Monday, January 31, 2011

Rowan Williams

In the wake of the recent Anglican Communion Primates meeting, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is being criticized as usual from both conservative and progressive absolutists. What representatives from both seem to want, and have wanted for some time, is for Rowan to either act like a pope (as long as he weighs in on their "side") or, in one way or another, concede to their "side" the moral and structural high ground. But, he does not have - and has been wary of assuming - the kind of authority some want him to exercise on behalf of their position. Rather he has tried to chart a course for the Anglican Communion acts in which constituent members behave as though they recognize the responsibilities of belonging to one another. Not hardline enough for conservatives who want things more narrowly defined and controlled, he is also not loose enough for progressives who seem determined to be bound to nothing but their own, often quite parochial, discernment.

I have not agreed with every move or statement Rowan Williams has made, but there is no one I would rather have serving as Archbishop of Canterbury at this time. Here is something I wrote some time ago that I think might explain why liberal/progressives in particular, but also conservatives, find him frustrating:

Many liberals/progressives have misunderstood Rowan Williams in that they assumed that he thought like them because he had argued for the possibility of rethinking the tradition in matters sexual and was not politically conservative. They were mistaken in at least three ways:

1. The fact that he has reached some conclusions similar to theirs does not mean he shares their Liberal Protestant theological convictions. Given his rather pointed critique of Jack Spong around the time of Lambeth '98, it was clear that his regard for traditional doctrine and discipline was more robust than that of theological liberals. He does not think inclusion as such is an adequate theological paradigm (though this has been mistakenly taken by some conservatives to mean that he believes gays and lesbians must cease being gay or lesbian to be welcome in the church).

It is possible that while he does think there is room for rethinking the traditional rejection of all homosexual behavior, he is put off by the liberal theology of that position's supporters in TEC. I suspect he has felt caught between those with whom he has more in common theologically and those with whom he shares certain social and political conclusions.

2. His catholicism is more than just a preference for a certain style of worship. As a catholic, he seems to believe that the truth is best discerned by the whole Church and is willing to live under that authority even when he seeks to make a case for rethinking certain particulars. The American church's unwillingness to live under that authority and, with patience and forbearance, seek to make a more convincing case and build a consensus is rather different. As a catholic, Williams thinks in terms of truth discerned and lived in community/communion more than generic or absolute principles (disconcerting to both liberal and conservative). And, unlike many liberals, Williams does not see the tradition of the church as a problem to be overcome, but a community in time to which we belong and with which it is possible to dialogue.

It is possible that he thinks the "uncatholic" way TEC has handled things has actually made making the case for rethinking the church's understanding of sexuality harder to get a hearing.

3. He does not seem to think that the case either for or against changing the Church's teaching (including the one he has attempted) is obvious or ironclad. He is thus prepared to listen to critiques of his own arguments and concede that those critiques have merit and must be taken seriously -- an attitude that is all too rare in our polarized context.

It is possible that he is frustrated by the attitude of complacent certitude of both liberals and conservatives - and has been bedeviled by the intransigence and absolutism of both.

As a Liberal Catholic in line with those like Charles Gore, Austin Farrer, and Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams is too liberal for comfort among conservative Evangelicals and too catholic for comfort among Liberal Protestants. As such, perhaps he is, as much as anything, the heir of F. D. Maurice who in the 19th century critiqued the usual church factions and was seen as suspect by each of them as a result.

I remain an unabashed "Rowanian" and only wish there were more bishops like him in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.


Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Matt: I'm less sanguine about Archbishop Rowan's leadership. It seems like he is a mystic in the midst of a time in which we need someone with at least one practical bone in his body. If he wants to have a conversation about sexuality in the Anglican Communion and TEC's position on that issue, then for God's sake let him call for such a dialogue! Right now he comes across as a somewhat absent-minded professor chiding one of his students while ignoring the bad behavior of others. Sort of a Dumbledore, but without the political acumen.

I can't see this changing anytime soon, Covenant or no Covenant. TEC is NOT going to cease ordaining GLBT persons to any of the three orders of ordained ministry and we are not going to cease blessing same sex unions. It's just not going to happen. Given that reality, what does the Archbishop of Canterbury propose? He hasn't proposed anything helpful yet...

Tony Hunt said...

I could not agree with you more. I have been and remain a very strong +Williams supporter. I've been taking a class on Eastern Orthodoxy and while reading through church history again was reminded of just how long, slow and torturous church disputes have been in the past - and how much more serious the consequences are than these disputes!

Matt Gunter said...

"Given that reality, what does the Archbishop of Canterbury propose? He hasn't proposed anything helpful yet..."

What do you think would be helpful, Tom? Maybe its my own lack of political acumen, but I have'n't seen any alternative proposals that seem any more workable or hopeful given the dynamics of the Communion.

