Friday, August 01, 2008

Safe Space II - Ground Rules for Transcendent Goals

As a follow up to the preceding post on safe spaces and power, I offer this comment from the senior mediator for the Anglican Communion, Canon Gregory Cameron. Described as “evangelical about the value of getting hostile factions…to meet…,” Cameron observes that it is “very easy to misrepresent a certain group and take a stand against them and pass judgment.” But when one encounters “the complexities of an individual person, [it] breaks down much of the stereotyping we unconsciously do.” Cameron has learned the fundamental lesson of overcoming prejudices – it’s almost impossible to hold onto stereotyped constructions of “the other” when you have come to know them as real live human beings, complete with all the complexities that Cameron rightly notes.

I became aware of this in a study of the referendum election in the 1980s in Broward County which repealed the then-existing (and since reenacted) Human Rights Ordinance protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination. The exit polls asked voters how they voted on the ordinance and if they knew anyone who was gay or lesbian. Of those who said they did not, 80% voted to repeal the ordinance. Of those who said they did, 2/3 voted to retain it. The comments collected for the accompanying article explained it well – Those who knew an LGBT person did not see their vote as expressing an abstract opinion on an issue but rather making a decision which directly affected the quality of the life of another human being. When our decision is about Sam, our lawyer, Elena, our dentist, Billy, our third grader’s teacher or Hong Ting, our neighbor, many people can no longer cast ballots focused on some abstract notion of the “lifestyle” of “those people.”

The article on Cameron concluded with what he calls “Ground rules that may help you strive for transcendent goals.” Given my recent comments on the disingenuous use of “safety” by Anglican conservatives, Cameron’s ground rules including three provisions that underlie my own critique of their strategies:
  • Create a level playing field. “Some people come to meetings with a lot of power, history and ‘form’,” says the canon. “Others come with very little power, very little resources and humble backgrounds.”
  • Respect the written word. With deftly worded speeches, reports, agendas and position papers, the ACO picks a path between political landmines.
  • Construct a safe place. A space for exploration and reflection.

First, the need to create a level playing field. It’s impossible for people to talk and come to know the other if everyone is not at the table in the first place. Moreover, a level playing field means everyone must be guaranteed that place on an equal basis with all others. Second class citizenship does not evidence a level playing field nor does the presumption of the right to speak for and about the other when they are capable of being present and speaking for themselves. Those realities – present far more often than not when women and LBGT persons have been involved in church conflicts – serve to reveal privilege which by definition precludes a level playing field.

Second, in respecting the written word, writing and speaking in ways that honestly lay out agendas, it is possible to avoid the cynical use of notions like “safe space” to protect privilege. If words can be used as weapons, honest communication is by definition a secondary consideration.

Finally, if a level playing field actually can exist and communication can be offered freely and candidly, it is possible for a safe place for exploration and reflection to be created and maintained. There is room for everyone in such a safe place by definition, even people who do not agree on everything. But it requires the ability for all parties to be present in that safe space on an equal footing without trump cards. And it requires the willingness to leave ultimatums about final outcomes at the door.

Sadly, that’s a tall order for many of us. I appreciate Canon Cameron’s ground rules and agree that, if followed, they could lead to achievement of transcendent goals. Sadly, I do not think that devolving into indaba groups alone will meet the challenges of Anglicanism’s culture wars. It is a good thing that Anglicans of varying backgrounds and theological understandings talk and get to know each other. But Anglicanism has never evidenced a level playing field and a major part of the war is over the resolute insistence of those who have historically been left out to no longer stand at the margins in silence and the resolute unwillingness of the power and privilege holders to relinquish their power and privilege without a fight.

I admire the good Canon for trying. And I want to believe his approach can work. But before the Anglican Communion can begin employing means to reach transcendent goals, it must ask itself a very hard preliminary question – Does the Communion actually want to transcend its current stage of self-actualization? If what I am seeing coming out of Lambeth is any indication, I’m am not terribly confident that the answer is yes.

[Cameron’s comments taken from “Meetings resolve almighty isues,” Financial Times, July 15, 2008, p. 12. also found online at ]

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

No comments: