The Canterbury Tail

or “Why the tail won’t wag the dog”

I’ve been struggling for a while to make sense of Cantaur’s recent interview with the Nederlands Dagblad. In particular, the Daily Telegraph recently ran an article entitled “Gays must change, says archbishop” the following was reported:

Rowan Williams has distanced himself from his one-time liberal support of gay relationships and stressed that the tradition and teaching of the Church has in no way been altered by the Anglican Communion’s consecration of its first openly homosexual bishop.

The declaration by the archbishop – rebutting the idea that homosexuals should be included in the church unconditionally – marks a significant development in the church’s crisis over homosexuals. According to liberal and homosexual campaigners, it confirmed their fears that the archbishop has become increasingly conservative – and sparked accusations that he has performed an “astonishing” U-turn over the homosexual issue.

So, has Williams really done a “U-turn”? I was initially very sceptical on the matter but also keen to read his actual words. Half the problem, of course, is that Williams works in a very different way to many of us. He has a strange view of scripture, famously describing some sections as as difficult to uderstand as “the mewlings of a spastic child”. He holds to an apophatic position, that it is far easier to state negatives than positives. This is, of course, very typical of a liberal – they can be more easily recognised by what they refuse to affirm, not by what they deny. Yet, at the same time, Williams is “orthodox” on key issues such as the nature of God, the Trinity (or at least is reported to be so, I have my doubts). He can say things that appear to be clearly in the orthodox camp and he can also produce “the Body’s Grace”, a work which defends Homosexual Relationships on the basis of a straw man – that the traditional argument depends on sexuality being reproductive.

So how do we make sense of him? Well, Williams is best understood as a Hegelian, that is that (at it’s most simple level) history proceeds in a never-ending rhythm of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. As a result, Williams doesn’t so much see his job as Archbishop to propound the thesis or orthodoxy so much as to govern over the process towards synthesis. This is, of course, extremely worrying on one level. Surely the job of the Bishop (and Archbishop) is to

banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?

Indeed, that’s what WIlliams promised to do at his consecration.

But Williams won’t do this, instead he wants to preside over the synthesis. He sees himself as arbitrator, not chairman.

With that in mind, I think more sense can be made of the interview. In particular, the first question demonstrates Williams’ priority:

Do you in your heart of hearts ever despair that Anglican unity can be saved?
,,Despair is a very strong word, but there are moments that I really don’t know whether it is still possible. I just know that I have been given the task to preserve what unity and integrity there is.”

Unity in the Church – worldwide – is to you a means of coming closer to the truth. As you put it, ‘If we don’t stay together, ‘we are only following our own local denomination or our personal preferences. Where then do you draw the line? How far can unity be stretched within the boundaries of still being based on the Bible?
In reply to this question Williams starts off with a rebuke of those who argue it is high time the Church accepted gay relationships. Their ideal is the inclusive church. ,,I don’t believe inclusion is a value in itself”, says the Archbishop. ,,Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: ‘You can come in, and that decision will change you.’ We don’t say: ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ.
That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage. You reflect the loyalty of God in Christ. It also concerns the international arena. Christians will always have reconciliation as a priority and refuse to retaliate. By no means everything is negotiable for me. I would not be happy if someone said: Let us discuss the divinity of Christ. That to me seems so constituent of what the Church is.”

This is helpful, for Williams needs to be clear that there are absolutes. The question, though, still has to be “how do we know what those absolutes are and what do we do about it?”

Critics of the American Church’s gay policies say they have reached the boundaries.
,,In terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries. It has made a decision that is not the decision of the wider body of Christ. In terms of the issue under consideration: there are enough Christians of good faith in every denomination – from evangelical to Roman Catholic – to whom it is not quite so self-evident. Who are not absolutely sure that that we have always read the Bible correctly. They are saying: this is an issue we must talk about. But if we are going to have time to discuss this, prayerfully, thoughtfully, we really don’t need people saying: we must change it now. The discussion must not be foreclosed by a radical agenda. The decision hasn’t been made yet. Or rather, the tradition and teaching of the Church is what it always was.”

Again, the language is important. The decision of ECUSA is “not the decision of the wider body of Christ”. The biggest problem here is that the antithesis is so different to the thesis that it can’t be absorbed into a synthesis. But what he’s not saying is that the antithesis is absolutely wrong. This is a distinction that we need to understand because Williams is subtle about it himself.
Of course, he goes on to speak about the Bible and whether we have read it correctly but he still leaves open the possibility of change. Just not now when the synthesis would be so strange.

