What is Rowan Williams thinking?

General Convention / Religion

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury published his essay on the actions of the most recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church. You can find reactions to his essay here and here.

For what it’s worth I’m still not sure what to think. The language he uses in this letter is relatively strong for him. He takes a clear position opposing the ordination of partnered gay or lesbian bishops – and apparently argues that the same reason leads us to oppose the ordination of any partnered gay or lesbian person to any order. I suppose by extension he’s opened the door to opposition to any partnered relationship for the laity as well.

This is a major shift for him. He’s written both publicly and privately in the past that he does not in principle see any reason that gay and lesbian relationships, within certain boundaries (including sexual expression) can be and are holy. His argument in his letter is that the majority of Christians in the world have not come to a consensus on the question.

Which makes little sense, and he knows that. He’s possibly the finest theologian to sit in St. Augustine’s chair since St. Anselm. He knows that change in the church happens at the grassroots level or in the mission field and is then judged by the body as to whether or not it is God’s will. He knows that this takes centuries in some instances.

So why is he not talking about this now?

The Anglican Curmudgeon I think has the nub of it when he points out that Williams mentions ecumenism again and again in the essay. We have a Pope in Benedict that has apparently decided to make Ecumenical reunion a major theme of his Pontificate. The Pope has made overtures to the Orthodox, but that is going to be slow going given the fractious nature of Orthodoxy right now and the competing claims between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church as to who is the real voice of that Church in the 21st century. The Lutherans are probably near to the German Pope’s heart, but Lutheranism is at present a federation – there’s no official entity to enter into talks with at the moment. The broad spectrum of Protestant denominations have little interest in reunification.

That leaves the Anglicans.

A covenanted Anglicanism, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares, with a particular Archbishop who comes from the Catholic wing of the Communion, makes the most likely candidate to achieve reunion in the near future.

There is a great deal to gained in this possible reunion. I think most importantly for the British, it would give Her Majesty a real chance at reuniting the believers in England, and then perhaps of Britain into one shared faith again. Which, if I were her, I’d see as a goal worthy of pursuing with everything I had. Imagine what it might mean for Great Britain, for Ireland, for the Commonwealth, to put aside the religious tensions between the established churches and the resurgent Roman Catholics.

If this is true, and I suspect for a number of reasons that it is, given that the Archbishop and the Queen would probably agree on this reunion as being worthy of pursuing, the problem with it is that it is asking the Anglican Communion to achieve it by sacrificing it’s gay and lesbian members and their friends.

That, at least for me, no matter how committed I am to ecumenism, is not an option. I’ll do whatever I can to bring all of God’s people into a reconciled relationship with each other. But I won’t intentionally work to exclude any of God’s people to achieve it. Real reconciliation does not require us to deny who we are so as to be reconciled. I won’t consider jettisoning the conservative voices in the Episcopal Church so that our life would be less fractious. I can’t consider asking the LGBT members to leave either for the same reason. Doing either would cause us to cease being truly catholic – and would not speak to the hope that a catholic church can bring into a divided world.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I can’t believe the CofE and especially the UK would have any interesting reuniting with Rome – it is fast becoming a dying religion in Europe. Joining the would be suicide for CofE ocicbw.

  2. Kenny F says

    Thank you for your commitment to full inclusion.

  3. I think you are onto something, however, my guess is that Rowan is more concerned with looking good to his own English conservatives who may be considering bolting. His appeasement did not keep the Anglican Communion together, and I doubt it will keep the Church of England together either.
    Also, I think the anti-catholic feeling still runs too deep in England for such a union to happen anytime soon.

  4. Seems highly improbable to me. To give just one example, I don’t think Anglicans in the Global South have any interest in warming relations with Rome. They’re ardent competitors in the mission field.
    In making his case for centralization/Covenant Rowan has been trotting out this argument (that organization of the Anglican Communion hampers ecumenical talks) for some time. It strikes me that he simply thinks it sounds like a clever argument that he can add to his debating points. I don’t see it as a great selling point for any province that’s not sold on the Covenant. Are any provinces sold on the ABC’s view of the Covenant — that signing provinces are ceding power to the center?

