Monday, January 18, 2010

All the World's a Stage: Street Politics 101

"All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players."
-As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7
An interesting tidbit came across the desk this morning, illustrating once again that we are approaching an important milestone in the life of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Normally, for all of its historical significance, the meetings of the Church of England Synod seem to come and go without the wailing and gnashing of teeth as the Episcopal Church General Convention has experienced over the past thirty years.

What the English Church has going for it is, well, that it's English. And properly so. So there are ground rules that are understood about how one must conduct oneself when engaging in disagreeable but necessary church polity. Basically the ground rules are that if you don't them, you shouldn't be there.

This may come in handy as the Synod gathers next month. But as they gather and as the ground rules may suddenly shift, it might be prudent to consider a basic tenet in American Street Politics 101.

It's very very simple - where there is an action, there is a reaction. So one must script the reaction and gain the upper hand. One must never be surprised by reaction, but script the reaction and win the day.

This iconic photo of classic street politics in action is an illustration of this principle.

We've long since left the street, but the strategic lessons remain active and effective.

Once this concept is clear (and of course, it's clear to all of us) then it's very helpful in understanding how that concept is used in what I term street politics.

Street politics is what has run the Episcopal Church for the last generation. The leadership - the effective leadership (and there are some mighty effective leaders, make no mistake about it) learned their craft in street politics, that is the politics of activism.

Marching under the banner of social justice, those who got their teeth cut on the street learned some mighty lessons which they applied to moving the Episcopal Church into becoming a political activist organization.

It is clear that no one is yet sleeping at the helm and this became abundantly clear at the publication of an article today by the London Telegraph. On the surface, it's about a resolution before the Synod of the Church of England to grant "greater rights for partners of gay clergy." Makes sense, doesn't it?

Only, it's not really about granting greater rights for partners of gay clergy because the Church of England is not about granting rights - that's an Episcopal Church view. So there is a clue in the very framing of the resolution that we have entered into Street Politics 101.

This resolution is not about gay clergy or their partners. It is a counter to another resolution before the Church of England. This resolution is the "reaction" to this other resolution and as the other resolution moves forward, this resolution will be its antithesis.

This style of political activism has been used over and over and over again by Episcopal activists. It's very effective! It works! That's why it's used over and over again.

When Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire and there was a great outcry from all parts of the Anglican Communion, we saw this strategy engage. Suddenly there was a "bill" (not a law, but a bill) before the Nigerian legislature that was the antithesis to Gene Robinson. What happened to that bill - it poofed. It wasn't about the bill - it was about generating an antithesis to the reaction to Gene Robinson's election. Even today, Peter Akinola is scarred with that campaign, even though he had nothing to do with it.

Case #2. We see it again in the recent election of another gay-partnered bishop in the Episcopal Church as a suffragan for the Diocese of Los Angeles. In anticipation to her election, we suddenly find another bill (not a law, but a bill). Another bill has suddenly appeared in the where - the United States? In New Zealand? In Haiti? In England? No - activists are up in arms over a bill (and God knows how many bills come before the United States Congress that are completely whacked - want to make a list?) in Uganda! But of course - Akinola is basically retired. Who's left on the landscape but the leader of the province of Uganda (who actually sits on what will now be the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion) and who has offered, rather inconveniently, spiritual haven to the "schismatics" of The Episcopal Church.

It's brilliant! When the LA partnered-gay bishop was elected, the vast majority of media articles walked right into the strategy. They'd write about the bishop-elect, about the reaction, and oh, by the way - have we mentioned this Kill Bill in Uganda?

What makes it brilliant is that people play the roles and their parts very well. We've got our scripts. That's what makes it effective. It appears the same sort of strategy will be underway as the Church of England Synod takes up the plight of thousands of former Episcopalians who want to remain members in good standing with the Church of England but with the belligerent actions of the Episcopal Church cannot in their conscience remain within that structure (read more here). One can't have that action, without a counter reaction - only let's script it now and watch the play unfold. Caveat emptor.

Rowan Williams appears to have been anticipating this (or his new finely retooled media personnel do) by effectively concentrating his public persona as a compassionate man who cares about the poor and the lost and the least. He has been a target by American activists and it is wise for him to take this kinder, gentler approach of a man who cares about the plight of the least among us.

Tom Wright has written of his opposition to street politics in church life as a method of how we exercise our polity. Rowan Williams has also spoken rather bluntly that these important issues that face the church are not about social justice, but the theology of marriage.

What will be interesting to observe as the Church of England synod meets next month is whether the body will take a theological approach to the important issues that face them, will they take a street politics approach to the important issue that face them, or will they pass.

The Synod is being placed in the crucible, for a severe test. If it passes on the gay-partnered issue, it runs the risk of being considered a socially-irrelevant body that lacks compassion for its own. If it passes on the ACNA resolution, then it runs the risk of passing public judgement upon thousands and thousands of Anglicans who wish to be a member of the family - and again lacks compassion for its own.

Heroes are made by those who refuse to follow the crafted script presented to them. But it's mighty costly since so often the play's the thing.

And so we imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his black cape, walking the streets of London, somewhere between a rock and a hard place. What he may ask, and what members of Synod may ask is why take the script and play the parts designed by thirty years of Episcopal Church practice?

Is there, even now, a better way?


bluebird272 said...

To explore some fascinating patterns of behavior allegedly exhibited by The Episcopal Church and others, start by reading the game plan in Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals"... truly eye-opening.

1662 BCP said...

When I look at the photo of RW in his Capa Negra standing on the bridge, I cannot help but think of how much he reminds me of King Friday from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.