Skip to comments.Comes the Dawn [Rowan Williams at the ACC]
Posted on 06/20/2005 5:50:04 PM PDT by sionnsar
You'd think I would have learned by now. One day after I excoriate him for uttering false and slanderous charges against some of his fellow Christians, Rowan Williams turns around and delivers a remarkably realistic speech to the Anglican Consultative Council. Selections follow:
But since some may challenge whether all this is about taking our eyes off the immediate problem, I shall say a few words about the present crisis - hoping that these reflections will in fact lead us back to the fundamental question of what we are saying and to whom. The debate over sexuality is a story that can be told more than one way. One story is this. The churches of the North are tired and confused, losing evangelistic energy. For a variety of reasons, they have been trying to reclaim their credibility by accepting and seeking to domesticate the moral values of their culture, even though this is a culture that is practically defined by the rejection of the living God. A history of over-intellectual approaches to the Bible and the communication of the faith has led to a disregard of the Bibles call to transformation. The revolt against the plain meaning of Scriptures condemnation of same-sex activity is a symptom of this general malaise.
Another story is this. The churches of the North have been made aware of how much their life and work has been sustained in the past by insensitive and oppressive social patterns, with the Bible being used to justify great evils. Whether they like it or not, they inhabit a world where authority is regarded with much suspicion; it has to earn respect. In recent decades there has been a huge change in the general understanding of sexual activity. Can the gospel be heard in such a world if it seems to cling to ways of understanding sexuality that have no correspondence to what the most apparently responsible people in our culture believe? It is not enough, some have said, to stick to the words of the Bible; we have to go deeper and ask about the logic and direction of the Bible as a whole. And when we do that, we may find that it is not so impossible to reach a position that can be taken seriously in contemporary culture.
Two stories, and so for some we have a problem of the Church accepting a set of false premises, a wrong and unbiblical picture of human nature; for others a problem of communicating with human beings where they actually are, in terms they can grasp. Many issues are involved here, not only the presenting question about homosexuality. Perhaps the most difficult is how we make a moral assessment of modern culture in the developed world. And for many of us this is complicated. Modernity has brought great goods; yet in vital respects it has promoted a picture of humanity that is deeply flawed - individualistic, obsessed with rights and claims and uninterested in bonds of obligation or the need for sacrifice for the good of others: precisely the world that has produced our current nightmare of international injustice. So the question is how far the concern for reaching an understanding with the world about sexual ethics is based on uncritical acceptance of the values of a culture like this.
I dont think that this question is quickly resolved. There are those who say, This is an issue of justice, comparable to the rights of black people in the Western world, or the rights of women. Our church must be inclusive of all, committed to liberation for all from the burden of prejudice and hatred. And there are those who say, The Bible is clear; there is no argument to be had. Yet the latter people often in practice find they are themselves interpreting Scripture more flexibly in other areas. And the former people may have to recognise that there is a difference between campaigning for civil equality and declaring discipline or defining holiness for the Church of Christ, a difference between including all who come to Christ and being indifferent to how human lives are actually challenged and altered by him.
Very tentatively, I believe this is how we should see our situation. Christian teaching about sex is not a set of isolated prohibitions; it is an integral part of what the Bible has to say about living in such a way that our lives communicate the character of God. Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners. And those who have criticised the blessing of same-sex partnerships have been trying, I think, to say that we cannot change what we say about marriage without seriously upsetting what you might call the ecology of our teaching, the balance of how we show and speak of God. They would say that blessing same-sex unions has this effect, and that without such blessing people living in such unions are at least in tension with the common language of the Church. And living in this tension is not a good basis for taking on the responsibilities of leadership, especially episcopal leadership, whatever latitude we allow to conscience and pastoral discretion in particular instances among our people. This, incidentally, is broadly the view of the authors of the St Andrews Day Statement of 1997, which remains a helpful reference point, managing to avoid a bitter politicising of the dispute. Its method deserves more imitation than it has received.
This will upset ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada no end but Dr. Williams stands by all of the 1998 Lambeth resolution on homosexuality and believes that the US and Canadian churches went too far too fast.
So there are two issues coming out of this that need patient study. What is the nature of a holy and Christ-like life for someone who has consistent homosexual desires? And what is the appropriate discipline to be applied to the personal life of the pastor in the Church? The last Lambeth Conference concluded that the reasons I have just outlined made it impossible to justify a change in existing practice and discipline; and the majority voice of the Communion holds firmly to this decision. It is possible to uphold this decision and still say that there are many unanswered questions in the theological picture just outlined, and that a full discussion of these needs a far more careful attention to how homosexual people see themselves and their relations. The Lambeth Resolution called for just this. It also condemned in clear terms, as did earlier Lambeth Conferences, the Windsor Report and the Primates Dromantine statement, violent and bigoted language about homosexual people - and this cannot be repeated too often. It is possible to uphold Lambeth 98 and to oppose the shocking persecution of homosexuals in some countries, to defend measures that guarantee their civil liberties. The question is not about that level of acceptance, but about what the Church requires in its ordained leaders and what patterns of relationship it will explicitly recognise as unquestionably revealing of God. On these matters, the Church is not persuaded that change is right. And where there is a strong scriptural presumption against change, a long consensus of teaching in Christian history, and a widespread ecumenical agreement, it may well be thought that change would need an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it.
