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Rowan Williams Struggles to Save the Anglican Communion
by George Conger
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one must have a heart of stone to read of the death of the Episcopal Church without laughing. Homosexual bishops, crooked treasurers, litigious clergy, and conventions pleading for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s freedom offer diverting entertainment for those not found within its pale.
Over the past year, the Episcopal Church has elected a partnered homosexual man as bishop of New Hampshire and normalized homosexuality by allowing dioceses to create liturgies for blessing same-sex unions. The Anglican Church in Canada also has moved homosexuality from the sin to the blessing side of the ledger, voting at its June General Synod meeting to affirm the “integrity and sanctity” of homosexual relations. In response, 22 of the 38 Anglican provinces (the independent national churches) have either broken relations or declared themselves to be in “impaired communion” with portions of the two.
Meetings have been held, a commission formed, protests and anathemas issued, ecumenical relations shattered, and the ultimate decision placed in the hands of the archbishop of Canterbury. It has fallen to Rowan Williams to keep together a divided communion over a problem his predecessor, George Carey, called the “most critical issue facing the Church since the Reformation.”
Though it is tempting to dismiss liberal Anglicans as votaries of the “church of what’s happening now,” the madness of the Anglicans isn’t peculiar to the species. The disease is widespread, for the desire to be “relevant” has passed deep into the marrow of mainline Protestant Churches and portions of the Roman Catholic Church, turning the Apostle Paul’s dictum on its head: “Be ye conformed to this world” (cf. Rom. 12:2).
What will Rowan Williams do? How will he respond to the Anglican collapse of intellectual rigor and moral seriousness?
As of the writing of this article, the body tasked with providing options to him and the primates, the Lambeth Commission on Communion, has yet to submit its report. Though merely first among equals among the bishops of the communion—Williams’s ecclesial authority does not extend beyond the Province of Canterbury, which covers the southern half of England—his words will guide the primates in resolving the crisis facing the church.
All signs suggest that Williams will fudge the issue, playing the Dodo to the communion’s Alice, and pronounce, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
Though a few high-profile homosexual clerics may find their career prospects foreshortened, no group will be placed outside the church, and no one will be disciplined. Calls currently being made by African, Asian, and South American bishops to “kick out” the apostate American and Canadian bishops will go unheeded. Calls from American and Canadian bishops to discipline overseas bishops for “invading” their dioceses and planting orthodox congregations not subject to their local Episcopal oversight will also go unanswered.
Williams’s plan will most likely be to enlarge the boundaries of the communion, allowing for multiple expressions of Anglicanism within the same geographic boundaries by welcoming back into the fold the alphabet soup of Continuing Anglican groups and letting dissenting parishes opt out of their dioceses (resulting in homosexual and straight dioceses?). This assumes, however, that traditionalists will want to be part of such an ecclesial community, one that places unity above truth.
Some might dismiss this compromise as mere moral cowardice dressed up as statesmanship. Yet a plan of action that stops short of putting anyone outside the church would be consistent with his theology.
For Williams, the author of a highly praised and sympathetic work on Arius, orthodoxy is not a shared body of doctrine but a shared pattern of life, the life of a community united in eucharistic fellowship. “Heresy is possible,” he wrote in Open to Judgment, a collection of essays and sermons published in 1994, “but before we throw the word around, we need to remember that orthodoxy is common life before it’s common doctrine.”
What will Rowan Williams do? He hasn’t yet let on. However, what he has said, in an academic career spanning three decades, does not bode well for Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics who desire from him a firm commitment to Christian orthodoxy.
The Pleasure Sacrament
A skilled theologian and ecclesiastical politician, Dr. Williams began his career as a theological tutor, passing on to become a lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge University. At the age of 36, he progressed to Oxford to become the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity. Elected bishop of Monmouth in the Church of Wales in 1992, he became archbishop of Wales in 2000 and was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 2003—without ever having led a parish.
Williams was a founding member of the group Affirming Catholicism, the heir to the liberal modernist wing of the Church of England, and its episcopal patron before he became archbishop. In its literature, Affirming Catholicism states that it seeks to be “both Catholic and confidently Anglican, no longer hung up about women priests, human sexuality, and Rome.” Its members “seek to live by scripture and tradition in the light of reason and experience, working for a more generously inclusive Church, where all are equally welcome and equally challenged to change.”
