You know, I like Rowan Williams a lot. Partly it’s because he’s a really interesting thinker – even if you’re not theologically inclined, his writings on Dostoyevsky are well worth your attention – who, often at some cost to his own reputation, doesn’t bother much with tailoring his thoughts for media soundbited purposes. Partly it’s because his theological conservatism has never stopped him taking the expansive and humane view. But most of all, I feel sorry for him. And this has everything to do with the unleadable shower he’s supposed to lead, which would tax Moses himself, never mind a fallible human being like +Rowan.
But allow me to digress for a moment. Some years ago I was talking to a clerical contact who’d done some work at the Christian Unity dicastery, and who was most interesting on the differences in dealing with the various denominations. First you have to consider that the four major Christian traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic – may have their differences, but do share a basic conceptual universe that allows them to more or less understand each other, a conceptual universe not shared by Seventh Day Adventists or Louisiana snake-handlers or such. What this boiled down to was that if Catholic negotiators were talking to the Russian Orthodox, both sides would have their settled dogmas that they could compare, identify points of agreement and disagreement, and talk about in a structured way.
This is not, of course, to say that you couldn’t make progress with the Protestants, at least those with settled positions. My interlocutor was very impressed at the way the German tag-team of Kasper and Ratzinger had engaged with the Lutherans, drawing on a shared cultural background and some understanding of what the Lutherans were about. But what used to drive him absolutely spare was trying to deal with the Anglicans, because they were a constantly moving target. You could have Rowan Williams across the table from you and have very little idea whether what he was saying was an official Anglican position or just Rowan’s opinion. The latter would, of course, be rendered more likely if Akinola popped up the next week and flatly contradicted what you’d heard from Rowan. Or was it Akinola who was off message? One could never tell…
The point being that dear old Rowan is defined not just by his personality but by his environment. His style – he writes in dense paragraphs full of qualifying subclauses, and speaks in a slightly toned down version of the same – is not always of Orwellian transparency. But if he can come across as muddled, that isn’t entirely his own fault, as Fr Dwight points out:
How could anyone hope to be clear headed and clearly spoken when he has to head up such a denomination? Here’s the real situation. Anglicans have liberals who deny the existence of God, the supernatural, any vestige of a traditional understanding of the Christian faith and they also have conservative Evangelicals who are virtually Biblical fundamentalists. They have Anglo Catholics who believe in the real presence, have monks and nuns, go on pilgrimages to Marian shrines, call their priests ‘Father’ and whose liturgy is more Catholic than the Catholics. On the other hand they have priests who have the same orders who deny all Catholic doctrines, put leftover communion bread out for the birds and proudly bear the name of Protestant. They have proponents of homosexual marriage and those who think homosexuals should be put in jail. Some would die to have lady bishops some would die if they didn’t have lady bishops.
All of this is held together under the banner of ‘unity’, but how can anyone hope to hold any of it together at all without being totally muddle headed? It’s impossible. That’s why there is a typical sort of Anglican clergy speak which goes like this: “I think I would like to say that in some way there ought to be a way forward which does not alienate anyone and yet attempts to propose a truth statement which may, if I am not pushing it too far, expresses what might be called ‘truth’ in a way that is a propositional statement which is descriptive while it is not prescriptive. This is to say that if we cannot find a way forward then it is best, perhaps to return to a discussion stage when we might sit down and without being dogmatic or judgmental listen again to one another to see if there is not in fact a way in which we can walk together while we are still fundamentally walking apart. Of course this will be a demanding and challenging journey which will in many ways for some of us (indeed all of us in one way or another) be at its heart paradoxical if not seemingly contradictory. However the seeming contradiction need not be a real contradiction even though it feels painful for some us to continue to live and what might be called a creative tension……. blah blah blah.
Well, quite. As Fr Dwight puts it in his inimitable style, we come back to what Newman said about the sectarian error and the latitudinarian error, and the good old C of E is the living exemplar of the latitudinarian error, having raised “inclusivity” to be a virtue in itself. This is what happens, I suppose, when you have a state church which is governed by the Crown in Parliament, which was precisely designed to be an all-inclusive national church and which, as a result, has never taken magisterial teaching very seriously. Indeed, Anglican culture has elevated fence-sitting to an art form, but you still can’t be impaled on the fence indefinitely.
