Saturday 15 December 2007

Leadership and Lambeth - Dr Williams' Advent challenge to the Communion

I have written an updated analysis of what is good and what is bad about Dr Williams' letter here.

If thirty-plus years in ordained ministry in the Church of England has taught me anything, it is that everyone wants a lead from the bishops until they actually give one. Then one side or other, or sometimes both, complains that the lead isn’t what they wanted.

Something like this may now be happening with regard to Rowan Williams, and specifically his Advent Letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

This is not, it should be said straight away, the archepiscopal equivalent of those round-ups of family and church news clergy are inclined to send at this time of year. On the contrary, it is the Archbishop’s definitive statement of where he thinks the Communion is today, and where it ought to be going up to and including the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

Compared with some of his earlier pronouncements, this is different. It indicates a certain clear resolve, and an expectation that others should both accept his authority and, to a certain extent, conform to his vision. All may not like it. There are things about it I do not like. But to be a leader is to lead, and it is surely better for an organization to be lead imperfectly than not to be lead at all.

Moreover, it is easier to get to grips with that with which one disagrees than with ‘marshmallow’ pronouncements that mean nothing.

Dr Williams’ letter begins with a definition of the unity of the Anglican Communion which,

depends not on a canon law that can be enforced but on the ability of each part of the family to recognise that other local churches have received the same faith from the apostles and are faithfully holding to it in loyalty to the One Lord incarnate who speaks in Scripture and bestows his grace in the sacraments

There are three key elements to this mutual recognition, the first of which is the priority of Scripture:

We recognise each other in one fellowship when we see one another ‘standing under’ the word of Scripture.

To this, he adds that we need to read the Bible together. Thus, ‘Radical change in the way we read cannot be determined by one group or tradition alone.’ The important word here is change: it is TEC and its supporters who, Williams recognizes, are seeking to change the way the Bible is read on a fundamental issue.

The other two elements which allow mutual recognition are ‘The common acknowledgement of an authentic ministry of Word and Sacrament,’ and ‘The common acknowledgement that the first and great priority of each local Christian community is to communicate the Good News.’

It is the first of these which undergirds Dr Williams’ opposition to cross-border interventions:

The principle that one local church should not intervene in the life of another is simply a way of expressing this trust that the form of ministry is something we share and that God provides what is needed for each local community.

He is also clearly unhappy at the tendency to polarise the Church between ‘those who are “for” and those who are “against” the welcoming of homosexual people.’ But he acknowledges the current crisis is about being ‘recognisably faithful to Scripture and the moral tradition of the wider Church’ with respect to what can be blessed and sanctioned ‘in the name of the Church’ (his emphasis), concluding that,

Insofar as there is currently any consensus in the Communion about this, it is not in favour of change in our discipline or our interpretation of the Bible.


... the episcopal ordination of a person in a same-sex union or a claim to the freedom to make liturgical declarations about the character of same-sex unions inevitably raises the question of whether a local church is still fully recognisable within the one family of practice and reflection.

It is clear, therefore, that Rowan Williams points to the North American churches generally, and TEC in particular, as having precipitated the present crisis and rendered themselves potentially ‘un-recognisable’ as Anglicans:

Where one part of the family makes a decisive move that plainly implies a new understanding of Scripture that has not been received and agreed by the wider Church, it is not surprising that others find a problem in knowing how far they are still speaking the same language.

Hence he allows that those both outside and within these Provinces who disagree with such attitudes and actions should have a means to distance themselves, both for their own sake and for the sake of the wider, universal, Church.

Critically, however, Dr Williams questions whether ‘the whole structure of mission and ministry has failed in a local church that commits itself to a new reading of the Bible.’ Clearly in his own view, this is not necessarily the case. Regarding the actions of those who have crossed ecclesiastical borders, therefore, he writes that,

Successive Lambeth Conferences and Primates’ Meetings have ... cautioned very strongly against such provision.

The problem is that such a provision with regard to the church’s ministry ‘does not appeal to a clear or universal principle by which it may be decided that a local church’s ministry is completely defective.’ Intervention may be possible, he concedes, but only 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.

In other words, a province might fall on the reading of Scripture, but stand on its ministry and mission.

It must be said, however, that this is clearly a problematic understanding on Dr Williams’ part, presuming, as it does, that ministry and mission can survive where the reading of Scripture is so defective that other parts of the Communion find it to be no longer recognisably ‘Christian’ (‘Christian’, not ‘Anglican’, given that he defines this recognition in terms of loyalty to the faith of the Apostles and the Lord of the Church).

