“Rowan Williams’s game is up”

By Adrian Worsfold

The reality of meeting only once every three years has its own effects for a governing body. For those matters that are pressing, and really cannot wait another three years, taking action might be seen as hurrying things up. For other matters that can wait, waiting another three years might look like being slow – even deliberately slow.

The pastoral realities after three years of an observed ‘nearly moratorium’ have built up, as has the frustration of observations of the other actors of the so-called moratorium ignoring their side of the deal. Not only did the border crossings go on and on, but they turned into a competitor Church that seeks the approval of the Anglican Communion. So the once every three years moment arrives and it is time to act and not just to let things drift by waiting three more years.

So it was time to move on – just a little. The resolutions D025 and C056 have been passed, that mean the resistance and disagreement about the place of people in stable gay relationships being accepted into any level of ministry has been decentralised. Assuming the process of discernment goes on, the Church itself will not resist such appointments. It would take another convention for a clearer policy of non-discrimination down in the various sections of The Episcopal Church. Even more reserved is the decision to gather liturgical resources for same sex blessings, and that any of these must be about pastoral sensitivity in the meantime. Whether prayers are offered for such couples or not, there is no approved liturgy of the Church for at least three more years.

On the other hand, frankly, the proposed Anglican Covenant can wait. It is not ready yet, and was subject to shennanigans at the recent ACC meeting in Jamaica, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puzzled everyone by seemingly facing this way and then that way, ending the whole session with a Presidential Address that likened the Anglican Communion to the Arab-Israeli dispute, and verging on the hopeless.

Well, hopeless for him maybe. Because surely his policy of centralisation has now come to an end. His policy was this: in the face of difference between Anglican Churches he wanted to try to unite them more centrally by finding ways and means to bang in rivets between the Churches and the centre (rather than just between the Churches) to the point where he combined ‘a common reading and understanding of Scripture’ between the Churches, as the condition of mutual recognisability, with a Romanesque view of bishops and him as a worldwide Church that allowed him to praise and incorporate some loyal Communion (and therefore disloyal elsewhere) bishops in TEC as a ‘not monochrome’ body. This was in his low point of the Advent Letter 2007 that managed to combine biblical near-fundamentalism with Catholic authoritarianism all in one go and gave justification to all kinds of malcontents to go on with their complaints and actions, as he himself was effectively picking off only some bishops in TEC.

The man who was once in a public minority in the hothouse atmosphere of Lambeth 1998 was now writing:

that the 1998 Resolution [1:10] is the only point of reference clearly agreed by the overwhelming majority of the Communion. This is the point where our common reading of Scripture stands.

Of course, as Archbishop himself, his Lambeth Conference would have no such resolutions: he would not be captive to any rush to a collective view by the bishops with whom he was communing. One has to marvel at his management of the Lambeth Conference in 2008, that the (suggested from within TEC) half-indabas (the process with the resolution making chopped off) produced all sorts of opinion and togetherness, whilst committees and groups out of reach around it continued the main direction of the Communion under him.

But the policy of keep listening and keep talking and push things along has now failed.

He reminds me still of Mikhail Gorbachev. Let’s recall the condition of the Soviet Union at the time Gorbachev came to power. After a succession of duff General Secretaries Gorbachev took power and established himself as a reformer. Moves were made for more representation and criticism as a means of change, and he understood the realities of what could be afforded by a bust economy. But, as was always argued by conservative opinion there, if you started to reform, the ship itself would start to break up. Nationalisms would arise, and indeed they did, and when Gorbachev approached the nationality question the powers that be and the interests within all these structures were scared that the whole lot would crumble.

Gorbachev ran out of allies, except at the frustrated liberal margins – and if he went with them the demands would be overwhelmingly market based and democratic and the vast powers and bureaucratic interests still existing would overrun him. So what did he do? Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, he made a shift to the right. He was ducking and weaving but eventually threw his lot in with those who opposed change.

Yet there was still potential policy direction towards limited reform, particularly regarding the constitution and the nations, and the old right wing he publically rejoined effectively dumped him. The right locked him up, and then took control. There would be no change at all. However, this bunch of old men had nowhere to go in State already loosening its chains. The liberals then proved more nifty and pushed through, and the coup crumbled. But when Gorbachev came back, a free man, and according to law, he was finished, because his job was simply ended by the nationalities, and the Soviet Union came to an end. Not just Eastern European satellites had jumped free, but so did some nationalities of Russia, those that since Russia would have tried to claim as within itself. They are now safely in the European Union (despite ongoing interference) while Russia still lurches regarding its longer term political future.

