The Canterbury Trial

Gerald Bray on Rowan Williams & Evangelicals

On July 23, 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair revealed what had by then become one of the worst-kept secrets in recent British history, when he announced that the archbishop of Wales, Dr. Rowan Williams, would succeed Dr. George Carey as the archbishop of Canterbury and thus become the presiding bishop, not only of the Church of England, but of the entire Anglican Communion.

Six months of arduous (and at times malodorous) campaigning by his friends had landed Dr. Williams the “top job.” His fan club had gone to extraordinary lengths, both to praise him to the skies and to dismiss the claims of any potential rivals. We were told that he stands head and shoulders above any other bishop in the church, that he has a brilliant intellect, that he is deeply spiritual, that he alone will turn the church around in the direction in which it now needs to go.

When it dawned on the general public that the inevitable was about to happen, a group of leading Evangelicals wrote to the Prime Minister, pleading for a last-minute intervention that would stop the bandwagon in its tracks. To no one’s surprise, they failed, though they did succeed in showing everyone where the main opposition to Dr. Williams is likely to come from in the next few years.

American readers may find the conflict instructive. Between Evangelicals and Dr. Williams there is a great gulf fixed, which will not be bridged by any conciliatory remarks on his part (none of which have been forthcoming so far, incidentally), or even by the usual wobbling on the left wing of the Evangelical constituency, which has already manifested itself in some quarters.

The nature of this gulf is theological, but it is also intellectual, psychological, temperamental, and cultural. However one looks at it, there is almost no point of contact between Dr. Williams and the Evangelical world, and he shows no sign of any desire to establish the kinds of links that would be needed to gain Evangelical trust and support.

When interviewed in The Times shortly before the official announcement of his appointment, Dr. Williams described Evangelicals as people who bang tambourines and sing “Blessed Assurance,” and he let it be known that every once in a while he too feels the urge to join in. One would like to know precisely when he last felt that urge, and even more, where he went to satisfy it, since there are precious few Evangelical churches that match his description of them, but the tone of thinly veiled contempt that lies behind such remarks came across loud and clear.

Williams’s Outlook

Those who want to familiarize themselves with Dr. Williams’s overall theological outlook need go no further than the collection of essays he recently published under the title On Christian Theology. There it emerges that his chief guide to things Evangelical is none other than James Barr, whose notoriously inaccurate and bitter book Fundamentalism he seems to take as an obvious statement of fact.

Had the Evangelical letter-writers mentioned above read this collection of essays beforehand, they would have found Dr. Williams’s reply to their approach clearly stated on page 58:

[S]o far from the literal or historical sense [of Scripture] being a resource of problem-solving clarity, as it might appear to be for the fundamentalist, an area of simple truthfulness over against the dangerously sophisticated pluralism of a disobedient Church, it may rather encourage us to take historical responsibility for arguing and exploring how the gospel is going to be heard in our day.

In other words, what the Bible says is not authoritative for us today. Rather, what the ancient text does is provide a locus of theological conversation, a challenge to our minds to work out how we can and should experience the divine in our own historical context.

Readers familiar with the development of academic theology since the Enlightenment will see that this is a clear, indeed forceful, statement of the most deeply secular theology imaginable. Dr. Williams justifies this theology in traditionalist terms, on the basis of the incarnation of Christ, a belief that states that the divine is fully involved with, and revealed in, the everyday life of the world. Of course it is necessary now, as it was then, to penetrate beyond superficial details and discover the essential heart of the mystery, but for this task Scripture is of limited use.

Those who call themselves Christians continue to believe that Jesus is the most helpful guide in this respect—the fullest expression (so far at least) of what it means to be truly human. Nevertheless, Christians must always be open to hear the voice of those who are unable to find the deepest meaning of life in the person and work of Jesus, and to proclaim their solidarity with all who are trying to make sense of their universe, as long as they display the appropriate degree of intellectual maturity and integrity in doing so. From this perspective, Iris Murdoch and John Hick are fellow travelers in search of the meaning of life, while John Stott and J. I. Packer are, as “fundamentalists,” not even on the radar screen.

