The Canterbury Trial by Gerald Bray

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.


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