Rowan attempts to bridge sides in human sexuality debate

Published July 29, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury gives the second Presidential Address of the Lambeth Conference.

Canterbury, England
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams Tuesday made an impassioned plea for Anglican bishops on both sides of the theological divide to “speak from the centre” and try, in the spirit of “patience and charity,” to hear each other’s entrenched positions on the controversial issue of human sexuality, have ” a conversation of equals” and be “more like a church.”

In his second presidential address at a plenary, Archbishop Williams said that Anglicans today “seem to be threatening death to each other, not offering life.”

Referring to the reaction by some Anglican provinces to more liberal views on homosexuality by some North American churches, he said, “What some see as confused or reckless innovation in some provinces is felt as a body-blow to the integrity of mission and a matter of literal physical risk to Christians. The reaction to this is in turn felt as an annihilating judgment on a whole local church, undermining its legitimacy and pouring scorn on its witness.”

On the 15th day of the 20-day conference which ends on Sunday, Aug.3, Archbishop Williams engaged in what he described as a “risky” and “a rather presumptuous exercise” of trying to imagine “what people on different sides of our most painful current debate hope others have heard of or are beginning to hear in our time together.”

What a “traditional believer” might hope others have heard, said Archbishop Williams, is that “what we seek to do in our context is faithfully to pass on what you passed on to us – Holy Scripture, apostolic ministry, sacramental discipline” and that there is confusion when these “seem to be questioned and even overturned.” Traditional believers also want to be “pastorally caring to all” and inclusive but they “don’t see why welcoming the gay and lesbian person with love must mean blessing what they do in the church’s name or accepting them for ordination, whatever their lifestyle,” he added.

Traditional believers would also want it to be known that decisions made by other provinces affect them in their own cultural and political contexts. “Imagine what it means when those neighbours are non-Christians, delighted to find a stick to beat us with. Imagine what it is to be known as the ‘gay church’ in a context where that spells real contempt and danger,” he said.

Archbishop Williams also said that conservative bishops who have decided to attend the conference, despite a boycott by more than 200 of the more than 800 bishops of the Communion, also want to make it known that they have “taken a risk in coming, because many who think like us feel we’ve betrayed them just by meeting you.” They came, he said, because they value the Communion and want to understand and be understood.

And what might “the not-so-traditional believer” hope has been heard? Archbishop Williams said it would be this: “What we seek to do in our context is to bring Jesus alive in the minds and hearts of the people of our culture. Trying to speak the language of the culture and relate honestly to where people really are doesn’t have to be a betrayal of scripture and tradition. We know we’re pushing the boundaries – but don’t some Christians always have to do that? Doesn’t the Bible itself suggest that?”

More liberal churches also want it to be heard that gays and lesbians are also at risk in their societies, “still vulnerable to murderous violence,” he added.

They would also like it to be heard that “other provinces have acute moral and disciplinary problems, or else they more or less successfully refuse to admit the realities in their midst,” and yet those of them “who have faced the complex issues around gay relationships in what we feel to be open and prayerful ways are stigmatized and demonized.”

Archbishop Williams said that there are bishops in churches otherwise seen as liberal who would like it to be known that, while they may not consent to the ordination of gay bishops and same-sex blessings, they also feel the pain of seeing their churches being “wrongly and unjustly seen” by others.

More liberal Anglicans long to be seen as “fellow believers struggling to proclaim the same Christ,” he added.

Archbishop Williams described the polarized opinions between liberal and conservative Anglicans as “two sets of feelings and perceptions, two appeals for generosity” that he said carries a challenge. For the “traditional believer” the cost of generosity could be “accusations of compromise: you’ve been bought, you’ve been deceived by airy talk into tolerating unscriptural and unfaithful policies,” he said. For the other, it means “accusations of sacrificing the needs of an oppressed group for the sake of a false or delusional unity, giving up a precious Anglican principle for the sake of a dangerous centralization.” But, he said, “if both were able to hear and to respond generously, perhaps we could have something more like a conversation of equals – even something more like a church.”

Archbishop Williams also said that as the question of “What is Lambeth ’08 going to say” looms larger as the final week of the decennial conference unfolds, he wanted to equally ask, ‘Where is Lambeth ’08 going to speak from?'”

He expressed the hope that “we speak from the centre. I don’t mean speaking from the middle point between two extremes – that just creates another sort of political alignment. I mean that we should try to speak from the heart of our identity as Anglicans, and ultimately from that deepest centre which is our awareness of living in and as the Body of Christ.”

Archbishop Williams also reiterated his support for an Anglican Covenant “that recognizes the need to grow towards each other (and also recognizes that not all may choose that way),” saying he saw no other way forward “that would avoid further disintegration” of the Anglican Communion, that has been at odds over the place of homosexuals in the life of the church.

He again underscored his proposal for a council saying the Communion needs “a bit more of a structure in our international affairs to be able to give clear guidance on what would and would not be a grave and lasting divisive course of action by a local church.” He said that such a body would be useful not just for addressing the issue of sexual ethics, but other differences.

“It could just as well be pressure for a new baptismal formula or the abandonment of formal reference to the Nicene Creed in a local church’s formulations; it could be a degree of variance in sacramental practice – about the elements of the eucharist or lay presidency; it could be the regular incorporation into liturgy of non-scriptural or even non-Christian material,” he said.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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