Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Upon Rowan Williams

As I said in my last post, I assume you are keeping up with the news from sources that are more timely than mine. By now, you have surely read the text or seen the video of what the “Archbishop of Canterbury” said Tuesday to the “Global South Encounter" meeting in Singapore. It’s here.

Several of my blogging friends have responded to Williams’ statement. I don’t disagree with my friends who have responded in anger and disgust. I share their visceral reactions.

But isn't this interesting? I hear from colleagues and fellow bloggers that the schismatic bloggers (and those who comment on their sites) are generally as angry at and frustrated by Archbishop Williams as we are.

I wonder what that means. Does it mean he's appropriately treading a careful path within our beloved "via media"? Or does it mean he's the sort of double-minded, lukewarm, equivocating spiritual leader described in the Book of Revelation, whom God will spew out of God's mouth in disgust? That's a key question, isn't it?

While I am tempted to whale away at Archbishop Williams, I'm going to try to speak temperately here.

And be mindful of the confession I made in my profile. I'm long-winded. I can't help it.

I remember the marvelous theologian from Wales who was named Archbishop of Canterbury. I remember the joy I felt that a deeply thoughtful man was being appointed to that position. I also believed his was in touch with a deep well of spirituality. I believed all this augured well for the Anglican Communion.

Now I fear this formerly brave theologian has tied himself up in knots, and I no longer hear him speaking as a courageous spiritual leader. I grieve his loss of voice. I cannot comparing his voice to that I heard from Archbishop Desmond Tutu last week. One loves wildly and draws all to his embrace. I grieve to say that Abp Williams seems to have turned into something more like a politician or parliamentarian. I believe he is capable of better. Has the theologian and spiritual man become overwhelmed by a role he's defined as Chief Executive of the Anglican Communion? I don't know.

But I sense this: The man speaking from the seat of Canterbury doesn't seem to speak with spiritual vision and authority. Sometimes, he seems to speak as an academic, but with little of the courage and conviction I used to hear from him in Wales. Other times, he seems to speak like a politician (in the worst sense), intellectually mumbling and engaging in double-speak ... mostly intent on pleasing a certain "party" within the Anglican Communion. All too often, I perceive equivation and temerity. Just once, I would like to hear him speak with the clarity that Rowan Williams, a Bishop in Wales, used to use – even if it was clearly against my views. But he seems to shy away from that. Now, he seems mostly to engage in mumblemumblemumble ... while watching the Anglican Communion fracture through his impotence and failure of leadership.

He seems to have become the Man Who Stands for Nothing ... except that hideous Anglican Covenant ... which is terribly sad.

Like me, many of my friends have honed in on this part of Williams’ comment:

In all your minds there will be questions around the election and consecration of Mary Glasspool in Los Angeles. All of us share the concern that in this decision and action the Episcopal Church has deepened the divide between itself and the rest of the Anglican family. And as I speak to you now, I am in discussion with a number of people around the world about what consequences might follow from that decision, and how we express the sense that most Anglicans will want to express, that this decision cannot speak for our common mind.

You've all seen that paragraph, and several of you have offered good comments on it. I hope to offer my own comment about it later.

But, for now, let's just look at what Williams said and didn't say ... and how he said it ... when speaking to the "Global South Encounter."

In Williams’ many lugubrious paragraphs, this was the only clear, specific statement he made about the issues that are now tearing the Anglican Communion apart. The rest of his statement was his typical mumblemumblemumble.

Does that part of his statement make me angry? You bet it does!

Let's pause for a moment and think about the issues that are now confronting the people in the Global South (which may or may not be of any concern to the lily-white boys attending the Global South Encounter). Here are a few that come off the very top of my head, based on my reading and my work with Sudanese Episcopalians:
  • government corruption
  • hideous violations of human rights
  • continuing, grinding poverty ... which is probably made even worse in the global recession
  • massive disease -- including many diseases that are readily preventable or curable with a modicum of preventive or primary health care
  • lack of basic health care
  • lack of clean drinking water
  • horrible food insecurity
  • desertification, which is making farming more and more difficult in African nations
  • hideous levels of infant mortality
  • continuing spread of AIDS
  • Western exploitation of natural resources in the Global South
  • religious warfare: Christians being murdered by Muslims in nations like Nigeria and Sudan [Never mind that Nigeria's Akinola may have fanned those flames] and vice versa
  • tribal warfare – including warfare among those of the same faith
  • lack of free/affordable public education
The miserable problems of the Global South are manifold, and they should call all humanitarians, but especially all Christians, to respond.

Given that horrible nexus of problems facing the bodies, minds, and spirits of Anglicans in the Global South, what did the Archbishop of Canterbury choose to address? None of them. Not one.

While the Global South is facing issues of life and death on a daily basis, the only problem Williams named was the election of a lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church. Could he possibly be further out of touch with a suffering world and his role as the spiritual leader of the entire Anglican Communion to ease that suffering? I think not. (Nor does Stuart Littleton, reflecting on the ABC's visit to Gaza and the Middle East.)

