Niagara Falls, Ont.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams considered cancelling the 2008 Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops due to the sexuality debates roiling the church, but decided against it.
“Yes, we’ve already been considering that and the answer is no. We’ve been looking at whether the timing is right, but if we wait for the ideal time, we will wait more than just 18 months,” he told the Anglican Journal in an exclusive interview.
Archbishop Williams spoke during a break on April 17 at a day-long retreat for the Anglican Church of Canada’s bishops at the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre here. On April 18, the bishops move into a business session and on April 19, they will vote in a closed session to choose candidates for the next primate, or national archbishop, of the Canadian church. The primate, who will succeed the retiring Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, will be elected at the church’s General Synod convention in June.
In the interview, Archbishop Williams discussed his messages to the Canadian bishops, his hopes for Lambeth, his role in the midst of controversy and whether the worldwide Anglican Communion will split over the issue of sexuality.
In the past, all Anglican bishops have been invited to Lambeth – held once every 10 years – by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In recent months, there has been speculation that bishops from North America might not be invited due to actions liberalizing church attitudes toward homosexuality – actions vociferously opposed by other churches, primarily in Africa. There is an additional threat of a boycott by some if the North Americans are invited.
“It’s a genuinely open question. I don’t think I’ll have anything very sensible to say until I listen more to what’s going on here and south of the border,” Archbishop Williams said. Responding to an urgent request from the American church, Archbishop Williams said on April 16 that he intended to meet with the U.S. bishops at their regularly-scheduled September meeting.
Last February, a meeting of Anglican primates called upon the U.S. Episcopal Church to pledge by Sept. 30 that it would not ordain more gay candidates to the episcopacy or allow blessings of same-sex unions. Consequences were not spelled out, but there has been speculation that withdrawal of invitations to Lambeth could be one of them.
The previous Lambeth Conference in 1998 has become known for the passage of a contentious resolution declaring that homosexuality was incompatible with Scripture, but Archbishop Williams said he hopes the next conference will be “an event that will equip bishops for their ministry.”
Plans for the event call for fewer legislative-style plenary sessions and more small groups where bishops can meet, pray and study the Bible. “Everybody says the study groups are the best thing about Lambeth. They allow people to build up trust. The conference ought not to be dominated by resolutions, although we may need an expression of common mind,” said Archbishop Williams. The proposed Anglican covenant, in particular, will be further developed by then, he noted. The covenant, proposed as a reaction to the sexuality debate, is intended to be a faith statement that will foster unity in the Anglican world. Archbishop Williams, in a lecture on April 16 in Toronto and in remarks at the house of bishops meeting, stressed the importance of community in the Christian church, especially around the celebration of the eucharist.
However, at the last two primates’ meetings, some conservative primates refused to take communion with their colleagues as a protest against their views on sexuality. “It’s heartbreaking when we can’t meet at the Lord’s table – also for those unable to join us. It’s not a light decision for anybody and it means we recognize every day the level of rupture,” said Archbishop Williams. However, he also noted, primates meet for prayer and Bible study and “nobody walks out of those.”
Asked what he can do as leader, Archbishop Williams responded that “the main thing an Archbishop of Canterbury can do is try to maintain the level of credibility that allows him to get people around the table,” a position that “feels very vulnerable.” As a theologian, he said, he aims to take the discussion forward by giving everyone a common vocabulary, but “people want sides taken and there are very few issues in the world that break down into A and B and finding a way forward is a frustrating long process.”
The Anglican Communion, while fractured over sexuality, will still probably maintain many links around aid and development issues. “I think it will, whatever levels of dispute there may be between hierarchies. I can’t imagine relationships will break down over development issues, even in provinces where money from abroad is refused (as a protest against developed countries’ views on sexuality). Something like the Mothers’ Union is very strong and represents a major investment internationally,” he said, noting that a recent mission conference in Johannesburg saw worldwide Anglican participation.
In his day with the Canadian bishops, Archbishop Williams spoke at morning prayer, gave two addresses and met with bishops grouped according to ecclesiastical (church) provinces at lunch and breaks. At the time of the initial invitation, he did not realize the meeting would choose candidates to be the next primate, but agreed that his remarks could apply to the Canadian church’s chief bishop as well as those in dioceses.
He spoke to them, he said, about the “call of a bishop as an apostle, as someone who is sent out and is away from home. The apostle is someone who has a story to tell, about Christ.” Some tell it – wrongly – in ways that reinforce ethnic or political power, but “it’s about the calling to carry the cross.”
Bishops also need to be careful they do not become “prisoners of an ecclesiastical agenda” and should maintain interests and friendships outside church. “They need to find an environment that nourishes them a human beings.” In addition, he said, “it helps to have a family. They are not disposed to take you very seriously.” Archbishop Williams and his wife, Jane, have a 19-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son who sometimes finding living in London’s Lambeth Palace is difficult. “It’s not a ‘homely’ place,” he said.