As John Richardson points out elsewhere in New Directions, modern day Anglican doctrine is the curious bye-product of Discussion Documents and Reports. It follows then that to understand how Reports and Discussion Documents are used is to understand how we got like this.
The first thing to grasp is that it is largely irrelevant to whom Reports are addressed, or by whom Discussion Documents are to be discussed. And it is supremely irrelevant what the various bodies involved actually think of the papers in question, when eventually they reach them.
The important thing with Reports and Discussion Documents is to get them published. A glossy cover and an official imprint are better than a ‘nihil obstat’. With careful management, a Paper intended for the Synod (for example) can be given a public launch, be widely discussed in the secular press and be generally accepted, by the woman on the Clapham omnibus, as the ‘teaching of the Church of England’ (whatever that might mean) long before any elected representative has had sight of it.
And even if the Synod or other body rejects the document, the time of the tireless writer of Reports and Discussion Documents has not been wasted. Experience shows repeatedly how a document which began its life as a reject can, with careful handling, be recycled and re-cited as an Authority. With careful management and after a few years a Report or Discussion Document can gain more authority than Scripture itself.
Discussion Documents and Reports are, almost by definition, written by people who like writing Discussion Documents and Reports. And by the same token the people who write them, unlike the people who are obliged to read them, remember what is in them. In particular they remember, repeat and direct attention towards the sound-bite concepts which are the raison d’etre of Reports. Reports and Discussion Documents, it should be understood, do not exist to assist the taking of reasoned decisions which will result in chosen and considered action. They are about effecting a change in attitudes, which will result in irreversible doctrinal drift.
A case in point is the recent and destructive doctrine of Provincial Autonomy.
Considered rationally Provincial Autonomy is unmarketable. Who could reasonably suppose that, on an issue like the consecration of women as bishops, for example – which directly affects the unity and coherence in time and space which the Apostolic Ministry exists to bring about – the Church of Ireland (with 200,000 or so communicant members on a sunny Sunday with no conflicting sporting events) should have the same rights and influence as the Church of the Province of Nigeria (with three and a half million)? Who indeed would reasonably suppose that the matter was one which ought to be addressed by individual provinces on their own recognizance, whatever their size? Reasonable people would conclude that what affects all should be decided by all. Provincial Autonomy, what is more, is a notion based on an analogy between local churches and the sovereign nation state – one which the apostolic ministry exists to subvert, and which, in the secular sphere, its most ardent proponents consistently decry.
The purpose of Reports and Discussion Documents, however, is to subvert reason and assist carefully directed drift. Provincial Autonomy which was in danger of looking vicious – akin to parochialism, pride and self-will – had to be recycled as benign and desirable. In the case of the consecration of women bishops, of course, it operated precisely to present a fait accompli. (‘Now take that, you suckers!’) It had, in consequence, to be made to seem open, gentle and non-confrontational
The technique employed was an Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission.
Now of all bodies issuing Reports or Discussion Documents an Archbishop’s Commission is without doubt the most pliable. An Archbishop’s Report is the ecclesiastical Report in its purest form. It is addressed to no one; and no one, not even its originator, is expected to do anything about it. In fact, as the Archbishop’s Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs told the Council of Forward in Faith, the Archbishop is actually inhibited by his very office, from action of any kind. (‘I am sure you will understand,’ wrote Mr. Deuchar, ‘that the Archbishop is in no position to make substantial comments about ecclesiastical order and behaviour in another province of the Anglican Communion’.)
Upon this Report – addressed to no one in particular (for the Anglican Communion has no competent body to which it might be addressed); and to which no one, it now appears, is obliged defer, even by way of exhortation – the hopes of many faithful Christians throughout the Anglican world have been founded. Eames was the basis of the Act of Synod in England, and, in less fortunate provinces, has been the only fragile defence against the forces of institutionalised intolerance. It is, we can all now see, a fence which any weak wind can blow down.
What will endure of the Eames Report – what will be incorporated into the self-referential committee culture which J.C.D. Clark has identified (see this issue, page 4, para 2) – is not its appeal to that gracious generosity of which Anglicans have proudly boasted, but its endorsement of unilateral action as a means of influencing and coercing others.
A church with a love of apostolic fellowship, a zeal for catholic truth and a burning desire to be faithful to the scriptures might, it must seem to the well-intentioned ecumenical observer, have done better. If it lacked the institutions which could respond globally to a global crisis, then, even retrospectively, the Eames Commission might have called for their creation. If it needed the acknowledged authority of a head who could speak for and to the body, then this was the moment to acknowledge the deficiency. But world-wide Anglicanism has used the crisis of women’s ordination and consecration, not to remedy but to reaffirm its faults. The culture of Eames, so gentlemanly and British (as it seemed) has proved, in reality, to be the sub-culture of the theological bully boys, who will grab what they want while the going is good.
The going, as a matter of fact, is now very good. And Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize Winner and darling of Lambeth Conferences past, is poised to make the next pre-emptive strike. No reasonable person ever doubted that the liberation agenda, upon which arguments for the admission of women to Holy Orders were largely based, was capable of almost infinite extension. Desmond is poised to extend it. And just as George called those who disagreed with him heretics; Desmond has charges of blasphemy up his sleeve.