That makes me angry. I wonder if Archbishop Williams is that blind or whether he has that bad a speech-writer.

But let us move on.

Let's accept that Archbishop Williams chose to ignore the horrible problems facing the Global South. Mind you, I could not have done that. When I've spent time in Sudan and working for Sudan, I cannot just brush aside the issues of human suffering. But apparently the Archbishop chose to do so. Therefore, let's accept that he chose, instead, to focus on the internecine issues facing the Anglican Communion rather than the deaths of millions in the Global South. Perhaps he was following the lead of the Global South primates, who seem to care more about internecine battles than the death and poverty of their own people. So be it.

In his statement, the only clear and specific criticism that Williams offered was against the Episcopal Church (U.S.) – which has spent at least three decades wrestling with “the gay issue” and has finally come to the decision that faithful gay men and lesbians may be called to any order of ministry.

Archbishop Williams doesn’t bother to observe that we have wrestled hard with Scripture, tradition, and reason in reaching this decision. He doesn’t acknowledge the theological work we have done. He doesn’t recognize that we have worked hard to listen to Scripture, reason, and tradition in moving where we have moved. He doesn't mention the recent report to our bishops Same Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church.

No. He ignores our theological work, in favor of Global South fundamentalism and bigotry. He chooses to let the Global South group remain in their ignorant belief that TEC is merely an apostate church that pays no heed to Scripture, reason, and tradition.

In addition, Williams fails to note that TEC isn’t the only church that has come to this conclusion. In some ways, both the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada moved even before we did. But that’s not convenient for Williams. It’s more expedient to beat up on TEC, pretending we are the only Anglican church that’s moving in this direction.

I am coming to believe that Archbishop Williams has a particular animus against the U.S., which he extends to The Episcopal Church. Given that so many national churches in the Anglican Communion are moving toward ordination of gay/lesbian people … and accepting gay/lesbian unions …. why does he reserve such particular hatred for those of us in the U.S.? I do not understand. [4/22 Addendum: Our friend I.T. has offered a theory about why people like Rowan Williams seem to hate everything the U.S. does. I encourage you to read it here.]

In his remarks to the "Global South" in Singapore, Williams comes off as a hypocrite of the first order. He does not acknowledge that he has celebrated “secret Eucharists” with gay and lesbian clergy in the Church of England. We know he did it. He does not acknowledge that the CoE's General Synod this year approved spousal pensions for surviving same-sex partners of Anglican clergy. But we know they did. He does not own the theology he did before he became the Archbishop of Canterbury. But we remember it. He does not admit he nominated his friend Jeffrey John, whom he knew to be gay, to be Bishop of Reading. But we remember it. And we remember how he utterly betrayed his friend later.

Just how many inconvenient truths about his own views and the actions of the Church of England is the Archbishop ignoring while he lambasts the Episcopal Church in the U.S.? Apparently, he is happy to invoke the "seventy times seven" rule when it comes to his actions and those of the Church of England.

The apostle Peter merely betrayed Christ three times before the crucifixion. How many times has Rowan Williams betrayed Christ and his own convictions since becoming Archbishop of Canterbury? I can't answer that question. Rowan Williams will have to answer it himself.

But I know this: For whatever reason, Archbishop Williams chose to make a clear “shot across the bow” against the Episcopal Church. He was willing to portray us as an apostate church, since that's what his "Global South" audience wanted to hear. To do so, he had to forget his own history and the actions of his own Church of England. Apparently, that was convenient for him. Let it be upon his head.

Meanwhile, if you read his statement carefully, there are many points on which he seems to urge that his auditors in the "Global South Encounter" look carefully at the Gospel, search their own souls, consider their motives. But all that is delivered with exceeding subtlety.

When Rowan addressed our bishops in New Orleans and our General Convention in Anaheim, he made clear pronouncements and threats. When addressing the Africans and Asians, Rowan Williams speaks fiercely against TEC, but timidly and with nuance about the Global South churches.

It's only when addressing us (or talking about us) in the U.S. that Rowan Williams speaks clearly and with firm condemnation.

So I wonder: Why did he slam TEC with all guns blazing, but couch the rest of his message so very subtly? Why does he think it’s just to attack TEC while ignoring the many injustices in the “Global South”?

If you have a stethoscope, you can just barely hear Williams asking the Global South leaders in Singapore to examine their own hearts. But he blasts a cannon against TEC.

Why the difference? I would love to hear him explain it.

Is there some part of his colonial guilt that keeps him from speaking to the Global South Primates as clearly as he speaks against TEC? Or does he just hate TEC?

I wish I knew.

