glory of god

glory of god

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On Rowan Williams, the Covenant, and the Future of Anglicanism

I take no delight in the announced resignation of Dr. Rowan Williams from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury. Although I have some strong disagreements with him and have criticized his leadership from time to time, I believe that Archbishop Williams is a very good man with a deep spiritual grounding and a profound commitment to Christian unity, both within Anglicanism and among the world’s divided churches. In many ways his presence and leadership have been blessings to the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, the wider church, and the world. He has worked valiantly in the area of Christian unity, building bridges between Anglicans and their Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. He also has been a vocal proponent of local and global social justice particularly with regard to issues of economics and poverty. The latter so much so, in fact, that he has been labeled a harsh critic of the United Kingdom’s current Conservative government.

I was in the midst of a summer of ministry as a hospital chaplain in a Clinical Pastoral Education program in Boston when the Anglican world learned that Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and a theologian of considerable renown, was announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He was known at the time for his dense theologian mind, but also for his liberal positions on matters of sexuality and the place of women in ministry. Williams’ appointment promised a refreshing change after the more conservative leadership of Archbishop George Carey. I was not alone in thinking that Williams’ theological acumen and more inclusive vision for the church would usher in a new age for the Anglican Communion, which was already showing signs of theological and geographical fracture. He was following, it was hoped, in the footsteps of remarkable theologian archbishops like William Temple and Arthur Michael Ramsey. Williams’ appointment had the potential to lead to a new golden age for Anglicanism.

Just months after Williams’ enthronement at Canterbury in 2003 matters came to a head. First, the Rev. Canon Dr. Jeffrey John was announced as the next Suffragan Bishop for Reading in the Oxford diocese. Dr. John is himself a brilliant theologian and well-regarded. But, he happens to be gay and living in a committed partnership with another man, also an Anglican priest. He maintained, though, that his relationship was by that point celibate. John initially had Williams’ support and was appointed by Queen Elizabeth. However, the outcry from conservatives across the Church of England and the Anglican Communion was so fierce that Williams summoned his friend Dr. John to Lambeth Palace and exhibited considerable pressure to force John to decline the Queen’s appointment. Reluctantly Dr. John did so.

Nearly simultaneously the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church USA elected the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as its bishop. Robinson, too, is engaged in a same-sex relationship, but without any claim to being celibate. Having succeeded in England, there was again an outcry by conservatives across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to find a way to bar Robinson’s consecration. When the Episcopal Church’s General Convention met in Minneapolis and voted to confirm New Hampshire’s election, the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop was pressured to refuse to consecrate, and Robinson himself was pressured to step down for the sake of church unity. He refused and in November 2003 was consecrated as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire.

The outcry against the Episcopal Church’s actions was deafening. It is not an exaggeration to say that the depth of concern, criticism, and outrage was unexpected. Bishops around the Communion declared themselves out of communion with New Hampshire and with the bishops who participated in his consecration. At the same time, the Anglican Church of Canada was liberalizing its position on sexuality. In particular, the Diocese of New Westminster had approved liturgical blessings for same-sex couples. While not the object of the same degree of vitriol as the Episcopal Church, the Canadian church was subject to considerable criticism. Lines were being drawn in the sand.

In retaliation for these liberal actions, global conservatives began to minister to North Americans, establishing missions, sending and consecrating bishops and claiming authority over like-minded congregations when liberal bishops would not denounce their actions and support of Bishop Robinson or same-sex blessings. While many decried these “boundary crossings,” little could be done to halt them. In recent years they have gone so far as to lead to schism and the establishment of the conservative Anglican Church of North America, with majorities in several U.S. dioceses voting to secede from the Episcopal Church, and appealing for official recognition by the Anglican Communion.

It was into this stormy context that the heretofore-liberal Dr. Williams found himself. No longer simply a theologian, diocesan or even national bishop, he was now the spiritual leader of a deeply divided worldwide family of churches, while also leader of the Church of England. Rather than imposing his own theological world-view on the Anglican Communion, he attempted to find a solution that would unite as many of the world’s Anglicans as possible. What began with the Windsor Report, which recommended a number of penalties for those bodies that were perceived to have broken the “bonds of affection” with the Anglican Communion, later developed into the proposal for the Anglican Communion Covenant.

As envisaged by Williams the Covenant would offer a stronger definition of Anglican belief and practice than previously known while also setting forth a process for dealing with conflicts. It is left up to each province to adopt or reject the Covenant. None are compelled to adopt it. However, those provinces that do not sign on could be deemed “second-tier” Anglicans in terms of the life of the Communion situating themselves outside the Communion’s more centralized life. Those provinces that do agree would seek to deepen their connections and commitment to the Communion. Williams has stressed that he would like Anglicans to embrace the meaning of “Communion” in the deepest possible way, rather than pull apart as a looser federation of global churches. Many, with Williams, have embraced the Covenant process as the best chance the Anglican Communion has to weather and survive its current crises. Others have argued that it is either too weak in its enforcement of standards or that it is un-Anglican and potentially draconian in its attempts to limit Anglican comprehensiveness.

The Covenant has found considerable global support, particularly in more conservative provinces; however, it faces a less certain acceptance in the historically liberal churches in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Scotland. In recent months its chances of passage in the Church of England, once thought assured, also has seemed increasingly unlikely, despite pleas by Williams and other bishops and theologians for its support.

