies that Rowan Williams has endorsed a plan under which Western liberals will reduce themselves to second-class citizenship in the Communion.

In addition, writing the story in this way makes Western liberals nervous. I am not implying that is Petre’s intent. But every story and every quote in every story about our Church and Communion these days has to be read with the intent of the writer or speaker, or (in this instance) leaker in mind.

So, for example, if I were a conservative Episcopal media relations person, and I hoped that the Church would further alienate itself from the Communion, my twin goals would be: a) to paint the Episcopal Church as unreasonable to the rest of the Communion (a gay bishop from California would have been enormously helpful in this regard) and b) to persuade Episcopalians—especially liberal Episcopalians—that no matter how our Church responds to the Windsor Report (short of a big fat hug and a kiss on the cheek—which is not within the realm of possibility) the Communion will find it wanting, and make its future membership in the Communion a series of slights and humiliations. Stories like today’s offering in the Telegraph do this nicely. (This isn’t to say it was planted for this purpose. I don’t know that. But if it was planted, it was nice work.)

I’d pursue the second of these goals because if I were interested in marginalizing the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion, the greatest gift that General Convention could give me is the rejection of the Special Commission’s resolutions made in response to the Windsor Report. And the surest way to sink those resolutions is to persuade liberals that remaining within the Communion isn’t worth the cost.

(Please note: I am not expressing an opinion on the merits of the Special Commission resolutions, or, for that matter, on the merits of membership in the Communion. I’m just trying to help people interpret the various ways that people of my dubious ilk attempt to influence the debate in which we are now engaged.)

I’ve gone on longer about this than I had planned. But I sensed a lot of anxiety out there this morning, and I am not sure it is well-founded.

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