Sunday, December 11, 2011

Choosing the anchor of certainty over the sails of comprehension

Joseph Bottum in the Weekly Standard writes about the rumors that Rowan Williams will resign at Archbishop of Canterbury next year and the end of Anglicanism as we know it. In the process, he starts in a useful direction and then drives off an ideological deep-end.

Early in the essay there is a decent, if rather conventional, analysis of Anglicanism today. He writes:
Anglicanism remains widespread, with 80 million members around the world, from the Episcopal Church in the United States to the followers of Henry Luke Orombi, archbishop of Uganda. England is still the largest Anglican province, with 26 million members, at least nominally. But far more Anglicans are in church on a Sunday morning in Kenya and Nigeria than in Britain, and the center of Anglican belief is now firmly in Africa—a major part, as Philip Jenkins noted in his 2002 book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, of the nearly complete conversion of sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity over the last 100 years.

The rise of the African church could have made Canterbury an important player in international relations—not exactly a rival to Rome (Catholicism’s one billion adherents make that unlikely) but at least a second European center with which Africans would have felt a relation and to which they could have looked for intellectual and ecclesial authority.
Then he drives off an ideological deep-end, and in the process misses the point of the importance of Anglicanism to Christianity and our essential witness to the world. Along the way, he missed the disappointment if not the outright tragedy that has been Williams' tenure as Archbishop.
In all likelihood, the forcing of the issue of same-sex marriage will lead the African churches to withdraw from communion with the Western churches—while the churches of Europe and North America will denounce the African churches, choosing allegiance with standard-issue Western liberalism over the orthodox teaching of their own faith.

And thereby the world will lose one more of the old ties that might have bound it together. Freed from their African anchor, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America will move even further in a pro-Muslim, anti-Israel direction, providing yet more cover for fashionable liberal anti-Semitism. Let loose from their allegiance to Canterbury, the African churches will quickly move toward forming pan-African denominations that will feel entirely distanced from Europe and America—and will help build the belief the global South owes nothing to the West.
The problem with Rowan is not that Africa is an "anchor" and that the Church of England and the Episcopal Church is somehow at once pro-Muslim and pro-gay, and that the African church will march away in its theological purity. The problem is that Rowan did not use his innate voice.

Africa itself shows off the tensions and possibility within Anglicanism. The Continent that contains both Tutu and Orombi is also the Church that shares both approaches to Christianity. The Anglican Communion contains both Katharine Jefferts Schori and NT Wright. The Episcopal Church itself contains both Gene Robinson and Mark Lawrence.

Yes, it is a high wire act. Being Archbishop of Canterbury is no doubt an impossible job. I don't know if anyone can straddle that thin line successfully, and to do so will no doubt mean that someone, somewhere (probably lots of someones in lots of places) will be angry, disappointed, demanding more. That he cannot please everyone is not the problem. That he has not always agreed with any one group's particular vision for mission is also not the point.

The tragedy--and disappointment--that is Rowan Williams is that he chose not use his best possible tool in leading this impossibly diverse Anglican Communion. He chose not to use his own voice.

We all know that Williams wrote eloquently as both a priest and theologian, and even as Archbishop of Wales, for the full inclusion of gays into the life of the church including their ability to marry--or at least have some kind of civil and ecclessiasitcal analog to marriage--and that not only did he put these opinions aside, he has worked very hard to be certain that these views will never come to pass.

Bottum reveals a fact that I had forgotten, and I will bet many progressives did not know, that when he became Archbishop of Canterbury, he resigned his membership in the a group called The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

It turns out that Williams himself encapsulated both the comprehensiveness and the tension that is Anglicanism.

Here we have a person who was so pro-life that not only was he a member of a group working to end abortion but, in his youth, he protested the planting of nuclear missles aimed at the former Soviet Union on British soil. And saw so much the dignity of human nature restored in Jesus Christ that he could imagine a church that included openly gay men and women not only serving the church as ordained people but also a church that blessed the unions between same sex partners. He worked for the ordination of women and held to a deeply sacramental life.

