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Canterbury tale

It seems we haven't yet linked from dotCommonweal to Paul Elie's excellent profile of Rowan Williams in the March issue of The Atlantic. In this we have been very much remiss, and we owe an apology to our friend Paul, as well as to any of you who didn't find the story on your own. Fortunately, it's available online, and it's very much worth your time.I've always liked what little I knew about Williams -- especially since he's a fellow admirer of James Alison. (I love his comment -- quoted in Christopher Ruddy's January 30 Commonweal article -- that Alison's books "leave you with a feeling that perhaps it's time you became a Christian.") Elie's profile fills in the details, and I came away admiring Williams even more. As Elie describes him, Williams is a leader who is convinced that the path through conflict -- not the path that avoids it -- is the one that leads to deeper fidelity and a more thoroughly Christian church. The article also offers food for thought about how the Anglican/Episcopalian community's leadership differs from the Catholic hierarchy, for better and for worse. Journalistic shorthand often describes the Archbishop of Canterbury as a C-of-E pope, but Williams sounds very un-papal when describing his role at the head of the Anglican Communion:

"The responsibility is not to argue a case from the top or cast the chairmans vote. Its to hold the reins for a sensible debateand thats a lot harder than I thought it would be."

Elie elaborates on the Catholic/Anglican contrast in an interview published online:

"I think any real leader has to engage with these issues. The question is what does it mean to engage? In the view of the people at the Vatican, to engage with the issue is to state very clearly what your position is, and then to keep stating it in every situation. Rowan Williams engages somewhat differently. He insists that these are issues that have to be discussed as questions, and that people on all sides have to admit that we don't know everything."

For Williams, the debate about the status of homosexuality in Christianity (the main focus of Elie's article) is not a matter of holding the line and playing defense, but rather a "discernment process." I certainly like hearing that language from a bishop.Elie (who wrote our November 21 cover story about Flannery O'Connor and Catholic culture today) recalls that "Flannery OConnor joked that the churchs policy in naming bishops was 'The Wrong Man for the Job.'" Given the difficulty of explaining how the issue of homosexuality challenges Christians, and the complicated nature of the Anglican Communion's response, I'd say Elie was definitely the right man for this job. He sums it all up clearly and dynamically, without neglecting the theological dimension. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend you make time for it this weekend.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Thank you so much Mollie, for presenting this to us about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I do believe that he has more than just a point in his comments about dealing with issues in the Church, and his role, "to hold onto the reins for a sensible debate."There are several issues in today's world, today's church, that require, deserve sensible debate, but are not receiving it----because the Catholic Church is still operating on the 'state the same position always, stick with it and admit no other possible answer.'We do not live in a black and white world any longer. We must engage in intelligent discussion not only with other Christian Churches, and other world-wide religions---but we must do so within our own church---the Catholic Church. The concerns of the people should be brought to the forefront. Our Church leaders need to be able to discuss issues of importance without hurling ecclesiastical invectives at people, or groups, who have well-researched evidence and proof that runs conter to what the 'official Church holds.'For this reason, I say "Cheers, and God's Blessings" to Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Very good and interesting post Mollie.I am intrigued by William's "The Body's Grace". It seems like a prophetic work and I hope to read it soon.I read an interview with Williams and Philip Pullman the author of the Golden Compass. It was very penetrating and not at all polemical. Williams embodies someone who truly understands Bernanos' famous insight that grace is everywhere. And Williams has the gift to draw it out.I think his greatest contribution is in conflict resolution, not sidestepping conflict but passing through it, setting the context for the dialogue to occur. That, at least in my mind, is inspired leadership.At my age, the liberal/conservative, traditional/progressive divide is wearying, troubling and discouraging. I see in Williams the kind of leader who embraces the grace to be found in all and is able to draw it out.Impressive (and underrated) religious leader.

It seems to me that Abp. Williams' great virtue as an archbishop is that he truly believes in collegiality. It seems obvious which side of the homosexuality dispute he is on, but he refuses to impose his thinking on others Would that Pope Benedict were more collegial, that he would, for instance, allow debates among the bishops as Rowan Williams has done. Just this week we learned that Cardinal Eagan might have joined in such debates had he been given the opportunity. I wonder how many others would. .

I think Rowan Williams is an interesting guy. I have past posts about his The Body's Grace and also his talk with Pullman, plus one with a poem of his on my blog :) but I have to say, I think he let the Episcopalians down during the Lambeth Conference, especially Gene Robinson.

Sorru - forgot to mention an article from the Guardian that illustrates what I meant about the Lambeth Conference - The archbishop's hands are tied, not ours.