You are commonly known as favouring the acceptance of gay relationships in the Church. Do you have to compromise your own ideas now as Archbishop?
,,Twenty years ago I wrote an essay in which I advocated a different direction. That was when I was still a professor, to stimulate debate. It did not generate much support and a lot of criticism – quite fairly on a number of points. What I am saying now is: let us talk this through. As Archbishop I have a different task. I would feel very uncomfortable if my Church would say: this is beyond discussion, for ever. Equally I have to guard the faith and teaching of the Church. My personal ideas and questions have to take second place.”

This is, in my understanding, a key question. And, once again, it demonstrates how Williams works. As a theological professor it was his job to “stimulate debate”. In the Hegelian framework, his rôle was to provide the antithesis to stimulate the movement towards synthesis. Now, as Archbishop, he can’t do that. But this is not the same as saying that he doesn’t still hold that view. He is still not able to say “this is beyond discussion”, rather he wants us to “talk it through”. Synthesis.
But what is most troubling is his continued insistence that “my personal ideas and questions have to take second place”. Surely not! A bishop must

banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?

and we are in our current crisis in part because the liberals saw a man who they knew agreed with them on the theology and so they took a big swing at the ball. They knew that Williams wouldn’t drive away the strange doctrine of approval of homosexual behaviour but they were suprised by his commitment to the unity of the Church. But, nevertheless, it was undoubtedly his liberal theology on these matters that was so divisive.

The Lambeth conference, the meeting of Anglican bishops worldwide every ten years, adopted a resolution in 1998 that says homosexual praxis is incompatible with Scripture. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for discussion.
“It doesn’t. That resolution also says we shall continue listening in the Church to the actual experience of homosexual Christians. We haven’t done a great deal of that yet. Now Lambeth resolutions don’t fall from heaven. There have been resolutions in the past that have then been discussed and moved on. Whether this one will ever change I don’t know. Certainly not without a lot more attention and patience with each other.”

Again, what is key for Williams is that this is the view of the majority – this is the thesis and while the antithesis is so starkly different there can be no synthesis. But there may yet be synthesis, it could change.

Williams then goes on to discuss the likelihood of a split in ECUSA, the CofE and the Anglican Communion more generally. They’re interesting comments and worth going through but for now let’s return to our question.

Has Williams really done a “U-turn”?

No he hasn’t. There’s nothing new here. He’s still the same man who was enthroned many years ago. He still holds a liberal view on the presenting issue and he still wants to oversee the unity of the Church. What has changed is that he’s being far more clear on the impossibility of a synthesis at this time and for that we must be very thankful. In a sense this is the current synthesis: the liberal antithesis has been tried and found wanting and, essentially, nothing has changed.

But there remains a deeper problem. Williams is not really our ally. Of course, on one level he is, he is promoting the unity of the church and has finally spoken clearly about how unlikely we are to accept the revisionist position in the near to medium future. But, at the same time, he hasn’t really done anything to drive away strange and erroneous teaching. He has been passive in the rôle of teaching/feeding the flock when the duty of the bishop is to be active. Canterbury really is a tail that should wag the dog, even if the dog wants to go in the wrong direction but at the moment he is still being wagged by the dog that he should be purposefully leading. Currently that’s not such a problem since the main body of the dog is going in the right direction.

Personally, then, I’m still very torn. It is good to have Williams fighting on our side (as he clearly now is) but also worrying that he does so for what are fundamentally flawed reasons, namely the priority of a unity that defines truth. It calls for immense caution on our part that we persist in not only the right course of action but also in setting out the correct reasoning. Because of his philosophy Williams is, ultimately a tool rather than an ally. He provides a Hegellian framework that we should use. In those terms it is right for us to argue that the thesis still stands and that the antithesis has no merit nor weight.

But Williams is not a leader that we need. Were the tail to ever wag the dog then then we might find the dog beginning to move in a different direction. In the past I have complained that Williams won’t lead. Now I’m beginning to think that might not be a bad thing after all.

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3 comments on “The Canterbury Tail

  1. Your analysis makes sense. It seems like Williams is generally liberal, but values organizational unity over the expression of his personal beliefs. This keeps the church in a certain equilibrium for now. I predict, however, that further splitting will soon occur in spite of the Archbishop’s efforts. I also predict that the results of this will be far more pleasant than anyone expected. People can treat each other decently without sharing a pew.

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