Friday, September 14, 2007

The Last Archbishop of Canterbury?

The cover story of the National Catholic Reporter’s 9/14/07 edition is “Anglican Schism? Archbishop Rowan Williams strives to preserve the communion.” With it is a sidebar, “The Anglican crisis in brief,” by the NCR staff. Links to the two articles:

The cover story was authored by John Wilkins, former editor of The Tablet, the British Catholic weekly. He shares valuable first-hand knowledge of the Anglican crisis as viewed from London, and of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s efforts to resolve it.

Both articles are helpful and thought-provoking, providing excellent historical background on how the Anglican Communion arrived at the crossroads its members now face—but also reinforcing my earlier conclusion that Williams is misguided in his compulsion to lead the Communion away from what has been its unique role among the Christian churches.

Once again, it appears that the only way Williams can envision saving the Communion is to capitulate to a group of Anglican biblical fundamentalists determined to turn it into something else. In so doing, the current shepherd of Augustine’s see risks becoming the last Archbishop of Canterbury, at least as that office has functioned historically. For centuries his office has upheld and embodied an ecclesiology available nowhere else within Christianity. If the Christians of the Anglican Communion allow it to be lost, is there any Christian body that can revive it?

The irony is that as a theologian, Williams knows better. He is largely in sympathy with those in the U.S. Episcopal Church who see the blessing of same-sex couples and the ordination of openly gay bishops as (paraphrasing John Wilkins) legitimate prophetic actions in the cause of justice and human rights. Wilkins reports that “As a theologian in the 1980s Williams himself was one of those questioning the Christian tradition on homosexuality.”

Having done that scholarship personally, Williams is in a better position than many Anglican bishops (and most Catholic bishops) to know that the anti-gay position taken by Archbishop Peter Akinola and others of the ‘Global South’ is bogus: the univocal scriptural grounding that it claims does not in fact exist; and the litmus test of orthodoxy that it tries to impose on the U.S. Episcopal bishops is not orthodox at all.

Wilkins says that despite this, Williams believes he must suppress his own scholarship and that of other reputable Christian theologians, because (he quotes Williams) “‘there are no arguments that are winning the majority of Christendom over to a new position’ that would amend or reverse the consistently negative Christian tradition on homosexual practice. He distinguishes sharply between questions a theologian may ask and actions or decisions a church or a bishop may take.”

Williams may be right about “the majority of Christendom.” Although there are secular majorities and other Christian churches, mainly in North America and Western Europe, who have in fact adopted the new position, the preponderance of Christians and Christian officials worldwide probably has not.

But is that an adequate reason to forbid a self-governing Anglican province like the U.S. Episcopal Church from adopting the new position? And, just as crucially for Anglican ecclesiology, is it an adequate reason to allow the Nigerian Province and its affiliates among ‘Global South’ bishops to mandate allegiance to the lie that the new position lacks a basis in solid, conscientious biblical analysis?

For the sake of the truth and the continuation of the Anglican Communion, what the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to be upholding is the right of an Anglican Province to follow a position which is scripturally defendable. He has in fact done this on the issue of ordaining women as priests and bishops, even though some of the same biblical fundamentalists assert that the Bible forbids such ordinations. Why does he not see the same principle at stake in the Episcopal Church’s desire to bless gay unions and gay bishops?

It is entirely likely that, if Williams did support the Episcopal Church, the bishops of the ‘Global South’ would accuse him of heresy, declare the Communion over and establish their own orthodox church with Akinola as presiding bishop (or pontiff, perhaps?). But in that case, it would be Akinola and company who had left the Communion. A remnant of the Communion and of Anglican ecclesiology would still survive.

That remnant would remain in Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who would continue to uphold the right of self-governing Anglican provinces to pursue diverse, scripturally valid theologies. Yes, this would be a smaller Anglican Communion than Williams inherited. But it would remain a truly Anglican Communion, and “not just the loosest possible federation of local churches” that Williams fears.

Whatever Williams does, Akinola’s campaign to discredit the U.S. Episcopal Church, and to some extent the Archbishop of Canterbury, has already diminished the Anglican Communion. Rather than cower before Akinola’s relentless, fanatical brow-beating, Williams needs to gather the courage of his own scholarship and his own impressive spirituality, and go all out to keep Anglican ecclesiology alive.

Wilkins says that when Williams finds the controversy “eroding and exhausting,” he gains comfort and hope from the prayerful community in which he lives at Lambeth Palace: “Every morning … I have an opportunity to remind myself that what matters is not the Church of England or the Anglican Communion but the act of God in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. When I am inclined to think that the whole thing is falling apart and that I am making a more than usually bad job of it, the transforming thing has got to be, and in my experience always is, renewing a sense of gratitude. Whether the Church of England survives or not, whether the archbishop of Canterbury survives or not, Christ still died on the cross and rose again, and that’s enough to keep you going for quite a few lifetimes.”

The Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury deserve to survive, and Anglican ecclesiology with them. But that is possible only if Rowan Williams dedicates himself to pursuing and upholding what he knows to be true. Trying to pacify those who preach falsehood can have no good outcome. In doing so, he risks dooming his heritage and leaving a legacy of ashes.

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