Moreover, it entirely neglects the important point, identified by Dr Roger Beckwith, that the constitution of the Anglican Communion, adopted at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, leaves it to individual provinces to take disciplinary action in the kind of situation which now prevails. According to this, ‘Every Church in our Communion is free to build up its life and development upon the provisions of its own constitution’ (Article 7). However,

This freedom naturally and necessarily carries with it the risk of divergence even to the point of disruption. In case any such risk should actually arise, it is clear that the Lambeth Conference as such could not take any disciplinary action. Formal action would belong to the several Churches of the Anglican Communion individually, but the advice of the Lambeth Conference, sought before action is taken by the constituent Churches, would carry great moral weight. (Article 8, emphasis added)

At this point in his letter, however, Dr Williams tries to row back the Communion to a common foundation, namely the position expressed by the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which is, he observes, ‘the only point of reference clearly agreed by the overwhelming majority of the Communion’:

This 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.

Decision and actions of TEC over the past few years have therefore made it difficult for many others to regard it as ‘belonging to the same family’. Nevertheless,

... several within The Episcopal Church, including a significant number of bishops and some diocesan conventions, have clearly distanced themselves from the prevailing view in their province as expressed in its public policies and declarations. This includes the bishops who have committed themselves to the proposals of the Windsor Report in their Camp Allen conference, as well as others who have looked for more radical solutions.

By their very nature, however, according to Dr Williams these actions mean that the total ministry of TEC is not defective in the eyes of the rest of the Communion. And therefore‘they’ (at least) ‘are clearly in fellowship with the Communion.’ What remains, then, is how they should relate to their province and how the rest of the Communion should relate to them.

Ironically, therefore, it seems that in Dr Williams’ eyes it is the very ‘dissenters’ within TEC who rescue TEC from rejection, and the need for interventions, by the rest of the Communion. Thus the present challenge ‘is not best addressed by a series of ad hoc arrangements with individual provinces elsewhere,’ and indeed such interventions have clearly angered many in TEC and made real solutions more difficult. What the Communion must do instead is to find ways to support those in TEC, and especially the bishops, ‘who have clearly expressed their desire to work within the framework both of the Windsor Report and the Lambeth Resolutions.’

Moreover, Dr Williams argues it should be recognized that TEC, most recently at New Orleans, has genuinely and sincerely tried to clarify its position in order to satisfy the rest of the Communion, even though this has only been a partial success. In his view, TEC is clearly committed to not appointing any more partnered gay clergy as bishops, but is not clear on its attitude to blessings of same-sex partnerships. Nor has the proposal made at Dar es Salam for dissenters been fully worked out. He also feels there is confusion over why the House of Bishops has said it might be bound by General Convention; a suggestion which,

... raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards

Nevertheless, the current clarifications are, in Dr Williams’ view, as good as they are going to get, and the time has come to move on. Consequently, he proceeds to state why he has acted as he has done with regard to Lambeth 2008 and what he expects to happen.

First, regarding invitations, he writes,

I have not felt able to invite those whose episcopal ordination was carried through against the counsel of the Instruments of Communion, and I have not seen any reason to revisit this ...

This non-invitation includes not just Gene Robinson but those consecrated by the ‘Global South’, on the grounds that ‘these ordinations have not been encouraged or legitimised by the Communion overall.’ However, it is equally clear that he want the ‘consecrators’ to attend:

I acknowledge that this limitation on invitations will pose problems for some in its outworking. But I would strongly urge those whose strong commitments create such problems to ask what they are prepared to offer for the sake of a Conference that will have some general credibility in and for the Communion overall.

The shame here, given all he has said about TEC, is Dr Williams’ suggestion that those who are troubled by the fact that bishops they have consecrated will not be invited have only themselves to blame! Nevertheless, his appeal to them is clearly heartfelt and should be weighed carefully, particularly in the light of his next point, that coming to Lambeth means working with Windsor:

I have underlined in my letter of invitation that acceptance of the invitation must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant.

It is here that Dr Williams shows a previously uncharacteristic resolve and a determination to stamp his personal authority on the deliberations of the Communion. Invitations to Lambeth are his to issue, and the message is clear: ‘If you’re not willing to co-operate on the Covenant, don’t come.’

Moreover, he adds, ‘I have repeatedly said that an invitation to Lambeth does not constitute a certificate of orthodoxy.’ At face value, therefore, Dr Williams recognizes the actual unorthodoxy of some of those he has invited — an unorthodoxy which he nevertheless believes the Lambeth Conference should, and can, address positively. Hence, in his most powerful appeal he continues,

And this is also why I have said that the refusal to meet can be a refusal of the cross — and so of the resurrection.

Here, however, we should bear in mind Dr Williams own, very particular, views of cross and resurrection. For him, resurrection is about the refusal of rejection and, specifically, the refusal to reject those who are, quite properly, my enemies. Thus in the resurrection Jesus was re-presented back to those who crucified him, refusing to reject them (the un-orthodox), and so opening to them the way of salvation: namely reconciliation. (See here for further elucidation.) Undoubtedly for Dr Williams, his own theology has driven his approach to this conflict, and he wishes others to share his approach, but it is an approach which has a very specific understanding of the terms and concepts he invokes.

