The Archbishop of Canterbury–Retrospectives and Prospects

Theo Hobson places Rowan Williams in the larger context of twentieth-century Anglican theology:

In the 1980s, Williams mastered this new intellectual idiom. He presented Christianity as a cultural tradition, the place where a very specific form of meaning is made, shared, passed on; where supreme authority belongs to the “central symbol” of cross and resurrection, which the church performs in the eucharist. When many, such as his Cambridge colleague Don Cupitt, were arguing against traditional metaphysical belief, or defending it in rather dated terms, he changed the subject. The question of what we believe is secondary to the question of what we do, what forms of symbolic communication we participate in, what cultural language we speak. We must rethink our tradition in these semiotic terms. Jesus was “a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind”, he writes in an essay of 1987. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.

Andrew Brown writes on Anglicanism in the English countryside:

The least glamorous parts of the Church of England are the rural dioceses – Lincoln, Truro, Carlisle, and Hereford. Their problems were exhaustively analysed by a statistically trained vicar in Lincolnshire. Unlike more central or pleasant places, they don’t attract priests from the outside, even to retire. Oxford, for example, has more than 500 retired clergy on its books, almost all of whom are available for minimally paid work.

In the deep countryside, congregations are shrinking and ageing. The other Christian denominations have all already disappeared from rural England. The Anglican vicar who is left will have as many as 20 churches to look after, and if they are not careful they will spend all their time driving frantically between them. The congregations are elderly. They have watched all their lives as fresh initiatives came from London to bring people back to church – and they have seen their children and grandchildren move elsewhere anyway.

And this:

Yet for all this gloom on the ground, the church still seems more important in rural areas than in the cities or suburbs. Lowson says he was surprised to discover, when he moved to Lincoln, that the local press wanted his opinions on all sorts of stories. “In the countryside, the bishop is still a local leader, expected to comment on things, in a way which is no longer true in the cities. Church is still a real part, beyond its own church life, in congregations.”

In some respects, the situation in England is not unlike that which we face in the small towns of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Aging congregations, aging buildings, not enough money to pay full-time clergy. The difference may be the continued central role of the parish church in rural England, because of the Church of England’s history and establishment.

Hobson writes in part to elucidate one of the great problems facing the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the un-churching of England, and especially of the countryside. Whoever will be chosen faces enormous challenges.

John Milbank offered his prescription for a revised Anglicanism in late September. I keep meaning to engage more fully with it but lack the time. The full article is here but its gist is an Anglicanism that looks like Roman Catholicism, with something like a Cardinalate and an enhanced teaching office (ie, Magisterium). And in fact, Milbank’s goal is unity with Rome under Roman primacy.

There is speculation that the Crown Nominations Commission will soon announce its choice for Williams’ successor. It should be interesting.

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