Monday, July 27, 2009

The Archbishop Reflects on General Convention

     I am an unashamed fan of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. His words in Ray of Darkness opened to me the generosity with which I can accept differing points of view and paradox; Rowan’s book Ponder These Things gave me a new appreciation of iconography; it was his book Where God Happens that led me through the desert of a friend of mine being in an Emergency Ward at the local hospital and the subsequent surgery. This is just a partial list of the impact this good man has had on my own theology through his writings. I once joked that if Rowan Williams were a rock star, I would be one of the groupies throwing my collar up on stage.

     On Monday, the Archbishop responded to The Episcopal Church’s latest actions at General Convention in Anaheim, California. Although mentioning other important business accomplished there, the focus was clearly on two resolutions: D025 entitled “Commitment and Witness to Anglican Communion” and C056 entitled “Liturgies for Blessings”. The letter is divided into twenty-six convenient bite-sized sections.

     At the beginning, he recognizes the Episcopal Church’s honest desire to remain a part of the Anglican Communion.

No-one could be in any doubt about the eagerness of the Bishops and Deputies of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention to affirm their concern about the wider Anglican Communion.
     He then goes on to state the honest reality that these resolutions will, in all likelihood still increase anxiety. Letters had been written by our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, (Re. D025 and re. C056) reassuring the Archbishop that despite the resolutions, there were no major changes forthcoming – we were simply following our own canons and studying same-sex blessings. In addition, a paper now known as the “Anaheim Statement” was put forward by the Bishop of West Texas in which some bishops, including Nevada’s, stated they would honor the moratoria and would engage in the ongoing Covenant process. The Archbishop, with perhaps a clearer sense of the mood of the Convention, disposed of both overtures in two concise sentences in section 2:

The repeated request for moratoria on the election of partnered gay clergy as bishops and on liturgical recognition of same-sex partnerships has clearly not found universal favour, although a significant minority of bishops has just as clearly expressed its intention to remain with the consensus of the Communion. The statement that the Resolutions are essentially 'descriptive' is helpful, but unlikely to allay anxieties.
     It is in Sections 5 and 6, the Archbishop states the issue has absolutely nothing to do with civil rights or human dignity or how valued gays are in the church. He even steps aside to apologize for times when the church has been an instrument of prejudice. Rowan then claims the only issue is the question of blessing same-sex unions and its implications should one become a priest or a bishop.

     To say this has nothing to do with “respecting the dignity of every human being” expressed in our Baptismal Covenant is at the very least naïve. This is a very real and personal issue that addresses who we are, whom we love, how we answer God’s call to service, and whether the church values all members. The Archbishop finely-tuned legalistic reasoning allows him to somehow split the value of human beings away from how he talks about them, their relationships, and their vocations. Real human beings do not separate quite so gracefully into neatly compartmentalized segments like some kind of Florida grapefruit.

     The Archbishop goes on to say that changes in how we have traditionally understood Christianity need to have biblical exegesis and broad consensus among churches. I guess the only questions are how much exegesis and how broad a consensus? As a first-rate theologian, Rowan must be aware of the many fine exegetical efforts that have already been accomplished, but if he were not, certainly he is aware of his own conclusions:

"I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had the about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness." - The Telegraph, Aug. 6, 2008
     Three times, the Archbishop refers to being gay as a “lifestyle” choice, as though lifetime committed partnerships were of no more gravity than whether one chooses to decorate the living room in Art Deco versus Classic Americana. It must be inferred from this that Rowan is also able to ignore the vast majority of scientific findings that sexual orientation is innate.

     So how broad does the consensus have to be? Rowan states, “What affects the communion of all should be decided by all.” Oddly, after finding serious fault with the Archbishop’s reflections on human dignity and gay partnerships, I am chagrined to find I agree with him to a degree. It’s doubtful anyone thinks allowing “local” entities to make arbitrary decisions about the fundamental nature of Christianity is a good idea; this is the reason for the Episcopal church’s very Episcopate and representative General Convention. There needs to be leadership and consensus. What the Archbishop refers to as “local churches,” however, is not some place like my dad’s hometown of Parkdale, Oregon deciding to go off down a rabbit trail, but the collective wisdom of entire national churches: the United States, Canada, Scotland, and New Zealand among them. So, he waits for even broader consensus to somehow magically appear, before he can follow his own beliefs and become a leader. He fails to see that broader consensus often comes from leadership.

     Sadly, the letter ends resigned to the possibility of a two-tier church of those who sign on to a future covenant with its exclusionary language, and those who won’t. The Archbishop tries to put the best face on it, by saying it might be a great opportunity, but from bitter experience, we know what it really means when all the kids on the bus who look alike and agree on everything move to the front and those who are different are left in the back. Whatever he intended, this doesn’t sound like the Gospel to me.

     I believe the Archbishop to be a deeply good and honest man. I also believe that in his attempt to preserve unity, he is only preserving a vanishing status quo. It is hard to be disappointed by one’s heroes. Guess I’ll have to hold onto his concert tickets a bit longer and keep my collar on.