The upshot of all this is that, as the C of E General Synod has been meeting this weekend, the old tensions are very much in evidence. And as usual, the tensions are over gays and girls.
Prior to Synod, we had something of a kerfuffle over whether Dr Jeffrey John, the openly gay (though celibate) Dean of St Albans, would get the plum job of Bishop of Southwark. We don’t know for certain what transpired – the Anglican process for episcopal appointments, whereby a shortlist goes to the Crown Nominations Commission which then sends a name to the prime minister for approval, is no more transparent than the Catholic process – but what we do know is that it was being heavily spun that the popular Dr John would get the job, then it turned out that he didn’t. Set that against the background of Rowan having treated his old friend very shabbily when forcing him to stand down from being appointed Bishop of Reading in 2003 – well, it doesn’t look good. In fact, translated into C of E factional politics, it’s hard to disagree with Jonathan Wynne-Jones that it makes the whole church look buck mad.
What looks even crazier is when you try to unpick what the C of E’s actual position on gay clergy is. To recap, the Catholic position on homosexuality (as enounced in the current CDF documents) is that, while same-sex attraction is morally neutral (and indeed it is explicitly stated that persons of homosexual orientation have the same intrisic dignity as anyone else, and should be free of hate and persecution), nonetheless homosexual acts remain sinful in all circumstances. It’s not a position that would satisfy Peter Tatchell, but it’s a good bit better and more nuanced than the condemnation of sodomy at the Third Lateran Council in 1179. And if you think that’s convoluted, it’s as nothing compared to the mess in the C of E.
The current position, as I read it, is that C of E clergy can be openly gay – even civil partnered, as in Jeffrey John’s case – as long as they’re celibate, though how you’d tell I don’t know. This sort of but doesn’t quite satisfy the C of E conservatives for whom the main problem is sex outside marriage, and for whom the gay issue is secondary. It certainly doesn’t satisfy the more headbanging elements in Uganda or Nigeria, for whom the homosexual condition itself is an abomination. Nor, of course, does it satisfy the liberals – whatever one may say of the American Episcopalians, they aren’t hypocrites, and Bishop Gene Robinson doesn’t even pretend to be celibate. Not to mention that, when it comes to homosexuality amongst the laity, the C of E’s position depends very much on which vicar you talk to.
Before leaving this, I’ll just note that Ken Livingstone was saying on the BBC this morning that David Cameron should appoint Jeffrey John to be Bishop of Southwark whether the C of E likes it or not. I slap my forehead.
But that wasn’t what caused the big row at Synod. The big row, of course, was about women bishops, and the narrow defeat of a proposal from Rowan and Sentamu to create a reservation for traditionalists.
This is actually very simple, but it deconstructs the whole fudge whereby the C of E can claim to be Protestant and Catholic at the same time. And it’s a time bomb that’s been ticking ever since they ordained women in the first place. If you hold to the concept of a sacerdotal priesthood based on the Apostolic Succession, then the ordination of women is a non-question, which is why the womynpriests movement is extremely marginal (if noisy) in Catholicism and non-existent in Orthodoxy. If, on the other hand, you stand by the Protestant concept of ministry, there’s no real reason why women shouldn’t be admitted to all levels. Perhaps not all of the C of E liberals realise this, but they have resolved the split identity of the C of E definitively in favour of it being a Protestant church.
And this puts it up to the Anglo-Catholics in no uncertain manner. Their bluff has been called, and they’ll have to consider whether they are really Protestants who just like to spice up their worship with Catholic trappings, because that’s what the future holds for them in the C of E. Alternatively, if they’re serious about being Catholics of Anglican heritage… well, there’s Rome, with Benedict’s offer of the Anglican Ordinariate; there’s Constantinople; there are the small Continuity Anglican formations. What they can’t say is that there is no option.
It does make it more likely that the Ordinariate will get a bit of critical mass behind it, even if the numbers are relatively small at first. The other imponderable has been the English Catholic bishops, not all of whom are terribly keen about the Ordinariate. Still, they did send Bishop Malcolm McMahon to meet C of E traditionalists yesterday, which shows how serious they are, as there can be few things more likely to entice defectors than the prospect of spending more time with +Malcy. There’s evidently nothing to worry about on that score.