Looking at the Covenant documentation for General Synod, it seems one laudable aim is to promote closer engagement between Churches.
Institutional structures can assist as well as impede strong and fruitful relationships, of course. Having a formal marriage certificate doesn’t stop marriage partners loving each other — indeed it ought to help, all ohter things being equal. What it cannot do is make people love one another.
Direct meeting is a gospel value. And if this is the aim, one way to judge the Covenant proposal will be to ask “How might it deliver what kind of closer engagement between Churches?” A new refereeing institution could bring churches together when they make decisions others abhor. That‘s the theory, rather like requiring divorcing couples to seek counselling.
Yet wise counsellors with whom I’ve worked in prisons and counselling centres have always told me how difficult mandated counselling is. For it to be effective people have to be willing to contemplate changing something about themselves, and to be committed enough to the process to give it a go. They have to be equal enough to talk and often if they had been that in the first place they wouldn't have got into the situation they're in.
A couple who both believe profoundly “I am in the right and it’s basically my partner needs to change” are unlikely to find counselling effective. Anyone who is not reasonably committed to the process will spend their counselling session staring out the window or at their watch. Again, the exercise is almost certainly pointless, and the kindest thing a counsellor can do is point this out honestly from the outset rather than stage a charade where there is no meeting of minds, or will to reach it, or preparedness to change.
I’m also struck, as I look back to the spat that gave rise to the Windsor report, how the human impact of what was going on had explicit and implicit expressions. On the one hand various politicians, scribes, pharisees and manipulators proclaimed their righteous indignation from the housetops, along with what others had to do to call off the dogs of war.
On the other, many gay clergy colleagues bottled up, often bravely and quietly, what must sometimes have seemed intolerable burdens of depression, frustration and pain. This came from a feeling they were being institutionally rubbished by the Church that had nurtured them, and to which they felt profoundly committed, personally and spiritually. Someone told me it felt like being mugged by a parent, at the behest of a nasty neighbour. Many found it almost unbearable to talk about, in the way people who had been in the trenches couldn’t and didn’t want to talk about what they had witnessed when they got home. The clearest expression of the hurt beng experienced by gay clergy wasn’t imposing declarations but days off sick with depression and stress, many of them never even logged as such.
Of course people should engage. But engaging institutionally and legally is nothing like as important as engaging personally and spiritually with real human beings. That’s why boycotts are usually evil, because they are excuses not to engage but to feel as righteous as if you had. People matter so much more to God than the abstract issues ever could. We owe far less to dogma, than to the people our dogma impacts, because that is the way of Christ, and the Scriptures teach us that love is the fulfilling of the law, whatever law you may have in mind, even the ten commandments.
I notice how the wording of section 4 of the various drafts of the Covenant has become less legalistic and more relational. Good. But I want to know how positively relational it really is now, or is this just a drafting cleanup because people wouldn't swallow the medicine for what it actually was, neat?
I want to know, in close particulars, how the new structures being proposed will give what voice not only to the Scribes, Pharisees and bureaucrats, who in my experience can usually speak for themselves, but also to the poor blighters in the dust who look to us, bishops especially, because they thought in all innocence that bishops were supposed to be more committed to the way of Jesus Christ than the way of Caiaphas.
It could be that a new refereeing body gives a voice to the voiceless. OK. How? And if this process does not go out of its way to do this, and especially if it contents itself with pious intentions and merely institutional stitching up, it will only make our spiritual sickness worse, not better.