I have always felt Rowan Williams, as Archbishop of Canterbury, was in a difficult place, and it made me feel more sympathetic to him as a result. I often find his language impenetrable upon first reading, but in most cases, it is worth the effort. Sometimes, he aims to write with a clarity that hopes to make his point clear. What he has written on the recent Episcopal Church General Convention is a fine example of Williams’s attempt to be balanced. However, as with his last statement, and given the response American Episcopalians have given to initial comments Williams made on General Convention D025, I anticipate that he will receive both polite critique and the usual cries of “spinelessness” and, as I fully expect this time, a full-blown attempt to break ties with Canterbury over his perceived “intransigence.”
I believe that those who are criticizing him are right to do so; after all, when it is clear that one disagrees with you, it is natural to be unhappy, at least at first. However, I would not welcome any attempts to suggest that his theological position on the subject of homosexuality should have been the basis of his work as Archbishop of Canterbury. As Archbishop, his role is, as Ormonde Plater suggested in his Many Servants of the episcopate in general, to be a circle, a “fence,” setting limits on what the Church as Church can or cannot do. (A similar analogy can be made of the role of the presbytery or classis in the Reformed tradition.) Indeed, I believe that much of the “activism” of which bishops, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, can be accused of, can only be justified if they are doing so in the best interests of defining the bounds within which the Church believes, acts, and worships. For instance, if a bishop criticizes violence or outright discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation, as Williams indeed does, it is because he is setting the bounds of the Church’s ethical grounding–that all persons receive their dignity by being made in God’s image and likeness.
Indeed, what Williams discusses in his letter is that there are really bounds to what any church can do. It is the reality of communion, and the limit set by the Church’s fidelity to Scripture and its key role in forming, interpreting, and living it, that governs how churches ought to behave. It is also the willingness of the Church (or lack thereof) to conform with social norms and patterns, something that historically has been difficult for the Church to do in different times and places.
(Here it is instructive to note that the power of authoritarian vs. democratic politics in a particular culture is both defined or is defined by the manifestations of Christianity therein. I needn’t cite that both the dominant expression of the Christian faith in my country and the most influential alternative configurations thereof have, in their internal processes, variant but consistently authoritarian ways of proceeding. I do not say that this is inevitable, but I would propose that a truly counter-cultural Christianity has to stand against such tendencies.)
Given that, I think Williams does not raise questions for the American church alone, though the other practice mentioned of communicating the unbaptized is distinctly American in its origins. It is clear that he has his doubts about Sydney’s advocacy of lay presidency of the Eucharist as well. He does acknowledge that there is strong approval in some places for both practices, but I think what he has to say about these applies indeed to local practices that may raise concern elsewhere in the wider Church as departing from a general consensus.
My only critique of his letter, however, is that he may have offered fuel for the fire of those who are crying for the heads of the other. Even if his words were somewhat reassuring in the end, the “less than ideal” possibility he posited in some detail will be seized upon, rightly or otherwise, by all the factions in the current conflict, to justify whatever moves they may make. On the other hand, I understand that he is expressing a reality on the ground, that no matter how small one or the other faction is, the divisions over women and ministry, sexuality, and the Church’s relationship to secular society are too wide for any attempt at keeping together.
What lessons does it hold for other Churches? I think it is a question of re-examining how we as Churches relate to each other and to the world at large. Within ourselves, we must ask whether we are truly living in communion, as we are meant to be, or are we too lazy to make the effort. For I believe, without a doubt, that being in communion is the hardest thing to comprehend and to achieve, but is the greatest ideal to which we can strive.