August 11, 2008

Mistaken Primate

It has long been known that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams holds personal views on the morality of homosexuality that differ from what is expressed in Lambeth Resolution I.10 of 1998. Archbishop Williams made it clear at the beginning of his tenure in his present position that he would set his personal views aside in order better to serve the Anglican Communion.

This past week, the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which have long been a source of consternation to liberals, have received a good deal of public scrutiny. Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of The Times published correspondence from more than seven years ago between Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, and Dr. Deborah Pitt. In that correspondence, Williams laid out a very clear argument for faithful, monogamous, homosexual relations between persons who are not, by nature, heterosexual. Gledhill’s August 6 blog post carries a title that nicely conveys what now seems the very strong opinion of Williams’, yet one in conflict with his behavior as Archbishop of Canterbury: “Archbishop Rowan: gay sex comparable to ‘marriage.’” (I encourage you to read Gledhill’s blog post, as well as the various pages to which the post links. Time also published a helpful story the next day.)

It was not surprising that, on August 8, the Archbishop issued his own statement on his Web site. It reads as follows:
In the light of recent reports based on private correspondence from eight years ago, I wish to make it plain that, as I have consistently said, I accept Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference as stating the position of the worldwide Anglican Communion on issues of sexual ethics and thus as providing the authoritative basis on which I as Archbishop speak on such questions.

That Resolution also recognises the need for continuing study and discussion on the matter. In the past, as a professional theologian, I have made some contributions to such study. But obviously, no individual’s speculations about this have any authority of themselves. Our Anglican Church has never exercised close control over what individual theologians may say. However, like any church, it has the right to declare what may be said in its name as official doctrine and to define the limits of legitimate practice. As Archbishop I understand my responsibility to be to the declared teaching of the church I serve, and thus to discourage any developments that might imply that the position and convictions of the worldwide Communion have changed.

The statement makes it obvious why the thinking of the present Archbishop of Canterbury is hopelessly muddled, and I’m referring neither to his views on homosexuality nor his conclusions about balancing one’s personal views against the need to represent the institution that pays one’s salary. Although I am inclined to agree with Mary Ann Sieghar’s conclusions in her essay “Rowan Williams was selected as a liberal and now he should govern as one,” I want to focus instead on some small details of Williams’ statement.

According to Williams, Resolution I.10 states “the position of the worldwide Anglican Communion on issues of sexual ethics.” This is error number 1 of his explanation. Resolution I.10 is simply a statement agreed to by a collection of Anglican bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Such statements have never been binding or definitive, nor could they be unless the provinces of the Communion granted such binding authority to bishops attending Lambeth. In The Episcopal Church, of course, not even the entire House of Bishops can articulate a “position” of the church. Only the General Convention could do that. It is worth noting that many American bishops voted for Resolution I.10 only to head off more draconian wording. (As an aside, I would argue that a close reading of the resolution leads one to conclude that it says much less than many assert that it does. I could argue that quantum mechanics is “incompatible with Scripture,” but that would invalidate neither physics nor Scripture.)

Error number 2 is the assertion by Williams that Resolution I.10 provides him with authority to speak for the Communion. Certainly, The Episcopal Church has not authorized him to speak for it or for the Communion generally. The Archbishop speaks for the Archbishop; it is telling that he invariably catches flak from all sides whenever he makes a public statement. The Archbishop of Canterbury is described as the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion and as primus inter pares (first among equals, i.e., first among the primates), but he is still only one of 38 primates, whose authority in their own churches is quite diverse. In fact, the only reason Episcopalians freely acknowledge the Archbishop of Canterbury as the spiritual head of the Communion is that doing so is essentially meaningless. If we thought the Archbishop had any real power, we would be less generous. It is time to disabuse Williams of his delusions of grandeur.

In his second paragraph, Williams uses a phrase about which I constantly chide reporters, “Anglican Church.” What does the archbishop mean by this? Because he wants the Anglican Communion—a fellowship—to be a real, unified, worldwide church, he speaks as though it is. Well, it isn’t. This is error number 3. Williams does not speak for the Anglican Church because there is no such thing. I don’t even know the degree to which Williams can speak for the Church of England, which is a real church and is the only one in which he has any tangible authority. Given that everyone in the Church of England also seems to jump on Williams when he delivers a speech or issues a statement, I suspect that even the Church of England keeps the man on a short leash.

The Archbishop repeats the church-versus-fellowship error in the penultimate sentence. A church indeed has a right (may give itself the right) to articulate “official doctrine” and to “define the limits of legitimate practice.” The Anglican Communion is not a church and has not, in any case, established an agreed upon procedure for proclaiming acceptable doctrine and practice. I’m going to call this error number 4.

The Archbishop’s final sentence is simply a comedy (or, perhaps, tragedy) of errors. There is no “declared teaching of the church“ if the “church” is the Anglican Communion. Certainly, one can question Williams’ obligation to a nonexistent teaching of a nonexistent church, particularly if that requires him to act against both his personal belief and what he believes to be God’s truth. This is error number 5, at least. Finally, the Archbishop’s need to “discourage any developments that might imply that the position and convictions of the worldwide Communion have changed” seems like a commitment to discourage the Communion from seeking what he perceives to be the truth. Big error here: number 6, say.

I am sure that Rowan Williams’ martyr-like fidelity to his perception of his role in the Anglican Communion is widely seen as noble. I think it is pathetically (and, perhaps, pathalogically) mistaken. In this troubled period of the Anglican Communion’s history, the Communion needs neither a martyr nor an autocrat; it needs a leader. It’s too bad that Rowan Williams has not shown himself to be one.

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