Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ephraim Radner on the Dynamics of Decision-Making at the 76th General Convention

Ephraim Radner recently offered reflections on the 76th General Convention that are worth taking time to contemplate. The piece is entitled "It seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit: The 'Us' of General Convention." Here's a teaser:

Let us leave aside the substantive theological aspects of the recent Episcopal Church General Convention. They are important, of course. But I am interested here in the dynamics of decision-making that underlay the way things turned out. I am interested because these “transactional” aspects, as some call them, may tell us a lot about the future. And we are hearing a lot about these aspects from the Convention: it was surprisingly “respectful”, many have reported; it was engaged without “acrimony” and “contention”, and despite the momentous topics addressed, people were calm and relatively relaxed. All very different from past conventions, with their hand-wringing, protests, weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Where are all the passionate arguments?” many wondered, breathing a slightly uncomfortable sigh of relief. The explanations for the relative peace breaking out varied: some said that the traditionalists of TEC’ had all been “purged” or disappeared or were simply too exhausted and defeated to raise a ruckus; others said that the church had finally moved to a real “consensus” about previously contested matters of sexuality. “This is who we are!”, the Convention could finally say with some coherence.

The “purging” and the “consensus” explanations are probably both right to some degree. But it is a complicated overlap that merits some reflection. This is what I want to offer now. I have been doing some reading of late on the matter of how church councils “decide” things. And inevitably I have had to delve into some of the social scientific literature on related topics. There are two writers in particular who, I think, have something to say about this particular council we call the General Convention that has just met. And applying some of their broad insights can indeed, I suggest, help us to map the future a little bit. ...

As traditionalists leave TEC, consensus decision-making will prove more and more devoid of accountable divergent thinking, and the decisions made will become less and less informed and representative. This spells danger and self-destruction for the Episcopal Church. Alas, though, the same is true for the exiting groups. From the perspective of decision-making, the loss of divergent thinking will affect traditionalists who leave TEC as negatively in their own sphere as the liberal church they have left behind: alternative views will be suspect as “extreme” and councils “buffered” from their effects; small groups of decision-makers will prevail over the engagement of broad participation; and, just as importantly, the existence of multiple and available choices will spur exit over loyalty. American Anglicanism has never appeared so vulnerable as now (Canada is just a few steps behind).

A warning, then, a warning to all world Anglicans! All you who pass by! Do not touch the American disease! Too many choices, too many fears, insecurities and enmities, too few loyalties. The Anglican Communion cannot turn into an enclave. That is not what Christian communion embodies. Yet, should it simply split apart, it will become a set of enclaves, spreading their little seeds of insularity.

Do read the rest of Radner's essay.


BillyD said...

As traditionalists leave TEC, consensus decision-making will prove more and more devoid of accountable divergent thinking, and the decisions made will become less and less informed and representative.

Devoid of divergent thinking, yes. Less informed, arguably. But why less representative?

Bryan Owen said...

BillyD, I can say with some confidence that the average Episcopalian in the Diocese of MS is moderate to conservative in his/her theological (and political) orientation. There are other Southern dioceses in which this is true, and I'll bet that's the case in other parts of TEC as well. So the more we lose conservative perspective and input in the highest legislative body of TEC, the less representative that body's decisions are of the grassroots level of much of the Church. And thus the more that body's decisions risk further alienating folks at grassroots level.

That's not good news for a Church that continues to hemorrhage money and membership.

Bill Carroll said...

I do think that the substance of the resolutions, the margins of the votes, and the fact that both houses concurred points to an overwhelming consensus on moving cautiously forward. I don't see this as a repudiation of the conservatives or moderates in our midst, some of whom voted for both resolutions. It is a firm "no" to a few extremists who sought to hijack the conversation and keep this from ever happening.

Radner is more than happy to let the majority rule when he agrees with the outcome. Hence, the venue shopping at the heart of his revisionist ecclesiology.

Bryan Owen said...


I suspect that most of us are perhaps more than happy to let the majority rule when we agree with the outcome.

A few comments/questions in response to your comments:

(1) Your first paragraph seems to rest upon the very assumption Radner is calling into question, namely, the postulate of "moderated convergence" according to which "healthy group decision-making tends to 'converge' towards the middle, leaving the extreme views of participants aside as the majority moves through discussion and compromise to a more central outlook." Radner argues that what happened at GC may have been less about "moderated convergence" than the consolidation of "smaller units of expertise" whose membership tends to be increasingly those who are like-minded and insulated from rival perspectives. In addition to what I've been reading, what I've heard from our diocesan deputation supports the contention that that's precisely what was, in fact, happening.

