Williams critiqued

by Adrian Worsfold

It was no secret that Rowan Williams was going to resign as Archbishop of Canterbury sometime soon, although first he lined up a job as Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge. One wonders what he will write, freed of the responsibility of what he called ‘the job’ and whether he will reverse again the once reversal of viewpoint expressed on a number of matters of Anglican belief.

I wanted him to resign. I departed the Church of England during his time; however pleasant and welcoming the parish Church, for me the Church of England and Anglicanism was becoming something rotten at the top, its identity distasteful, and he was at the helm. I moved over to the Unitarians and when I moved I gave my sole attendance to them.

In the usual balance between Anglo-Catholic or evangelical, he was regarded on appointment and controversially as being a liberal, but he soon showed this was not going to be the case. In any case, his view has been that The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) was the end point of the liberal theological approach in the preservation of Christianity as a scheme. His liberal attitudes were mainly in the social sphere, as his theology was a postmodern conservation of Christian doctrines, of a detailed narrative to live by, and not too far from (but his own version of) Radical Orthodoxy. Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer are background philosophers. Set alongside this, his ecclesiology was always Catholic. This was Eastern Catholic in many respects, but also Roman in outlook. As an Archbishop he identified with bishops but not primarily with their Churches and thus a had a pyramidal outlook. He combined the worst of Weberian buraucracy with sacred traditionalism.

The job created opportunities or traps for simple duplicity. He was a guest of Simon Mayo on BBC radio in 2007, and was asked whether the birth narratives of Jesus were historical. He said yes. He would surely know that the birth narratives cannot pass any test of history. It wasn’t that long previously that he had not regarded the virgin birth as important, but he had come to see that it was important. He didn’t know, of course, that it had happened, it just became more important.

I recall too his encounter in an African airport with a believer. Now normally Rowan Williams is very personable with ordinary folk, but one adventurous chap asked him what he really thought about the gay issue (and potentially more), and Rowan Williams would not be drawn. He said, “I am an Archbishop and this is what I teach.” At that point I wondered why a robot wasn’t provided to be an Archbishop. After all, if the answers could be printed out in advance, that’s all that is necessary.

But whilst any liberalism was dropped, so not to impose his supposed private view, he did impose his personal ecclesiology on the excuse that this was corporate. The purple in his eyes blinded him to the fact that bishops came from different Anglican Churches. He thought they were all one, and thus were of one Church, or, if they weren’t, then they ought to be. This was always the agenda behind the Anglican Communion Covenant. Although there was the presenting issue causing so much disturbance, Rowan Williams used the disturbance as an opportunity to build a more coherent Catholic Anglican Church. Not only that, but in the depressing Advent Letter of 2007 he combined his Catholicism with a ‘one way to read’ the Bible argument that locked in a new authoritarianism. A Covenant based on that Advent Letter would most definitely divide off those who innovated ministry and changed how to read the Bible. Yet he had himself read the Bible differently, simply by the output of his own work. Also he was clear that only those bishops in support of the Windsor/ Covenant process could attend Lambeth 2008.

I wrote to my bishop (of Lincoln) at the time and, given his chairing of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, being opposed to the Windsor process resulting in a Covenant, I asked him why he was attending the Lambeth Conference. He replied that Rowan Williams was trying to maximise attendance. What? Did this mean that the Advent Letter 2007 was a sophisticated piece of hoodwinking? Why was there so much apparent dishonesty around? The bishop became one of the main patrons of the No Anglican Communion Covenant Coalition. He voted yes for the dioceses to discuss it, and now many of them are discussing it and voting it down towards its death-bed.

The Advent Letter of 2007 reminded me of a Mikhail Gorbachev who, faced with increasing political chaos, swung himself to the right. The thanks he got was a coup, and similarly Rowan Williams received no thanks from his hard right wing evangelicals. The traditionalist Anglo-Catholics were in a process of being sidelined anyway by the consideration of female bishops. What the hard right did was organise themselves in a religious trotskyite fashion, that is to say set up their own international Primates’ Council, a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and, as well as a separate Church for North America, started creating parallel structures of their own control for the Church of England. When the Jerusalem Statement was produced, Rowan Williams presented a statement emphasising how much he agreed with it.

