Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The Archbishop’s Egg — what is good (and what is not so good) about the proposals in Rowan Williams’ Advent letter?

(Ed: If you're reading this, please also read this about Rowan Williams' comments on the Christmas story as reported world-wide in the media. A worse case of misrepresentation of what was actually said is hard to find.)

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent letter has created not just comment but (inevitably in these days of internet blogging) comment on the comment. Interestingly, what is clear so far is that he has managed to annoy both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. And this suggests the obvious conclusion that here we have a proverbial ‘Curate’s Egg’ — “parts of it are excellent” to quote the Punch cartoon.

So which parts are excellent and which, frankly, are not? What can those of a Conservative persuasion work with, and what must they work on?

Perhaps the key thing is the distinction between the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican identity. In some quarters recently there has been a tendency to suggest that an invitation to Lambeth confers an Anglican imprimatur, and even that staying away (or not being invited) means seceding from (or being turfed out of) the Communion. Dr Williams has, thankfully, made it clear that neither is true.

He writes, “I have repeatedly said that an invitation to Lambeth does not constitute a certificate of orthodoxy.” And on the other hand his appeal to those he knows might well stay away reflects precisely a recognition that they ought to be there because they are part of the Communion.

Thus it cannot be argued from the letter (as some have sought to) that those who turn up to Lambeth constitute, de facto as it were, ‘the Anglican Church’, whilst those who do not don’t.

Indeed, on the contrary, Dr Williams’ phraseology leaves it an entirely open question whether those at Lambeth can call what they represent ‘the Church’ at all! If an invitation to Lambeth is not a guarantee of orthodoxy, then it implies there may well be at Lambeth those who are themselves, or who represent bodies which are, ‘unorthodox’.

And this brings us to the second excellent part of the egg. Dr Williams states quite specifically that the Anglican Communion is ‘a voluntary association of provinces and dioceses’. Its unity depends, therefore, not on the decisions of a ‘single central executive authority’ but on a mutual recognition of the ‘same faith’, received from the apostles and faithfully held on to in loyalty to Christ.

In other words, according to what Dr Williams has said, what the constituent members of the Anglican Communion seek to recognise in one another is not ‘Anglicanism’ — the sharing of a common history or current polity — but Christianity. The question before us is therefore not whether certain branches of the Communion have departed from a common policy but whether they are holding to a common faith. Surely this is something with which Conservatives can work?

Dr Williams has written out of ‘the profound conviction that the existence of our Communion is truly a gift of God to the wholeness of Christ’s Church.’ But he adds that he also writes, ‘out of the no less profound conviction that our identity as Anglicans is not something without boundaries.’ And those boundaries must be taken as not merely boundaries to the Communion but to the Church whose wholeness he recognizes.

This then brings us to the third excellent part, which is the position of Scripture. Dr Williams writes, ‘We recognise each other in one fellowship when we see one another ‘standing under’ the word of Scripture.’ The phrase ‘standing under’, emphasised by Dr Williams, is critical, acknowledging as it does that it is not enough to have Scripture read in our churches, or given to our ordination candidates, or written into our constitutions. Scripture must stand over us, both individually and as churches, if we are to claim to be recognizable as belonging to the Church.

Moreover, since we are looking to recognise this standing under Scripture in one another, we must be willing to read and interpret Scripture together. And as regards the issue of sexuality, Dr Williams is adamant that the position of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution is ‘the point where our common reading of Scripture stands, along with the common reading of the majority within the Christian churches worldwide and through the centuries.’

There is therefore, in his view, currently no mandate within our Communion for changing that reading and its practical application.

Dr Williams also recognizes the limitations, but also the responsibilities, of his own rôle and that of the gathering of bishops at Lambeth. For him vis à vis the Communion as a whole, it is to ‘articulate the mind of the Communion’. He is not there to dictate. Nor, crucially, is he there to offer his personal opinion. For the bishops, it is as ‘the chief pastors and teachers of the Communion’ to seek ‘an authoritative common voice.’ There is thus always something exploratory and provisional about the Lambeth Conference, but it is no mere ‘talking shop’.