(2) Which extremists were we saying "no" to at this GC? Haven't most of those folks left since GC 2006? Surely you don't mean to suggest that all conservatives (even the few who remain in the HoB and HoD) are "extremists."

(3) Can you provide specific evidence to substantiate the charge that Radner's ecclesiology is "revisionist"? (And BTW, what exactly do you mean by the term "revisionist"?)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

So, it would seem, there is good consensus (the kind ACI wants) and bad consensus, the kind that comes out of GC. What of the "consensus" that comes out of the extremist groups (GAFCON?). Or the "new consensus" whose emergence in Anglicanism is looked to by the Windsor report?

But in what way is the ACI position any less "insular" than any of the others forms of consensus? If the idea that "We hold the truth because we agree among ourselves" is an American disease, the ACI certainly shares in the malady. Radner's argument here hinges on his presupposed premise that his "consensus" is right while the "liberals" are wrong, consensus compared against consensus, group to group. But it seems to me that the only players in the game who really want to remove all divergent thinking from the communal space are the GAFCON segment. To do right by ACI, they do not want the "liberals" excluded so much as brought to repentance -- that is, to their current consensus, as much as the progressives would like to see their consensus prevail more widely, to fulfill the possible future held out by Windsor.

And this is how the dynamics of the church have worked from the days of Peter and Paul. Different groupings within the church will come to different conclusions, these groups will sometimes separate off and become sects or heresies, others will merge and coalesce as the "hot button topics" of one century become the adiaphora of the next. Biblical criticism was hot in the 19th century, birth control in the first half of the 20th, remarriage after divorce in the latter half, joined by WO and sexuality concerns. But who today is troubled by challenges to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or birth control?

Which "consensus" survives will have more to do with what the next generations are seeking in a church than in any specific social scientific theory. Personally, I think American Anglicanism is poised for a renaissance, despite Radner's gloomy prognosis.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Tobias. You always bring a perspective that's helpful, even when I happen to disagree.

You wrote: "Radner's argument here hinges on his presupposed premise that his 'consensus' is right while the 'liberals' are wrong ..." I just don't see him saying that. I hear him lamenting the loss of comprehensivness (a loss that I, too, am increasingly concerned about in TEC). So either you're right and I'm just naive, or perhaps we just see things differently on this.

You cite different ecclesial special interest groups and ask which version of "consensus" will survive the competition. Perhaps, increasingly, we all seem to have our own pet versions of consensus and what it means for the Church to be comprehensive and catholic. Given some views I've heard about the desirability of getting conservatives out of the way, I'm not hopeful that the progressive wing of TEC is really all that interested in including conservatives at the table (much less with legislative power) as precisely conservative voices. Perhaps ironically, the fruits of progressive inclusion seem to me to be more homogeneous and monolithic than comprehensive and catholic.

If that's true, then Radner's concern that TEC could turn into "a set of enclaves" may already be proving true.

BillyD said...

So the more we lose conservative perspective and input in the highest legislative body of TEC, the less representative that body's decisions are of the grassroots level of much of the Church.

But aren't delegates elected from the dioceses? Why wouldn't they reflect the theological conservatism (or liberalism) of the dioceses they represent?

I agree that the conservative voice will be diminished, and that this will bad for ECUSA. But I still don't see how that makes GC unrepresentative.

Bryan Owen said...

But aren't delegates elected from the dioceses? Why wouldn't they reflect the theological conservatism (or liberalism) of the dioceses they represent?

Yes, they are elected, but the correct terminology here has substantive implications. We elect deputies to General Convention, not delegates (note that there is no House of Delegates, but rather a House of Deputies - Radner himself get this terminology wrong in his essay when he refers to deputies as delegates).

Unlike delegates who are elected to represent a constituency, those elected to General Convention are "deputized" to vote their conscience. Of course, they have to give an account when they return home, and that may well influence how they vote. But they are not beholden to vote in accordance with how the folks back home think and feel. My sense is that most deputies take this responsibility very seriously, regardless of how it might play out when they get home. (What they say about how they voted when they get home might be another matter ...)