I'm very pleased to see that Rowan Williams admires James Alison. I have an essay on Rowan Williams and Dostoevsky in The Furrow this month. All three of the above-named show that Christianity makes perfect sense when people speak it as they live it.

Thanks for this post, Mollie. There is reveiew of Rowan Williams' latest book about Dostoevsky in America."In the last three years or so, Rowan Williams has not only continued to lead the worldwide Anglican Communion through challenging times, but has published seven books, including two substantial contributions to the field of religion and literature. The first, Grace and Necessity:Reflections on Art and Love (2005) illuminates the work of three Catholic writersJacques Maritain, David Jones and Flannery O'Connor. With Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Williams has written one of the very best studies of the greatest Christian novelist. In areview for the Times Literary Supplement, A. N. Wilson called itthe 'best book of 2008'..."

Ann, would it be responsible and practical for Pope Benedict to be more collegial? And on what issues? It seems to me that Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury have very different job descriptions.Crystal, how do you see Archbishop Williams letting down the Episcopalians and Bishop Robinson?As I see it, a double standard of chastity was applied to Gene Robinson. Heterosexual priests may marry with their bishop's permission, or, in the case of divorce, to remarry only once after examination and permission from the bishop.Robinson was divorced and living outside of marriage with a man in a sexual relationship without benefit of marriage. So he was ordained according to a different standard, and that fact casts doubts on the validity of his office, though it should in no way cast shadows on his sincerity as a Christian and dignity as a person.Moreover, the roil in the Anglican communion isn't just over Robinson or gay clergy or same-sex blessings or homosexuality in general. There are divisions among theologians in the various national churches other matters of morals and, to a lesser extent, faith.ABC Williams can only try to guide a discussion to keep those disagreements from fracturing the communion, regardless of his personal opinion.

Spurred on by Paul Elie's piece and Michael Miller's link to Paul Contino's review of Williams' book on Dostoevsky, I ordered the book.I saw that Williams' small book, "The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ" is available through Amazon. I have quoted on dotCom from the meditation on "The Transfiguration." I think the book is superb and would make for wonderful Holy Week reading and reflection.

Fr. Imbelli,Thanks, I didn't know about Williams' book, "The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ". I will be ordering it. Vladimir Lossky wrote a book with the title "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church". Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote his doctorial dissertation based on Lossky's theology. Lossky talks about Dionysius the Areopagite, who some say was a direct disciple of Paul. Here is a paragraph from that book."Dionysius distinguishes two possible theological ways. One - that of cataphatic or positive theology - proceeds by affirmations; the other - apophatic or negative theology - by negations. The first leads us to some knowledge of God, but is an imperfect way. Theperfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second - which leads us finally to total ignorance. All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it isnecessary to deny all that is derivative of Him, that is to say, all that which is. Now If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is derivative from Him. It is by unknowing that one may knowHim who is above every possible object of knowledge. Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance. For even as light, the especially abundance of light, renders darkness invisible, even so the knowledge of created things, (and especially excess of knowledge), destroys the ignorance which is the only way by which one can attain to God in Himself."

"The Anglican Church is trying to have it both ways-affirming traditional notions of marriage and family while seeking to adapt its teachings to the experience of gays and lesbians."This can not be done without changing God's intention for Marriage and the Family from the beginning.

Jean --How might Pope Benedict be more collegial? Let me count the ways.First, he should deal with what is most negative in the Church: the power and incompetence of the curial bureaucrats. Some bishops have complained that the Curia treats them like altar boys. It should be the other way round The Williams fiasco is just one example among many which show that those bureaucrats are too powerful and incompetent. Even Benedict apologized for their ignorance of the real world. If they were powerful and competent it wouldn't be so bad, but they aren't. Second, once the curia is swept clear of the deadwood and real bishops (i.e., ones with much pastoral experience) put in power, then, when the Pope calls a synod, the bishops should set the agenda together with the Pope. If they want to talk about divorce, contraception, married priests, women priests, whatever, then their very office demands that they be heard. Cardinal Egan's recent surprise statement is clear evidence that they don't count at the Vatican.Third, it seems to me that the world is simply too large not to have another layer of authority in the Church, We already have bishops' conferences, but they have very little status in the Churche, and so far as I know they have no authority to make any sorts of demands of Rome, not even a demand to be heard! This is nonsense.I see room for both synods, which would draw on wider regions than one country, and bishops' conferences which deal with more local problems.Fourth, the Pope needs to allow the theologians to reconsider the dogma of the infallibility of both the bishops in council and the popes. Ssometimes the Church seems to teach that the pope is mainly supposed to be a reporter of what the bishops think, but at other times it seems that he has infallible authority apart from them. (I think the whole dogma needs to be re-addressed. AS far as I can see the only presence in the Church Who is infallible is the HOly Spirit, and it's the function of the popes and other bishops to discovere what He/She is trying to tell us.)What does "collegiality" MEAN anyway? Why does it seem to be a dirty word to so many Catholics? Is it too Anglican? I too have a great deal of admiration for Rowan Williams. He could teach Benedict a LOT.

