Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ave Atque Vale, Rowan Williams

It’s Sunday, and time for our religious news. Never mind that I tend to get Rowan Williams mixed up with the guy who plays Blackadder on the BBC. Rowan Williams is actually the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Church of England. At least for now. Williams has announced that he will be stepping down at the end of this year. Rumor hath it that he might be replaced by a Christian (snark off).

For ten years, Williams has presided over the disintegration of the Anglican Communion, and has played a large part in its disarray. By his own self-description, he is a “hairy lefty.” He has made statements from the high pulpit which call into question the divinity of Jesus Christ. Now that’s just fine for atheists, agnostics, members of other religions, and even some theologians. But it is a strange thing indeed for the leader of a church which is founded on that very concept of Christ’s divinity and oneness with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

Williams is known for his obtuse and secular-sounding sermons and homilies. That comes in large part from his interest more in history, economics and the works of Dostoevsky than in theology and church doctrine. Regardless of how one feels about his views on doctrine and dogma, it is impossible to deny that he has been both divisive and self-contradictory as a leader.

In America, the Episcopalian Church (directly derived from the Church of England) is deeply split over the issue of homosexuality and particularly homosexual priesthood. A successful leader would have worked hard to heal those divisions. But much like a certain resident of the White House, Williams is unable to take a clear stand and lead his people with a clear policy. He has recently denied a bishopric to Jeffrey John, a prominent gay priest, which stirred up the liberal wing of the church. But previously, as Archbishop of Wales, he ordained multiple gay men to the priesthood, which stirred up the traditionalist wing.

The same division is spread throughout the entire northern hemisphere’s Anglican Communion. On the other hand, in Africa and South America, where the Anglican faith is growing by leaps and bounds, the traditionalists have all but officially broken from the church in England on ordination of homosexual priests as well as female priests. Williams has waffled on the ordination of women as priests and bishops in almost as confusing a fashion as he has with gay priests. In fact, Williams has indicated that his final battle with ordination of women and elevation to bishoprics was a determining factor in his stepping down.

Williams’s friendly relationship with the Catholic Pope has produced another unexpected result. Those Anglicans who have a serious problem with the concept of gay and female priesthood have now shared Communion (the Holy Eucharist in both denominations) with Catholics and many have decided simply to go the whole way and convert to the Church of Rome. Once again, it has something to do with Williams’s lack of clarity on doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church both share the ancient doctrinal belief that at Communion, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ (a belief not shared by other Protestant Communions).

Williams has refused to be publicly committed to the pure Catholic or Protestant view, thereby creating more confusion. As a scholar, Williams might have made the problem a matter of church policy, but instead used the ambiguity of the English language translation of the meaning of transubstantiation to avoid taking a stand at all. Historically, one must remember that this has been an ongoing debate within the Anglican community for centuries. The “low church” Anglicans followed the teachings of Luther which denied the actual conversion of the elements of the Communion into the physical body and blood of Christ and instead stated that the conversion was mystical rather than physical. That group’s most famous and influential advocate was John Wesley who finally broke with the Church of England to form the Methodist Communion.

Aside from those who have converted to Catholicism during William’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, there are those who have broken with the English Communion and joined the African bishops who espouse the more traditional Anglican views. Others, particularly in America, have formed their own group loosely calling themselves the Anglican Catholic Church.

The most recent blow to the prestige of the Archbishopric of Canterbury came with Williams’s confusing and somewhat ignorant advocacy of Islamic Sharia law in settling certain otherwise civil matters. He missed the fact that the high courts of England had already determined that in purely civil disputes which did not impose religious rules, Sharia law could be applied if it did not conflict with the existing civil statutes. Thus, in a divorce, Sharia law could be used to determine which mosque the Muslim children of a divorce should attend, but not how the custody of the children or the division of property is determined. Williams failed to understand or advocate the difference.

Overall, William’s success or failure as a theologian is entirely a matter of the consciences of his supporters and his detractors. But as a leader, it is hard to say that his tenure has been much more than a failure. As recently as last week, Williams met again with the Pope and Catholic leaders to ask Anglicans and Catholics to work and pray for unity, something he has failed to do very well within his own Church.

Williams is stepping down to become the master of Magdalene College at Cambridge. Perhaps while he is there, he will discover with clarity what the college’s namesake herself discovered.


Tennessee Jed said...

quite interesting, Hawk! I agree the fellow has not much to recommend him on the leadership question. We can blame it all on Henry VIII I suppose :)

Kit said...

"Rumor hath it that he might be replaced by a Christian."

Good one.

tryanmax said...

Sounds as though by resigning he may be answering his own prayers.

Kit said...