Then there's the highly politicized nature of the whole process - i.e., those who have the connections and the interests to run for this position, much less the time and treasure to take almost two whole weeks off from work and family - and I'm not sure that the House of Deputies, does, in fact, reflect reality at the grassroots level of many of our dioceses.

Add to the mix the exit of conservatives in positions of leadership from TEC (bishops and deputies), and it seems to me that there are a number of problems with expecting General Convention to "represent" the interests and views of the rank and file in many of our pews.

BillyD said...

OK, that makes sense. Thanks.

Christopher said...

Fr Owen,

I think we can do better than Fr Radner as a voice that calls for restraint of dominating tendencies on all sides. Where was this call when there was "consensus" across Anglicanism? Until quite recently, ACI and Co. were quite happy to bring to heal and bad mouth quite openly progressives because majorities were available and claim to those majorities--and hence, consensus, were used as the reasoning to keep progressives in place. You cannot have it both ways, making claim to majority when it works for you and disowning it when it doesn't, and then storm out when you get precisely the game you've played.

The problem is with this kind of game playing in the first place, which I would add has all sorts of one-ups-personship and picking up my toys and leaving when I don't get my way. It's all rather boyish. And don't getting my way has not meant living with disagreement, but wanting TEC to repent and disown or call to heterosexuality all gay folk. A form of domination if ever there was one, but somehow that's different. If you want to be allowed to be, you have to be prepared to let others also be even in disagreement and without coercion.

So I have to say I agree with Fr Tobias, that ACI likes to play it both ways and the sour and nasty notes they've played are every bit as ugly as the progressives you've mentioned here. I think the way they want to play it and the way some progressives you mention want to play are playing it wrong in light of Christ--domination politics is not Christlike, and where lack of consensus is apparent, it's better (and more Anglican) to live with that lack. 1998 was mistaken for consensus and used as a clobber (with ugly politics behind its passage of 1.10). I won't raise up ACI and company as martyrs and the progressives as the bad guys/gals. ACI and Co. too have played into a certain way of being together that is quite nasty and disrespectful and often in oh, so subtle condescension. A pox on all such houses, I say.

And I see all of this, and yet, I have to ask, why were and are such questions not asked of all the gay people who have left over the years or been harassed, expelled, and even worse in places elsewhere in Anglican land? The handwringing never goes there when we talk about our catholicity and unity, but it's a reality that shows up we have been less than catholic for quite a long time. Most gay people flee the churches, and I get why. Some of these folks, including Radner with his consensus emphasis that has a lot of domination understones, have made and would make of Anglicanism a place toxic to the likes of me because not based in willingness to live in disagreement, but using consensus to drive home a certain perspective.

I have not asked that such be brought to heal and see it my way, but neither will I put up with being diminished or disrespected or worse either. Just reading a sample of what is said about gay folk at Covenant Communion shows precisely how nasty things can get, and these are the mild. And that's before the laws of the state happen to coalesce with the church as they do elsewhere in the Anglican word.

I would add that why is it we feel responsible when conservatives leave (and that is precisely where some of the diminished diversity comes from)--a response on their part, but when it comes to gays who leave, we chalk it up to their problem or choice with a shrug. Either we must feel responsible for both or neither. Either we are diminished by the loss of both or neither. But yet, I have yet to read in all of the handwringing over unity and catholicity concern of this sort when it comes to gay people.

Again, all of this reveals to me the potential for domination by all of us. Doing it different requires voices and disciplines from those we've generally heard and privileged in this "crisis." We need voices that call us to live in the pain of ambiguity and the generosity of doubt and do so with pressuring one or another group into not ministering or ministering the way we would like them to.

Christopher said...

that should read "without pressuring"

I would add that what has opened up is that those who support same-sex have the option to do so in their communities. No one is required to do so, and those expressions of support are rather limited. I now understand there is some place for me in this Church, whereas it has been rather unclear to-date--baptism being quite a meaningless reality in the way this Church behaves toward its gay members. I understand that that is too much for some, and they have or will leave, but why is it we are willing to live with the one and not the other, willing to live with gays getting sick and tired of being treated like trash, but not the other? Catholicity requires a bit more than the one-sidedness Anglicanism has mostly shown to-date.

I would also add that the so-called American disease named here was precisely how Archbishop Carey and some African Anglicans played it at Lambeth 1998 in regards to 1.10. No, the nasty politics are not a disease indemic or blameable on Americans and TEC as much as some continue to want to do so.

