Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Man of His Time? Rowan Williams and the Crisis of Anglican Order

Review: Rupert Shortt, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008).

“Rowan’s room for manoeuvre on the national stage was always going to be limited in important respects. For example, it is hard to defend an establishment institution in decline, particularly when you have a reputation for being anti-establishment. It is hard to defend English culture, of which the Church is a part, when you are committed to multiculturalism . . . And it is hard to avoid compromising yourself by taking conservative views into account, whether Evangelical or Roman Catholic, when you are committed to ecumenism and mutual respect.” (279)

When Randall Thomas Davidson was enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury in 1903, the relationship of the Church of England to the nation state, both at home and in the colonies, was paramount in Anglican identity. The next twenty years formed the cusp of the ecumenical movement, marked by such noteworthy events as the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910), the Patriarch of Constantinople’s appeal for Christian unity (1920), the Anglican-Catholic Malines conversations (1921-1927), and the Lausanne World Conference on Faith and Order (1927). By contrast, Anglicanism’s search for denominational identity and authority remained at low ebb, not least because Anglican establishment provided all the glue necessary to bind Anglicans throughout the empire together.

A century later, and the relative importance of these elements – erastianism, ecumenism and conciliarism – had been almost completely reversed. The Church of England’s ties to the state looked remarkably threadbare; as Lady Bracknell might have remarked, establishment had “ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up.” Ecumenical dialogue, though in some ways more structured than at the beginning of the 20th century, had also lost much of the fiery optimism that had governed the earlier conversations, as the prospects of organic unity receded, the failure of Anglican-Methodist unity talks under Michael Ramsey during the 1970s being an obvious case in point. Conciliarism, by contrast, had assumed center stage as rapidly growing national churches in the Global South achieved provincial independence and long-established national churches in the Global North pushed the limits of Anglican diversity. While all of Michael Ramsey’s successors experienced pressure to redefine Canterbury’s status as primus inter pares, it was only with the primacy of Rowan Williams that this issue took on an urgency that could not be gainsaid.

One of the great Anglican “what ifs” of the 21st century will surely be the course of the Anglican Communion had Richard Chartres or Michael Nazir-Ali succeeded George Carey in 2002. One may argue that the then Bishops of London and Rochester would have been obliged to moderate their forceful rhetoric once they filled the chair of St. Augustine and that the role of Archbishop of Canterbury has always been limited. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Rowan Williams has put his stamp on the course of events that stretches from the Windsor Report of 2004 to the Dromantine and Dar-es-Salaam meetings and the 2008 Lambeth Conference. The question inevitably arises as to what drives the present Archbishop of Canterbury to act as he has done. Rupert Shortt’s biography provides some excellent insights into the world of the man on whose watch the Anglican consensus finally began to crumble.

This is a sympathetic though not uncritical account of an ecclesiastic generally acknowledged to be one of the great minds of Anglican theology in the second half of the twentieth century. Of the three archbishops who in the last hundred years had a claim to original theological scholarship, Shortt ranks Williams considerably higher than William Temple or Michael Ramsey, although he admits that such intellectual mastery is not always contiguous with clarity, noting theologian Oliver O’Donovan’s verdict that Rowan wishes to “make Christianity difficult – reversing the strategy of the apologist who wants to purge religion of its bewildering aspects – but then making a missionary opportunity out of the resulting sense of dislocation.” (13) He also cites a passage from Williams’ Lost Icons, in which the latter warns of ‘all kinds of difficulty about appealing as a moral sanction to the danger of diminishing the solidity of the self by ignoring the perceptions of others,’ which Shortt helpfully translates as “talking in a diffuse way about the danger of selfishness.” (224)

Conservative Anglicans may well feel that while Shortt exposes the exaggerations and oversimplifications of all the archbishop’s critics, he has much less sympathy with those on the theological ‘right.’ Writing of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, he describes many African bishops as displaying a double standard on sexuality, having appealed only a decade earlier for tolerance on the issue of polygamy, even though the latter question had been concerned less with permitting already converted Christians to have additional wives as with the procedures to be followed with an already polygamous household that converted to Christianity. (205) While Stephen Noll would probably have no problem being described as “stridently conservative” (227) Andrew Goddard may bridle at being referred to as an “outspoken hardliner,” and the allusion to the “squadron” of Oxford-based Evangelicals who mobilized to oppose Jeffrey John’s appointment conjures up some wonderful images (268). Much of this is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Shortt may not like the more conservative Evangelicals, but he lets them speak and also demonstrates how much they still have in common with Williams. Moreover, anyone who believes that stridency in orthodox circles invariably (as opposed to generally) correlates with a passion for truth obviously needs to read a little more widely.

In his account of Williams’ early life, Shortt draws particular attention to the former’s reputation as an intellectual high-flyer and his early emergence as a critic of the prevailing liberal theological consensus at both Oxford and Cambridge. The procession of teachers who were soon obliged to admit that they had nothing more to teach him becomes annoyingly repetitive. More singular was Williams’ dissent from the presumptions of such works as John Robinson’s Honest to God (1962) or the essays in Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding (1963). His rejection of the notion of Jesus solely as a moral mentor and conviction of the basic truth of the Gospels foreshadowed a counter-cultural stance that sits ill with today’s perception of him as an apologist for unbridled modernism. His early interest in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are well documented – not least his doctoral dissertation on Vladimir Lossky – and his fascination with the writings of Early Church Fathers would endure. Nevertheless, his was not a straightforward conservatism:

In the theological scheme to which Rowan felt increasingly drawn, liberals tended to err through saying too little, while many conservatives overlooked the dangers of saying too much. The most credible stance was based on a balance between two sorts of awareness – that religious truth (as opposed to truth revealed in a test tube) can never be simple or slick, because it lies at a depth where things are often murky; but the burrowing process must be engaged with unflagging commitment nonetheless. (98)

Williams’ subsequent academic career at Cambridge (chaplain at Wescott House and Clare College) and Oxford (Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity) demonstrates certain character traits that remain with him to this day, including a predisposition toward conflict avoidance and a profound sympathy with the underdog. (108) It also witnessed his first engagement with the issue of homosexuality and the Church’s response to it, perhaps most notably in The Body’s Grace, a 1989 lecture that affirmed his basic conviction that changes in the theology of sexuality could not be made by reference to prevailing social mores but must be informed by scriptural principles. (143-146) This was not, as Shortt makes clear, the sole – or even principal – preoccupation of these years. Williams’ prodigious literary output revealed a deeply grounded Trinitarian faith and conviction of a God active in human history, though Shortt treats Williams’ exploration of the Church’s role in the political sphere as insufficiently nuanced.

The chapter on Williams’ translation to the Diocese of Monmouth throws further light on his pastoral development. Shortt does not spare his subject in noting his failure to implement needful but drastic administrative reforms or his willingness to accept people for ordination out of sympathy for their personal story rather than conviction of their call. What does emerge, however, is a picture of a pastoral bishop desirous of being accessible to his flock. Equally revealing are the facts that he was the only Welsh bishop to support an evangelistic initiative known as Good News in Wales and was an active promoter of church plants (something that might come as a surprise to many Evangelicals). Among other formative experiences, Shortt devotes significant space to the lasting impact of being present at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. (212-222)

Williams’ elevation to Canterbury was received with enthusiasm by a wide spectrum of opinion, a sentiment that would hardly last the year. Citing Oliver O’Donovan’s prescient confidential letter of July 4, 2002, Shortt draws attention to the telling phrase that “the efforts of the harder elements [of the Global South], initially intended to focus on you, are to be directed more constructively, to the general question of accountability and authority within the Anglican Communion,” (243) even as Williams’ record on the presenting issue of homosexuality – on which both sides drew for encouragement – was recognized to be “a highly forthright lecture, an open-handed pastoral policy, and a declaration of deference to the collective mind of the Church.” (244)

It is clear that until 2003, the Archbishop continued to hew to the view that better communication rather than enhanced central authority was the cure for the Communion’s ills. The Jeffrey John affair, which Shortt describes in detail (264-277), demonstrated both Williams’ commitment to the mind of the Church in overseeing his own province and the vast gulf between his critics on left and right. It also revealed his dangerous ability to see all sides of the argument and rarely to convey to anyone in personal conversation that he disagreed with them (less helpful in a bishop than an academic). That said, the aftermath of John’s rejection and Vicki Gene Robinson’s consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire saw an incremental shift in his thinking toward the more structured model for the Anglican Communion envisaged in the Virginia Report. Shortt has little time for conservative critics like Peter Jensen or Bob Duncan – he uses the phrase “purporting to be on a golfing holiday” to describe Duncan’s presence at the 2005 Dromantine meeting (312) – but he recognizes their impact and he refrains from expressing a personal view of the famous meeting of 2004 at which, supposedly, archepiscopal approval for the Anglican Communion Network was given. (288-289).

By the spring of 2006, it was evident that the actual choices to be made reposed not in England but in Africa and the United States. The aftermath of the 2006 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the appeal for alternative primatial oversight, the election of Martyn Minns as a Nigerian missionary bishop and the subsequent vote of the Northern Virginia parishes all testified to something very different from the two-tier Communion that Williams had proposed. Shortt’s account of the Dar-es-Salaam meeting (367-369) is a little one-sided, since it is presented as a defeat for the principle of a separate American province sought by Peter Akinola, rather than as an acceptance of the principle of the need for external oversight, something later rejected by the Episcopal Church.

What is harder to discern, as one moves into the account of GAFCON and the Lambeth Conference of 2008, is how Shortt understands Rowan Williams’ current view of authority. At home, the Archbishop undoubtedly is as aware of the post-erastian reality of English Anglicanism (which Shortt regards as the underlying point of his much-debated sharia address) as many of his critics. What is not clear is how he wishes to apply these principles elsewhere. The failure to exclude the consecrators of Bishop Robinson as well as Robinson himself from the Lambeth Conference, surely laid him open to the charge that it was Robinson’s character not the principle of breaking the bonds of Communion that was at issue. Shortt also notes the positive comments of Williams on the GAFCON meeting, even as he disagreed with its structural solution (409-410), something that would be consistent with earlier statements that he had made, but calculated to perplex his liberal admirers.

Williams’ later remarks on the tone of the debate on women bishops in the Church of England testify to recognition on his part that, ultimately, holding everything together may prove to be a bridge too far. It is noteworthy that this biography was published prior to the contentious February 2009 meeting of General Synod that rejected statutory protections for Anglo Catholics and the even more embarrassing debacle at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica that witnessed the gutting of Clause Four of the Anglican Covenant, without which it is debatable if any meaningful confessional identity for the Anglican Communion could be assured. To read this biography is to understand better what shapes the mind of the present Archbishop of Canterbury but it fails to explain why one so passionately convinced of the importance of organic unity and so evidently committed to historic Christology has shied from articulating an overt defense of those who have sought to do the same. Given his clear recognition of the declining importance of the national church, it would surely not have gone beyond his brief to offer more than nominal moral support to like-minded Anglicans in other provinces. By his deference to the leadership of other national churches, Rowan Williams may ultimately have precipitated the eventuality that one feels he always wished to avoid.

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