Rowan's high-wire act

"If this is the end of the Anglican Communion, I don’t think anybody has told most of the people here,” was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent summary of the difference between the way the world views the Lambeth Conference and the way those taking part see it. He made the remarks at a press conference, extracts of which can be watched here.

But Dr Rowan Williams is not complacent. “We stand in the middle of one of the most severe challenges to have faced the Anglican family in its history,” he said on Sunday night.   To read the speech by a heroic church leader standing Canute-like against the waves of disintegration, download it in PDF here.

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Three key points:

1. Communio

Dr Williams sees the resolution of the Anglican crisis in  developing what in the Catholic Church we call communio.  He doesn’t use the word, but this is surely what he means by “transformed relationships”:

This does not mean simply warm feelings about each other, but new habits of respect, patience and understanding that are fleshed out in specific ways and changed habits – in responsible agreement and search for the common mind, in constant active involvement in the life of other parts of the family, and, as I suggested in the retreat, in shared commitments to a rule of life and a pattern of prayer, so that it remains possible to see in the other person another believer, another redeemed sinner, another person on the way to transformation in Christ. We need to get beyond the reciprocal impatience that shows itself in the ways in which both liberals and traditionalists are ready – almost eager at times, it appears – to assume that the other is not actually listening to Jesus .... If you have not had the chance to hear directly of the experience of gay and lesbian people in the Communion, the opportunity is there. If you do not grasp why many traditionalist believers in various provinces feel harassed and marginalised, go and listen.

2.       Covenant

Dr Williams believes the way through the crisis is by the bishops of the Anglican Communion agreeing a ‘covenant’ that would give the Church greater coherence  -- preventing another  crisis like that which followed the consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003, which went ahead despite pleas from the Anglican primates.

It’s my conviction that the option to which we are being led is one whose keywords are of council and covenant. It is the vision of an Anglicanism whose diversity is limited not by centralised control but by consent.

In other words, don’t expect Dr Williams to arrogate papal powers, or for the Anglican Church to develop a Magisterium. A covenant has to be agreed. That is no small feat, given the assessment by one leading Primate that "humanly speaking" an agreement between liberals and conservatives is impossible. The view of the developing-world bishops is that only the sacking of Gene Robinson will save the Church from schism.

3. Mission

The purpose of this Covenant is to enable the Anglican Church to beyond the unedifying and time-wasting disputes which are making it harder to live out its mission.

If our efforts at finding greater coherence for our Communion don’t result in more transforming love for the needy, in greater awareness and compassion for those whose humanity is abused or denied, then this coherence is a hollow, self-serving thing, a matter of living ’religiously’ rather than ’biblically’.

Dr Williams will shortly be sharing the content of this Covenant. On the crucial question of sexuality – crucial to future Anglican unity, I mean - there may be a clue to what it might contain in Dr Williams’s own views, as rather painfully expressed at the press conference to the blogger Jim Naughton.

"I do not believe that sex outside marriage is as God purposes it”, is how he puts it, which seems pretty clear -- except that he also said he viewed as immoral “any relationship which is outside of a public covenant of mutual support and love in the presence of God”, which appears to open the door to same-sex civil partnerships on the one hand, while shutting it with the other.

Asked specifically about same-sex marriage Dr Williams said that “as archbishop” he stood behind previous Lambeth Conference resolutions condemning it – suggesting that as a theologian and Christian, he takes a different view (which he does).  

If ever there were a man performing a high-wire act, it is the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Covenant will be a similar  masterpiece of nuance. Expect regular journalistic resort to the famous Anglican "F-word".  


Austen Ivereigh

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