The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion: 4 August

Two cheers to the Archbishop of Canterbury! Rowan Williams has published a very good response to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in America who confirmed that they want to ‘walk apart’ from the rest of the Anglican Communion over gay marriage. The ABC merits a theological cheer, an ecclesiological cheer, but not a political cheer. Rowan Williams’ thinking and pointing ahead are great. But why could he not have said this before, and more strongly? He reluctantly points to a ‘two track’ future for the Anglican Communion. Such a future should be hailed as an exciting development of our tradition which could bring wide benefits not only for us, but for any community or nation with a substantially differing minority.

Rowan Williams makes the crucial but not often stated point that it is the Holy Spirit who is to lead us forward. ‘The Spirit will lead you into all truth,’ said Jesus. Not human reasoning and scientific research. Although reason leads us into quite a lot of truth, we cannot rely on reason as the foundation for new developments in our Church life, as the Episcopal Church are doing. Neither, importantly, does Scripture lead us into all truth. Scripture points us to much truth, but Scripture itself points us to the words and life of Jesus as the foundation of all our doctrine, and Jesus then points us to the Spirit to show us the way forward. TEC are saying ‘It seems good to our reason, our society and us to welcome gay marriages.’ Their fierce opponents are saying ‘It seems good to the Bible and us to reject gay marriages.’ The Church in the book of Acts, instead, proclaimed ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ This is always a lengthy process in which there is a long period, as now, when we cannot say for certain, if it is the Holy Spirit leading in a new direction or not.

Rowan Williams refers to the role of the Spirit at the end of para 13 of his ‘Reflections.’ ‘It takes time and a willingness to believe that what we determine together is more likely, in a New Testament framework, to be in tune with the Holy Spirit than what any one community decides locally.’ For Williams TEC have given neither the time nor the willingness necessary. They have decided to move ahead with affirming gay marriage and must accept that one consequence of this is that they distance themselves significantly from their Anglican brothers and sisters.

Rowan W then sketches out what this moving apart while being somehow members of the same family means: ‘… there is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance.’ (para 22) ‘… perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a ‘two-track’ model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage…,’ (para 23) Rowan W acknowledges that there is a need for what I have called being creative with ecclesiastical structures: ‘To recognise different futures for different groups must involve mutual respect for deeply held theological convictions. Thus far in Anglican history we have (remarkably) contained diverse convictions more or less within a unified structure. If the present structures that have safeguarded our unity turn out to need serious rethinking in the near future, this is not the end of the Anglican way and it may bring its own opportunities.’ (para 26, the conclusion.) AMEN to all this.

BUT Rowan W is reluctant, tentative, and very late. The whole article is called ‘Reflections…’ Once again we have the detached Professor giving a learned view, not a leader pointing to a good way forward. ‘Perhaps we are faced with the possibility…’ is reluctant, tentative language. Rowan W gives the impression that two tracks would not be his preferred way forward, but it is the best he can see.

This impression of reluctance is borne out by Rowan W’s actions and words. Far from a policy of ‘Let’s seriously consider a two track future,’ up until now Rowan W’s policy has been ‘Let’s keep talking and stay where we are for now.’ Keeping talking was what the Lambeth Conference was all about. Two tracks could have been talked about at Lambeth. Two tracks could even have been modelled at Lambeth, with voting and non-voting participants for instance. Instead we have had lengthy discussions on a one track Covenant. It is only now, after TEC have emphatically rejected the ‘stay where we are for now’ policy, that Rowan W has turned to two tracks as a possibility.

The options are schism – a complete parting of the ways into separate families – or two tracks – a distancing while graciously maintaining family ties. If two tracks are not embraced more wholeheartedly, by Rowan W and others, with Rowan L, or someone else, acting as leader rather than as consultant, schism will happen.

The two track option is not only the way to avoid schism, it is a thoroughly Christian approach, making every effort to maintain the unity we have despite our differences. The Anglican Communion has a Liberal minority who differ substantially from the Conservative majority. TEC have a Conservative minority who differ substantially from the Liberal majority. The way of the world is the way of expulsion, splitting, schism; the majority making no space for the minority. We are being called to a different way, the way of graceful recognition of difference without splitting or schism; the majority making space for the minority. If we can create this gracious new way and show that it is viable, it can be copied to the benefit of minorities everywhere, most notably ethnic and faith minorities within nations. The potential benefits of developing ‘two track’ structures are huge, not only for the Church, but for the world.

(The current issue of Tikkun magazine, an excellent American Jewish publication, carries an article which suggests that the Jewish minority in a Palestinian State could be citizens of Israel, in a way similar to Conservative parishes in America being part of the Province of the Southern Cone, or Forward in Faith parishes being part of the network Diocese of Ebbsfleet. )

These benefits need to be presented, argued, championed. The vision needs to be caught. Even a prescient man such as Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, has yet to catch this vision. His response to Rowan W’s Reflections is sceptical – can this possibly work? won’t it be harbouring heretics? (He likens our situation over gay marriage to the controversy between Athanasius and Arius over whether Jesus was fully the Son of God.) But Tom W does see that a way needs to be made to affirm the Conservative minority in America. Such a way could also be used to affirm Liberal minorities in other parts of the world.

Affirming the minorities needs to be fully part of the Anglican Communion Covenant. At the moment the Covenant is a statement of where the majority stand. Without a gracious accompanying statement of how the majority will make space for the minority, the Covenant could become another instrument of bullying by the majority – just as the statements and resolutions by TEC are an justification for their punitive law suits against the Conservative minority.

Graciously maintaining family ties is crucial, as Rowan W states: ‘It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both ‘tracks’ should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as Church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage.’ (para 24)

Competitive hostility is what we have in America now, particularly between TEC and the Conservative Anglican Church in North America, battling in the Law Courts. Rowan W should not be sitting back saying nothing about this hostility. TEC plan for further hostility: they have allocated funds for future legal expenses. Instead they should be called to a ‘clear repudiation’ of legal hostilities. Why did Rowan W not stress this when he was at the TEC General Convention? Every legal battle is a nail in the coffin of the two track Anglican future, a brick in the wall of schism. If Rowan W really wants to ‘hope for and work for’ the two track future, he needs to argue for it and lead towards it more forcefully. Alternatively, he could make way for someone else to lead, while he returns to his more suited role as theological consultant.

Roger Harper

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