That, I think, is where the Communion as a whole stands. That is why actions by some provinces have caused outrage and hurt. To invite, as does the Windsor document, those provinces to reconsider is not to say that there are no issues to be resolved, no prejudice to be repented of (because there unquestionably is much of this); it is not to reject the idea of an inclusive Church or to canonise an unintelligent reading of the Bible. It is to say that actions taken in sensitive matters against the mind of the Church cannot go unchallenged while the Churchs overall discernment is as it is without injuring the delicate fabric of relations within the Church and so compromising its character.
And he is most emphatically not persuaded by ECUSA's "prophetic act" or "the Spirit is doing a new thing" excuses.
It is said that there are times when Christians must act prophetically, ahead of the consensus, and that this is such a time for some of our number. We should listen with respect to what motivates this conviction. But we also have to say that it is in the very nature of a would-be prophetic act that we do not yet know whether it is an act of true prophecy or an expression of human feeling only. To claim to act prophetically is to take a risk. It would be strange if we claimed the right to act in a risky way and then protested because that risky act was not universally endorsed by the Church straight away. If truth is put before unity - to use the language that is now common in discussing this - you must not be surprised if unity truly and acutely suffers.
I think Dr. Williams finally realizes that the Anglican argument is irreconcilable, the Anglican world can't be put back together again, and that an Anglican split is inevitable.
We cant guarantee anything at this point. We cant ignore the seriousness of what divides us. But if there is no easy solution, and there is not, we can at least think about this simple suggestion. If it is difficult for us to stand together at the Lords Table as we might wish, can we continue to be friends? Its sounds so weak, doesnt? But, I actually think it is of great significance. It is a way of saying that we do not know how to go on being visibly full brothers and sisters, that we can find no clear visible way of expressing any sense of being together in the Body of Christ. But this is the case already with a number of other Christian bodies, and several other Christian bodies view us in this way, notably the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. And yet we maintain respect and often something more than respect. Friendship in Christ, it seems, is possible even when sacramental communion isnt.
What are we prepared to do to nourish this sort of friendship? My sense of where we now are is that this is not high on our agenda. The debates are so close to us, so emotionally involving, that we can hardly conceive of being friends in Christ. Yet it may be that many of our difficulties have their roots in a failure to give enough energy to friendship in the past across cultures and theologies. If we can correct this, we at least lay some foundations for the reconciliation that we shall have to go on praying for, though who knows how or when it will happen? Friendship in Christ is a willingness to share prayer, to listen without rancour to each another, to respect and even enjoy difference, to be patient with each other, not expecting quick healing of divisions but not walking away every time difference raises its head. Friendship in Christ is best and most creative when it is linked with sacramental fellowship; but if that fellowship is hard or controversial, we need to remember from our ecumenical experience that this need not and should not mean a spirit of bitter contempt towards each other. It has taken the great churches of the world centuries to make this sort of friendship a routine matter, but, thank God, it is so now for the most part. Can we make a resolution - not pass but make a resolution -- that it will not take so long to confirm these bonds between us? Of course it is harder in some ways: direct conflict and even rivalry darkens the sky so much. But when we cannot witness together as fully as we long to do, this is something of real witness nonetheless. We can look at and listen to the language we use about each other and watch how easily we are ready to let it slip from proper and honest disagreement towards contempt and mutual exclusion. Yet as baptised believers, we still have something to offer each other; and the friendship of the baptised should remain, whatever else divides.
While I don't agree with everything in it, this speech is one of the finest assessments of the Anglican situation that I have ever read. While he may not agree with its decision. Dr. Williams clearly states that the Anglican church has spoken on this matter and that ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada went over the line in 2003. My gracious lord of Canterbury knows that the Dromantine primates meeting was the last chance the Communion had and that the US and Canada arrogantly frittered that chance away.
None of this indicates whether Dr. Williams will stick with the vast majority of the Anglican world or remain as head of that part of the church whose views are more congenial with his. All that remains to be worked out. But as a commenter at Kendall Harmon's observed, the Archbishop of Canterbury did not deliver a speech as much as he delivered a eulogy.
This is just a bit of tactical triangulation from the Archdruid of Canterbury, whom I wouldn't trust from here to there. Methinks Christopher Johnson is being a tad naive here in accepting what Rowan says at face value.
"This is just a bit of tactical triangulation from the Archdruid of Canterbury, whom I wouldn't trust from here to there."
I would strongly agree with your assessment here. William's position seems to be that homosexual abominations will be OK once the majority has swung round to this position. All is relativism and there are no absolute rights or wrongs in themselves - morality and doctrine are simply passing fads which are subject to majority voting.
How can people trust someone who has no firm convictions about what is right or true?
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