  5. @azgospel – there’s certainly anti-Roman sentiment in England, but not enough to keep a catholic Prime Minister from being elected. I can’t imagine why Rowan would have taken the position he took on woman bishops at the last synod if he weren’t trying not to upset the roman applecart. I mean, gosh, he was a founder of Affirming Catholicism wasn’t he?
    John – there’s been conversation with GAFCON and Rome from what I’ve heard. I don’t think Sydney would be interested, but I promise you that Bob Duncan would go after this with every bit of strength in him. Unity at Rome is a huge deal for an Episcopal Bishop who’s office sported a large autographed picture of the Pope the last time I was in it.

  6. John Bassett says

    Honestly, what part of “absolutely null and utterly void” don’t these people understand? The RCC has been quite consistent on this point at official levels. When the new cardinal addressed the General Synod, he quite clearly referred to the Anglicans as an “ecclesial community”. Yet English church leaders keep being convinced that somehow the Roman Church is just about to change its mind and welcome us back as equals with open arms, despite every evidence to the contrary. To me, it seems like they have utterly lost track of reality.

  7. Women clergy, let alone bishops, are a complete nonstarter for Rome. It’s an interesting theory, but the COE has already gone a bridge to far for this to even have a chance of being feasible and ++Rowan knows it.

  8. Keith says

    I have a basic question to the whole idea of ordination of partnered gay or lesbian bishops (and perhaps clergy). If they are Gay or Lesbian and single, would the moratorium be in place? In many orthodox religions (e.g. Greek) you can only be married before you are ordained… if you are married, you cannot (as I understand the rules) be elected bishop.
    I also go back to ++Rowan’s words that it is a lifestyle choice. I wish we would all just admit that we are not about equality as a church corporate (or as a country for that matter) and acknowledge that some are more equal than others. As a “Partnered Gay Man” (but otherwise privileged as being in a committed and loving monogamous relationship is a bad thing). I think that it is a shame that we are wasting time on this issue and not focusing on the rest of the biblical truths that we all hold dear. Leaving marriage out of the discussion has already happened for the straight world as we accepted divorce and multiple wives (being culturally sensitive to part of our brothers and sisters) long ago.

  9. Keith – take a look at the article by Dean Sam Candler that I just pointed to in the article above this one. I think you’ll find that Sam’s reading of more into the choice of “choice” to be illuminating.

  10. I suspect your analysis could be correct. Tho’ I do agree with Derek that women Bishops and Priests would not be acceptable to Rome. (I came from Rome and do not want to go back, thank you very much). I’m just not sure. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It certainly will not go down well with many in the CofE who are part of open and welcoming parishes and dioceses. And, from what I can see, it’s not going down well with the conservatives either. My instinct is to say that it has more to do with showing that the Anglican Communion is becoming a hierarchical Church rather than the beautiful Communion that so attracted me. Or, perhaps, it is just an expression of pique at TEC for not conforming to his suggestions . . .
    But, if it means we will be second tier. That is fine with me if we can just get on with it.

  11. WmPaul says

    I disagree, respectfully, with this completely and think that Williams was writing so to speak on the merits of the fundamental issues of the case, so to speak.
    Rowan Williams is a considerable, formidable theologian, but one who allows himself to be tested, or interrogated, by the wider communion. (In a way that TEC has not BTW. We have slowed down, but I have heard only one bishop say publically that maybe we made a mistake in 2003. You’d think others would at least consider, if only momentarily, that as a possibility.)
    Anyhow, in this case I think he is simply admitted that there is no ecumenical consensus or, better, no ecumenical encouragment. He admitted that his work ‘The Body’s Grace’ was justly criticized and, it seems, he has pulled back from it (if that is he ever meant it as more than suggestive. . .which is part of his intellectual manner as a theologian, that is, to test and prod and see what weaknesses can be exposed in other positions and practices rather than to declaim). What the above post seems to think is that ‘Gee, Williams couldn’t really support the basic idea of Lambeth 1.10 or the conservative/traditional view, so there must be this real concern for reunion with Rome that is the real engine, or maybe–let’s write it off as an emotional response devoid of theological heft– he is just piqued.
    Well, that how I see it. And while there is concern for Rome, and the image of a truly united Christianity in England is attractive, it is–when the Anglican Church is cracking up–just to fanciful to think that this is what is really operative.
    And, as for the comment that Williams shows just how hierarchical things are becoming, one can only raise an eyebrow and say ‘You mean in the same way sort of that the PB in the US has centralized and drawn to herself new and sometimes unchecked powers?’ That kind of thing happens in history and church history when ‘the centre cannot hold.’