Now there is no doubt that the Advent Letter of 2007 was written by Rowan Williams to appeal to the right wing of the Anglican Communion: it was to get as many to the Lambeth Conference as possible. It did not work, and neither did it stop the border crossings. In signing up to the right, in a way he could not as a theologian (knowing full well a critical approach to the Bible), he tried to pull in the hard right. But they effectively said thanks and dumped him. The Jerusalem Declaration produced by a few ideologues and presented to GAFCON effectively (for them) leaves the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury hanging in the air: that in their skewered view of orthodoxy he only matters if he agrees with them. Of course, in his weakness, he has declared how he agrees with the declaration though not in setting up a different place of authority in the Primates Council – the new legitimising international oversight of Anglican bishops from beyond any dioceses until some alternative Church is set up. Not only that, but his new non-friends have set up a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans for the United Kingdom and Ireland, ready to pronounce on which bishops are orthodox and which are not, and already active in their marginalising of Open Evangelicals as part of their taking direction of the policy of all Evangelicals. The man, then, who was at the founding of Affirming Catholicism is being dumped by those that include Catholic traditionalists in transition (and they are, including in ACNA too: we shall see this).

Well, The Episcopal Church has not quite done a standing on a tank outside the White House (the Russian version) because its actions have been far more careful than such drama. But the effect has become the same.

For the policy of centralisation is now finished. It is finished when it comes to the hard right, and it is finished when it comes to the more progressive and Western Churches. These have been the reason why the Covenant has been so slow, and why, in the end, the Archbishop looked to be in a spin in Jamaica and ended with such a pathetic Presidential Address.

He took this policy on himself. He crafted it and designed it, and actually pushed it far further than any Archbishop of Canterbury should have been able. What lies behind this policy is not his apparent liberalism, because in the end (and not unlike Gorbachev’s outlook) Rowan Williams was and is a Catholic: almost Orthodox in much spirituality and even Roman leaning in ecclesiology. Catholics can and do criticise the Bible, and Catholics can and do favour inclusion of peoples the Evangelicals exclude. Whereas, for some, Affirming Catholicism is just a front for a bunch of liberals who like to dress up and use smoke, Williams brought to Affirming Catholicism real Catholic gravitas. But as Archbishop he did several about turns, and ended up tying himself in knots.

So his intended legacy was, though all this crisis, to make Anglicanism more of a world Church, and indeed he wanted to say to the Pope in Rome, ‘This is the Church I represent.’ He wanted to say, ‘It has its differences, but now it has an overall consistency, as in this Covenant.’

But to do this he had to bring along the Evangelical hard right (whereas the Fulcrum/ Anglican Communion Institute type people are more like lapdogs, who’ll be along anyway) and this was his undoing.

In fact what was his undoing was that, when taken as a whole, the Anglican Communion contains Churches that are just too diverse in their cultural settings. They each – except for the Church of England – have their own internal consistency if minority variations, but taken as a whole they simply span too large a space. He thought he could pull them all in, and it is something of an achievement that he got so far. Indeed he was concerned that if he didn’t pull the Communion inwards, the Church of England might move outwards – and it very well might, if stuck inside establishment buildings, structures and national laws.

But he didn’t get far enough, because the hard right did their own thing as they always intended. Western Conservative Evangelicals, who represent a very small faction in their own cultural settings, lined up with Africans in particular as ballast. They all sidelined Rowan Williams and they have gone to town on their near Evangelical neighbours, ready to see the Anglo-Catholics wander off (to their own, to Rome, to Orthodoxy, to oblivion) and then to take on what they regard as all the liberals. The Archbishop of Canterbury has just been swept aside.

Well the Anglican Communion has not gone the way of the Soviet Union, and had Gorbachev also been President of Russia he’d still have had a job (but then no one would have stood on a tank). Rowan Williams is still Archbishop of Canterbury, and he still has a job, but his policy is finished and the direction of the Anglican Communion is bust. It is bust and he is sidelined because the hard right did him in, and then The Episcopal Church had had enough, and at this point in the three year cycle tentatively resumed the direction it had been going before it put the brakes on. And with this, Rowan Williams’s game is up. He might still listen, but another policy – if there needs to be a policy at all – would need another person.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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