Saturday, 9 August 2008

Dr Williams and his Bishops: wheels within wheels?

The ability of the Anglican Church to undergo apparently impossible convolutions has been further highlighted by the publication of, on the one hand, letters written between Rowan Williams during his time as Archbishop of Wales and a former Anglican Evangelical and, on the other, a letter supporting Dr Williams signed by nineteen bishops and published in today’s edition of The Times.

Dr Williams’ letters tell us nothing really new in terms of either his theology or his church polity. He believes certain homosexual relationships are acceptable, provided they entail “the same rules of faithfulness and commitment would have to apply as to heterosexual union”, basing this on an understanding that the Bible’s prohibitions are addressed to something else.

It is well-known, however, that Dr Williams believes he should subsume his personal views to those of the office of a bishop. This is underlined by a statement released in response to the publication of the letters in which he says that he understands his 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 only new detail emerging from the correspondence for most of us will be about the timing and the process of Dr Williams’ change from “the traditional ethical understanding of homosexuality” to his present position (elaborated in The Body’s Grace, which I reviewed in Churchman for 2007) of acceptance. Some of us may be concerned that one of the influences was Jeffrey John’s Permanent, Stable, Faithful, which I have reviewed here and which is inadequate in many respects. However, whilst the ‘how’ may be questionable, the facts of Dr Williams’ position are well established.

Yet at the same time, this correspondence highlights what concerns both Conservatives and Liberals. Thus Dr Williams writes, “if I’m asked for my views as a theologian rather than a church leader, I have to be honest and admit that they are as I’ve said”. Yet what is a bishop, if not a theologian? And how is a bishop to lead if not by teaching? And how can a bishop teach with integrity, let alone conviction, what he does not believe? And how can a bishop advise in ‘pastoral’ situations those whom he would want (as a theologian) to encourage, but must (as an official) discourage?

The difficulty is demonstrated by what subsequently happened to Jeffrey John, whom Dr Williams was instrumental in dissuading from taking up the episcopal office which he had been offered. What did Dr Williams really feel was the justification in acting this way? It could hardly have been a disagreement with Dr John’s views, which had persuaded Dr Williams himself. Nor could it have been his lifestyle, which surely reflected the commitment Dr Williams endorsed. No wonder Liberals are still smarting!

Then we come to the letter from the nineteen bishops. What exactly are they trying to say in their ‘support’ for Dr Williams? Why, given their (presumed) disagreement with his personal convictions, is it signed by so many Evangelicals? And why, given its own disavowal of ‘entryism’, is it signed by Liberals who support exactly that policy, including two patrons of Changing Attitude?

Thus the letter affirms that Dr Williams, “has spoken out frequently against the ‘foot-in-the-door’ tactic of divisive innovation such as the consecration of the present Bishop of New Hampshire.” Yet it is signed by Bishop John Gladwin who said, when that consecration took place, we should wait to see whether it would eventually ‘seem good to the Holy Spirit’, and who presumably thinks it has.

And if bishops Wright, Dow, Gledhill and Pritchard believe (as they seem to suggest) that they disagree with Dr Williams’ theological views (the views, that is, which he holds ‘as a theologian’) on such a fundamental issue, surely they must believe that his holding these views must be detrimental to his functioning within his office, for the reasons raised above?

They write that “the Archbishop has said repeatedly ... that there is a difference between ‘thinking aloud’ as a theologian and the task of a bishop (let alone an Archbishop) to uphold the church’s teaching.” Yet Dr Williams has also shown repeatedly that he is not merely ‘thinking out loud’. His correspondence describes his ‘conversion’, from one set of convictions to another (albeit, one with some fuzzy edges about such things as appropriate ceremonies). Moreover, as has been observed in some of the comments in response to the bishops’ letter, Dr Williams did not write the letters in question ‘as a theologian’, but as the Archbishop of Wales, responding in a pastoral context to correspondence from a church member.

This is not to say I disrespect Dr Williams, and clearly one of the reasons why they have written is that the nineteen bishops feel some disrespect has been shown. I think I understand what he is trying to do, and to some extent why. But I believe his balancing act, weighing off personal belief against the ‘beliefs of the Church’, expresses a wrong understanding and expression of the episcopal office. A bishop cannot ‘bishop’ by repeating the ‘party line’ of what ‘the Church’ believes whilst, at the same time, holding entirely other convictions in his heart.

Not least, the reason is that although he may be able to persuade himself that his position is tenable, when those conviction become known to others they themselves can see that it is not. If we know what the man thinks, we will hardly be persuaded when he says something else.

John Richardson
9 August 2008

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  1. Nicely put. I posted the following on the Fulcrum site a couple of days ago, but so far no discussion there.

    'Pastors are indeed called to mediate between various groups for the sake of unity. But historically that hasn't meant that they cease to represent and advance the particular 'dialect' that they are persuaded is the 'better way'. So, as far as I can tell, Abp Ramsey guided the communion in a generally Anglo-catholic direction, Abp Carey in a generally Charismatic evangelical one, etc., fully open about their convictions, and generally accepted by the communion as operating within the limits of authentic Anglicanism.

    What's new with RW is that in his capacity as Abp he has to a great extent felt the need to lift himself out of his native dialect, as it were. He invites us to consider a way to 'absorb' the truth from below, according to a notion of reception that has not been 'generally received' in the Anglican communion (even though it's quite popular in the academy). It's as though the Eastern Orthodox church has been fast-forwarded to our times: note Bp. Kallistos Ware's comment in a recent interview that one day the Orthodox Church could well face--read 'be in a position to consider receiving'--women presbyters and gay unions.

    So the kind of senior leader that RW envisions for the communion is not one who takes the risk of a 'prophetic word' that would lead us in this or that direction, but one who keeps us talking to one another.

    The question, though, is this: has our leader-as-interpreter in this case allowed the task of interpreting 'the faith once delivered' to be collapsed into the job of interpreting the various interpretations to each other? With the interpretive task redefined in this way, would we recognize prophetic leadership -- that kind that risks losing the support of the majority for the sake of truth -- if it came along?'

    Does this make sense?


  2. John - how would you account for obedience in your theology, ie where someone does something that they believe to be wrong out of adherence to the virtue of obedience? (So, classically, a Benedictine monk).

  3. Wouldn't think of speaking for you John, but in response to Sam's question about obedience, perhaps it's similar to the relationship between 'hard cases' and law. The saying 'hard cases make bad law' conveys the idea that laws necessarily must be applicable to even hard cases, but that most cases aren't in that category.

    In other words, perhaps obedience is proven in the situation where one obeys out of commitment to the virtue of obedience in spite of not agreeing.

    And yet, the normal situation is obedience precisely because one accepts the truth of a position.

    It would be a mistake to turn the exception into the rule.

    A comment on John's post now. Surely the ABC recognises his view of the office of ABC is idiosyncratic at the least. Perhaps that does not concern him. However, it seems to me, that the pastoral epistles point to precisely the kind of leadership by teaching particular catholic Christian truths, over and against alternatives which are doing the rounds. This seems to indicate that there is a higher calling in Christian leadership than just keeping the parties talking.

  4. "someone does something that they believe to be wrong out of adherence to the virtue of obedience"

    So RW could claim that he was just obeying orders... haven't I heard that defence somewhere before?

    Steve Walton
    Marbury, Cheshire

  5. "Nicely put"- but it does seem that there is rather a lot of "nice putting" in the CoE. Rather more straightforwardly, the ArchBish is a hypocrite.