Comprehensive Unity: The No Anglican Covenant Blog

Monday, November 22, 2010

Just how many logical opinions are there about the Covenant?

Defenders of the Anglican Covenant have recently been telling us that it’s quite cuddly, not at all punitive. On the other hand anyone over about 21 will remember the great debate over gay bishops, and the enthusiasm for ‘disciplining’ those provinces which don’t take a hard line against same-sex partnerships. Is this Covenant really the same one as the threatened procedure to kick the USA out of the Anglican Communion?

Yes, but... The provinces are self-governing, and don’t want to give away their autonomy. The current draft has therefore been designed to emphasise that they will retain their autonomy and will not be punished for anything they do. By trying to produce a text acceptable to both sides, it satisfies neither.

Nor should it. We are dealing with a conflict between two incompatible understandings of knowledge – epistemologies – between which no compromise can possibly work. One is the inclusive one used everywhere outside religion: in order to find out the truth you ask questions, gather relevant data, develop and check theories. All this assumes that you don’t know it all, you don’t have certainty and we learn from other people. Philosophers call this ‘coherentism’ because our confidence in our knowledge depends on how well our beliefs cohere with each other.

The other is the dogmatic one: there is one supreme source of information, it provides truths with certainty, and if you dispute any one of its truths you are definitely in error. Philosophers call this ‘foundationalism’ because the idea is to begin with absolutely certain foundations and build on them by deducing other certainties.

These two accounts are mutually exclusive. Any attempt at compromise fails because foundationalism has no place for it: for the foundationalist, every knowledge claim is either deducible or it isn’t. Today philosophers accept that foundationalism misdescribes the way we get to know things. We don’t deduce certainties from each other; we learn things in a wide variety of different ways, all of which are to some extent open to error. That’s why coherentism is more popular today.

The one discourse where foundationalism is still taken seriously is in religion. Those who have been demanding a Covenant with strong punitive sanctions work with a foundationalist account of Christian doctrine. Examples are on and Scripture says, so we obey, and anyone who disagrees has no business here. The determination to split Anglicanism on these lines was quite clear before the controversies over Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson; the Kuala Lumpur Conference of 1997 and Drexel Gomez’ To Mend the Net (2001) were both clearly spoiling for a fight.

This Christian foundationalism lacks evidence: there never has been a satisfactory account of how God revealed the Bible without involving human reason. Secondly it is psychologically disastrous: it sets people up to think they know the truth with certainty, so anyone who disagrees with them is certainly wrong, and off we go with endless denunciations and schisms. Thirdly, it is hopelessly impractical. The Bible just isn’t a consistent set of moral commands and doctrinal statements which anybody can easily understand.

Nevertheless, having said all this, it offers an account of Christian believing which theoretically fits together. Accept the foundationalist account of the Bible as divine revelation and the rest follows, including the utter unacceptability of gay bishops. It’s a theoretically consistent position. Also theoretically consistent is the coherentist one: we have our views on Christian doctrine but we don’t have certainty and we expect to learn from other people so it’s best for the church to contain a wide variety of voices.

From the perspective of both these positions, the Covenant isn’t good enough. For the foundationalists if it is established, it could end up failing to kick out provinces with gay bishops. This is absolutely true: it could. On the other hand, for the coherentists it could end up kicking out provinces with gay bishops, or provinces which dissent from whatever line is being laid down at the time. From the coherentist perspective, if Anglicans are disagreeing over something, the disagreement should be resolved on the basis of the evidence and the best arguments, and that means allowing debate to continue as long as necessary.

The Covenant tries to sit in the middle between these two positions, in the hope of satisfying both sides. But there is no consistent compromise position. What seems to have happened is that the leaders of Anglicanism have followed the lead of the Windsor Report in opting for a foundationalist solution, but on paying attention to what it would mean, have step by step moved away from it – but without ever formally abandoning the foundationalist intent.

Either we are to be told what we may or may not do and believe, or not. Either Anglicanism is to be foundationalist, or it will be coherentist. If we have a new system which tries to keep both sides happy, all that will happen is that the foundationalists will carry on denouncing the coherentists and demanding their expulsion. Sometimes toleration needs to be defended against the intolerant.



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