Williams’s appointment was received with joy by the avant-garde. After having passed through the worthy Evangelical years of George Carey’s tenure as archbishop, the left believed it would soon come into its own.
And with very good reason. In 1989, while an Oxford professor, Williams gave a lecture entitled “The Body’s Grace” to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. In it, he argued, as the blurb on its book jacket reads, that “committed same-sex relationships fit well with what Christians have said about the purpose of marriage, celibacy and the Christian life.” He advanced the thesis that sexual intercourse is intended by God to give pleasure to those who engage in it. Against this construct, he placed the notion that sexual intercourse is designed primarily to ensure the reproduction of the human race.
He then proceeded to reject reproduction as the chief aim of sexuality, leaving the pleasure principle triumphant. Sex, for Williams, finds a model in the doctrine of the Trinity—not as mystery, but as a manifestation of self-love. We are loved by God through our incorporation into the body of Christ, becoming objects of the love of God for God in the Trinity. “God loves us as God loves God.” And as such, our experience of God’s grace is that of being desired. As Christians, we should respond to this love by “so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired.”
In sexual relations, our bodies become a source of pleasure to another, and to ourselves—and a source of grace. By becoming a source of desire for another, we have given ourselves to another, for “in sexual relations I am no longer in charge of what I am.” And in this abandonment to the other, we become like God in his Trinity.
“Distorted sexuality is the effort to bring my happiness back under my control and to refuse to let my body be re-created by another person’s perception.” Rape and pedophilia “have some claim to be called perverse” because they are “asymmetrical,” neither mutual nor equal in power or desire. Homosexual relations that are self-giving and desire-giving are, in Williams’s mind, good. The only way “same-sex relations of intimacy” can be rejected, he argued, is either through “an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts” from the Bible or through a “problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity” taken from natural law.
Forcing the Issue
“The Body’s Grace” was one of the first theological defenses of the new sexual ethic. Beginning in the late 1970s, activists in the Episcopal Church began to introduce resolutions to normalize homosexuality at the triennial meetings of its General Convention. Though each convention saw an increase in support for change, efforts to change doctrine through legislation failed.
In 1994 the Episcopal Church’s General Convention promised it would not change the teaching on human sexuality without consulting its ecumenical partners. In 1998, at the Lambeth Conference, the world’s Anglican bishops voted 526 to 70 (a margin of 7 to 1, with most of the Americans voting with the majority) to reject homosexual practice as “incompatible with Scripture.” In 2002 the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the communion’s representative advisory body, with lay and clergy representatives from each of the church’s provinces, admonished a Canadian diocese for authorizing the blessing of same-sex unions. In May 2003 the Anglican primates, meeting in Brazil, unanimously rejected any change in church teaching.
The first test for Rowan Williams came early in 2003. Soon after he was enthroned, the bishop of Oxford proposed that Canon Jeffrey John be appointed suffragan bishop of Reading. John and Williams were friends of twenty years’ standing and were both in at the start of Affirming Catholicism. John was also a homosexual who lived with another priest. He told Williams that he was now chaste, as his relationship with his partner was no longer sexually active—not for reasons of theology, however, but ennui.
Williams initially gave his blessing, but in early July, after Evangelicals mounted a vociferous campaign to block the appointment, he asked John to withdraw. The left savaged him, accusing him of being spineless and a turncoat for having allowed himself to be bullied. (John was made dean of St. Alban’s cathedral after a discrete interval had passed.)
On June 7, 2003, the diocese of New Hampshire elected Canon V. Gene Robinson as its bishop. Unlike the now chaste John, Robinson was a sexually active homosexual man, with an ex-wife and two children. On August 5, 2003, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention ratified his election by a large majority and also passed a resolution (C-051) in which it declared that celebrating and blessing same-sex partnerships was “within the bounds of our common life” (a decision that various dioceses such as Washington and Vermont, which support the homosexual agenda, interpreted as authorizing them to create liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions).
Within moments of the announcement, Williams faxed a letter to each of the primates, inviting them to meet in London on October 15 and 16 to discuss the crisis. Williams’s letter to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, arrived at the General Convention during Bishop Griswold’s press conference following the vote approving Robinson.
Tearing the Fabric
In October, following two days of meetings, the primates—including Bishop Griswold—released a statement saying the consecration of Gene Robinson would “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).”