  12. Fr Mark says

    It’s plausible that Rowan might see reunion with Rome in the light that you describe. However, the RC Church is dramatically falling apart right across Europe at the moment, Britain and Ireland not excepted – one of the RC diocesan bishops in England recently told his clergy to prepare for their diocese to be extinct in 10 years’ time – and morale amongst RC clergy in most European countries is at rock-bottom level. (Of course, it may be that the only RCs Rowan & co mix with are the hierarchy, who would present a different picture.) But any intelligent probing into the RC Church in Europe quickly reveals an organisation in a terrible mess, largely because of its overly top-down monarchical absolutist form of government.
    On the other hand, the acceptance of the principle of partnership equality for gay people is spreading very rapidly throughout the EU at present, not least in Britain (and now in Ireland, where civil partnership legislation is just coming before parliament). The UK population, according the recent survey in the Times, is 61% percent in favour of changing the existing civil partnership legislation to same-sex marriage; this year alone, Norway and Sweden have joined the list of EU countries offering same-sex marriage, and a whole slew of other EU countries are set to follow suit shortly. In such a context, the position that Rowan Williams has articulated in his article just reads like a suicide note for the Church of England. It’s merely a measure of how out of touch C of E bishops have become with what everyone else can see to be true and good. They are sounding more and more like Communist Party officials in Eastern Europe in about 1987: none of them is going to be the first to break with the failed rhetoric.

  13. It is worth noting that there was enough anti-Roman sentiment around to keep Tony Blair from converting to Catholicism until after he had quit as Prime Minister.
    I don’t buy the idea that the Queen would look to reunite believers in one church. Prince Charles, maybe, but not the Queen.

  14. Kevin, if not Her Majesty, though I can’t imagine she’d be opposed, what about a strong sense of direction from the Tony Blair? That would make as much sense to me.
    This is all an attempt by me, by the way, to see if some sort of logical comprehensible whole cloth can be seen in the Archbishop’s actions. Otherwise, I’m left wondering why such a smart man is acting so erratically.

  15. Nick,
    I’m left wondering why he’s acting so erratically. Although I too was interested in his mention of ecumenical work, I have to think the issue of ordained women is a no-go on this. While it would be technically possible for Gene Robinson to function as a Roman priest (due to the rejection of Donatism), it would be utterly impossible for Katherine Jefferts Schori to do so. The Romans consider this a doctrinal issue, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox, which see it as an issue of tradition.
    I cannot believe Benedict could fathom any real moves towards unity that did not require the CofE to reject the ordination of women, which is proceeding in England despite obvious bumps.

  16. WmPaul says

    “This is all an attempt by me, by the way, to see if some sort of logical comprehensible whole cloth can be seen in the Archbishop’s actions. Otherwise, I’m left wondering why such a smart man is acting so erratically.”
    There you have it: Erratic. You prove my point. You just can’t see how an intelligent man–this intelligent man– might rethink, reposition, or regroup himself as he has. That’s why this comes across to me as grasping at straws.

  17. WmPaul – as a person of limited intelligence who has regularly changed his mind and rethought previously held positions, I have no problem with imagining that Rowan Williams has changed what he believed.
    But I see no trail of that change to show me how he did that. What I hear is that he is taking positions that he may personally disagree with on account of the office he holds. But given that one must balance the needs of the office against ones own beliefs, there was no need to include the language about partnered gay and lesbian priests and deacons being unacceptable in his essay – at least politically speaking when writing to the Episcopal Church.
    So why did he do it? Has he changed his mind, as you suggest? Perhaps. But this is the first evidence to my recollection of this stronger position. Or is he writing for another audience? (Which is what I suspect.) And if he is, who is that other audience, and what is he signaling?
    Which is the point of my speculation above.