Besides his global challenges, Williams has found his leadership questioned in England itself. Just as the churches and society in North America have grappled with more liberal attitudes to sexuality, so too has the U.K. Williams has articulated a position that upholds the church’s historic teaching on marriage and family while trying also to defend the civil rights of sexual minorities. It has proved to be an uncomfortable position, especially for one who has himself ordained openly gay priests in Wales and written positively about the grace of same-sex relationships when a theologian. To his credit he is alone among world Christian leaders in even considering gay rights and finding some place for sexual minorities in the church. In like fashion, Williams has long advocated for the ordination of women and supports legislation that will allow women to serve as English bishops. However, he has tried to accommodate conservatives by suggesting additional male bishops to minister to those opposed to potential women in the episcopate. It was not an ideal proposal, but it was deemed by Williams necessary to preserve church unity. The proposal was rejected by the Church of England’s General Synod as it continues to debate if, how, and when it will open the episcopate to women. Whatever happens, there will be no “shadow” male bishops. Yet, there is no question that aside from these issues of gender and sexuality, Williams is regarded fondly by the Church of England’s faithful and especially its leadership.

Given all of the above, it is no surprise that Williams looks haggard and exhausted. He took on the mantle of Anglican leadership at what is arguably its most difficult time since the Reformation era or the 17th century civil war. Thankfully, he will be able to return to academia and theological scholarship and doesn’t face fates like his predecessors Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake, and William Laud, beheaded. Indeed, many do now and even more will look on Williams’ tenure as a success in a thankless time. Others, of course, will reflect on the promise and hopes that went unfulfilled.

Personally, I recognize Williams’ difficult and unenviable position. My criticisms are not so much related to his lukewarm support for the liberal positions he once embraced; although, there do seem to be questions of personal integrity, especially in consideration of his treatment of Jeffrey John. Rather, I am especially concerned with Williams’ tendency to call and work for an increasingly centralized authority within global Anglicanism, whether in the Covenant or in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The latter is especially ironic since Williams likes to emphasize his vocation as a priest over his episcopal consecration and presents himself in an especially modest manner.

Perhaps this tendency toward centralization is a result of his wide ecumenical vision. Certainly other traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, have a more efficient polity than the diffuse and varied approach employed by the churches of the Anglican Communion. On more than one occasion Williams has spoken of the “Anglican Church” as if we were a single unified body. I suspect this is because Williams wishes it were so, or perhaps even believes it is so in a profound theological way, if not politically or constitutionally. There is no question that he is deeply pained by the divisions in Anglicanism and would have liked to heal them in his tenure as the Communion’s spiritual leader. To his credit, the permanent fractures under his leadership have been limited (albeit highly publicized) and were starting to form before he took office.

Even before Williams’ announced resignation the future of the Anglican Communion Covenant was in doubt. Unfortunately Williams has seemed to stake his personal leadership and reputation on it. If the Church of England rejects the Covenant, as seems increasingly likely, there will be little to commend it to other Anglican churches of the world. This is probably for the best. While there are some positive aspects to the Covenant, in general it proposes such a stark departure from Anglican precedence and practice in terms of centralization, international powers, and even in the effort to define Anglicanism that it would radically change the character of the Communion. Some obviously see this as an improvement, especially those who would like us to more closely resemble the Roman Catholic Church or other communions. But it is not who we have been, who we are today, and who we should be for the world.

The fact of the matter is, Christian unity cannot be legislated. It cannot be enforced with the threat of exclusion from international bodies and consultations. And it cannot be ensured by narrowly defined shared belief. Christian unity is created by God. It exists already as part of God’s design for the church in all those who are united by baptism into the life of the Body of Christ and, in fact, even before baptism in their creation in God’s image. That unity will not be preserved by the adoption of a global Covenant but can only be recognized for what it is already. We fall into sin when we fail to see that which is already before us, when we fail to recognize who we already are. This point has been argued by such diverse Anglican theologians as Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, and Desmond Tutu.

In a very real way, the Anglican vocation is to witness to the wider church and world the unity that already exists among us in the midst of our diversity—global, theological, liturgical. That is our gift in the midst of other churches that are more defined by their doctrinal unity or centralized authority. To extent that we display the love, fellowship, and peace of God toward each other, in spite of our many differences, we witness to the central message of the gospel: God is love, a love as deep and boundless as the universe itself.

Despite predictions regarding Williams’ successor, there is no way of knowing whom the Crown Nominations Commission will recommend to the Prime Minister and Queen. The top candidate has to be a citizen of the United Kingdom, Ireland, or one of the Commonwealth countries. Because the Church of England has yet to approve the consecration of women to the episcopate there is no chance that a woman will be selected. However, we can fairly confidently assume that he will be a supporter of women bishops, as this change is likely to be enacted this summer by the General Synod. In terms of the hot button issue of gay rights, a candidate with a moderate view will likely find himself most successful. Certainly we shouldn’t expect a champion, given the divisions that exist in England and across the Communion. The commission will be looking for a bishop who can heal divisions, not exacerbate them.

My personal hope for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever he may be, is that he will find a way to help us all to recognize the life-giving love, the presence of God, in ourselves and in each other so that we can share it with the world.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell