Archbishop Rowan's painful journey

Just as Dr Rowan Williams heads off for some well-earned rest after saving the Anglican Communion, letters have come to light which chart his changing position on the gay question more than 20 years ago.

An evangelical Christian in Wales with whom he corresponded on the issue of homosexuality before his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury has leaked the correspondence.


The London Times story here is that the Archbishop of Canterbury believes a gay sexual relationship can be compared to marriage. But it’s worth reading both letters in full here, as well as the response.  The paper also carries a background piece here.

Revelation? No. What Dr Williams the theologian thinks of homosexuality was spelled out in a 1989 essay for the group he founded many years ago, Affirming Catholicism, in which he disagreed with the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Evangelical critics have long pointed to that essay, The Body’s Grace, in arguing that Dr Williams cannot with integrity uphold the Anglican Church’s agreed position at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Liberals, dismayed that he does so, say the same. But in a recent interview Dr Williams says, quite reasonably: “When I teach as a bishop I teach what the Church teaches. In controverted areas it is my responsibility to teach what the Church has said and why.”

But what makes the letters which have now come to light interesting -- they were written in 2001 to Deborah Pitt, a psychiatrist living in his former archdiocese in South Wales -- is that they very frankly and humbly chart his changing position on the question, from a traditionalist position to a very different one in the 1980s.

He describes how he was unsettled by the discovery that the Bible “does not address the matter of appropriate behaviour for those who are, for whatever reason, homosexual by instinct or nature” and how "by the end of the 80s I had definitely come to the conclusion that scripture was not dealing with the predicament of persons whom we should recognise as homosexual by nature.”

He tells Dr Pitt. "I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had the about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness."

He ends by noting how the Church “has shifted its stance on several matters” --  he cites usury and contraception: the Lambeth Conference opened the doors to the latter in 1930 and 1958 – and how he is “bound to ask if this is another such issue. If I am really seriously wrong on this, I can only pray to be shown the truth."

The letters are very revealing in the tension between what he has come to accept as a theologian and the reluctance he feels to press the issue. Two excerpts:

“When I said that I wasn’t campaigning for a new morality, I meant, among other things, that if the Church ever said that homosexual behaviour wasn’t automatically sinful, the same rules of faithfulness and commitment would have to apply as to heterosexual union. Whether that would be best expressed in something like a ceremony of commitment, I don’t know; I am wary of anything that looks like heterosexual marriage being licensed, because marriage has other dimensions to do with children and society. I doubt whether there will be a change in practice in the near future, at the very least.”

“I find myself personally in a difficult situation, between the pressures of a clear majority view in my Church, my own theological convictions on this matter (as someone who has no desire at all to overthrow the authority of scripture here, but wants to ask if it has been rightly read on this matter) and the complex needs of individuals for pastoral counsel and support. I don’t see myself as a campaigner for a new morality; but if I’m asked for my views, as a theologian rather than as a church leader, I have to be honest and admit that they are as I’ve said.”

Incidentally Dr Pitt – who is as gracious in correspondence as the then Archbishop of Wales – later left the Anglicans for an evangelical free church.

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10 years ago
I'd read The Body's Grace and thought, like many, that Rowan Williams would be more open to change on the issue of homosexuality. I don't understand why he valued unity (at the Lambeth Conference) above what he believed to be right.


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