Hi Jean. You asked ... "Crystal, how do you see Archbishop Williams letting down the Episcopalians and Bishop Robinson?"Rowan Williams would not allow Gene Robinson to attend the Lambeth Conference because he was openly gay. Bishop Robinson was punished for being honest. Here's a little from a Guardian story ...."He [Robinson] is not the only gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican communion, of course - there are understood to be two in the Church of England, at least one with a partner, and two of the 38 primates of the worldwide denomination - but Robinson's sin is to admit it; and to refuse the calls of conservative evangelicals to repent. This is not to mention the hundreds of gay clergy - some active, some celibate - in the church and all denominations, in Britain and around the world. Robinson is staying with two of them in London during his current visit.Without such partnerships, the established church in many areas, particularly the inner cities and especially in London, would probably cease to function. Most of them, it hardly needs saying, keep quiet about it - so deep in the closet, it is said, that they are almost in Narnia. Their bishops turn a blind eye too, even as they accept their invitations to dine, or quietly attend their civil partnerships.Alone among the episcopate however, Robinson has made no secret of his homosexuality and, because of his orientation, he alone of all the world's 800 Anglican bishops has been denied an invitation by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to attend this week's Lambeth conference ...."But it's not just that Rowan Williams treated Gene Robinson unfairly, it's that he made to me what seemed like a weird distinction between what he himself believed to be true (that same-sex marriage has the cpacity to be as ok as heterosexual marriage - <a href = "the Pitt letters) and what he represented at the Lambeth Conference. I had written something about it then myself, so let me quote me :) ...."I first started blogging back in 2003/4 because a writing friend who was a Quaker asked me to join his group blog. I didn't know a lot about Quakers and I asked him if someday he wanted to be a priest or minister. He told me that Quakers don't have priests/ministers and that one reason was that the priests came to believe one thing but preached something else. I was shocked and said that wasn't so. I was naive.Have you ever read The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky? In it, a priest, the grand inquisitor, explains to Jesus why he made a mistake in telling people the truth, and of how much a better job the church is doing than Jesus, by misrepresenting the truth to Christians. I believe the grand inquisitor was wrong and that we in the pews look to people like Rowan Williams to be sincere. We are done an ill if they roll out the party line instead, while keeping what they believe to be the truth to themselves. Someone once said that a priest should be a living example of the Gospel because his life might be the only Gospel his brothers and sisters ever read. What Gospel will they read in Rowan Williams' disrespect for both the truth and our capacity to hear it?"Maybe I'm being too hard on him, or I just don't understand, but if a person of his calibre can't be counted on to speak truth to power, then who?

Sorry - meant to leave a link for the Pitt Letters.

Crystal and Ann, thanks for the food for thought. Re The Anglican Church is trying to have it both ways-affirming traditional notions of marriage and family while seeking to adapt its teachings to the experience of gays and lesbians. That's a load of, well, I can't say what it's a load of without becoming vulgar.The Anglican Communion worldwide seeks to clarify its teachings to better do the work of Jesus Christ. Attitudes and rules about homosexuality in general and the role of practicing homosexuals in the clergy vary widely within the communion, from the ordination of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson to the call by some African bishops to criminalize homosexuality. The communion's effort has been to address these and other issues to repair the rent in the Church. What's going on in Anglicanism can't be reduced to a two-line quip. It's distorting and unfair, just as it would be distorting and unfair to say that Catholics say women are valuable--but not valuable enough to be priests.

Jean - you're right, of course, that the situation in the Anglican Communion (or any religious community) is too complex to be explained in a sentence or two. But in context, the line Nancy quoted -- actually, paraphrased -- didn't strike me as a "quip." At that point Elie is trying to set the scene, explaining roughly where the various Christian churches are on the question of homosexuality before getting into Williams's personal situation. He has to do so in a hurry, but I interpreted that line as a way of saying that, for most of the Anglican leadership, it isn't a question of either condemning homosexuality or tossing out every Christian belief about sexual morality. Anyway, here's the full context:

More than the future of a church is at stake. The crisis over homosexuality and the place of gay people in the church is one of the bitterest disputes in Christianity since the Reformation. Christian leaders grasp its importance: that is why they are so agitated about it. But it is hard to tell positions from prejudices. The mainline churchesPresbyterian, Congregationalistare at the front of the equal-rights parade. Evangelicals are happily against homosexuality, the black church uneasily against, the fundamentalists fundamentally against. The Vatican insists its teachings on homosexuality are settled doctrine; the Mormons fund ballot measures such as Californias Proposition 8 against gay marriage. Ironically, many Christian leaders in Africa, the legatees of European missionaries, treat homosexuality as a dangerous import from the West.In all this, the Anglican Communion is a dramatic testing ground, because italone among the churcheshas sought to have it both ways: at once affirming traditional Christian notions of marriage and family, love and fidelity, and adapting them to the experiences of gay believers.