And who has set an example of leadership dealing with those realities would you suggest as a better model?

Matt Gunter said...


Americans don't do "long, slow and torturous." This is perhaps at the root of much of our troubles. It has been true across the board - no less among the schismatic conservatives than among zealous liberals.

Anonymous said...

How would you know if someone's been ordained properly? Or if the bread's been blessed?
Is there some sort of geiger counter for these kinds of things?
As an atheist, I suspect that you pretty much just make it up as you go along.
One of the many reasons I stay away from religion.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

How about proclaiming sexual orientation as a "non-core issue about which Anglicans may disagree" (which is what I think it is) and move on to other things? This last Primates meeting seemed to get a lot done without even dealing with issues of sexuality. Neither TEC nor conservative Anglican churches are going to change on this issue. Can we live together anyway? That is what I'd like to hear from Archbishop Rowan, not "Don't do this thing you've been talking about for 30 years because we need to talk about it, even though conservative provinces don't want to and aren't talking about it."

Matt Gunter said...


Thanks for engaging me here. I appreciate it. We are probably not actually that far apart on some basics. But, I

“How about proclaiming sexual orientation as a ‘non-core issue’ about which Anglicans may disagree"

1. How do you think, realistically, that would have played out given the realities of the Communion? Besides making the defenders of the status quo in TEC feel better - and those elsewhere in the Communion who agree?

2. Do you think that traditionalists are the only ones who refuse to see this as a non-core issue? If progressives understood it to be so, would it not be reasonable to expect refraining from pressing the issue at the level of the episcopate?

3. While I am inclined to agree with you (and suspect that RW still does as well) that it is a “non-core” issue, that is precisely what is being debated. And not all the questions being raised as to whether it is or not are silly. Much as I think it is not an issue that rises to the level of splitting the church (partly because I believe splitting the church is a theological surd) I cannot ignore the fact that it has turned out to be so. And I do not think it is in the interest of our own spiritual health to act as though our attitude and actions have been innocent in playing a part in that.

4. Do we really want the ABC to be making papal-like proclamations? Even if he were to agree with us? As I wrote in the post, I this is something RW has deliberately avoided.

5.The challenge, RW has phrased it, is that to be in communion we must be able to recognize one another. The ABC cannot simply proclaim that recognition.

“This last Primates meeting seemed to get a lot done without even dealing with issues of sexuality.”

1. Sure it did. When the voices of dissent are not present, things always seem to go smoother. I expect you could hear a similar sentiment about how smoothly diocesan convention goes now in ACNA Pittsburgh.

“this thing you've been talking about for 30 years”

1. I think this is one of those truths we repeat to deceive ourselves. For one thing, in my experience as one who has played “devil’s advocate for both sides, there has been a lot more talking than listening and thus much less serious conversation than echo-chamber talking. While it is true that one way or another, the issue has shown up on the agenda of the Episcopal Church, it is not true that we have had anything like a real theological engagement with the issue on a national level. What theologizing there has been has been ad hoc and uneven – much, if not most of it, bad. Many of the conversations that have taken place have been experienced as manipulative. In many ways the real conversation was just getting going when it was cut short.

2. The fact is we have not done a very good job of convincing others (including a large number of our own) that this is a non-core issue let alone one that it is faithful.

Rowan Williams has, almost from the beginning of his tenure, has been caught between two sets of absolutists, both of whom feel deeply offended and reactive and self-justifying. I suspect he sees enough righteousness to want to hold as much of them together on the same team as possible. But, one group is happy to be on the team only if they get to call all the plays and the other is happy to be on the team as long as they get to run whatever plays they like.

Some other ABC – one who more clearly proclaimed in favor of one side or the other - might have made things less messy than they have been and are, but I don’t see any likelihood that the result would be less tragic or painful.

Williams has certainly not been an innocent bystander in the mess we are now in. But, for us in TEC to think of ourselves as having acted only reasonably and righteously in all of this would be as mistaken as when those in ACNA think the same.

Matt Gunter said...


Interesting questions.

How does one know? Ultimately, that is not a question that concerns me all that much. It is not a matter of knowing with certainty. It is a matter of trusting in the grace of God.

Christ has promised to be with us. That means he is likely to be present in all kinds of people and places in surprising ways. He could surprise me for exmple by blessing and being present in my morning cereal. What the church claims is that he has promised to be present in the sacraments. So, when the church ordains someone, we consider him/her ordained. When one ordained to do so, blesses the bread in the presence of the community, we trust it is blessed.

Again, it is more about faith in God's grace than certainty. Maybe that sounds like just making it up as we go along. But, I don't think so.

Thanks fr dropping by.