Nevertheless, two things are clear. Dr Williams passionately believes the 2008 Lambeth Conference should be attended by all who are invited, and he equally believes it will be more than a ‘talk shop.’ Moreover, at the top of the agenda is now how the Communion should respond to TEC. Yet at the last hurdle Dr Williams seems to avoid the presenting issue in this regard:

Much work remains to be done. But — once again, I refer back to my introductory thoughts — 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.

Given all that has been said about Scripture, and what is known about the present crisis, it is hard to accept the suggestion that this is ‘really’ about something other than sexuality.

There is, moreover, a potential trap for the unwary. Dr Williams is to convene a small group of primates ‘and others’ to tackle some of the outstanding issues in advance of the Lambeth Conference. One of these is,

... to consider whether in the present circumstances it is possible for provinces or individual bishops at odds with the expressed mind of the Communion to participate fully in representative Communion agencies, including ecumenical bodies.

Does this cautionary note refer, however, solely to TEC and those of a similar mind? It is not clear that it does, since (as he says earlier),

The view that has been expressed by all the Instruments of Communion in recent years is that interventions are not to be sanctioned.

This might therefore suggest that a number of Global South bishops and provinces could be treated in the same way as TEC and its allies. This seems even more possible given his further statement that this group,

... will thus also be bound to consider the exact status of bishops ordained by one province for ministry in another.

The problem, at this point, is a lack of clarity as to what Dr Williams means and intends. It would be remarkable, given what else he says in this letter, if he then sought to treat TEC and the Global South with strict parity, on the one hand with regard to reinterpreting Scripture and on the other hand with regard to cross-border interventions: remarkable because the former has precipitated the crisis and the latter has responded to it. Nevertheless, a certain doubt remains.

Despite this, however, there is some reason to be positive. Dr Williams has acknowledged that the Anglican Communion must have boundaries. Moreover, in identifying these he has rightly put Scripture first, and has insisted that a novel reading of Scripture cannot simply be imposed by one group in the Church as acceptable over against the wider reading and the longer tradition.

Most importantly, he affirms that the reading of Scripture currently adopted by TEC and others (if it is a ‘reading’ at all), renders its recognition as Anglican (and therefore traditionally Christian) problematic, to say the least.

More questionable is his attempt to finesse the continuing acceptance of TEC by the rest of the Anglican Communion by an appeal to the fact that some elements within TEC want to distance themselves from it!

Most difficult of all, however, is his attempt to isolate into watertight compartments the three elements of his boundaries: Scripture, ministry and mission. Indeed, his presenting the boundaries in that order is also problematic, for mission is, in the end, surely more important than the formal nature of our ministries.

It is precisely here that the decisions and actions of TEC most clearly confront Dr Williams’ analysis. As Dr Bonnie Perry, partnered gay clergywoman, Rector of All Saints Church, Chicago, and candidate for the episcopate of California has said recently, ‘Some people call it the gay agenda, but we call it the Gospel Agenda.’ It cannot be argued, in the present circumstances, that although TEC’s reading of Scripture may be defective, its mission is intact. Nor can it be suggested that because its ministry contains some who are faithful to the Communion’s understanding of Scripture, the province is thereby faithful to the Communion’s notion of ‘church’.

Yet for all this, Dr Williams must be commended for giving a lead — for stepping up to the plate when it was needed. We may (indeed, I do) disagree with some of what he has said. But we need not (and I do not) disagree with it all, even though considerable anxieties may remain.

I would go further. If Dr Williams is prepared to continue in the same vein, it may, after all, be appropriate for everyone who has been invited to Lambeth to attend. If he seriously regards this as a gathering of the orthodox and the unorthodox, at which it may, finally, be admitted that some sections of the Anglican Communion are no longer recognisably following the same faith and the same Lord, and at which some clearer definition may be given to what that means, then this may be a table at which it is important to sit down.

Dr Beckwith has drawn our attention to the fact that it is for individual provinces to decide how to act where the Communion is disrupted. But the Lambeth Conference may, by its deliberations, give advice and lend moral weight to such actions. If Dr Williams’ statements are given credence and if his leadership is allowed to prevail at this point, it may just be possible for the Lambeth Conference of 2008 to rescue the Anglican Communion intact, not in membership but in the faith.

Revd John P Richardson
15 December 2007

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  1. I have quoted quite a lot of this and given my own reactions in my new post from Chelmsford.

  2. I have been a constant supporter of Rowan Williams since the days he was Bishop of Monmouth. I recognise that the political situation of his office makes it difficult for his own theology to be expressed at times, but I am thankful that now at last he is showing where the boundaries are for all.

  3. Tarik, thank you for your comment. However, you will note the following at the end of the article itself: "No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the [a href=""]policy[/a]."

    If you will give a full name and location, I will post your comment.