Some of my friends are calling for Archbishop Williams to be sacked. In an earlier version of this essay, I wrote "the See of Canterbury is vacant" so long as Williams is in it. But I have repented of my intemperate words. He is a deep disappointment to me. I regret that he is not using this important position as he might. I don't understand why only criticizes westerners, but never the Global South. I grieve that he seems to be working as a politician, not as a powerful spiritual leader in the tradition of Archbishop Tutu. But I recognize we might have a much worse Archbishop. We could have a clone of Carey.

I am puzzled by the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I believe he could do better. I don't understand why he doesn't.


Blogger Laura Toepfer said...

Yes, indeed. I hear what he is saying and I think, "What happened to him?" I really cannot imagine what it is he wants to achieve. Given the pieces on the board, I don't know why he is making the moves he is making. It puzzles me greatly.

4/21/2010 10:38 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks for writing this. I share your sense of disappointment and confusion at the Williams' leadership. M Burke, Anchorage

4/21/2010 11:00 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

This is what I see:

A man who will sacrifice every living soul to an institution that has become his god.

Sadly, he is not alone on either side of the aisle.

4/21/2010 11:23 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Laura & Michael, I take some comfort that others are as puzzled as I. I thank you.

Mark: I share your puzzlement. I'm trying to be generous. Please do not leave.

4/21/2010 11:45 PM  
Blogger David G. said...

Mark won't leave, I'll spank him if he does!!

4/22/2010 2:57 AM  
Blogger IT said...

My explanation over at friends....

4/22/2010 1:51 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

DavidG, I'm going to hold you to that!

4/22/2010 8:19 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

IT, I'm grateful for that. Gonna add a link.

4/22/2010 8:20 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I've edited my post to add a link to your reflections, IT.

Thanks for the insights you offered at

4/22/2010 8:32 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

DavidG, I'm going to hold you to that!

Look. I'm not into that.

Not being spanked, at least.

I'm not leaving the community. I regret I didn't make that clear, but - and I'm trying to explain my thinking, maybe it's "emergent church" stuff, whatever that is - on my blog to an atheist.

I simply think our religion - the institution, from most congregational denomination to the Pope - is stagnant and disordered. It has become a sort of god of it's own. I love the trappings - I really do! - but I would sell every church and vestment and have priests and bishops "demoted" to mere preachers if I thought it would bring a faith that teaches real transformation and looks beyond a sort of cultural myopia for technique and understanding.

My question for the day, only half in jest, was "Why is syncretism a bad word?"

4/22/2010 11:15 PM  
Blogger IT said...

Well, I love the Brits. I spent a fabulous 4 years in the UK and going back to heathrow is going home to me. (I speak both Brit and Yank). It pisses me off, this reactionary anti-Americanism of a small subset of Brits, who have a rather outsized influence. MOST Brits are far more measured and sensible. It's why I love 'em.

Been there, done that---from the time a fellow commented that I used a fork like a "civilized person" (European style), to which I responded that in America, we had now added Internal Plumbing.

Rowan is one of those. I still have my MA gown from Oxford and I'd like to tuck a brick in the sleeve and slam him.


4/23/2010 12:44 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for the clarification, Mark. I saw you exchange with someone on one of the blogs -- Can't remember where -- and it worried me a great deal. You are one of the people who are probably best able to keep us focused on first things. I believe your parish and TEC in general would be poorer if you left.

Remember, I say this as one who started this blog when I "took a sabbatical" from TEC. I understand the need to take a "time out."

Mark, I do agree with you that "the church" has become an idol in some ways. But in other ways, "the church" as I experience it in my parish is life-giving and uplifting. I would hate to lose the "trappings" -- all the vestments, liturgy, etc.

BTW, I never said syncretism is a bad word ... nor do I believe it. I believe we must engage and relate to the culture.

4/23/2010 7:44 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

IT, I never took your comment as Brit-bashing. I was (and am) grateful for your perspective. I thought it was quite generous, and I found it helpful.

4/23/2010 7:47 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

I think what you're experiencing is the community, Lisa, not "the church" - or, we could even say THE CHURCH, as I have elsewhere, or the institution. It's hard to find a term when you're talking about something so nebulous - something that has a life of its own, yet a life that is totally dependent on the consistent pattern of thought of it's constituents.

As I said, I love the trappings as well. Ritual is more than just pretty, it speaks deeply to the human psyche - I think that's why even the most stripped-down denominations have some sort of ritual and "frippery." In any case, it is certainly evident to me that removing that would in no way make for the necessary changes.

It's part of the great frustration I'm going through that I see the changes that I believe are needed in general outline but am too slow-witted to articulate them!

4/23/2010 11:56 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

Oh, and I didn't mean to say that you had said syncretism was a bad word. It was a generalized question.

4/23/2010 11:57 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

OH, and I saw what my bishop wrote while I visited Mimi's, and I am very proud of him!

4/23/2010 11:59 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Mark, I don't think ritual and "trappings" are mere frippery. I think all that ritual speaks to something deep in our souls. Something like poetry at its deepest.

I hope what you say is true about community and church. That is my experience.

4/24/2010 9:07 PM  

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