Indeed, the 2008 Lambeth Conference will, according to Dr Williams, address ‘divisive issues’. And this is surely to acknowledge, with the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 11:19), that sometimes there must be divisions amongst us to show who has God’s approval. A Lambeth Conference which addressed and resolved this would surely be a good thing.

But not all the egg is so good. In particular there is a clouding of the central issue and its impact on the question of mutual recognition. Dr Williams has put forward three ‘marks’ of a recognisable Church: standing under Scripture, having an authentic ministry of word and sacrament, and engaging in the Church’s mission.

However, as I have noted before, he obscures the link between the first and the second two. On the one hand, he writes,

When we are able to recognise biblical faithfulness and authentic ministry in one another, the relation of communion pledges us to support each other’s efforts to win people for Christ and to serve the world in his Name.

Here, biblical faithfulness issues in authentic ministry and true mission. Yet later on, writing of the work that remains to be done at Lambeth and elsewhere, he writes as if the presenting issue of faithfulness to Scripture regarding sexuality is somehow peripheral to the problem of mutual recognition in the Anglican Communion:

... that work is about some basic questions of fidelity to Scripture and identity in ministry and mission, not only about the one issue of sexuality. (Emphasis added)

The problem recurs when he tries to separate authentic ministry from a departure from Scripture. Regarding the confirmation of Gene Robinson’s election and the sanctioning of same-sex blessing he writes, ‘it is not surprising if some have concluded that the official organs of The Episcopal Church ... have put in question the degree to which it can be recognised as belonging to the same family.’

Yet what he refers to here as ‘the official organs’ is, in fact, the core ministry of The Episcopal Church. It is the bishops, not the bureaucrats, who made that decision and carried it into effect. We cannot therefore argue that TEC USA has departed from Scripture but held on to authentic ministry and true mission.

Moreover, in a reversal to his earlier position on the marks of the Church, Dr Williams argues that the fault here is a decision by TEC USA ‘to act against the strong, reiterated and consistent advice of the Instruments of Communion.’ But that advice rests on a reading of Scripture, and that is where the ultimate fault lies, not in ignoring the ‘Instruments of Communion’.

This inevitably weakens Dr Williams’ case against interventions. He writes that these should only take place ‘when the Communion together had in some way concluded, not only that a province was behaving anomalously, but that this was so serious as to compromise the entire ministry and mission the province was undertaking.’ Yet a serious and significant departure from Scripture, which he acknowledges has already happened, is surely prima facie evidence that such a compromise has occurred — indeed, that it may pre-date the presenting issue.

There is also, it must be said, a serious fudging on Dr Williams’ part of some of the responses of TEC USA to the Dar-es-Salaam meeting. It is true, as he says, that on the face of it, TEC USA has adopted a policy of not confirming the episcopal election of partnered gay or lesbian clergy, though this has yet to be tested and there is certainly no policy (as might logically have been expected) of such candidates being advised not to stand for election, in support of this decision. It is also true that TEC USA’s policy on same-sex blessings is unclear. On the scheme for the pastoral care of those who do not accept the majority view in TEC USA, however, Dr Williams does not seem to acknowledge the fact that what was put forward at Dar-es-Salaam has been almost entirely ignored, saying only that ‘what has been proposed does not so far seem to have commanded the full confidence of those most affected.’ He also does not confront the continuation of legal actions within TEC USA.

There is also room for anxiety over the ‘small group of primates and others’ he is convening ‘to work on the unanswered questions arising from the inconclusive evaluation of the primates to New Orleans and to take certain issues forward to Lambeth.’ This undoubtedly gives too much undisclosed power to too few unknown people.

And yet there arguably is still enough ‘good egg’ for Conservatives to take a second look. In his conclusions, Dr Williams writes that,

Not everyone carrying the name of Anglican can claim to speak authentically for the identity we share as a global fellowship.

Nor, from what he has written, can every province within the Anglican Communion claim to be authentically Christian. Specifically, as he says,

Given the differences in response to The Episcopal Church revealed in the responses of the primates, we simply cannot pretend that there is now a ready-made consensus on the future of relationships between TEC and other provinces.

Dr Williams has, if not shown his hand, at least made his bid. It is up to others in the Communion to decide whether to ‘raise’. I am not saying they should, but I am saying they should think about it.

Revd John P Richardson
19 December 2007

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