Let’s be clear. He was not simply reacting to events. He was an effective policy maker and the organiser to the purpose. He ran Lambeth 2008 and it did what he wanted. What he wanted was no hostages to fortune from anyone else. By creating indabas that never made decisions, he produced a Lambeth 2008 that gave him the continued ability to manage in his way towards his Covenant. In Jamaica in 2010 he was able to confuse and rule, where he put Section 4 out to revision but the result (with relational consequences and a two speed Communion) was fixed and could not be altered. He operated the Covenant in advance in who could and could not sit on Communion representing institutions.

If Lambeth 2008 represented a high spot of his ability to organise and run events, then the Colin Slee memo emerging in 2011 from 2010 was a low point, where Rowan Williams and John Sentamu acted in concert to manipulate committee work and provide propaganda regarding a second undermining of Jeffrey John. In terms of the proposed Covenant, one sided publicity was provided to stress its compulsive importance. As the dioceses started to vote it down, a rather pathetic video was produced in March 2012 in which the presenting Rowan Williams was different from the angry person being hidden, except by his body language. It was the Colin Slee memo that brought the angry man to the attention of the world. I thought he should have resigned then.

If Rowan Williams had been an American President, books would be written now about how he had taken the ‘power to persuade’ to new levels. He has been the most papal of archbishops because he could create policy and organise its delivery – but to a point, as in the end even for him it mainly unravelled. In fact, a suspicion has been that much of his action has been ecumenically one-sided, towards the actual Pope in Rome, where there has been a meeting of minds.

I’m not sure what else his intellect was used for, but it was certainly wasted. What was sad was this attempted triumph of the Church as an institution over any ethical consideration for sections of its members. Many went along with his Covenant plans, at first, but, as he added apparent enthusiasm and manipulation to his anti-liberal stance, the liberal constituency became unifed in opposition. I remember a few years back when he said he would pray for the likes of bloggers (with individual views), but asked for prayers more for the Anglican Communion. Or, recently, he has been ‘praying hard’ for diocesan synod people to agree with him about the Covenant. It’s as if prayer too becomes subsumed to the institutional requirement, a strange understanding of intercession.

When the dioceses said no to special provision for those who would need pure male only bishops, involving the bishops, Rowan Williams still assumed he should try and find a means (but not significant) to keep the traditionalists within the fold. That was his intellect at play, as he sought to describe the difference between derived and delegated powers of a bishop, but even if it could convince a Catholic (believing in the ontological difference of a bishop) it won’t meet the objections of the no women leaders evangelicals. In any case, he can only provide a form of words that can convince one side of purity while convincing the other side of equality.

The fundamental problem is that the Anglican Communion is too broad, ranging from something like premodern magical belief combined with charismatic Protestantism to something that approaches the consumerist New Age. Such a spread can only be a loose association at best. Even the Church of England is too broad and is going through a trim. Traditionalist Catholics are being sidelined by change. Its most radical of liberals are shearing off, but it leaves others more exposed. The entryism of some evangelicals of the FCA kind may turn into separatism (as in North America). So the broad Church in an age of speciality is moving towards a lesser spread, just as The Episcopal Church is seeking its own clearer identity (and inevitable smaller size). It would be historically consistent to expect some reformation of institutions. No Archbishop can stand against this. In such a situation, the way to preserve most contact is to loosen up, not try and nail together a centre. All that does is create a more violent breaking up a little later down the line.

The best Archbishop is therefore one that does nothing. What made Rowan Williams a near disaster of an Archbishop was that he tried to do too much. He thought he could organise the worldwide bishops to create a stronger centre with its instruments and that the Churches were secondary (places for canon law). This attempt is ever likely to fail, though it came near to his view of success.

His best legacy may be the decision-free Indaba groups by which people from different places might sit down and discuss their very differences. But, with the Covenant dead, the rest will have happened despite him and not because of him. A holy man – a friendly man – was undermined by ‘the job’ but then he made his choices; he gave a huge amount of effort for very little return, and indeed ethically it created negative returns.

Adrian Worsfold keeps the blogs The Pluralist and Pluralist Speaks

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