Of course that's all oversimplified to an extent. But in the next paragraph he goes on to discuss the diversity within the Communion. He concludes, "If this church cannot find a way forward on homosexuality, then none can."

First, thanks to Mollie for this excellent thread and the piece re Bishop Williams.Rowan Wiliams strikes me as heroic.In some ways he's trying to do what many Christians are struggling with: resolving the problem of gays in Christianity.If we think it's only an Anglican problem, we're purblind.Commonweal had a superb endpiece by Ned O"Gorman on the gay man's struggles in the faith a while back and a subsequwent letter to the Editor by Fr. Tos from Geenwich Village noted how little help he had received from leadership in preaching the Gospel to the gay community there.The problem is in our own Church very much.I see the Presbyterians are struggling at the higher levels of their Church with the issue.The issue resonates across the communities of Christians.What can BXVI learn from Rown Williams someone asked?Because Wiliams is dealing with issue not only as an individual but as a major leader, his role is special like BXVI. What I think he brings to the tabl;e that Benedict could use is a sense of balance, balancing out the needs of the here and now and the future in their respective churches.The painful difficulty of that is why I think he's heroic.

Mollie, yes, I understand what Elie is trying to say--that the Anglican Communion has, alone of all the mainline denominations, has lived with factions that teach about and treat homosexuality and gay people in very different ways. And saying it that way doesn't really take any more words.To extend that to saying that "the Anglican Communion" SEEKS to have it both ways is a distortion, and sloganizing that comment merely spreads distortion.Moreover, the homosexuality issue is one of many vexed questions for Anglicans, one that has torn the communion in places it had already worn thin. Rubs have and continue to occur over the ordination of women, Scriptural authority, and even lingering objections to the 1979 BCP. Resolving these issues requires more than a simple ruling about homosexuality and gay clergy; it requires clarifying exactly where the teaching authority in the communion lies.

I want to thank Mollie for this thread. I am a 64 year old cradle Catholic who has been in a same-sex relationship for almost 44 years. I have always been Catholic. However, I could not advise young Catholic homosexuals or their families or their friends to remain Catholic. It is very difficult for these people to preserve a minimum of mental and spiritual health within the Catholic Church. Just a note on the topic of doctrines. Most doctrines were meaningful to thoughtful people at one time. Meaningful, however, does not always mean sufficient or correct. We know very little about heterosexuality or homosexuality. Contradiction and anomaly are the effects of our limited understanding. I think the Anglican Communion seems to be allowing for the certainty that it is in error in ways that are significant and unknown by it. Instruction means correction. I hope the Anglican Communion remains humble enough to proceed in ways that brings life and encouragement and well being to all its members The Anglican Communion is a site of struggle. This Communion will survive if it can demonstrate that it continues to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If it cannot, it will become a meaningless and monotonous institution that neither supports nor inspires nor intructs its minorities or majorities.

Yesterday my parish was visited by a delegation from the Pacific School of Religion (UCC) in Berkeley, including the President and his wife, and 12 MDiv and DMin students from various denominations. After liturgy (with which they were very impressed, even the 2 who are former Catholics), they met with a few of us and very politely asked rather inconsequential questions. I felt that there was an unspoken question on many of their minds, so I raised it: Why do we LGBT people remain in the Roman Catholic Church? A few of them giggled in an embarrassed manner and the Presidents wife then asked us outright. Two of the MHR parishioners gave a variety of answers and when it was my turn I could only fall back on my old standby: just because your mother is a whore doesnt mean that she still isnt your mother. Even that doesnt convince me anymore and, very frankly, I cant come up with a good convincing answer anymore. I usually say that I am NOT a Roman Catholic, but, rather, a protesting MHR Catholic. All church is local and the rest ..

Bob Nunz is right: the Anglican controversy is only a practice run for the Roman Catholic one.Look up for the latest hate speech from Archbishop Akinola: Rowan Williams thinks that people like Akinola will self-deconstruct or will prompt a movement of enlightenment in their own churches by reaction. The Catholic Cardinal of Lagos has said things that are not very different from his Anglican confrere.

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