A commission was chartered (the Lambeth Commission on Communion [LCC]), with a mandate to study how the communion could remain whole when provinces went their own way on matters of faith and morals. The primates asked the Episcopal Church to postpone Robinson’s consecration and urged the Anglican provinces “not to act precipitately on these wider questions, but [to] take time to share in this process of reflection.” Griswold consecrated Robinson three weeks later—and the present crisis began.
The primates have asked that no province do anything provocative until a decision is made. The LCC will deliver its report to Williams on September 30. He will share the report on October 16 with the primates’ standing committee—whose six members range from the strongly traditional primate of Central Africa, Bernard Malango, to one of the objects of the report’s scrutiny, Frank Griswold—and then with the full college of primates at the end of February 2005. At that time the primates will make their recommendations, forwarding their decision to the June meeting of the ACC and to the individual provinces for implementation.
Williams has a seemingly impossible task. The majority of African provinces, led by Nigeria, have stated that they will not compromise on this issue. Sodomy is sin, and cannot be rationalized away or left a matter of the once celebrated “Anglican diversity.” Nor will the American church likely undo what it has done. The homosexual lobby has worked for 30 years to insinuate itself into the inner circles of the Episcopal Church, and it will not leave of its own accord.
As archbishop of Canterbury, Williams is pledged to teach the truth and defend the doctrine and traditions of the church, all the while keeping the institution alive. Unfortunately, his theological method—his doctrine of revelation—does not allow for a single truth, and without clearly defined boundaries for the faith, traditionalist Anglicans will decamp.
Meeting in Nairobi on April 16, 2004, the Anglican churches in Africa, who comprise a majority of Anglicans worldwide (on any given Sunday more Anglicans are worshiping in Nigeria than in the Anglican churches of the United States, England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined), stated that they would give the Episcopal Church 90 days to repent and reform once a decision had been made by Williams and his fellow primates. If it did not, then Africa would leave the communion . . . a warning joined in by the leaders of several South American, Indian, and Asian churches.
You Mustn’t Leave
On the first day of the primates’ meeting, a number of primates, led by the archbishop of Nigeria, privately approached Williams saying they would absent themselves from the community eucharist. They could not, in good conscience, receive communion at the same altar as Frank Griswold. Williams responded that if they absented themselves, the meeting would end.
As Christians, we may question one another, but we may not exclude. For in his postmodern via negativa way, Williams believes in an Anglican extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation)—a proposition he would reject if it were applied to non-Anglicans.
That dismayed the right, but Williams was also willing to dismay the left. He had asked Canon John to step aside, not through any political calculus, but because it would prevent a break with the Evangelicals.
Unity must be preserved, even at the sacrifice of the career of one’s friend, for when we are at unity, we may question and test one another, but we must always be mindful that our theological constructs cannot overcome the silence of God. We must be willing “to go into the desert when the security of pictures and ideas fades away, where all theologies finally give way to God,” as he wrote in Open to Judgment. Not advancing John to the episcopate would enrage the left, but it would keep the right in the game.
Writing in the September 2003 issue of the conservative English magazine New Directions (in an article written before the General Convention affirmed Robinson’s election that August), Williams wrote, “Unity is not human consensus but a common identity through incorporation into the risen and glorified Christ.” “I don’t expect the next few years to be anything other than messy as far as all this is concerned,” he noted. “The question is not whether we can avoid mess, but whether we can hang on to common convictions about divine grace and initiative.”
His task, he believes, is to find that way forward. “I think it worth working at structures in Anglicanism that don’t either commit us to a meaningless structural uniformity or leave us in mutual isolation. If you’re not going to be a Roman Catholic, with clear universal visible tests for unity, you’re going to be involved in some degree of structural complexity.”
Will this work? Is there some degree of “structural complexity” that will allow the American and Canadian provinces to remain together in eucharistic fellowship with the African and Asian provinces? The vibrant and growing churches of Africa have said they will not compromise, while Bishop Griswold has termed Robinson’s preferment an act of the Holy Spirit. Appearing before reporters after his election, Gene Robinson declared, “God has once again brought an Easter out of Good Friday.”
Can a compromise be found: of provinces out of communion with one another but in communion with Canterbury, of dioceses built on theological affinity and not geography, of a coherent doctrine of the church that allows one to bless a sexual activity that another denounces as sin? Most likely, no.
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George Conger , a priest of the Episcopal diocese of Central Florida and an honorary canon of St. Matthew?s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas, was accredited to the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for The Church of England Newspaper and the Living Church magazine.