     You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s entire letter entitled “Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future” at his website: The Archbishop of Canterbury


  1. I believe the Archbishop to be a deeply good and honest man.

    I can't agree with you on either point, here, Rick.

  2. As Mae West said, 'Goodness had nothing to do with it'. What we need now is wisdom. I'm afriad he is a self-regarding and vain man. People have told him he's saintly, and he's begun to believe it. Always a sign of spirituality off the rails.

  3. Nicely done, Rick.

    Unlike you, however, I can no longer extend the benefit of the doubt in RWs case. He had made an idol of the "AC" and is willing to harm others for it's sake.

  4. I'm with Mike.
    Good and honest he may be. And I think he once believed that he could have unity AND progress for lgbt people. But as it's increasingly becoming clear that he cannot, he's betting on the wrong horse, supporting unity in favour of what I consider to be the clear theological imperative.
    It's sad to see how greatness stumbles.

  5.      You can admire someone - their thinking, their theology - while totally disagreeing with their course of action. That's where I am. I think it's too easy to say the Archbishop's policies are incoherent; they are clearly following a line of belief that puts status quo above what I see as the prompting of the Spirit.

         One of the things I wonder about is how much of his thinking is influenced by the entertwining of government and church in England. That's a whole other level of power and complication that is utterly foreign to an Episcopalian.

         For what it's worth, check out some of the conservative blogs like Stand Firm or TitusOneNine - they're no happier with this letter than we are.

  6. Rick
    Like you, I adore his theology and have been hugely influenced by it at critical moments in my life.
    I have once had the great fortune to hear him in a 5 session lecture series and was blown away.
    I was blown away by his integrity and clarity of thought (stop laughing, you in the back row). But he spoke to me in particular because he never lost sight of the Christ centeredness of the Gospel, and of the responsibility as well as the immense love and hope that brings with it for every one of us.
    His awe of the Otherness of the Other person, the recognition that they are each full and amazing and deeply unknowable individuals, was deeply inspiring.

    The man whose theology I adore is not shallow, he does not use slogans like “lifestyle choices”. He does not appear to be ignorant of powerful pro-gay theology. He is too intelligent not to have understood the polity of TEC. He is too compassionate to treat a whole group of people as issues to be dealt with.
    The man whose theology I adore might ask people to sacrifice themselves for a greater good, but he does not impose that sacrifice without explaining how it might further the greater good and why unity of the Anglican Communion should be seen as a greater good in the first place. And he does not request/impose sacrifices on one side in the dispute without asking the same from the other.

    The man who wrote this communiqué has become a politician. He has lost his depth and his balance. And I’m no longer sure of his purpose.

  7.      I agree, Erika, that this is not the person I see in his writings.

         I'm not even sure I can say he's just a politician either. Wouldn't a politician go where the votes and the money are? If he was just a shallow politician, it would clearly be to the CofE's benefit to just go with TEC.

         His thinking and course of action are unfathomable to me, but there does seem to be a consistent statement of "Make no changes that would upset the boat" regardless of the cost either to individuals or the violence done to his own published belief system.

  8. Rick
    I believe that he once thought that it was possible not to make changes that would upset the boat, and that he might have felt the violence done to individuals could be temporary and that it could be redeemed later.

    But this is no longer the case. The boat is being upset whatever is done or not done.

    When he thought Jeffrey John could become Bishop he learned very quickly that the evangelicals in the CoE would never permit it, that they were willing to withhold their financial contributions to the church at large to blackmail him into compliance, because the evangelical parishes happen to be the richest. Within England, the votes and the money were and maybe still are with the evangelicals.

    Did he think that painstaking theology and listening would make a difference? That people would come to see the same sex question in the same light as earlier human rights questions? And why not, it would have been a reasonable assumption. And so I can see why putting unity first might have appeared to be a good strategy.

    What I don’t understand is why it still appears to be a good strategy to him. It is clear that the militant right will never be satisfied, that Durham and Rochester etc. will accept nothing less but a full cleansing of the church.
    My personal belief is that many liberals just don’t want to get involved, and so there is a huge silent majority among the bishops, with the result that the noisy agitators win the PR race. And more and more liberals leave the church and what remains are the more and more self-convinced righteous moralists.

    Since Rowan has been Archbishop theological discourse has flattened to an unbearable level. Do you ever read Pluralist’s blogspot? It’s interesting to read his comparisons of mainstream theology 20 years ago and of how backward much contemporary theology appears by comparison. How what was then acceptable today is seen as outrageously “librul”, how the word liberal itself has become almost a swearword.
    How the word orthodox has been redefined to mean something radically modern while real orthodoxy isn’t even understood any longer.

    And all this went unchallenged in the name of not rocking the boat. A complete sea change of what Anglicanism stands for is not even commented on. Yet looking the other way, liberal development is criticised for not being undertaken with the blessing of the whole church.

    With all this now becoming clear – what unity is it he is after? Why can this unity be created while including the evangelical views but not the liberal ones? Why is unity per se such an overriding imperative for him? And is it really worth buying unity at the cost of marginalising not just a whole group of individuals, but several national churches into the bargain?

    And this isn’t rocking boats?

  9.      "...the evangelical parishes happen to be the richest. Within England, the votes and the money were and maybe still are with the evangelicals."

    Dear Erika,

         Now, that's an important piece of information I didn't have. It doesn't explain everything, as you said, but it does help me to understand one more piece of the pressures he's facing. In TEC, it's the exact opposite.

  10. Moratoria are for a period of time, or "for a season". What are the time limits on the moratoria? None. Surely the ABC knew that they would not hold forever.

  11.      You would think he would have known or should have, especially given the other end of the bargain - no cross-border interventions - was never upheld or talked about by him with the kind of vigor he reserved for condemnation of TEC.

  12. re moratoria
    After 9/11 he wrote a thoughtful book
    "Written in the dust" urging that strategy on all of us...I think it's quite central to his whole approach to life and to church leave time, to weigh everything carefully, reflect and reflect again.
    But he's not in that world.
    The situation is way past the point of deep reflection and is a human justice issue here and now.
    I've loved and admired ++Rowan for many years, have had the privilege of spending time with him and been awed by the sense of sheer holiness that he exuded...Like you, Rick, I've loved his writing...
    I'm a priest in the C of E, with a family dependent on my stipend and I don't know what I shall do if I find myself in a church that has turned its back on the gifts of many of the most spiritually gifted priests I know, is denying love and justice to a huge swathe of humanity...
    And, in my moderately deprived parish, I know that for most of the congregation this is simply a non issue, something that they can pretend is nothing to do with them. They simply would not begin to understand the turmoil so many of us are feeling.
    I guess all I know how to do in this situation is pray...

  13. Such thoughtful comments. I really can't add anything except agree that I man I so admired has truly disappointed me.

  14. I think it's too easy to say the Archbishop's policies are incoherent; they are clearly following a line of belief that puts status quo above what I see as the prompting of the Spirit.

    Jesus said few words, if any, about preserving the status quo. His Kingdom was the upside-down world, the place where the first shall be last, where the poor are blessed, etc. Truly, if what you say is true, Rick, then the ABC has gone off the rails.

    I understand that those of you who have known Dr. Williams or are familiar with his past writings must feel even more of a sense of desolation than I.

  15. Dear Kathryn,

         Your comment touched me. Written in the Dust" was another fine piece I also enjoyed reading. You're right, Mimi, it hurts to see such a great light dimmed.

         Saint Francis once wrote, "All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle. And certainly within our own church we are not dealing with "all the darkness in the world," only little patches of it.

         We're still in that phase Jesus described in John 16:13a - "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth..." No, we're not there yet, but that does not mean we're aren't being guided toward it. The Church militant (on earth) will never be perfect, but won't it just be grand when we are part of the Church triumphant?!

         So, what to do? Probably just what you're doing as your community's priest: Baptize babies, forgive (yourself, others, the Church of England, Rowan), preach the word, pray, bury your dead, show compassion, visit the sick, speak up when and where appropriate, and yet, ultimately, trust God. Not a bad way to spend one's lifetime to my mind.

  16. Thank you for your gracious words, Rick...Ultimately, I guess I've little option as I don't imagine that one small priest in one corner of the C of E resigning her living would have much impact on the course of events.
    fwiw I don't think it's a question of the link between church and state skewing ++Rowan's judgement - my perception is that the UK government would prefer the C of E to wake up to the world in which we live, but isn't much bothered if we choose to paint ourselves into a corner....Like Erica I believe that he thought that painstaking listening and careful thought would make a difference, that it was only a matter of time before everyone understood what needed to be done...but I don't understand why he is now running scared. (Unless, of course, that is exactly what I am doing in NOT resigning my living - in which case, I guess its not fair to expect more integrity of him than I can practice myself...)
    Desolation is exactly the word for my feelings, Grandmere Mimi. You are very wise.

  17. Kathryn, I very much hope that you won't resign your living. I think that you're needed right where you are, and I don't see that you compromise your principles by staying.

    I risk nothing by speaking out, for I hold no position of authority in the church. I consider my conservative congregation my church community, although the majority don't share my views. I'm not going anywhere, unless our next bishop takes my diocese out of the Episcopal Church, in which case I am gone. I joined the Episcopal Church, and I am not interested in being a member of a breakaway sect under the authority of a foreign bishop.

  18. Dear Kathryn,

         I'm not sure it's an either/or - awake/asleep option. I think, in general the world and the church is waking up, but not all at once. After wandering in desert places where there is little acceptance, your radical welcome as a priest in your own community must be an oasis for people. You matter; your ministry matters.


     Your comments are welcome. I've had to add a word verification step to the comment process to screen out spam. I apologize for the inconvenience.