The failed ecclesiology of Rowan Williams

By Adrian Worsfold

Let’s do a round up of recent worldwide Anglican history to the present.

We have an Archbishop of Canterbury who brought his High Church identity into his job, along with his form of narrative theology, and was thought to have skills relating himself to contemporary society and social movements.

He headed a Church of England in the middle of an identity crisis, as one school, the Evangelicals, thought they were on a takeover trip, where the Liberals’ ability to handle the middle and keep relatively quiet was coming undone, much because the Catholic traditionalists were defeated on female ordination and looked to be finished regarding female bishops. No longer a triangle, it was Evangelicals versus the Liberals.

The Archbishop then started on his quest to answer a question from Rome always put, that is, ‘What is Anglicanism?’ Williams’s answer was to use the crisis now around the Evangelical’s issue of homosexuality, which gave them some third world ballast and international power-leverage, to build a worldwide Anglican identity more like a Church than a Communion. Whilst he and successors could not be a pope, he could have Instruments of Communion.

He decided that actual Anglican Churches were “local” Churches. A “local” Anglican Church would recognise another “local” Church by its slavishness to a more or less fundamentalist use of the Bible, especially when it came to ecclesiastical ethics, like homosexuality. This Reformed or Protestant recognition would then have, in its difficulties and disputes, a Catholic solution, in terms of bishops in dioceses running up to him, bypassing the “local” Churches except as it related to the Instruments: him, bishops all gathered together, prelates gathered together, and the only representative body in any sense, the Anglican Consultative Council. Presently, let’s be clear, there is no international seat of authority, other than friendliness and getting togetherness, but under a Covenant there would be a description of a process of dispute resolution that involved describing these instruments of international authority. Thus Anglicanism would be a Reformed or Protestant believer’s fellowship in that strained biblical way, but then its authority would be vertical going up the Catholic pole.

Forcing the Covenant through, and that almost has meant through hell and high water, he could then take his Covenant result to his mate Benedict, and answer the Roman question ‘What is Anglicanism?’

However, while the Archbishop used homosexuality this way, and did so to the shocking extent of being able to mouth that no one who is homosexual could represent Anglicanism in any ministry, the Pope, his friend, was looking at women and bishops and saying that no one who is female can be a bishop and taking a view that the Church of England is the central Anglican Church.

The Church of England General Synod made it clear that women will become bishops. It is when, not if. It decided that diocesan bishops, men and women, could decide provision for those who were awkward about accepting women sacramentally. A committee then decided that this would be done by statute instead, bypassing the diocesan, but certainly not by having new non-geographical dioceses. But everyone knows that the Synod, barring amazing elections of the reactionaries, would overturn the committee and reinstall the diocesan principle. We know by the previous General Synod, which decided on, at best, a diocesan code of practice, that the Archbishop of Canterbury bellyached about the traditionalists, despite the fact that they were digging their own grave, or building their own ark to go across the Tiber or perhaps the Bosphorous or some other world cruise.

But now Benny has pulled the rug from under him and stuck the knife in. Before Rowan Williams can go to Rome with a Covenant on a silver tray, before some ‘solution’ can be made regarding women bishops, Benny has done what he wants. He could have waited three or five years, which is nothing in Roman Catholic timing, though plenty for his stage in life.

What a humiliation for Rowan Williams to have to sit next to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and make sweet ecumenical noises. What a climb down that Williams has (again in Curia style, as it must ‘fall to him’) to write to “the Bishops of the Church of England, and the members of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion” that this is:

…in no sense at all intended to undermine existing relations between our two communions or to be an act of proselytism or aggression’.

The humiliation is evident in the statement also there to say:

I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage.

That’s because, while he regards the Pope as the boss, and has welcomed the Pope’s visit to these shores next year in the usual grovelling terms (the “joy” of “all” Anglicans), the Pope obviously regards him as insignificant – not worthy of advance notice of an action that basically and potentially takes traditionalist Catholic priests en masse out of his Church and short circuits the female bishops decision making and the whole matter of the Covenant and Anglican identity.

Williams has shown himself to be run around by every group except the one with whom he was mistakenly identified; by his actions he has separated out ecclesiastical rights from human rights, and has become complicit in the actions of African prelates and civil authorities against gay people; he has turned Church life into a form of isolated ecclesiastical bureaucracy; he has made a joke of critical theology and Biblical study when it comes to Church authority, and now for all this overturning of Anglican sensibilities for the greater goal he has been humiliated by Rome.

Everything he has stood for and acted upon, everything he has done, has now been overturned. The Roman Church simply no longer recognises any Anglican authority now: For Rome, the identity of Anglicanism has been reduced: now just a ‘tradition’ and hardly even, any more, an ‘ecclesiastical community’. Williams’s Catholic fantasy has been underlined by the sheer power brokering of Rome.

Well, for the Church of England, the way is clear for women as bishops as well as men. The only thing that will continue resistance by traditionalist Catholic clergy is the loss of their monthly payment in the bank. They’ll have to have the courage of their convictions regarding empty pockets, when they swim off or take the boat trip, but they have the systematic getaway option now. Any ‘getting paid’ reasoning for resistance won’t go very far. Secondly, the whole wider purpose of the Covenant is dead: already wilting, the Pope has given it a good kicking as, essentially, a waste of time (which it is).

Incidentally, the Anglican Church of North America won’t stay in one piece: the two extremes of Protestant and Catholic had no middle ground to smooth the way, and now the Catholic end has its true goal in sight of running off to Rome. Wrecking the ‘orthodox’ Anglican breakaway suits Rome: it suits Rome to have, in its eyes, all of Anglicanism either Protestant and/or unacceptable – not even an ecclesiastical community.

There are some extreme evangelicals for whom the Covenant has been just a tactic to get one over The Episcopal Church. They’ve never been committed to it. The only ones that have been positive have been a small bunch of verbose essayists with their foghorn ‘leader’ in the present Bishop of Durham. They are all undermined as well. They saw the Covenant as a way of maintaining a worldwide fellowship and an additional structural unity, but the structural unity is bust and the rest is dispersed without it.

There is one good thing about what the Pope has done, in short-circuiting all the agony of Anglicanism. He will bring this Covenant nonsense to a quicker conclusion regarding its failure; he will get females as bishops in the Church of England cleaner and should be quicker; he will make it more obvious that Anglican ecumenism lies with the Old Catholics and the Lutherans and with Protestant denominations; and he might just persuade Rowan Williams to end his disastrous period in Anglican office by resignation sooner than would have been the case when his imposition of his pet project fell to pieces.

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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