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Austen IvereighAugust 09, 2008

An interesting follow-up to the previous post on the 8-years-old correspondence which came to light days ago which charted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evolving views on homosexuality.

Leading bishops in the Church of England have published a letter in the London Times defending Dr Williams and accusing the newspaper -- which ran the front-page story on 7 August under the headline "Gay sex as good as marriage" -- of misreporting the correspondence.

What the 19 bishops do not realise is that the letters arrived on the desks of the religious correspondents of The Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian two whole weeks ago. But because the reporters were at Canterbury following the conference, they did not see the brown envelopes until after they got back. Amazing but true: no-one opened their mail in their absence. Because journalists no longer receive scoops by post -- fax and email are the usual channel these days -- their staff do not bother to open their mail. 

So the irony is that the story might have broken during, not after, the Conference. Had it done so, it  would have caused much more damage than it did, by highlighting the gap between Dr Williams’s complex and nuanced views on homosexuality as a theologian and his concern as a bishop to uphold the agreed Anglican line on the question.

The bishops’ letter also reveals a typically unrealistic episcopal irritation at the media breaking the story at all. Yet the correspondents could hardly have ignored it.

That regrettable tetchiness aside, the bishops make a number of sensible points which offer, in a sense, the "official" interpretation of the Lambeth Conference by Church of England bishops loyal to the Archbishop of Canterbury. (The first signatory is the Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, who has acted almost as Dr Williams’s deputy in the Anglican crisis; the style of the letter is his.) They say:

1. The Times headline -- "Gay sex as good as marriage" -- misrepresented the contents of Dr Williams’s letters, which were far more circumspect and nuanced than the story implied.
2. There is a valid difference between ‘thinking aloud’ as a theologian and the task of a bishop to uphold the church’s teaching. They quote Dr Williams’s closing address at Lambeth, that the Church is right to have a basic "unwillingness to change what has been received in faith from scripture and tradition" and that "the practice and public language of the Church act always as a reminder that the onus of proof is on those who seek a new understanding". And they add: "Nor, despite regular accusations, is this prioritising of the bishop’s task mere pragmatism or the pursuit of a ‘quixotic goal’ of Anglican unity. It expresses what Jesus himself taught: the fundamental and deeply biblical teaching on the vital importance of church unity and of working for that unity by humility and mutual submission."

3. The Church must stand against social trends when these are incompatible with the Gospel. They reject the view of a Times columnist that the Church "must eventually reflect the society within which it works" as "a recipe for a blatant Erastianism, against which the Archbishop has resolutely set his face."

4. Inclusion -- which the bishops describe as "that regular mantra of gay lobbyists" – is not "a value in itself". Questions must be asked of those admitted to the Church. Conversion is the goal.

They end by again rejecting the accusation that the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks one thing about homosexuality but did another at the Lambeth Conference for the sake of unity -- an accusation, incidentally, which has been made by both liberals and conservatives.

"In his invitations to the Lambeth Conference, Dr Williams insisted that he saw the Windsor Report (2004) and the proposed Anglican Covenant as the tracks along which the Communion should move ... In his final Presidential address to the Conference, he articulated clearly and sharply where we now are as a Church: the reaffirmation of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life; the reaffirmation of the previous Lambeth resolution on sexual behavior; the moratoria on same-sex blessings, on consecration of any more practising homosexuals as bishops, and on the incursions by bishops into one another’s territories; the Anglican Covenant; and some key interim arrangements while that Covenant undergoes further drafting. He presented these, in the context of a powerful and clearly thought out address, as the fresh articulation of the mind of the Church, not as an opinion which he was bound to express but from which he privately wanted to dissent."

Point 3 above is interesting, because it attempts to rebut one of the central charges against Anglicanism -- that it bends and swerves in line with the culture in which it exists. The charge is a sensitive one: the creation of the Church of England by an act of state -- the Archbishop of Canterbury is not elected, like the Pope, but appointed by the prime minister on behalf of the Queen, who is the Supreme Governor of the Church -- has necessarily meant that Anglican history is one of accommodation with the state with only brief excursions into prophecy. (The same charge, of course, can be made of the Catholic Church in Spain and France in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the high noon of "Gallicanism" and "regalism".) The doctrine upholding the supremacy of the state in ecclesiastical causes is known as "Erastianism" -- a doctrine the bishops are here at pains to reject.

There is a an old jibe that the Church of England is the "Tory Party at prayer" -- Toryism being the creed of the Conservative Party. That jibe no longer held true under Margaret Thatcher, who accused Anglican bishops of "Marxism" after the Church in the 1980s issued a searing critique of her economic policies. Since then, Church of England bishops and vicars are more likely to be dismissed as "bearded lefties", whose natural affinity is with the New Labor Government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who are both leftish Christians.

The Government of Blair and Brown have been at pains to accommodate gay rights groups’ demands for civil partnerships, same-sex adoption and anti-discrimination legislation, forcing Catholic adoption agencies to close or secularise from January next year.

But maybe this Lambeth Conference allows the Church to put clear blue water between it and the Government -- this time on the issue of homosexuality, rather than economics.

As the bishops in their Times letter say: "It is ironic to hear those who would hate to see the Church being the Tory party at prayer insisting that it must now be New Labor at prayer."

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