Bryan Owen said...


I don't doubt that we can do better than Fr. Radner alone, as your counterbalancing comments make abundantly clear. I do think, however, that he has important insights to offer. I'm not eager to write him off as "one of those extremists" as some others I've heard talk about him seem to be.

My hand wringing about persons who leave TEC includes not just conservatives, but also LGBT folks who feel they've been shut out or even betrayed by us. Since some on the far Right claim they do not exist, I would particularly like to highlight creedally orthodox LGBT Christians who, in some cases, find themselves caught in the crossfire between the faith of the Church on the one hand, and both the exclusion of the far Right and the agenda of so-called "progressive" Episcopalians whose vision of inclusion excludes their (and the historic Church's) understanding of the Christian faith on the other hand. I've seen this several times, not just on the web, but in my ministry. It's not pretty.

I think that if we care about the catholicity of the Church, we have to care about everyone who leaves, regardless of the reasons why. That includes both conservatives who reject the full inclusion of LGBT Christians, and LGBT Christians themselves (not all of whom are on the "progressive" bandwagon when it comes to core doctrine).

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Dear Friends, I think the only solution is the one Huntington (God bless him on his 100th anniversary) put forward: consensus only on certain fundamental points. Having gay people in the church along with those who condemn "teh gay" means "no consensus on sexuality." That's it. That is the problem we face: those who raise an issue of pastoral or moral theology to the level of church of communion-dividing systematic theology. And who is doing that? Radner, Turner, Seitz, etc. They are doggedly holding to a Creedal level for these issues, siding with the Global South's insistence even if they don't believe it themselves (and I think at least two of the three, and perhaps all of them, do).

So ultimately it comes down to the principles around which consensus must be centered. It is always "consensus on what? About half of the Anglican Communion does not see the sexuality issues as communion-dividing, the other half do. So there is no consensus on that particular issue. Can we maintain the communion in spite of that lack? That, it seems to me, is the question.

Bryan Owen said...

Tobias, as a Huntington fan and a proponent of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as the cornerstone of a generous orthodoxy, I agree about "consensus only on certain fundamental points." Unfortunately, our disagreements on the issues of sexuality and whether or not those issues are, indeed, fundamental may mean that Rowan+ is right in his recent thoughts about the 76th General Convention that we may be heading towards a "a 'two-track' model" for Anglicanism."

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Bryan, I agree. But as I just observed over at TA, Rowan's though is about development and process, not an absolutist Yea or Nay. In addition, what the two tracks consist of is not entirely clear. As the Covenant evolves I can well see TEC signing on to it and the GS not doing so -- they have already shown contempt for the "Canterbury Based Communion" while we keep holding our our hands in welcome and hope. So the "two tracks" may end up being the Covenant folk who actually support development, process and listening (Rowan, etc.), and the Salon des Refusés who won't sign on. Naturally this fashes Radner and Wright who wanted a "stronger" Covenant, but I don't think they will have their way in the end.

Jendi said...

If there *is* a theological issue of Creedal-level importance behind the "gay issue", it's the choice between a dynamic and a legalistic Biblical hermeneutics: do we let our interpretation of the text be transformed by our encounter with the neighbor, or must the neighbor yield to the text (or rather, yield to the power of those who have deemed themselves its sole authorized interpreters), every time?

Bryan Owen said...

Important questions, Jendi. Of course, it's not just issues of biblical authority and hermeneutics involved here, but also the relationship between the three sources of authority within Anglicanism: scripture, tradition, and reason.

Clearly, there are those who think that all three of these speak clearly in either a "pro" or "con" way. But what do we do when we have some folks who think that reason provides a warrant for the kind of transformation you note, but who also think that scripture and tradition do not provide such a warrant (or that, thus far, if these sources provide such warrants, no one has yet adequately demonstrated it)? This raises all kinds of difficult issues that include but also go beyond questions of biblical authority, including questions like, "What is the Church?", "What is a human being?", "What is reason?", "What is authority?", "What is revelation, and how does it relate to reason?", etc., etc.

In my experience, there's little grappling with these kinds of questions. Such questions are viewed as tiresome and even as impediments to doing what "everybody knows" is the "right" thing. All kinds of questions are begged and assummptions made when that happens.