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.

The New Yorker on Rowan Williams

There’s a major article in the current New Yorker on the Archbishop of Canterbury by Jane Kramer. It focuses on the struggles within the Church of England over the ordination of women. The Episcopal Church has ordained women to the priesthood since 1976, and the first woman ordained bishop was Barbara Harris, ordained to the episcopacy in the Diocese of Massachusetts in the late 1980s. The Church of England has been much slower. Ordination of women to the priesthood only became possible in 1994. The article focuses on the current struggle over ordination of woman as bishops. There have been ongoing attempts in the past few years to draft legislation that would make it possible for women bishops, all the while providing room for those who are opposed to it.

One of the reasons for the struggle is the very different religious landscape within the Church of England. Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings are strong and well-financed, and well-organized, and threaten withdrawal if they don’t get their way. In fact, many believe that the Pope’s overtures last year to welcome disaffected Anglicans was a thinly-veiled attempt to intervene in the CoE’s internal debates. Of course, things have changed dramatically since last fall, and for the time being reunion with Rome is probably less popular an option for Anglo-Catholics than ever.

It’s a somewhat sympathetic portrait of Williams, who is a theological giant and a deeply spiritual man, caught by the tides of history, both within his national church and in the Anglican Communion. Kramer quotes historians like Diarmaid MacCullogh to put his historical position in some context and the concluding paragraph sums it all up:

It may be that Williams’s ideas have changed, but in all likelihood it is simply that his job has changed. The women urging him on now are really trying to remind him that, however broad his concern and compassion necessarily are, he is also the Primate of a Western country where women priests—as well as a good number of openly gay priests—have played an impressive role in revitalizing Christian practice and, one would have to say, the Christian imagination. When he talks to them about restraint and patience—about the fullness of time and the “positive side to Anglican diffuseness and slowness of decision-making” and his own anguish “trying to counsel patience to people who are suffering more than you are”—they say, as many of them did to me: The fullness of time is fine, but it’s God’s time. We are living now.

Of course, the conflicts in Anglicanism over homosexuality also play a role in the conflict within the Church of England, although the contours of the battleground are somewhat different. And what happens in the Episcopal Church also looms large. It’s pretty clear one of Williams’ main goals, perhaps his highest priority, is to keep the conversation going, to prevent the final act of schism that would mean the formation of new denominations. Whether that’s possible isn’t at all clear.  One sign of the intractability of the positions is a quotation in the article from a leader of the Anglo-Catholic wing, who referred to our presiding bishop as a laywoman.

Kramer compares Williams to President Obama at one point, saying that both rely on reason to bring people together. The obvious inference is that Williams, like Obama, may have to give up finally on accommodating the various sides and push through the necessary changes. I don’t think that’s an apt analogy. I suspect the better clue to Williams’ self-understanding is the observation he makes about conflict within Christianity in the fourth century. Williams is a historian and can contextualize his current situation. But historians also can occasionally be burdened by the power of history and the weight of tradition.

Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams explored disestablishment of the Church of England, which would have been a clean break with the past. It might be time to consider it again.