In Dr. Williams’s world, Evangelicals simply do not measure up to his criteria of what a theologian is. They are not mature, because they turn the Bible into an idol and worship it, instead of using its resources to plumb the spiritual depths of the human heart. They are not intellectual, because they are always trying to simplify things for general consumption, instead of creating sentences of labyrinthine complexity alone adequate to the subtleties and ambiguities of the situation and honestly admitting that “problem-solving clarity” is not to be had. Worse still, Evangelicals lack integrity, because although they have been fully exposed to the bright lights of modern social, psychological, and philosophical theories, they have chosen to ignore them.

In his world, opinions that were acceptable for an Athanasius or a Thomas Aquinas, who lived before the age of Enlightenment, are impossible for a modern person, and Evangelicals who persist in thinking otherwise are flying in the face of known facts—proof (if any were needed) of their lack of integrity. A community that thinks of John Stott and J. I. Packer as spiritual guides, while ignoring or disparaging the likes of Iris Murdoch and John Hick, is not a fellowship in which Dr. Williams is likely to feel at home, and we must not be surprised if he stays away from it as much as possible.

Wake-Up Call

Dr. Williams’s appointment to Canterbury is nothing less than a wake-up call to Evangelicals in the Church of England. For a generation, we have fondly imagined that the increasing numbers of Evangelicals—it has long been said that well over half of all ordinands are Evangelicals—would mean greater influence, and that over time the church would move in our direction. Instead, what we see is an institution that has fallen into the hands of pressure groups whose interests lie about as far from Evangelical concerns as it is possible to get.

There should be no misunderstanding about this. Dr. Williams’s fan club is heavily infiltrated by feminist and homosexual activists, who have a very clear agenda for the kind of change in the church that they wish to bring about.

In the normal course of events, Dr. Williams, who is only 52, may likely be archbishop until 2020, long enough to see a number of women bishops appointed and long enough for the opposition to the ministry of practicing homosexuals to wither away. He is known to favor both these causes (doubters, please read p. 289 of On Christian Theology) and although the first will require a painful process of legislation that may be interrupted by the insensitivities of off-message traditionalists, the second will easily emerge by stealth.

Bishops who are prepared to ordain practicing homosexuals are now free to do so, since it is inconceivable that Dr. Williams would try to discipline someone for doing no more than what he himself has already done. A critical mass of such people will quickly build up, and without a word being said by anyone, the climate of opinion in the General Synod (the Church of England’s governing body, composed of the bishops and of clergy and laity elected to it) will have changed beyond recognition before the wider public has even noticed.

The Crown Appointments Commission—the committee, headed by the two archbishops, that (in absolute secrecy) chooses all diocesan bishops in the Church of England—already has a homosexual activist in its ranks, and it is not hard to imagine what the next round of episcopal appointments will look like. The ideal candidate, in fact, will be an “open” Evangelical who can claim to represent that wing of the church while at the same time bending to the gods and goddesses of political correctness on everything that really matters.

Two days after Dr. Williams’s appointment was announced, Bishop Gavin Reid, a well-known “open” Evangelical chosen as a suffragan bishop by Dr. Carey himself, wrote to The Times saying that Dr. Williams’s move to Canterbury may be a sign that it is time for Evangelicals to rethink our position on homosexual practice! If Bishop Reid were thirty years younger, he would be a leading diocesan in no time, and there will certainly be enough men of his caliber to fill the depleting episcopal ranks over the next five to ten years.

Evangelicals in the Church of England must wake up. Whether we like it or not, the battle for the Church of England’s soul will be fought out in the General Synod, not least in the next elections, to be held in 2005, where Dr. Williams’s troops will be out in force. Will we develop a counter-strategy to defeat them, or will we simply bury our heads in the sand yet again, and let the forces of postmodernity subvert and destroy what is left in the Church of England of the Christian faith revealed to us in God’s holy Word?

This is the stark choice we face, and we may perhaps be grateful to Dr. Williams and his supporters for making us face it as clearly as we now must.  

Gerald Bray is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present (InterVarsity Press) and has edited several volumes of The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This article is a slightly adapted version of an editorial Dr. Bray wrote for the Church Society’s quarterly Churchman, which he also edits.

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