The silence of the shepherds

By Adrian Worsfold

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on 19 November at the Gregorian Pontifical University offered, even promoted as ‘good’, a condition of impaired communion as experienced within Anglicanism as a model for Roman Catholic and Anglican relationships. Presumably this was a definition of the Anglican brand, and a rather optimistic one wrapped up in dense theological speak and question after question.

One reason I responded to this only humorously (on my blog) was because this is easy speech. It is easy to construct arguments like this, even if it takes Rowan Williams’s own mind to deliver it in the strained manner that he does. It is also easy to talk about the awful violence in the Congo. What is not easy, and where the silence has been deafening, has been to find anything said about Uganda and its proposed laws singling out one group of people for harsh and repressive treatment. We also have an Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a Ugandan himself, who doesn’t mind a bit of publicity now and again, in jumping out of aeroplanes and refusing to wear his white collar until Robert Mugabe leaves office – but when it comes to Uganda and gay people, and that Anglican Church’s intense homophobia, he suddenly has his mouth all zipped up. So it is easy to talk shop, easy to talk about general situations, and yet when it comes to the minority sheep in the flock in your own back pen, silence is the order of the day. More puzzling, given that Canada has at least said something about this, is the silence of The Episcopal Church and its Presiding Bishop. What on earth is going on?

To me this is a gigantic ethical failing. I knew already that the whole Covenant business was to build an international institution on the backs of excluding a minority. It will give recognition to processes at the level of international institutions for the first time; these processes will give worldwide Anglicanism a conserving central identity. I maintain the Covenant needs defeating to preserve a diverse and culturally responsive Anglicanism, and clearly the Pontifical speech was about an identifiable Covenanted Anglicanism that deals in processing disagreements – to and from the centre.

My own personal theology is further and further away from the sort of theological clutter lying at the heart of what Rowan Williams presented in Rome. I take the view, almost conclusively now, that this is utter human construction, pure institutionalism, human made and human preserved. Theologically I have become stripped out of even relating to this material because in part it is increasingly morally objectionable, and indeed allows morally objectionable behaviour such as attitudes to consenting minorities. Somehow the heart is dying inside Christianity so that it becomes a pointless hulk, where some of its core messages are tossed aside in order to promote one institutional fantasy or another.

There is another potential explanation to Rowan Williams’s dealings, and it is almost Kamikaze. That, in making his ‘half full’ speech about Anglican incoherence, he knew perfectly well that it would be dismissed in Rome, and it was a kind of raspberry from an incoherent Anglicanism, just as this Covenant business is a non-starter because the Church of England cannot legally adopt a Covenant that even sniffs of control from without. The Church of England would have to only voluntarily abide by something without, which is worthless and constantly open to challenge. So, in the end, the argument goes, despite deliberate appearances to the contrary, there is no end in sight. There is no intended Covenant to process anything, but just an exercise in keeping people on board to a point of exhaustion – it is towards nothing at all.

In the same way, not all appears to be as it seems regarding Rome’s latest finger into the Anglican pie. Whilst there might be initial annoyance, the Pope has put a spring into the Anglican step. He has annoyed mostly his own bishops and clergy. The Romanish Anglicans now have their galleon to sail away on, and the some of the most awkward of the Anglican awkward squad will be gone or utterly weakened, allowing for clearer decisions on women in ministry in the Church of England. Plus the Pope could well weaken GAFCON/ FCA significantly given its unprincipled alliance of extreme Protestants and extreme Catholics, as the latter shave off. So this also weakens the extreme Protestants, for whom the Catholics were more ballast along with the Africans. The extreme Protestants want to be both in and out, but in the end will face frustration in this never ending long game that goes nowhere. If they want their idea of renewal, they’ll have to become independent. Bye bye to them too.

Do we believe it? Is it as devious as this? It could be that behind all the convoluted intellectualism is a kind of laughter of institutional politics that is the real game, and that the visible game is not the game being played.

I hear this explanation, but I don’t believe it. It might be what happens, but it isn’t the intention. I really do think Williams wants the Covenant, to impose it; it’s just that he won’t get it because the mother Church cannot have it legally. I really do think that a minority is being sacrificed for this end. There is no ethical basis to any of this.

More than this, there is no ethical basis up front or devious. If devious, it is too risky for people’s lives for them to be included eventually. If not devious, there is the burning smell of sacrifice – not self sacrifice via service, but the sacrifice of others for convenience and for the worst of bureaucratic religious motives.

It is hugely disturbing and wrong. The silence is deafening and these institutional leaders will pay for this error in lost credibility. They are out of touch and colluding in cruelty.

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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