  18. WmPaul says

    First, Williams is on record (1) as saying that the teaching of the communion in Lambeth 1.10 was/is in fact the teaching and has more weight than we give it, (2)as admitting weaknesses is his suggestive essay ‘The Body’s Grace,’ (3) as explaining why VGR was not invited to Lambeth on the grounds that ‘a bishop has to be a bishop for the whole church’ (an appeal to the same grounding reason that operates in this communique) and (4) as saying, more than once, in one way or another that the project of same-sex partnerships are not authorized by our communion. In fact, I would say that he has been pretty consistent on these things since becoming ABC; and that the real wiggle room he has given us had been in terms or time and procedure (and some room for questions about communion v federation, which he squashes here).
    Second, I just think it is almost funny–and I don’t mean this disrespectfully or snidely–to think that Williams was speaking to some other audience! Looking to explain away this response by Williams, as if he was not speaking on the merits and to the issues that face us, speaks to me of an unwillingness to look and listen to the merits of his argument/description themselves.
    As for the claim “there was no need to include the language about partnered gay and lesbian priests and deacons being unacceptable” in his essay, I will only say that (1) he was referring to their ability to be fully authorized by the church and to represent it when there is obviously no legitimating consensus and(2) it is in keeping with the reason he gave for not inviting VGR to Lambeth.
    Signalling? Yes, you bet, but not to some other communion but to us, to us, even if other communions look on.

  19. Christopher says

    Irrespective of his audience, the rhetoric denigrates my relationship with a quick moral sleight of hand that fails to recognize the intent and verbalized commitment of my relationship that is not the same thing as a cohabitating heterosexual couple. The use of “choice” without acknowledging the depth around a doctrine of creation that might make that choice moral lends itself to the fundiest of Anglicans. The rhetoric needs to be rebuked.

  20. Fr. N. – I seem to recall that Rowan Williams has written a number of times on the differences in roles between that of a priest, bishop, and archbishop – and even more on the requirement to be a voice for the whole church in this much larger role. So, it seems to me that the behavior might not be erratic when thought of in that context – he’s simply speaking as a different person than he was earlier. Even the idea that his language has gotten stronger – i.e. alluding to the prohibition of the ordination of gays and lesbians to any order – seems to be simply a statement that bolsters the argument he’s making on behalf of the whole church. He may not have needed to reference this so directly in his pastoral reflections to the whole church on previous occasions. But the argument he makes here I find compelling; even though my gut doesn’t agree with it in the slightest, I feel like I need to listen to it and take it very seriously.
    Are we gays and lesbians going to be excluded for what arguably could be a higher purpose? I’m not sure it’s helpful to use that kind of language, because I’m not sure we have been completely included yet – so it seems like we can’t really be excluded if we haven’t been included formally.
    There’s a part of me that thinks that if the Anglicans and the Romans could come together as one communion that it might somehow be worth it in the long run – even if we’re not able to take part in some sacramental parts of our life together. That seems to me to be part of the price of being a universal church rather than a local one.
    Ouch, though. I don’t like it. Ouch.

  21. The idea that Tony Blair might be a voice for a renewed push for Anglican-Catholic unity is more plausible to me than the Queen. However, his influence is very much diminished. He knows as well as members of the Royal Family that the British Monarchy is by definition an anti-Catholic institution.
    I still find it hard to believe that the Rowan W could not take seriously the noisy (and now powerful) voices of those in the Church of England for whom catholicism of any kind is anathema.
    One thing which is getting overlooked in the comment about those who cannot represent the church ecumenically is that it includes ordained women.
    Remember that no priest who has been ordained by a bishop who happens to be a woman can work in England at the moment. Though I’m reluctant to speak of “impaired” communion because I don’t understand what fractions of communion are, the Church of England is not in full communion with those churches which have bishops who are women. This is also putting strains on long-standing ecumenical links with Swedish lutherans. (To their absolute bewilderment, I think).

Comments are closed.