Looking at it this way, it is easy to see why he might have been the right person at the right time for the Anglican Communion a decade ago. He apparently held in himself the tensions, the comprehensiveness and the possibility of Anglicanism.

But he traded all that in. In giving up his membership in the pro-life group and in convincing his friend Jeffrey-John to not become a bishop, in repudiating his earlier preaching and writing as if they were a luxury an Archbishop of Canterbury could ill-afford, he gave up the one tool he had to walk that high wire with integrity, his voice.

Oh, there were hints. His decision to make the 2007 Lambeth Conference dialogical and not legislative hinted at a vision of a comprehensive Anglicanism that could continue to be a third way between Catholic legalism and the Protestant swings between literalism and liberalism. His vision of a communion based on a common life of prayer, shared mission and intentional dialogue shows up even in his weak, TINA-based defense of the Anglican Covenant.

But giving up his voice to hold the church together only on what the most conservative voices in the room will agree to, his unwillingness to defend and include those who differ from others in faith--whether it was keeping Bishop Robinson out of Lambeth or telling our Presiding Bishop not to wear her hat whilst in England--showed that his fear of outright conflict only deepened the fissures he most dreaded. Especially after it became apparent that each concession, from Jeffery-John to the Windsor Report through successive Primates meetings and finally the Anglican Covenant, only emboldened those prone to bullying and alienated those who wanted to work with him the most.

And now he has staked his whole reputation--and our future-- on an Anglican Covenant which takes a fairly subtle and nuanced vision of Anglicanism and weighs it down with rules to regulate what happens when one church has an idea that someone else might not like--when the only rule should be "whatever happens, keep praying, keep conversation going, and keep inviting Jesus to the table."

The fourth section of the Anglican Covenant undoes the vision of Anglicanism--takes away our voice--just as surely as Archbishop Williams lost his voice and the ability to lead from the heart of Anglican Christianity when he resigned from the pro-life group and told his gay friend not to be a bishop.

Bottum sees the high-wire act of being the ABC breaking when he gave into a fuzzy western liberalism. But he names the wrong problem because Bottum misunderstands the nature of Anglicanism. The problem was that Rowans had within him the experience and possibility to help us live through complicated times by living into the comprehension that is Anglicanism, by insisting that whatever happens people in communion should live in communion.

Instead he chose a safe institutionalism. I gave up what I believed, he taught us, and you can too. I gave in to someone elses idea of the rules that go with being ABC, you can go with the rules in Section Four.

It was not just a failure of nerve. It was worse. In giving up his voice--his complex sometime contradictory voice--he taught us to quench the spirit, and so we risk losing the heart of what makes Anglicanism an essential witness to Christ to the world. He taught us that conflict trumps comprehension. Fortunately, God is bigger than that.


LKT said...

Yes, it has been sad to watch. Thank you for giving voice to it.

Love the image too.

Muthah+ said...


Thank you for this insight into the ABC. I am not angry with the ABC for being opposed to LGBT folks as much as I am disappointed for his failure to be himself--to be the person that God created him to be. I think you have outlined that eloquently here.

June Butler said...

Thank you for a fine post, Andrew. You point to the tragedy of Rowan Williams. He gave up his voice.

When Rowan asked his good friend Jeffrey John to step down from his appointment, I had the sinking feeling that he'd made a misstep from which he might not recover, but I hoped against hope that I was wrong. Alas, he never did.

JCF said...

"I will bet many progressives did not know, that when he became Archbishop of Canterbury, he [had had] membership in the a group called The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children."

Count me among those progressives.

Had I known of his membership in an organization I would characterize as "oxymoronic", I would have been less *surprised* (as well as disappointed) in oxymorons such as "Homophobia=Bad/No, Jeffrey you can't be bishop because you're what they call 'homo'".

There's some "Assume Crash Positions" preparation I could have done in late 2002/early 2003, had I been better informed...

Anonymous said...

Not a believer but Rowan is a parody of the Mainline Protestant. Satire throws up it hands at him.