A new face to lead a fractious communion

Published September 1, 2002

Let us pray for Rowan Williams. The primate of Wales, appointed 104th Archbishop of Canterbury inherits the spiritual helm of a communion that at first blush seems more dis-union than cohesive. It has been a raucous, discontented summer in the church both here in Canada and abroad. For any man, no matter how impressive his spiritual, academic and intellectual credentials to be pondering how to put it all back together again must be daunting.
There is a memorable scene in the movie Becket where a slightly maniacal Peter O’Toole as Henry II confides to Richard Burton as Becket his scheme to make him Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of England. Burton slurs his gravelly response magnificently in a phrase that must surely play in the heads of all men ever since who have followed Becket’s footsteps to Canterbury. “My Lord, please don’t do this!” One might certainly forgive Rowan Williams such a thought when the fateful though predicted call came from Downing Street. From nowhere have the winds of controversy and disharmony blown more strongly than from the Canadian diocese of New Westminster which, this summer, as reported elsewhere in this edition, voted to approve the blessing of same-sex unions. It is worth noting that New Westminster did not rush headlong into this, but rather concluded an intense process of reflection that began several years ago. Nor did the diocese, through this admittedly radical departure from the way things are done elsewhere, actively seek to promote discord within the communion. Rather, it took the steps it did quietly and solemnly and introspectively. It neither proselytized nor advocated anything beyond its own boundaries. And yet the entire communion from Kigali to Sydney to Canterbury itself saw fit to wade into the ensuing furor. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury soon to be replaced by Rowan Williams, first pronounced himself “saddened” by the New Westminster decision, and then in a statement several days later that reportedly surprised and stymied even his closest associates, pronounced it “schismatic.” He said in an apparently extemporaneous departure from the text of a speech: “It first of all undermines marriage. And secondly, it is schismatic” because “it divides the Communion. It also makes us a very embarrassing partner in ecumenical circles as well.” The context of Archbishop Carey’s second statement was telling. He was speaking at the Oxford Consultation, a gathering specifically convened to consider the future of the communion. For the Archbishop of Canterbury to declare New Westminster’s vote schismatic in an interview with the Guardian is one thing. For him to do so ad lib and with inflammatory words poorly serves the man, his office and the communion itself in terms of conciliation and community. George Carey of course is fully entitled, as we all are, to his feelings of sadness when they come, and the people of the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, who reached their decision after a lengthy and painstaking examination of conscience, are entitled not to care a great deal. The Oxford statement, however, is redolent of a colonial mentality that is both archaic and baseless in the structure of the Anglican Communion as it exists. The Archbishop of Canterbury who sits, as the secular press frequently puts it, as “spiritual leader” of Anglicans worldwide, does not dictate doctrine or practice to provinces or dioceses beyond his own. If pastorally intended, his comment may be taken in light of a spiritual leader’s concern for the church beyond the shores of the British Isles. If, however, his words were a gratuitous and ex tempore form of meddling, then while those who agree might take solace, those who see things differently may simply chose to go on with their lives without taking much notice. Should he have spoken thus at all? Enter, then, Rowan Williams. He is deemed in many ways to be the antithesis of his predecessor. He is described as a man of high intellect and acute sensitivity to those with views that differ from his own. A survivor of September 11 in Manhattan, Archbishop Williams has spoken and written extensively of his experience, in words which, if analogously applied to the church, give cause for optimism about the tone of his leadership. “Anger always blurs the real human features of those we’re angry with,” he has said. “Frustration requires that we don’t allow ourselves to imagine what it’s like to be the other… The two fears, the two angers, don’t connect. … The church is supposed to be a community of people you’d be glad to die with … and if that is true about the church, then faith becomes the one wholly inflexible ground for resistance to violence, precisely because it teaches us how to face death — not in excited expectation of reward, but in the sober letting-go of our fantasies in the sure hope that a faithful God holds us firmly in life and death alike. Only if we are learning in this way how to die and to love, can anything we say have any weight in a violent world.” One hopes that in a “communion” that at times appears hopelessly fractious over issues that have been debated for decades, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury will strike a pose of pastoral conciliation rather than one that underscores differences and controversy. One hopes, from one whose intellect is lauded by all who know him, for a bit more understanding and depth on issues that touch the heart of Anglican doctrine, than statements that measure courageous developments within the context of how ecumenical partners may view them. Let us pray for Rowan Williams.


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