Austen IvereighJuly 29, 2008

In his address to the Lambeth Conference in its final, crucial days, the Archbishop of Canterbury has outlined what he believes the world’s Anglican bishops need to do in order to find the unity which will carry them through their current crisis.

It is a blinder of a speech, and I detect two big theological influences on it. This is not just guesswork, because I know that both Chiara Lubich and René Girard have shaped the thinking of Dr Rowan Williams.

Ironically, neither are theologians – while both are Roman Catholics: one Italian, the other French-American. Chiara, the recently-mourned founder of the Focolare movement, was essentially a mystic; while Girard is best described as a “reader of texts”. Both are lodestars of our age, without either being a household name.

First, Chiara. Dr Williams’s appreciation for her was evident from his 2004 visit to Rome, when after meeting with members of the movement he told me excitedly of their capacity for forging unity. That capacity, as he brilliantly explained on 21 June at Westminster Cathedral at a memorial service for Chiara, is the result of her practice of kenosis, or self-emptying for the sake of the other; this self-evacuation in turn leads to the spiritual gift of empathy – identifying with the pain or need of the other. (Sadly, the speech is lost to history. He spoke from notes, and the Cathedral’s recording – when I finally got hold of it – was impenetrable.)

I thought at the time that this was a speech that should be handed to the bishops when they arrived for the Lambeth Conference, and was waiting for Dr Williams to re-hash some of it. Now he has. In his presidential address he calls for “mutual generosity -- part of what this means is finding out what the other person or group really means and really needs” and ends with the challenge: “Having heard the other person, the other group, as fully and fairly as I can, what generous initiative can I take to break through into a new and transformed relation of communion in Christ?”

Second, Girard. The author of The Scapegoat, Violence and the Sacred and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning among other masterpieces has been a huge influence on contemporary theology. I dare not to try summarising his thinking here, except to say that Girard’s massive contribution has been to show how human institutions in crisis tend to scapegoat – a process which defuses tension by demonising and seeking to expel the other. This essentially satanic process is at the root of primitive religion and human culture, and is unmasked by Jesus -- God, entirely innocent, expelled and killed by society -- on the Cross and in the Resurrection, which is recounted from the point of view of the innocent victim.

Dr Williams’s speech holds up a mirror to the unconscious scapegoating mechanism which currently afflicts the Anglican Church, and seeks to counter it by speaking on behalf of the scapegoated, articulating what each side “hopes has been heard” by the other.

First, the “conservative”:

Our love and our welcome are unreal if we don’t truthfully let others know what has shaped and directed our lives — so along with welcome, we must still challenge people to change their ways.  We don’t see why welcoming the gay or lesbian person with love must mean blessing what they do in the Church’s name or accepting them for ordination whatever their lifestyle.  We seek to love them — and, all right, we don’t always make a good job of it:  but we can’t just say that there is nothing to challenge.  Isn’t it like the dilemma of the early Church — welcoming soldiers, yet seeking to get them to lay down their arms? .... In this world of instant communication, our neighbours know what you do, and they see us as sharing the responsibility.  Imagine what that means where those neighbours are passionately traditional Christians — and what it means for our own members, who will be drawn to leave us for a “safer”, more orthodox church.  Imagine what it means when those neighbours are non-Christians, delighted to find a stick to beat us with.  Imagine what it is to be known as the ‘gay church’ in a context where that spells real contempt and danger.

Second, the “liberal”:

We know that no-one is the best judge in their own case, but we see in our church life at least some marks of the Spirit’s gifts.  And part of that is acknowledging the gifts we’ve seen in gay and lesbian believers.  They will certainly be likely to feel that the restraint you ask for is a betrayal.  Please try to see why this is such a dilemma for many of us.  You may not see it, but they’re still at risk in our society, still vulnerable to murderous violence ... A lot of the time, we feel we’re being made scapegoats.  Other provinces have acute moral and disciplinary problems, or else they more or less successfully refuse to admit the realities in their midst.  But those of us who have faced the complex issues around gay relationships in what we feel to be an open and prayerful way are stigmatised and demonised.”

Dr Williams then sums up the price which generous compromise would involve paying:

For the first speaker, the cost of generosity may be accusation of compromise:  you’ve been bought, you’ve been deceived by airy talk into tolerating unscriptural and unfaithful policies.  For the second speaker, the cost of generosity may be accusations of sacrificing the needs of an oppressed group for the sake of a false or delusional unity, giving up a precious Anglican principle for the sake of a dangerous centralisation. 

Dr Williams believes that “speaking from the centre in Christ” means being willing to put aside the fact that you believe the other to be “wrong”, and focus on why the other believes what he or she believes.

To the innovator, can we say, ‘Don’t isolate yourself; don’t create facts on the ground that make the invitation to debate ring a bit hollow’?  Can we say to the traditionalist, ‘Don’t invest everything in a church of pure and likeminded souls; try to understand the pastoral and human and theological issues that are urgent for those you are opposing, even if you think them deeply wrong’?

I think we perhaps can, if and only if we are captured by the vision of the true Centre, the heart of GOD out of which flows the impulse of an eternal generosity which creates and heals and promises.  It is this generosity which sustains our mission and service in Our Lord’s name.  And it is this we are called to show to each other.

And he ends with a Girardian flagging-up of the scapegoat mechanism, and a very Chiara-like invitation to kenosis:

At the moment, we seem often to be threatening death to each other, not offering life.  What some see as confused or reckless innovation in some provinces is felt as a body-blow to the integrity of mission and a matter of literal physical risk to Christians.  The reaction to this is in turn felt as an annihilating judgement on a whole local church, undermining its legitimacy and pouring scorn on its witness.  We need to speak life to each other; and that means change.  I’ve made no secret of what I think that change should be — a Covenant that recognizes the need to grow towards each other (and also recognizes that not all may choose that way).  I find it hard at present to see another way forward that would avoid further disintegration.  But whatever your views on this, at least ask the question:  ‘Having heard the other person, the other group, as fully and fairly as I can, what generous initiative can I take to break through into a new and transformed relation of communion in Christ?

  Austen Ivereigh


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13 years 2 months ago
What a loving and brilliant address by ABC. As a memer of the laity I think he and the rest of the Communion are only just getting to where we have already got! How come we tolerate bigamy in one country, and forbid it in another, yet remain in unity with one another, if the same unity cannot be spread around in this particular instance of ''difference''? We need to allow for our own humanity and brokenness, and let God be the defining word on these issues that threaten to separate us from God. We are called to ''be Christ within us''.....for that to be true, we must start from some humility and not assume that we in our human state know all the answers, but let Christ within speak...our hearts and words must not assume arrogant knowledge of what only God can know.
13 years 2 months ago
It may, or may not, be brilliant. It has the disadvantage of giving no indication whatsoever of WHAT you should DO, except be loving to the full, when you genuinely disagree. The loving to the full is true, and blindingly obvious. The problem, what to DO, is unaddressed. It is a recipe for endless 'therapy', with everone ending up less sane than they were at the beginning. Sad.

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