Rowan in Rome; Retreat from Reason

Nov 22, 2009 by

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Charles Raven

Apparently unabashed by the chaotic state of the Communion he represents, Rowan William’s provocative address to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome last Thursday was noted by the media for its strong challenge to the Roman Catholic Church’s position on the ordination of women, but its real significance is that it reveals an Archbishop who, far from being discouraged, does really seem to believe his own propaganda, even to the extent that, the recent humiliation of his non-consultation over the Ordinariate notwithstanding, he offers recent Anglican practice as a model for the Vatican to follow in ecumenical relationships.

For an Archbishop with such a strong reputation for thoughtful scholarship and learning, this represents an alarming retreat from reason and will reinforce the concerns of those like Archbishop Bob Duncan who commented earlier this week ‘In the year 2000, the Archbishop of Canterbury was the second most important Christian leader in the world. In a short space of time that office has utterly been diminished. It shows that the British model of Anglicanism has failed.’

Williams ransacks ecumenical statements since Vatican II to claim that dialogue has led to ‘strong convergence’ on the essential nature of the Church as ‘a community, in which human beings are made sons and daughters of God, and reconciled both with God and one another. The Church celebrates this through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion in which God acts upon us to transform us 'in communion'.’ He then questions whether ‘the issues that still divide us have the same weight – issues about authority in the Church, about primacy (especially the unique position of the Pope), and the relations between the local churches and the universal church in making decisions (about matters like the ordination of women, for instance).’

Each of these three areas which divide Rome from Anglicans – authority, primacy and the ordination of women – are examined in turn and Williams concludes that they are all open questions in the light of the need to serve the greater goal of ‘filial and communal holiness as the character of restored humanity’ and on this basis calls for greater openness on the part of Rome to practical convergence with non Roman Catholics in a ‘community of communities’ and a ‘communion of communions’.

It is at this practical point that the implausibility of Williams position starts to become evident when, presumably without blushing, he commends the Anglican Covenant process, claiming that ‘The current proposals for a Covenant between Anglican provinces represent an effort to create not a centralised decision-making executive but a 'community of communities' that can manage to sustain a mutually nourishing and mutually critical life, with all consenting to certain protocols of decision-making together.’ This is seen as a more ambitious approach than the Anglican Ordinariate of which Williams says somewhat dismissively that ‘it does not build in any formal recognition of existing ministries or units of oversight or methods of independent decision-making, but remains at the level of spiritual and liturgical culture, as we might say. As such, it is an imaginative pastoral response to the needs of some; but it does not break any fresh ecclesiological ground.’

But if the Ordinariate is such a modest step – Williams refers to it as a ‘chaplaincy’ – why was he not able to support the formation of such a structure within the Church of England under his own leadership, as the Anglo-Catholic constituency in the Church of England have repeatedly requested? Instead the Church of England seems set upon a legal framework which will drive them out and foreclose the debate in a way which makes a mockery of the model of a ‘community of communities’ reflecting ‘filial and communal holiness’ which Williams is so keen to commend to the Vatican.

The reason for such a glaring contradiction is of course that what Archbishop Duncan describes as ‘the British model of Anglicanism’ now has no coherent theology and is driven by pragmatism. Williams’ claim for the Lambeth Communion is that ‘a degree of recognizability of 'the same Catholic thing' has survived: Anglican provinces ordaining women to some or all of the three orders have not become so obviously diverse in their understanding of filial holiness and sacramental transformation that they cannot act together, serve one another and allow some real collaboration. It is this sort of thinking that has allowed Anglicans until recently to maintain a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion among themselves, despite the sharpness of the division over this matter.’

The problem is that ‘the same catholic thing’ which can be expressed in the generalised terms of ecumenical statements rapidly dissolves when exposed to questions of actual practice unless there is a clear understanding and practice of authority within the Church. Behind Williams’ passing concession to reality in his commendation of Anglican practice – ‘until recently’ – lies the unspoken issue which is even more fundamental than that of women’s ordination, the acceptance of clergy in openly homosexual relationships.

The Windsor covenant process is a pragmatic response to this particular problem and over six years and three drafts has failed to restrain the North American provinces who have been setting the pace in promoting the gay/lesbian agenda and developing a syncretistic form of Christianity behind the façade of tradition. Moreover, the Lambeth ‘Instruments of Unity’ are widely held to have failed – most clearly reflected in the non-representation of some two thirds of the Communions’ practising Anglicans at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

The Covenant process itself is now stalled and the current Ridley Cambridge Draft is still very weak on any form of discipline, the key clauses being liberally peppered with the qualification ‘may’; moreover, it cannot provide a theological basis for the communion because the key theological content of the introduction is explicitly excluded from the Covenant itself as ‘it may provide challenges to some’. Williams commends the Anglican practice of finding ‘carefully crafted institutional ways of continuing to work together’; the Anglican Covenants have certainly been carefully crafted, but in the interests of short term institutional survival, not long term theological coherence.

So how does the Archbishop find the nerve to commend to the Vatican a model of ‘doing Church’ which is so clearly broken backed? Part of the answer may be in the supportive leader comment of today’s London Times, echoed by other establishment voices, which accuses the Vatican of mounting ‘a direct challenge to the unity of the Anglican Communion’. The liberal British Establishment is rediscovering its anti-papal instincts as it comes to the defence of British Anglicanism.

No doubt Dr Williams takes heart from this endorsement, but it comes with a price tag. The Times comment continues ‘There is every good reason, in theology and natural justice, for the Church to embrace the ministry of women and homosexuals. Anglicanism will be richer for it. Dr Williams will be a bigger man for espousing it unreservedly’. Taking ‘homosexuals’ to mean those actively in such sexual relationships (otherwise the reference would be pointless), this rather overlooks the point that if Rowan Williams were to act as The Times urges him to, he would himself be a direct challenge to the unity of the Anglican Communion, but Rome may quite properly, on the basis of his address this week, wonder whether he has convinced himself that with enough time the agenda of British Anglicanism can still be established in a global communion and even beyond.

Rowan Williams is creating a myth of unity and it is becoming all the more urgent that orthodox global Anglicans committed to confessional unity do not give credence to such a retreat from reason.

Charles Raven

21st November 2009

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