Here is a Telegraph article about possible replacements for Williams

The frontrunner is a Dr. John Sentamu, a black immigrant from Uganda (his family fled Idi Amin), who is the second most senior cleric in the Church.

Here is an article on him:

Kit said...

Reminds me of some exchanges from YES, PRIME MINISTER, when Hacker is trying to appoint a bishop.

James Hacker: "Humphrey, what's a Modernist in the Church of England? "
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Ah, well, the word 'Modernist' is code for non-believer."
James Hacker: "You mean an atheist?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "No, Prime Minister. An atheist clergyman couldn't continue to draw his stipend. So, when they stop believing in God, they call themselves 'Modernists'."
James Hacker: "How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as Bishop of Bury St Edmunds?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Well, very easily. The Church of England is primarily a social organization, not a religious one."
James Hacker: "Is it?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Oh yes. It's part of the rich social fabric of this country. So bishops need to be the sorts of chaps who speak properly and know which knife and fork to use. The sort of people one can look up to."

James Hacker: "So, the ideal candidate from the Church of England's point of view would be a cross between a socialite, and a socialist."
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Precisely."

Sir Humphrey Appleby: "You see, The PM has stated that he wants a devout Christian. Now The Dean only believes in Islam, steam engines, and the MCC. In fact, some smart-aleck once asked him on television if he knew what The Bible was."
Peter Harding: "And did he?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Yes. He said it was some Christian version of The Koran."

Sir Humphrey Appleby: "The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England."
Jim Hacker: "And what about God?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby: "I think he is what is called an optional extra."

Unknown said...

Tennessee: Henry did indeed contribute to many of the church's problems. By declaring himself head of the Church of England, he also made secularism part of the curia. It really didn't become apparent, however, until the mid-twentieth century.

A sidenote related to the monarchs being the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church is that some theologians argue that it has diluted the moral and spiritual authority of the titular head of the church, and has then worked its way down to the laity. A good example is Prince Charles, heir-apparent to the throne and title, who let it be known that as part of his royal honorifics, he wishes to be known as "defender of faith," rather than "defender of the faith. Which faith--Christianity or the increasingly influential Islam of his ex-wife's boyfriend?

Unknown said...

Kit: Actually, I sort of stole it from a London Times unintentionally hilarious headline when Elizabeth appointed her first Archbishop of Canterbury: "Queen to Appoint Christian as Head of the Church of England." That wouldn't be quite so ironic today.

Unknown said...

Kit: The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has taken a fairly clear stand on homosexuality and its lack of place in the priesthood, but he hasn't been so clear about women in the priesthood. What is equally important is his public statement about Williams's retirement from Canterbury: "Despite his courageous, tireless and holy endeavor, he has been much maligned by people who should have known better. For my part he has been God's apostle for our time." That doesn't sound like there will be much of a change if Sentamu is granted the post.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: I hadn't looked at it quite that way, but now that you point it out, you may be right.

Unknown said...

Kit: That's both a funny bit and a strong hint at the truth. It also points to the statements of two Anglican bishops in East Asia who have declared that Allah and Yahweh are one and the same. That's both simplistic and totally wrong. Jehovah and Yahweh are simply human-created names for the God of Abraham and Moses (whose name was forbidden to be spoken anyway--"tell them that I am that I am; I am sent you"). The name and religious conceptualization of Allah comes from totally different origins, though Islamists would like you to think otherwise.

Kit said...

"Despite his courageous, tireless and holy endeavor, he has been much maligned by people who should have known better. For my part he has been God's apostle for our time."

Well, technically, Williams is still Sentamu's direct boss and since he is, quite literally, the second-in-command, I doubt he would say anything negative about the man.
It would have been called unclassy and, if he wants the job, might have hurt his chances.

Unknown said...

Kit: I thought the speech was a little obsequious, but you're right about Sentamu being unable to speak ill of Williams if he wants a shot at the top spot. It would have been uncivil, and probably a job-killer. If that's the reason, then he could still be a reformer. The Church hasn't gotten so far from its base that it needs a Luther or a Calvin--yet.

Kit said...

Here is the wikipedia article:

Unknown said...

Kit: Thanks. Here's the clickable link: John Sentamu.

Individualist said...

Yea LAwhawk

Christianity would be a good thing for the leftists if there was not this whole insistence that there is a God Thing, wouldn't it.

Unknown said...

Indi: True, true. Some wise conservative once said that liberals love Christians, as long as they're dead.

T-Rav said...

Well, that's where latitudinarianism will get you.

rlaWTX said...

The mainlines seem to be in the process of splitting in half: Episcopals have, PCUSA working on it... slippery slope theory abounds, IMHO

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